Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Developer: Arc System Works
Release Date: 9/30/2014
Arc System Works, as a fighting game developer, has been doing some of their best work with the Persona 4 Arena series at this point. The original was structured in a way that made it significantly more accessible than many of the other games, taking the lessons learned from Battle Fantasia and cross-pollinating them with aspects of BlazBlue and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure to make a game that was easy to enjoy for players of all skill levels, but still appealing to diehards. To put it frankly, I’m not a fan of ASW’s fighting games, but I loved Persona 4 Arena; while it wasn’t perfect (and few fighting games that aren’t Melty Blood are) it was really good, both as a franchise piece and as a fighting game. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax looked like it was a sure-fire can’t miss winning follow-up to the original. A significantly increased roster? New and improved gameplay mechanics, and new play modes? Free DLC the first week of launch for buyers? A new theme song that’s a million times better than that of the original? There’s little doubt that P4AU has what it takes in theory to be a huge improvement over its predecessor, and as it turns out, that actually ends up translating pretty well in practice as well.
Let’s go, no holds barred!
As with most Arc System Works fighting games at this point, and with its predecessor, P4AU has a rather extensive storyline, which picks up right after the events of the first game… literally. After the team spends some time trying to figure out the events that took place earlier in the day, they promise to get together and figure it out the following day, only for the Midnight Channel to come back to life with a vengeance and ruin that plan outright. The players are all contacted by the assumed dead General Teddie, who informs them point blank how this new tournament, the P-1 Climax works: they fight ten days of tournaments and the winner has to face Shinsuke Nakamura for a shot at the IWGP Heavyweight Champion… wait, sorry, I’m thinking of something else. Though I would totally play that game. No, the P-1 Climax is as such: the characters have to reach the Tartarus-like tower in the center of town and shut down the evil machinations going on there in one hour, or the world ends. So it’s basically a cross between the TV world and the Dark Hour, except when time’s up, rocks fall, everyone dies. Unlike the prior game, however, which divided up everyone’s storylines into their own separate plotlines, this game divides everything into two plotlines: P4, which focuses on the Persona 4 cast in general and Yu Narukami in specific, and P3, which focuses on the Persona 3 cast in general and Labrys in specific, so you don’t have to plow through twenty storylines to see everything when two will do. The plots are quite different, of course, so there’s merit to seeing both, as they both are entertaining in their own right, and fit into the universe well. Outside of the plot there are plenty of the standard gameplay modes, including local and online versus modes, Arcade Mode, Score Attack and training, as well as a few modes that are specific to the game that are a lot of fun (which we’ll get to in a bit), so right off the bat there’s a lot to love here.
Visually, P4AU looks like P4A, which is fine, as the prior game looked… well, like an ASW game with modern Persona aesthetics. This game uses the same engine, but unlike a lot of other ASW games, there are a whole lot of new sprites and backdrops this time around to balance out the asset reuse. The original cast look as great as ever, both in their original animations and their redone Shadow animations, and the new characters fit in immediately (well except Yukari but how could you in that outfit?) and look great. The new backgrounds and animated cutscenes also look fantastic, and there’s a lot of personality to everything in the game that helps a lot to make it feel fresh, even with some reused assets. Aurally, the voice work is mostly spot on; the cast from the prior games makes a full return this time around, save for Naoto (who is on her third voice actress, who does fine) and Igor (who should never do Igor’s voice again and is confusing because the original pops up a lot too). Most of the voice work here is all new and sounds great, though fans of DanganRonpa 2 may feel conflicted at times, for obvious reasons. The battle effects and general sounds are also pretty much spot-on for the sort of game this is, and nothing sounds abnormal or out of place. The soundtrack is a big star, however, as it’s a combination of tracks from Persona 3 and Persona 4, along with some new songs, and everything is basically awesome as ever. Seriously, the title track alone is amazing:
How can you not love that?
These fists will teach you what a real brawl is like!
If you missed out on the first game, the Persona 4 Arena series tends to err on the side of player accessibility, combining elements from ASW’s development catalog (auto combos, weak-to-strong combo chains, and so on) and combine them with more standard combat mechanics instead of the odd combat systems games like BlazBlue use. In other words, while you’ll see plenty of ASW systems in the advanced gameplay aspects of P4AU, the core gameplay borrows more from Capcom fighting games or Battle Fantasia than BlazBlue. Each character (with one exception) has a weak and a strong normal attack, as well as a weak and a strong Persona attack (which draws out your Persona to deal damage), which you can chain together into P-Combos by using the buttons in order (weak > strong > weak Persona > strong Persona) or in other, more complex ways. The characters also have various special attacks at their disposal, most of which are performed with familiar fireball motions (with the odd charge motion here and there), and in many cases these can also be chained into other moves in one way or another. The game also uses the now-standard super meter (dubbed SP here) which charges as you take and deal damage, and allows you to unleash powered-up special attacks, Darkstalkers style, or super moves with more involved special move motions. The game also encourages action over inaction, as it employs elements like attack recovery, true dashing as well as hopping and dodging, and super jumps to give you plenty of attack options and ranges. Make no mistake, P4AU is definitely a more active fighting game, but it’s one that goes out of its way to be friendly, offering players a lot of familiar systems, as well as lots of training modes.
Should you be more interested in the complexities of the game, well, there are plenty of those to go around as well. For one thing, a whole lot of the characters have odd counters they work with; Naoto, for example, has an instant death counter that ticks off when certain attacks connect and allows her Hamaon and Mudo skills to end fights instantly, Aigis has counters that allow her to use her projectile attacks and switch to her more powerful Orgia mode, Junpei counts down how many “runs” he achieves through battle and powers up after a set amount, and so on. Further, there are specific novelties to the gameplay that don’t really appear anywhere else, such as All-Out Attacks (grapples that mirror the same tactic in the RPG’s), Furious Actions (attacks that hurt you slightly but can repel enemies or offer other effects), Hops (exactly what you’d think), Aerial Turns (manual turns in the air to attack opponents as you jump over them) and status ailments from attacks, among others. Fans will also see some more familiar combat mechanics, such as Awakening, which kicks in at 35% health and adds 50 SP to your bar while also opening up a new super move, Bursts, which can be used when the word BURST is lit below your name and can counter or throw back enemies, and so on. There’s also the little matter of punishing “turtling,” which plays into the “action oriented” direction of the game mentioned earlier, as spending too long not doing anything will cause you to undergo negative status penalties until you get back into action. Personas also add some complexity to the experience, as they can attack while keeping you partially “safe” but “break” after being hit a set amount of times so they can’t be abused until they recover. All of this should be old hat to fans, but newcomers will find it to be interesting, especially since the game meshes new and old concepts together in a way that feels different from anything else on the market.
New to this game is the addition of Shadows. In the original game, Shadows were, at most, palette swaps, but this is an actual combat system this time around, and it adds a lot to the experience. Now, as mentioned above, normal characters have the ability to go into Awakening Mode, employ Bursts, and kick out powerful match ending moves dubbed Instant Kills (but only in the match point round, and only if you have 100 SP available). Well, Shadows don’t play by those rules. They are generally a little weaker than their normal counterparts (but only a little), have slightly different auto combos they can use, and cannot Burst, go into Awakening status or use Instant Kills and some super moves. What they can do is kick in Shadow Frenzy, which essentially starts burning down the SP meter and allows the player to chain together normally unchainable attacks, as well as kick off super moves at a halved cost. They can kick this in with no real penalties, either, so long as there’s SP to burn, which can theoretically help them turn the tables in battle. It doesn’t feel like a competitive advantage so to say at this point, and not every character even has a Shadow, but it’s novel enough as a concept that it adds some variety to the game beyond what’s already been added.
Speaking of additions, the most obvious of the lot is the character roster additions, which are substantial. The game presently offers nineteen characters at launch, six of which (Rise, Junpei, Yukari, Ken and Koromaru, and two versions of Sho) are brand new to the game. It’s true two of the characters (Shadow Labrys and Sho Minazuki sans Persona) are essentially modifications of normal characters, but they aren’t the same characters, as Shadow Labrys has a massive Persona that’s always out and does big damage, while Sho makes up for his lack of a Persona with fast attacks and different combat options. Additionally, two DLC characters (Marie and Adachi) are free at launch, bringing the roster to twenty one if you pick the game up now, and Margaret will be coming soon for five bucks on top of that. Also, there’s a lot of content to the game beyond that. The game has your standard single player (Arcade, Score Attack, Training) and multiplayer (versus, ranked, player, lobby) modes to play around with, but there’s far more to the game than just that. You’ve got two whole Story Mode sections at a minimum, as mentioned above, but Adachi also gets his own story (that follows the P4 path), and you can even download the original storylines from P4A if you want all the content you could ever want in one place. Further, there’s also the Golden Arena, which lets you pick a character and drive them through an RPG-esque fighting mode, leveling up and earning skills as they go. You can also select any Navigator you’ve unlocked as an ally, allowing you to level up that Social Link, which gives them skills they can impart, such as added damage, healing and more, depending on who you pick. Finally, there’s also a huge Gallery to fill up with cinematics, voice work and more, for those who want to do this thing.
Every day’s great at BLAUGH!
You can complete the Story Mode, in full, in probably around four to six hours, if that’s how you measure content in this sort of a game, but there’s so much more to the game than that, obviously. Completing Arcade Mode with everyone, unlocking all of the Navigators and “Boss Mode” characters (upgraded characters who can be unlocked by playing through Arcade on Risky), plowing through Golden Arena, leveling up in online mode… you have a lot of options no matter what you want to do with the game. There’s also the possibility of even more DLC beyond what’s available, so it’s not out of the question that we might see a Marie storyline (hint hint) or some additional fighters at some point (perhaps some of the villains from Persona 3) beyond what’s here. The sheer volume of content and modes included in the game is significant, however, and considering that the two free DLC packs tack on another couple hours (at a minimum) worth of content, in addition to the ability to download the storyline of the first game for ten bucks, well. Put simply, if you liked the first game, you’ll love this one, and if you missed out, everything from both games (more or less) is here for, at most, seventy bucks, and then some.
The biggest issue one can take with the game, honestly, is that most, if not all, of the DLC (or at least, all of the currently available DLC) is on the disc. I mean, it’s pretty obvious; when a ten dollar download that contains the entire storyline from the prior game is the same size, download-wise, as the two DLC characters are in total, despite one of them adding on a whole new story chapter, well, it’s kind of apparent. Now, some of this is forgivable; you can unlock the Navigators through play, and Adachi and Marie are free during the first week, so that’s fine. But charging ten bucks for content that’s on the disc and has no apparent way of being unlocked through play? Less fine. Also, speaking of the unlockable content: when the only way to unlock Navigators is to play through Score Attack with a character on the hardest difficulty, which means enemies that regenerate and hit like a train, that basically means the content is at cost for a vast majority of the players out there. Now, in theory, this doesn’t matter since Navigators only call the match, but when you’ve tied them into another mode (in this case, Golden Arena), that’s not cool. Outside of that, the game will eventually need some minor tweaking and rebalancing, because that always happens (Rise seems a bit underpowered in places, and Adachi seems overpowered at times for example) but that’s par for the course, and the balance isn’t bad all in all. The netcode, while mostly in a much better place from the P4A launch, will probably also need a little tweaking; it felt solid prior to day of release, and mostly feels okay now, but there are minor hiccups here and there.
Forgiving the game its DLC issues, however, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is probably about as close to perfect as a fighting game can be. The plot’s great, the audio is mostly top notch (especially the soundtrack), the visuals are rock solid, and the gameplay is as simple or as complex as you want it to be. There’s a wide amount of play elements here that make the game easy to jump into while offering lots of depth for diehard players, and with a massive amount of modes and unlockables, no matter why you enjoy fighting games, you’ll find a lot to love here. That said, there’s a noticeable amount of repeated content (obviously), the Igor voice actor this time around is horrendous, and the game will need some balancing and netcode tweaks at some point. Also, the majority of (if not all of) the DLC is on the disc, and a good amount of the DLC that can be unlocked by conventional means requires such effort to do so that it might as well not have an unlock option for a majority of players. If you can ignore the DLC issues (or are good enough to unlock the content on your own) you’ll find that P4AU is basically amazing in all other respects, out of the box, and the minor tweaks that will need to be made eventually don’t take away from the fact that the game, out of the box, is very nearly a masterpiece. Whether you like the Persona series or just fighting games in general, there’s a lot for you to love here, and it’s absolutely worth picking up, no question.
Short Attention Span Summary: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the closest a fighting game can come to perfection outside of maybe Melty Blood: Act Cadenza; it’s based on a colorful franchise, accessible to newer and diehard fans alike, and full of content that will keep you playing for a long time to come. The plot’s quite good for a fighting game and is a real treat for franchise fans, the visuals are excellent and the audio is almost consistently better. The gameplay is easily understood by anyone who has even a passing experience with fighting games, but offers plenty of little details and mechanics that will please diehard genre fans looking for complexity, and there’s a massive amount of things to do with the game that should please players no matter what they want from the game. On the other hand, there’s a decent amount of reused assets from the prior game (understandably so, but still), the story mode voice actor for Igor is just not cut out for this role at all, and there will almost certainly be some balancing and netcode adjustments coming to get the game exactly where it needs to be. Further, the vast majority, if not all, of the DLC is on the disc, meaning you’re paying extra for some of the content no matter what, and the unlockable content might as well not be for players below a certain skill level, which will be many of them, which hurts given that some of that content ties into other modes and limits their value artificially. If you can ignore the DLC issues or are talented enough to unlock the content on your own, you’ll find that P4AU is worth its asking price and then some, as it’s an in-depth, well-crafted love letter to fans and accessible experience to newcomers, and should appeal to Persona lovers and fighting game fans equally well.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)