Persona 4 Arena was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing a fighting game. It rode a line between simple and complex, making the game fast-paced and satisfying to play. Stylistically, the way it managed to combine the Persona battle mechanics with a fighting game created a fighting game that felt truly distinct. When I first heard about the concept of a Persona fighting game I was skeptical, but after playing the game, the concepts seemed like a perfect match.
Ultimax is largely the same deal. All of the previous characters return, complete with all the rebalancing you would expect from a new installment in a fighting game and all the old stages, modes, and mechanics along in tow. There are new characters, of course, but the general gameplay mechanics have received very few tweaks. What is there seems explicitly built for the two audiences Ultimax tries to cater to.
Persona 4 Arena had a lot of mechanics to ease fighting game rookies in, from automatic combos by mashing a button to instantaneous Shoryuken-like moves. Ultimax carries on those ideas with another way to, theoretically, help newer players out. The Skill Hold system lets you hold down a button and, if you charge long enough, releases a special attack without having to do a motion. The longer you hold, the more powerful the attack that comes out, with the highest level being a meter-using super attack.
It’s based on a visible charge timer on the screen, which not only charges way slower than just doing the move normally would take, but also basically reveals your hand to the opponent. It’s straight up disadvantageous to the player who needs to use it, which makes me question why it was even included. While it may be more difficult, people are much better off attempting the motion in most cases, as not only will your attacks come out faster, but you will have a wider arsenal of attacks to work with.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the addition of shadow versions to most of the characters feels more geared towards advanced players. The main difference is that in place of the burst mechanic, which shoots enemies away from you when they’re attacking, all of the shadows have access to a “Shadow Frenzy.” Shadow Frenzy essentially gives you unlimited use of meter-burning special attacks for a brief time period, which can create a formidable offense.
This is a huge difference, as Ultimax favors dominating playstyles. Often one player will be completely controlling a match, but a well-timed burst can effectively reset the situation and help turn the entire match around. Picking a shadow character means throwing your fail-safe defense out the window and going all in on the offense, a significant risk that can easily go awry.
Along with all the gameplay tweaks there are new fighters in the ring, including Yukari, Ken, and Junpei from Persona 3, Rise from Persona 4, and the mysterious newcomer, Sho Minazuki. I think all of these characters are all great. Not necessarily that they’re really powerful, but they all have unique playstyles that continue to add variety to a cast that already felt very distinct. Have you ever wanted to simulate a baseball game in a fighting match? Pick Junpei. Tag-team brawl with a dog? Pick Ken. Want to just go nuts with powerful offense? One of the Shos (he takes up two slots, one with a persona and one without) would be perfect for you.
Ultimax has a lot to offer fighting game fans, but there’s also going to be people who aren’t exactly comfortable with fighting games and are in it more for the story mode. Honestly, the story is kind of boring. The original Persona 4 Arena didn’t have a particularly interesting story either, but it did set up a lot of mysteries and potential future plot points that could be interesting down the line. Two years later, Ultimax completely fails to deliver. The resolution the main plot is fairly dull and Sho Minazuki, the brand new hyped-up addition to the saga, might be the most poorly written and least interesting character in the entire series.
The writing in general feels poor compared to the main entries in the series. Ideas are often repeated ad naseum, with the game feeling the need to explain every detail to every group of people separately, with seemingly no regard to the fact that the player has sat through an identical conversation multiple times. The “power of bonds,” which while a main staple of the Persona games, is repeated so often and in such a superficial way that it begins to border on self-parody. The characters themselves often feel like over-the-top caricatures of themselves, particularly the Persona 3 cast.
If there’s a place Ultimax’s story shines, it’s catching up with the Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts. The Ultimax story features very detailed introductions and epilogues for each member of the cast, and these are where the characters feel the most human and enjoyable. I like seeing Yukari and Mitsuru hang out together, what Kanji plans to do with his life, how Ken feels about trying to be a normal kid after what he’s been through. If more of the story was done as well these scenes, it would have been a much more enjoyable experience.
While the story mode is a bust, Ultimax still offers a bounty of extra modes from the typical arcade mode and combo challenges to more unique offerings like the Golden Arena. Ultimax already does a great job of combining the mechanics of the Persona RPGs with a fighting game, but Golden Arena takes it one step further. Stats, level ups, social links (basically you pick a character to cheer you on and they give you bonuses), skills and more help carry you through an army of enemies, who are similarly powered up with their own attributes. As far as single player modes in a fighting game go, Golden Arena is one of the most interesting modes I’ve ever seen.
Finally, there’s the main attraction for fighting game enthusiasts: the online multiplayer is great. Heavily based on the system used for BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, there are now a variety of conveniences like online lobbies with avatars and the ability to enlist yourself in match searching, which basically allows you to do whatever you want in the game while it finds matches for you. Developer Arc System Works has always had some of the better online systems for their games, and I’m glad they only seem to be improving.
As a fighting game, Ultimax is fantastic. I played the original Persona 4 Arena a ton, and I can see myself going back to Ultimax for a long time to come. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the story. It’s a shame, but for those willing to go beyond the story mode, they’ll find a game that takes the best from the Persona franchise and creates a truly special fighting game.
Food for Thought:
1. You can customize a ton of the presentation in the game, from the announcer during matches to the music that plays in the menus.
2. In the original Persona 4 Arena story mode, major spoilers for Persona 3 and Persona 4 were generally danced around. Not so for Ultimax, so if you’re interested in playing the story make sure you’ve gone through the RPGs first.
3. A surprising amount of work went into the shadow characters; they all have their different automatic combos compared to their normal version, as well as smaller changes like unique dialogue and opening animations.