One of the weirdest prospects in recent years has been the way that Atlus decided to carry on the story of Persona 4 Golden, a Japanese RPG and social-sim fusion, which blew me away when I played through it last year. Released in 2014, the follow-up game to Persona 4 Arena, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, is both a continuation of the storyline and also a refinement of what has come before – it occupies a somewhat strange position similar to a Capcom fighting game rerelease but is also a distinct sequel in its own right. For those people who didn’t play the last game, the complete story mode is available as a download, which means that for all intents and purposes the older title is now irrelevant (unless you like trophies in which case you might as well buy Arena instead of the DLC – it’s pretty cheap at the moment and comes with a soundtrack CD). Persona 4 Arena Ultimax makes a number of improvements and adjustments to the formula but is structurally and aesthetically very similar to the last game, so much so that I’d end up repeating much of my review for Persona 4 Arena, which can be read here. Everything that I liked about that title is still present, and I’ll be using snippets of that review alongside writing about all the shiny new bits. When I do use parts of the previous review I’ll put them in cut-outs like this (and above).
You can tell that Atlus knows its target audience will largely consist of people like me, as there are lots of systems in place to try and help those people who are used to turn-based JRPG combat become quickly acclimatised to furious and brutal fighting. Firstly, there is a sequence of lengthy and detailed lessons, the completion of which nets you a quick trophy and also teaches you the basics of combat. To compliment this there is also a customisable training mode that allows you to tailor the environment to suit your practising needs; such as pulping up a defenceless dummy, or smacking about a typical AI, or having the computer constantly attack you. I found this to be very useful, and the ability to remap a lot of the double-button moves to the bumpers and triggers of the Dualshock 3 helped a lot too. There are a number of further refinements in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax that are designed to help new players or gamers who have wandered in from the JRPG scene and don’t play a lot of fighting games. As well as the return of “auto-combos” (stringing together a series of moves from just tapping the same attack button) there is now the option of holding buttons down to charge up special moves without having to perform all the complicated stick-fiddling or precise timing. Furthermore, Atlus have now catered to players who *only* want the Persona 4 (and Persona 3) canon storyline and implemented an ‘auto-mode’, in which all the fights are won automatically for you by the computer. I wouldn’t recommend this though as the ‘Story Mode’, while it looks like a branching visual novel, lacks any player agency without the one-on-one combat breaking it up.
At the top of the screen you’ll find the typical health bars and timer of a fighting game with an additional track of cards which is the ‘persona’ meter; if this is depleted through careless use of your persona and the enemy’s attacks then you are locked out of using flashy special moves for a while until it regenerates. One of the changes to Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is that now each character doesn’t have exactly the same length persona meter, some might have very short tracks and some very long; depending on how reliant they are on their persona’s attacks. At the bottom of the screen is also an ‘SP’ gauge like in the JRPGS, and this fills as you cause damage and can be spent on performing magical attacks. There’s also a ‘Burst’ meter that fills up at the top of the screen, which when full allows you to break an enemy’s attack and fill up your ‘SP’ gauge for a lethal counteroffensive; not to mention that when you’re down to the bottom third of your health you enter an ‘awakened’ state that gives you a massive power boost and opens up some new attack options. There have been a number of tweaks to characters special moves from Persona 4 Arena, with some being a little easier to pull off in terms of timing and accuracy (unless it’s simply that I’ve personally gotten better after playing the two games back-to-back) as well as being rebalanced a bit in terms of damage output. There are also ‘shadow’ versions of characters, which ties into the new storyline, who again feel subtly different than their regular versions. The end result is that it’s still the game you know and love, but Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has slightly refined and improved an already winning fighting experience.
The presentation of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is absolutely fantastic and makes great use of already existing soundtracks from the JRPGs for the majority of its score, while also throwing in the occasional new arrangement or original jingle, all of which are superb. Graphically the game is also very polished with some high-detail 2D sprite work in action as well as lots of flashy special effects and screen cut-ins firing off every few seconds or so. It really is uber-stylish, especially for a fighting game, and captures the quirky anime feel of the Persona games perfectly. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also mixes up the UI and interface a little bit (with a shade of blue more reminiscent of Persona 3 FES than Persona 4’s yellows) to sharpen it all up even further, arguably making the whole thing look even more snazzy. Some of the new environments and arenas to fight in look *superb* and the colours seem more vibrant and richer this time ‘round, coupled with the returning locations from the previous game there are now quite a variety of places to stage a fight. The roster of characters has also expanded dramatically not only with brand new fighters drawn from Persona 3 and 4 but also the aforementioned ‘shadow’ versions who all fight differently than usual. If you’re willing to splash out on DLC there are a further three characters that you could also add to the line-up! Arcade Mode returns and functions much as you would expect, you choose a character and then systematically battle through the other combatants one-by-one until you are left victorious; albeit here there is a decent cut-down version of the story and some flashy intros to scaffold all the action. Challenge Mode is another way to hone your skills by giving you ever more increasingly difficult challenges to pull off, like ridiculously large combos, or pulling off certain special moves in quick succession. For those of you who are masochistic and love to be beaten over the head senseless by a videogame, there is Score Attack, which pits you against ever more ridiculous foes until you are likely dead. A new Golden Arena mode rounds off the gameplay options in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, allowing you to have a sort of RPG-like experience through staging fights to earn experience and level-up as you crawl through a pseudo-dungeon. It can prove quite a challenge too and is a great alternative to playing through the Arcade or Story modes, providing even more of that Persona 4 Golden feel to the game and appealing to players of JRPGs; providing you can grasp the skills needed to compete properly.
Story Mode is once again where I spent the majority of my time with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, and also where a *lot* of changes have taken place, both in terms of the structure, options and storytelling method. As much as I enjoyed the actual plot of the last game, the way it was structured through individual characters chapters left a lot to be desired, and I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t play every single characters’ story (after I while I’d pieced it all together and thought I’d seen enough). A lot of material was repeated over and over again because of replaying the same section of storyline but from different contradicting perspectives, and often characters were left to monologue on their own about what was going on; leaving much of the familiar and loveable banter between characters until they eventually came together near the end. In this continuation of the Arena event, you must start off playing through the ‘P4 Story’, which charts the events from the perspective of groups of characters, in a non-linear multiple-plot thread structure. By rearranging the Story Mode this way it ensures that you don’t play over the same events, and there are constantly multiple characters discussing things with each other, providing much more opportunity for voiced dialogue and humour. Also, the gaps between bouts of fighting seem a lot shorter and the whole plot just seems to have more momentum than before, with a rich variety of locations and lots of your favourite characters making a return. Once you’ve finished with the ‘P4 Story’ you can then begin the alternative route concentrating on characters from Persona 3 FES; there’s even an extra episode unlockable with some DLC if you desire even more! While in some ways the storyline is more flimsy in relation to why there’s a fighting tournament still, I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed it so far, probably more than the last game due to the increased dialogue.