Perhaps Persona 4 Arena Ultimax was re-released as an amusing reminder for why there are still fingerprints on my TV or perhaps it’s down to Atlus’s infamously odd release strategy, but there’s one thing for sure, no one’s complaining about this choice as part of Atlus’s 25th-anniversary celebration, with the excellent 2D fighter now brought to modern consoles.
Originally released in 2013 as a sequel to Persona 4 Arena, Ultimax contained adjustments and improvements to the gameplay mechanics while also providing a continuation in the story. It also had quite a lot of DLC, even including Arena‘s story, which now comes as standard alongside the Japanese audio.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of the Persona series (itself an off-shoot of the darker Shin Megami Tensei series), then this description is probably not going to help, as it doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
Essentially, it centers around high-schoolers who each control a ‘Persona’, powerful supernatural entities converted from an evil ‘Shadow’ spawned by their own negative thoughts. Armed with their Personas and together with their friends, they battle evil Persona owners in the same mysterious dimension from which the shadows originate, and is one that’s accessed……through a TV. Instead of the darker, moral side-choosing of the SMT games, Persona has a relaxed anime charm, and it’s likely this aspect that you can partly attribute the huge success of the super stylish Persona 5 to.
Disappointingly, there’s no trace to be found of the more recent Persona 5 and its characters, but unless you already own the original, there’s little reason why fans of the series – or fighting games for that matter – would come away disappointed.
This is partly because the amount of content available here is absurd, with the voiced visual novel/fighting story modes from Arena and Ultimax‘s own at the very least 20 hours, as well as excellent Arcade, Score Attack and Golden Arena single-player modes to supplant the online and local multiplayer modes.
Arena‘s narrative (a continuation of Persona 3+4) tells the story of the P-1 Climax Grand Prix, a strange battle tournament, used as bait to lure the cast to the TV world and is told through 9 different characters’ perspectives. Ultimax picks up where Arena left off but uses 3 separate branching timelines for its chapters – as well providing the ability to choose who you fight as when in a group. It’s more of a warm hug for fans than it is a shake-up in the state of affairs, bringing in new characters to provide the standard drama, but it’s still an enjoyable ride.
For those who aren’t particularly interested in the story though, you can take solace in the fact that the Arc Systems Works-developed battle system is undoubtedly the star of the show having lost none of its allure in the last decade, with a well-balanced roster of characters with distinct movesets and characteristics.
It’s not the largest roster in the world, but the action is lightning fast and the animation is beautifully smooth, emanating personality from the 2D models that make the action feel alive right from the well-designed intro screens and graphics. This is also helped by the fact that the game is never silent, with an exciting soundtrack supplanted with constantly chatting characters and a brilliant in-battle commentator that comments on your progress, praising you when you come back from behind to win and bemoaning your bad fortune if you lose from an advantageous position.
If you do happen to find it difficult though, fear not, there are 3 training modes to help improve your skills including a challenge mode that shows short videos of how the move actually looks – perplexingly, a feature missing from most fighting games – and breaks combos down into sections while showing you which parts you’ve done successfully on the screen. Further accessibility is provided by being able to launch a powerful combo by simply pressing ‘Square’ 5 times and another by just holding ‘Square’ down long enough for it to build up different levels on a meter. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even an auto mode that will fight the matches for you, before or at any point during the fight.
None of this is to say that Ultimax is easy or overly simplistic though, as not a single soul will profess that the Risky level (the hardest of 5 difficulty levels) is a walk in the park and the battle mechanics, similar to Arc Systems Works’s Granblue Fantasy: Versus, are not only highly approachable but are deceptively deep, with numerous defensive and attacking features for those willing to put the time in to learn them, such as cancels and bursts which extend combos. Additionally, the SP meter (the bars at the bottom of the screen) also facilitates instant blocks and attacks without filling up too quickly during the fight, balancing the gameplay without the ability to spam any one particular feature.
The impressive amount of content doesn’t end with the story either with the 3 battle modes adding something different in each instance. Arcade mode adds a bit more story for each character with a set amount of enemies, Score Attack allows you to select different courses and difficulties and Golden Arena goes back to its JRPG roots with a level-up system with customizable moves in a limitless dungeon-like framework for the battles. You can even choose a partner that will provide you with extra skills and commentary. This makes each fight feel distinctly different from the last with a host of different variables changing the state of play on the turn of a dime – and it’s awesome. Individual battles are fun enough as it is, but these modes provide legitimate variety, and you can lose hours and hours getting stuck into them.
If I’m being greedy, I would have loved to have seen a 3-vs-3 tag mode, as well as the different fighting styles, would really compliment and contrast with each other well, but it’s really hard to pick any faults with what we’ve been provided with here. Would you like more cake with your cake, good sir/madam?
If online is your thing then Ultimax doesn’t rest its laurels in that regard either. Admittedly, it has launched without the must-have in online gaming – rollback netcode – but in the few 1-vs-1 lobby fights that I had, there weren’t enough issues that won’t tide over the mode until it arrives in the summer (to all consoles but the Nintendo Switch).
I often bemoan barebone re-releases as quick cash-ins from publishers trying to revitalize their IP with minimal effort, and while Persona 4 Arena Ultimax does fit that criteria (as the DLC and Japanese audio were already technically available), in all honesty, it was already an excellent 2D fighting package that didn’t need improving. And with rollback netcode on the horizon to give the game more of a modern relevancy, there’s never been a better opportunity to jump in.