Ultimax delivers a second round knockout.
It’s been two years since Persona 4 Arena successfully slugged its way onto the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, turning Atlus’ flagship roleplaying series into a more than competent spinoff slugfest. Now, Arc System Works and Atlus have returned to the ring with an explosive new fighter brimming with new modes to explore, arenas to fight through, and an expanded roster of Persona-powered fighters to master.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax picks up immediately after the events of Arena. After defeating Labrys and making their way out of the Midnight Channel, the Persona team discovers the nightmare is far from over. The sleepy town of Inaba has now been shrouded in a menacing red fog and transformed into a twisted realm plagued with shadows; Persona’s persistent otherworldly menace. Mitsuru and the rest of Persona 3’s veteran S.E.E.S. team are captured by a new mysterious antagonist and a familiar labyrinthine tower appears atop Yasogami High School. What follows is a familiar but lovingly-crafted brawl that expands upon the core ideas of Arc System Works’ premier Persona fighter while refining the the already rock-solid gameplay to create a title that feels like much more than a mere update to the 2012 original.
For those unfamiliar with Persona 4 Arena, the game’s system is unique in that your attack commands are mapped to both your character, as well as your Persona, who takes on a role similar to those of SNK’s King of Fighters series’ Strikers, who jump into the fray to unleash a quick attack. These mighty alter egos are also what grants you your magical abilities, which means without them, projectile attacks and flashy specials are a no-go, so keeping them from being temporarily knocked out can be key to survival. Considering the game is developed by the same team responsible for the hyperactive fighting franchises Guilty Gear and Blazblue, it should come as no surprise that the game is a highly kinectic affair, with tons of flashy specials, air dashes, double jumps, defensive bursts, and screen-filling awakening supers. While easy to pick up and play, the game features a surprising level of depth to master. Thankfully, the game sports an incredibly accessible tutorial mode to get players ready for the ring.
As with any good fighting game sequel Persona 4 Arena features a handful of new characters to join the melee. Joining the cast are Persona 3’s resident doofus Junpei, Ken and his canine companion Koromaru, and the bow-wielding Yukari. Sho Minazuki, the game’s new antagonist is also playable, and, while lacking a Persona, he is a fantastic starter character with fast and fluid sword abilities that make him a joy to play as. In addition to these fresh faces, every character also has a playable shadow incarnation, that, while lacking an awakening mode or evasive defensive burst, get the ability to carry over their super meter stock between rounds. Combine this bonus with an essentially bottomless reserve of awakening supers and a Shadow Frenzy ability, which temporarily grants them an endless super meter, and these dopplegangers become quite the offensive menace in the hands of a skilled player.
Series newcomers or those looking for a quick fighting fix should probably cut their teeth on the game’s arcade mode. Featuring a standard 8 bouts, this mode is ideal for getting a handle on Ultimax’s impressive 20+ character roster. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also introduces a new survival mode dubbed the Golden Arena Mode, which has you battling through 50+ floors of combatants, all the while leveling your character’s stats and Personas with a multitude of abilities and status-inducing buffs pulled straight from the core titles in the series. After every ten floors you’ll encounter a boss enemy, who, if defeated, will drop a spell card that you can use to augment your fighter with some truly impressive abilities. Golden Arena Mode is incredibly addicting, and leveling your characters up to create a true Persona-packing powerhouse is immensely satisfying.
While the new Golden Arena mode is a blast, the major draw for most Persona fans will be the game’s much improved story mode, which is leaps and bounds improved over that of its predecessor. While in Persona 4 Arena you’d simply choose your character, and progress through a series of bouts that ended up feeling all too similar after awhile, regardless of the character you chose, Atlus and Arc System Works have crafted a new, lengthy story mode that features branching paths that explore the entire cast’s struggle against the nefarious forces of darkness. The story, full of nods to both Persona 3 and 4, is simply sprawling, and should take even the most seasoned sluggers several hours to fight through. It’s full of exceptionally voiced and well-written narrative that expands upon the lore of the previous games and admirably scratching that nostalgic itch for fans eager for another Persona mystery to unravel.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also excels online. In my online time with the Xbox 360 version of the game I was able to join matches without any issues, and matchmaking is quick and easy, both in ranked and standard player matches. The netcode is solid as well, with very little slowdown to be had. The only issue I could really find with the online matches is the relatively anemic number of people currently playing the game online. Hopefully we’ll see the community grow, because the game is a surprisingly accessible but deep fighter that deserves a strong community.
While it’s great to see so much care went into crafting Ultimax’s new modes and characters, it’s a shame more effort wasn’t spent on crafting a few new stages for the game. While the new ones do look quite impressive, the number of recycled arenas from Persona 4 Arena is still a bit disappointing, and keeps the game back from feeling like quite as much of a sequel as it should. Thankfully, what’s there is still as gorgeous as ever, and every locale and character is instantly recognizable, in all of their vibrant hand-drawn glory.
With Ultimax, developer Arc System Works succeeds in creating a fighting game masterpiece that’s sure to please both the rabid fans of their flagship fighting games, as well as Atlus’ most fervent Persona devotees. The game improves upon the already sturdy framework that made the original such a success, while implementing new, creative modes that both flesh out the core gameplay experience as well as build upon the already established lore of Persona 3 and 4 to create a true treat for series stalwarts and newcomers alike. While the online community isn’t quite bustling yet, and the number of new stages is a bit on the thin side, these issues do little to take away from the game’s mind-bogglingly robust package. If you’re a fan of Arc’s previous titles, or are a Persona fan looking for a new and exciting story to immerse yourself in, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax delivers the goods.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed); Publisher: Atlus; Developer: Arc System Works; Players: 1-2; Released: September 30th, 2014; Genre: Fighting; MSRP: $59.99
Note: This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of the game.