The original Persona 4 Arena was an interesting direction for the long-running RPG series. But if anyone was going to turn a beloved RPG into a competent fighting game, it was the folks at Arc System Works. The original was a surprisingly deep fighter, successfully weaving together the Persona series with complex fighting mechanics.
So it should come as no surprise that Persona 4 Arena Ultimax offers a lot more of the same action. On top of that, it also introduces some new characters from previous Persona games, while also adding in some interesting new fighting variants. The result is a truly deep fighting experience that should appeal to hardcore fighting game fans, while offering somewhat limited appeal to newcomers.
Show and Tell
First and foremost, this is definitely a game for fans of the Persona series and fans of their narrative. Taking place after the events of the first Persona 4 Arena (which, in turn, follows the events of Persona 4 Golden), Ultimax's Story Mode sees a strange red fog envelop the town of Inaba. The forces of the Midnight Channel have found their way into the real world, leading to another P-1 Climax tournament.
The ensuing Story Mode is heavy on exposition, as has come to be expected from a Persona game. There's little action to be found here and the fights that do ensue only last a single round. They're all fairly easy to get through, as well, making it easy to experience the story. That does change once the difficulty curve suddenly jumps at the end, but Arc System Works has made it very easy to experience the narrative through to the end, since an Auto Play mode is available for anyone simply looking to let the game play itself so that the story can unfold on its own.
Those looking for more action can veer into some more traditional game modes, like Arcade, Score Attack, and Versus. Beyond these, however, lie another innovative game mode called Golden Arena. This introduces some of Persona's RPG elements into the proceedings by having players compete in a ladder-style gauntlet for XP. Earning XP will unlock additional skills and stat boosters to use in future Golden Arena battles. There are several tiers of one-round Golden Arena courses, meaning there's ample opportunity to find a challenge and exercise everything you've learned. It's an interesting wrinkle to traditional fighting game single-player modes and one that proves to be engaging.
Confronting Your Own Shadow
Ultimax returns with its deep fighting mechanics that emphasize fighting game fundamentals. Each character can exercise various combos, dashes and backsteps, sweeps, counters, cancels, and bursts, all of which are used in different situations. This is not an easy fighting game to grasp at first and only dedicated users will grasp the mechanics. Fortunately, Ultimax offers a friendly Tutorial mode that explains everything in the most simple terms, though newcomers may suffer from information overload.
Even those who don't manage to fully grasp the complexities of Ultimax's fighting mechanics have options. Auto Combos and P Combos are designed for novices, tying combos to simple button sequences. Some of them can even tie into SP Skill special moves, meaning even first-timers can stumble into some effective mix-ups and dole out a 36-hit combo. They can also utilize the S Hold ability to unleash a random special by holding the Strong Persona button, provided they hold the right amount of meter. While that's where the simplicity ends, it's encouraging for anyone looking to at least get their foot in the door of this fighter.
Those that fall in-between the novice and the expert may get pulled in by one of Ultimax's new features: the Shadow character. Most characters have a Shadow equivalent, who can dish out SP Skills more frequently and come with a higher HP bar. The Shadow Frenzy state means that special moves come at an even faster rate, making Shadow characters ideal for anyone looking to spam these specials quickly. The major drawback is that the Shadows cannot use Bursts or enter the Awakening state, which grants extra SP in a pinch. I enjoyed the Shadow characters slightly more than their real-world counterparts, but player preference may vary. Either way, it adds a whole new degree of potential matchups to an already-packed roster.
The Anime Influence
'Anime fighter' has been a label thrown around by fighting game enthusiasts, sometimes as an insult. However, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax wears this label like a badge in the best possible way. The environments are breathtaking, with some truly amazing backgrounds and an art style that's easy to the eye.
The art direction matches the bleak red atmosphere of the Story Mode, offering dreary yet vibrant backgrounds. But the art style wouldn't mean much if the characters and the attacks didn't match. SP Skill specials are amazing to watch and with ample opportunities to juggle your opponent and put them in prime position for these moves, the ensuing combos prove captivating to witness. However, it's the Instant Kill moves that prove to be the most gorgeous to witness. Only the most skilled players will get the chance to whip out the Instant Kill move, since it can only be used in a deciding round with a whopping amount of SP, but the effort is definitely worth it. The first time I unleashed one of these moves and saw the elaborate anime sequence that unfolded, I had an ear-to-ear grin.
Ultimax's battles have that event aura that's missing in many fighting games. It's far from the first game to utilize the anime aesthetic, but it undoubtedly proves to be one of the best.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax isn't for everyone. Even with some of the controls catered to novices, the game ultimately rewards patience and dedication. The result is one of the deeper fighting games I've come across, bolstered by an engaging presentation. Learning can be time-consuming, but for some of the keen-looking moves you can dish out, it's worth the effort.
Yet while Ultimax is catered to the hardcore fighter, it doesn't leave the average Persona fan out in the cold, offering hand-holding options to help give them the quality story they voraciously crave.
Final Score: 8 out of 10
This review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy provided by the publisher. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax will be available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on September 30 for $59.99. The game is rated M.