Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review: I Sho' am Excited to Sho up to the Sho-Down

This is a very important game to me. To this day, Persona 4 Arena remains easily my favorite fighting game of all time, hands down, no questions asked. That aside, I’m looking at it as a Persona fan, not a fighting game expert. So I’m gonna be tag-teamingi this review with resident fight-game aficionado Ruben Pradoii. Before we get started though: Is this a good follow up to a great game? Holy hell yes.

This is more than a good follow up, I would find it hard to conceive of a better way to add on to the original Persona 4 Arena. Want more modes? You got em. Want more characters? They’re all yours. Character move-sets getting too stale for you? Almost every already-established character sees an overhaul. This game oozes style even more than the original, and in almost every conceivable way blows it out of the water.

For starters, the presentation of the game from the menus to the combat screens is incredibly slick. The original arena set a new bar for how menus can look, but Ultimax ups it even further. I particularly liked how the different categories of modes are switched through sideways, and the options for each category are selected by moving up and down. It’s an interesting way of setting up the main menu, and it works in making the screen look way less cluttered than it could be. In combat, bright blues, greens and yellows denote health and character status, and it makes the game look superbly stylish.

The new characters also do a lot to add to the game. With the exception of DLC characters that I didn’t have access to as of this review, there are 5 new characters that were added to the game. Rise was in the original Arena as a support character, and now for the first time in the entire franchise she’s taking up a combat role. She’s a bit complex, but when you learn to play her she can be a lot of fun to mess around with. The rest of the SEES Persona 3 cast also shows up, with the additions of Yukari, Ken and Koromaru, iii Junpei. The last addition is the new antagonist of the game, Sho Minazuki, in two different forms.

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These brand new additions to the cast are universally welcome and bring even more color and fun to an already colorful and fun cast. On top of these new characters, Shadow versions of the characters were also added. These shadow versions change the way characters are played almost completely, but Ruben will have more on that later. Just know that all of these new additions are universally welcome.

The main crux of the game, aside from the combat itself, is the new-and-improved story mode. It begins only one day after the events of the previous game. The investigation team is tasked with finding out how to find the real culprit behind the events of Persona 4 Arena. There’s no time to rest though, as just as things begin to calm down, the midnight channel returns and brings about the return of the “Dark Hour” from Persona 3. Only this time, when that dark hour is up, the world will end, as facilitated by the brutal newcomer Sho Minazuki. Sho in particular is a very interesting antagonist, both in his design and in his background. In particular, the way he ties into Persona history is fascinating, and I look forward to seeing more of him moving forward.

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The story itself is a perfect mix of Persona fanservice and plot. It not only continues the events of the first game while raising the stakes to astronomical levels, but it also manages to give the fans the moments they never knew they wanted. It even facilitates the return of some surprising characters that I honestly thought were gone for good. It’s well written, it’s fun, and most of all, it’s a pitch perfect match for the Persona franchise. Just make sure you finish the original Arena story mode before diving in, or you may find yourself lost among the references to the first game, and some of Labrys’ more important character moments may go over your head.

The way the story is structured is even greatly improved when compared to the first game. Instead of playing through each character and treading over the same plot territory 4-5 times, the story is structured in two separate branching plot trees that cover the entire story. One of the trees follows the Persona 4 characters’ perspectives and the other comes from the Persona 3 characters’ points of view. It’s far more streamlined, and flows infinitely better than its predecessor. It feels like one coherent narrative instead of 12 ways to tell one story.

One thing to note, is that the story mode is presented in a very straightforward visual novel form, much like the first game. The story is fully voiced by the stellar original voice casts from both Persona 3 and 4, but it is a lot of reading, with a couple of one-round fights and (admittedly impressive) anime cut-scenes interspersed. There is even an “Auto Mode” that can be toggled on that will let the computer play the matches for you if you want it to just be read. If you treat the story like a meaty visual novel, it will be an incredible experience. If you expect more presentation-wise, you may find yourself disappointed. Though, if you played the first Arena game iv you’ll know exactly what to expect.

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Other modes from the previous game make their return, including the standard Arcade Mode, and Score Attack mode. The incredibly useful training mode also makes a return, showing in great detail the ins and outs of playing each individual character, from basic combos to incredibly difficult challenges. The new mode that stands out most to me however is the fantastic Golden Arena Mode.

The mode transforms the game into an RPG, as the original games were, with abilities and stats associated with each of the characters. You pick a character that starts out at level 1 with no stats or abilities. As you progress in the mode you gain experience and level up your characters, placing points in stats that make characters stronger, more resilient, gain more SP meter, and more. Characters also earn new abilities that change how they play, such as giving health regen, or  a strength buff. The addition of Social Links with support characters adding supplementary abilities also adds additional depth.

On the surface, the mode is mostly a gauntlet of fights, where you keep fighting with one health bar until you lose, but the overlay of RPG stats gives the mode a very “Persona” feel, and a weighty sense of growth to the characters. I can personally see myself using this as my go-to mode for a long long time.

Now that I’ve said my piece, here’s Ruben Prado with the weather…err…fighting mechanics.


 

Silly Brian, the weather is Marie’s job!

Much like Brian, Persona 4: Arena or “Persona 4: The Ultimate in Mayonaka Arena” is also my favorite fighting game ever made, and I suppose the only other game to take that title would be it’s own successor. Persona 4: The Ultimax Ultra Suplex Hold as is so hilariously named in Japan, is a game that takes perfection-incarnate in a fighting game and somehow adds to it. Not only is P4U a more fun experience to the casual player, but also boasts an assortment of new tools and play-styles to the competitive gamer.

The first game, Persona 4 Arena, took tried and true mechanics from generations of fighting games and improved on them to devise an interesting system that brought more decision making to ideas that were simply one-dimensional before. Amongst many of these were the concepts of auto-combos, the “come-back mechanic”, and reversals. Because I wasn’t a part of our review for Persona 4 Arena, and for those of you who might be getting into Ultimax without playing the priorv I’m going to quickly touch on what this game did with these mechanics before I talk about how Ultimax changed them again.

In Arenavi there were auto combos that could be done by simply pressing “A” repeatedly, this was not only useful to players who didn’t have the desire, or practice done to learn efficient combos and just wanted to be able to do something flashy. While this concept had been done in various fighting games before, Arena took this to the next level and added benefits and drawbacks to doing anywhere from 1 to 4 hits of the “auto combo” during high-level play. One example, and the most prevalent consideration while playing was that the third hit of the “auto-combo”vii would gain you 13 meter and 1/8th of your burst meter back (assuming they weren’t full) but the drawback was that the third hit was not chain-able into any other non-special move and whatever you COULD do afterwards would most likely do relatively low damage due to proration. In Ultimax this still exists, but the returning characters’ normal modes have all-new Dial-A sequences, and the old combos are now used by their Shadow Mode (I’ll get into more detail about Shadow characters later). In Ultimax, the new Dial-A combos were designed to be a bit more useful than their past iterations, so that the penalty isn’t as bad, but is still by no means always the best option. One interesting thing to note is that because (canonically) Elizabeth cannot have a Shadow mode, her old Dial-A sequence is now her Dial-B sequenceviii.

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Next, I’ll touch on Arena’s come-back mechanic. In past fighting games, for instance Street Fighter 4, as you take damage you gain “Ultra Meter” which lets you use your Ultra. At that point if you ever have a chance to use your Ultra effectively, you do it, no questions asked. It is there to help you deal more damage than you could otherwise do, or help you win in another manner. Arena took the come-back mechanic and created a more interactive and interesting system. When your character hit 30% of their total health, they entered what is called “Awakening” once in this state you will never leave it for the rest of the round even if you somehow gain health back. Entering Awakening will unlock one or more new supers, reduce the damage you take by 37.5%ix, and lastly increase your meter bar from 100 to 150 and immediately grant you 50 meter. Using moves such as R-actions or cancelling specials into supersx will take 5% of your health bar but give you “blue health” which is health that will slowly recover, but will be lost if you get hit at all. Using these methods, you can force yourself into Awakening before your opponent can do it for you. Why would you do this you ask? If your opponent uses a combo that for instance does enough damage to kill you from 40% health, you cannot enter awakening while you’re being combo’d, therefore you will never get the defense bonus and will just lose the round. If an opponent saved enough resources throughout the round, they can most likely take advantage of such a situation and eliminate your “come-back mechanic” chance altogether. All of this adds to the intricacy of what can happen in this game, and can influence your decision making and any moment during a match.  Ultimax does not change this particular mechanic for regular characters, but various supers that were only available to characters in Awakening before are now available always, and new Awakening supers have taken their place. Shadow characters work completely differently and will be explored later.

The last point I want to touch onxi are the concepts of reversals in Arena and how Ultimax changed them to spice things up.  In most last-gen and current-gen fighting games, there are ways to spend a resource in a way that allows you to use a reversal option which is usually punishable and make it safe from such retaliation. Arena’s system disallowed you from using a One More Cancel after hitting an opponent with a reversal move, known as a R-action in this franchise, regardless if they blocked it or not. Instead, you may opt to use meter to attempt a super after your reversal (assuming the reversal your character has isn’t a counter stance), from here you could spend another 50 meter to cancel the punishable super, but that would cost a total of at least 100 meter, which is everything you have if you’re not in Awakening. If your opponent guessed that you would attempt the super afterward, they could evasive action through it, causing you to whiff the super at which point you’re no longer allowed to use a One More Cancel, even if you have the meter. Ultimax keeps the same system but expands on a mechanic that was developed in Arena called “Fatal Counter”. I’m not going to go into the details of Fatal Counter, but now most reversals, and certain other moves have “Fatal Recovery” which means that no matter what move your opponent punishes you with, it will be a Fatal Counter and will allow them to do better combos that would otherwise not work. This new mechanic will require players who want to attempt a reversal to commit to their choice knowing full well that the risk is much higher than before, and such ideals help structure a more respective fighting game environment.

Now we’ll talk about the elephant in the room, the delicious turkey on the tablexii, the Shadow characters. Every character except: Elizabeth, Sho, Persona-less Sho, Adachi, Marie, Margaret and Shadow Labrysxiii has a Shadow version. Here are the characteristics of the Shadow characters:

  • Have 2000 more health than their normal counter-part
  • Cannot enter Awakening, but have access to Awakening supers all of the time
  • Cannot Burst, but have a Shadow Frenzy mode (which will be explained later)
  • Have the Dial-A sequence from their “Arena” version, the exception being the new characters since they clearly did not have a previous Dial-A iteration.
  • Retain meter between rounds
  • Deal 80% damage of their normal counter-parts
  • Cannot use Insta-Kill
  • Gain meter faster when getting hit than normal counter-parts
  • Have creepy or sometimes funny faces at character select

Shadow Frenzy is activated when you use the input for burst when you have 100 meter. This is much easier to obtain than you’d think since you save meter between rounds and naturally gain meter faster than normal. Activating Shadow Frenzy acts as a One More Cancel, and thus allows you to continue your combo in any fashion you see fit. During this mode your meter will slowly start to decrease, but any action you take that would use meter will only cost half of it’s normal cost, this allows you to essentially chain supers and SB moves in one combo where you normally could not. Special moves can also be cancelled into other special moves, or different versions of the same special move (ie. A Guillotine Axe into B Guillotine Axe into SB Guillotine Axe). This mode is very fun to play around with in training mode, go try making up your own flashy combos! Or see what other people have come up with on Youtube and see if you can pull it off.

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I could write twice as much on the many small but significant changes that have been implemented from Arena to Ultimax, but I believe I covered the most important ones that you should know going into this new game. Just know that everything that has been done has been for the overall betterment of the game and has created such a dynamic system that I believe will help the game stay fresh for a long time to come, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to play just about every unique and creative character this game has to offer.


 

All in all, if you like fighting games, want to get into fighting games, or love the Persona games, there’s no reason for you not to own this game. The additions make an already amazing fighting game even better and bring it to soaring new heights. New characters, a fun new mode, and a fantastic new story all add to the experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Should you buy this game: Yes. For fighting gamers and persona fans, there’s absolutely no reason to not own this game. New mechanics, new characters, and new modes all come together. If you can’t do visual novels, then the story mode might fail to entice you, but that doesn’t detract from the experience at all.

[Full Disclosure: This review was completed using a PS3 copy of the game, provided by Atlus.]

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