If there was one thing I never expected from a game in the dark Shin Megami Tensei series, it was that there would be a dancing game spin-off. Seriously, the fact that Persona 4: Dancin’ All Night exists still blows my mind with confusion.
…But, this isn’t about Dancin’ All Night. This is about Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, the sequel to the 2D fighting game Persona 4 Arena… which is about the last thing I expected as a sequel to a hardcore 80 hour RPG. Persona 4 Arena ended up being quite a good fighting game, with deep but easy to learn mechanics that fans of both genres can enjoy, and a beefy Story Mode to appease fans of the original Persona 4. Ultimax looks to finish the cliffhanger left at the end of Arena, with a bunch of mechanical tweaks and new characters to satisfy fans of both the fighting game side and the RPG side of this rather unique combination.
Ultimax picks up about a day after the events of Persona 4 Arena, wherein the cast of Persona 4 (and some of the characters from Persona 3) saved Labrys from the TV World. The characters were never left with an answer as to who started the incident… but they don’t have to wait long, as that night Inaba is covered in a red fog and an ultimatum is made: Fight and become the champion in the P-1 Climax before the end of the hour, or the world will end.
Rather than have a separate storyline for each playable character like in Persona 4 Arena, Ultimax merely splits the story into two episodes: Episode P4 and Episode P3. This is a big improvement over the first Arena, as each story in the first game was essentially the same tale with very slight differences, and having to complete a great deal of them before seeing the real conclusion made the rather flimsy storytelling more redundant and frustrating than it needed to be.
Unfortunately, though, it seems the overall story quality has taken a bit of a nosedive, despite Arc System‘s attempts to streamline the plot. In what feels like an attempt to better tie Persona 3‘s and Persona 4‘s plot lines, the story of Ultimax really feels like it stretches what the plot already had going for it, and threw in some weird plot twists that feel forced and so out of left field that they’re mostly unsatisfying at best, and just bad at their worst. Still, though, the story is decent enough that the average Persona 4 or 3 fan will get something out of it.
Ultimax‘s true strength is in its intricate and immensely fun fighting system. It’s the very definition of ‘easy to learn, tough to master’: With the existence of auto-combos and Bursts (which can cancel practically any combo your opponent is executing), the game is very friendly to newbies… but with various versions of the same moves that do more damage if you correctly input commands and Shadow versions of each character that remove the auto-combo and Burst ‘training wheels’ so to speak, there’s plenty of depth for the fighting game fanatic to delve into.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also has a plethora of game modes to keep you busy. In addition to the Story Mode, there’s the Arcade Mode that lets you brawl with little exposition, a Score Attack Mode that challenges you to do better, and the usual Online and Practice Modes. The real star, though, is the new Golden Arena mode. In it, you work through ‘dungeons’, fighting enemies of varying levels with different abilities that you have to conquer. As you work through them, your character will gain experience, and eventually level up themselves, learning new abilities and being forced to get rid of old ones… much like the Persona games themselves. It’s really a lot of fun, and re-injects a lot of that RPG flavor from the Persona games into Ultimax.
All of the new characters (which are mostly Persona 3 characters, though Rise also makes the cut as a new fighter) are unique and a blast to play as. As mentioned before, every character’s Shadow form also adds to the game considerably, especially as an option for those who want to try more risky play styles. Finally, small tweaks, like everyone having a different number of Persona summons available, help to diversify the cast even more by playing to their strengths and weaknesses.
If you loved Persona 4 Arena, go to your nearest game store (or PSN/XBLA) and grab this game right this second, as Ultimax is a superior sequel. If you like Arc System‘s fighting games in general, this also is a must grab–the online community is strong, and there’s plenty to delve into without even caring about the game’s Story Mode. Other fighting games coming out this Fall have some stiff competition, as Ultimax will be a very tough opponent to beat.