As a gamer who grew up with a healthy dose of RPGs keeping him going from school year to school year the one thing that always impressed me was how developers crafted their stories and narratives. With Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax, Atlus shows us an intricate and outside-the-box form of storytelling to craft not only one of the greatest RPG series of all time (Persona) but also link it to the fighting genre and create one of the best fighting games ever.
A year or so ago I reviewed the first Persona 4: Arena on the PS3 and thought it was a great game. The fighting system is the same as Arena 1, which is a lot of button mashing for beginners and intricate combos and frame rate exploits for experts. Adachi, Margaret, Marie and other P3 and P4 characters join the cast, as well as shadow forms for previous characters. These shadow forms have more life at the cost of lowered attack power. They also sacrifice their instant kill finisher for the ability to use more special attacks with less SP depletion when in their unique shadow form mode. What this does is add a lot of differing styles to the game, as well as a more interesting take on a mirror-matchup. The execution of actions are smooth and crisp, with little dead time between moves that leave you open for crazy combos and counters. Learning timing is key to be successful in this game.
Combat is balanced enough to allow inexperienced button mashers a chance at winning, thus having fun against more skilled opponents, while allowing those who want to go pro the ability to get around said button mashing with the preparation expected of someone taking it seriously. There are no overly bad characters. It is a battle of styles and which you prefer to use, as differing strengths and weaknesses help even them out. One example is Mitsuru having better range with her normal attacks vs. others, but is balanced out by needing pinpoint accuracy for her persona attacks.
What makes this game stand out from not only fighters, but even RPGs, is how Atlus carried over a canon storyline from genre-to-genre, and linked events between them all. What has always been lacking in fighting games is the story, and to be fair that was never a big necessity. But Atlus has decided to be avant-garde and make a fighter with a story in length and scope that rivals most RPGs, and with allusions to the yet-to-be-released Persona 5. Story mode will keep you occupied for hours as you learn about the game’s events from multiple sides and perspectives in the form of a visual novel. The inclusion of a lot of voice acting gives the player the feel that this is something important to the game, rather than something tacked on as a bonus.
When that is finished there are the same game modes from the previous game in score attack, arcade, and network battles. Score attack’s got a bit of a revamping with the introduction of a difficulty setting, allowing you to play 1 of 4 courses on 5 different difficulties. Essentially each course is a different character order for fighting. What is new to the mix is Golden Arena, which is a 4-course RPG gauntlet mode. You pick one character and play through a gauntlet of matches ranging from 50 to infinite, with one-round victories. Each win gets you XP and/or skills that affect you in battle. Lose once and you’re done. Progress is saved every 5 floors allowing you to go back and grind at any time to get better. Half the fun is trying out new skill combos with your character as only 4 are allowed at a time for each character. Also, for longevity, each character’s stats are their own so if you have more than one main character you use then you’ll have to do a lot of fun grinding.