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.
The musical score is another masterpiece by Shoji Meguro, who has put his stamp and legacy on the Persona series similar to what Yuzo Koshiro did with Streets of Rage. Previous tracks from Persona 3 and 4 return, as well as original ones for the new cast introduced. As I write this review I’m listening to the OST scrolling between the battle themes of the combatants in my headset. Each one sounds crafted specifically to the personality of the character. While I have my own favorites, none of the songs are bad or make you wanting to skip through the battle ASAP just for a musical change, like in other fighting games I’ve played.
What was a big surprise, at least for me due to my internet situation, is how stable the network connection was. I was playing online over a finicky wireless connection, unlike the stable cable I used during the Arena review. Not once was I dropped from a match, nor was there any lag even when the opponent had a 1 bar connection. There was a little bit of lag for the battle intro animations but once in the actual fight it was smooth, consistent and lagless. You could also turn down battles which I thought was a neat perk. If you are a newbie and are stuck in a part of the world where time zones mess with heavy usage hours, sometimes you take what you are given. This little change allows those new to the game to reject a player if their win/loss ratio stats are too high, and you think you’d get crushed, or vice-versa and you think the opponent is not good enough. Yes, there are specific options in the matchmaking system to fix that issue, but sometimes circumstances dictate having to throw a large net to find even a single opponent when playing an online game. It is just a neat addition to your matchmaking options.
Character models retain their beautifully drawn, animated style which contrasts Persona with more realistic fighters like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. Backdrops are all settings from the RPG series which adds another link between the two genres. Some are rehashed from the previous game while some are new. Previous settings worked so well from Arena 1 that there is no need to reinvent the wheel when something is already good. Also the story contains anime cut scenes that look as if you’re watching Persona 4: the Animation. This adds more emphasis to how serious Atlus is taking this franchise, and how integral it is becoming to their brand.
For anyone who has been following my reviews over the past two years, you would have read some negative part about the game by now. The truth is there is no negative part. Issues from the last game have been fixed. Golden Arena gives the solo player a reason to pick up the controller. New difficulties have been added to previous modes to even out the difficulty curve. An already great game got turned into something better. This is a must-buy for fighting game enthusiasts and laymen alike. If you have the cash there are only two reasons why you would not buy this game: 1) You virulently hate the Persona series and/or 2) you have literally zero interest in any kind of fighting game.