Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, the sequel to 2012’s Persona 4 Arena, brings everything that worked for the first game and strengthens it the second time through, creating one of the best fighting game experiences around.
Well, except for the story. It’s pretty bad.
After the events of Persona 4 Arena, the Malevolent Entity strikes, taking Mitsuru, Akihiko, Aigis, and Fuuka hostage, leading to the residents of Inaba and former members of SEES working together to overcome the twisted combination of the Dark Hour and TV World and save their friends, all while working towards finding the culprit responsible for this and Labrys’ kidnapping.
I would say that Persona 4 Arena was a Persona 3/Persona 4 crossover from a character standpoint, but the story was clearly more akin to P4. Ultimax is 100% a story crossover, but it’s not executed as smoothly as many would have liked. Also, while Arena danced around a lot of spoilers for P3 and P4, Ultimax does not, mainly because of two specific characters’ involvement. I would definitely recommend playing P3 and P4 (in order) before Ultimax, even if you’re already familiar with Arena.
First off, my favorite thing about the story mode in Ultimax compared to Arena is that there aren’t just character stories, but cast stories. So, instead of playing through the same general story with each individual character, you follow the story from the perspective of the Persona 3 cast (Episode P3), the Persona 4 cast (Episode P4), or, assuming that you have the DLC*, Adachi (Episode Adachi). So for Episode P4, which is the first one available, the player will end up fighting mostly as characters of the Investigation Squad, and for Episode P3, as the former members of SEES.
Along with this, there are plenty of new playable characters that weren’t in Arena! From Yukari and her bow, Junpei and his bat, Rise and her mic stand, the Ken/Koromaru combo, and the mysterious Sho Minazuki, to the DLC additions of Adachi, Marie, and Margaret, the cast is greatly improved by their additions. And then, as a way to effectively double the roster, most characters have a “Shadow” form to fight as. More on that later. But as a whole, these new characters add a lot of variety and make the game plenty more fun.
Within the story, one of the most noticeable things is that there is a lot more visual variety, not only in locations, but in how many CGs are present in the game. This is a huge improvement from Arena, where you would see the same thing over and over again, regardless of which character you chose.
Now, looking at the actual story itself… it’s disappointing, to put it lightly. What could have been the ultimate way to wrap up the P3 and P4 stories just ended up being a lackluster and commonly aggravating experience.
First off, my biggest issue is how they handled the continuation of Elizabeth’s story in Arena. If you’ve played it, you know that her story in Arena was very different from the rest, and tied in directly to the conclusion of P3. Well, they completely ignored it in Ultimax, simply having her give a brief farewell after the conclusion of the true ending, and then going off to complete her mission. Instead of using this game to both combat the Malevolent Entity and bring proper closure to what she was attempting, you learn that the Malevolent Entity is completely unrelated to pretty much everything thus far and basically an asspull existence, and the only reason the P3 cast is dragged into the mess is because of new character Sho’s connection to a specific P3 character and the Kirijo Group.
And then there was the ridiculously cheesy “power of friendship” and “bonds” stuff. I wasn’t a huge fan of this in P4, I liked it less in Arena, and in Ultimax it’s like they’re beating a dead horse with another dead horse. It is aggravating to sit through, and it really made me sympathize with the antagonist a tiny bit. In moderation it would be okay, but it seems like every success in battle is attributed to the characters’ bonds, and how they trust each other because of their bonds, and how they can’t lose because of their bonds. It’s really sickening to hear over and over again.
And then, to make matters worse, they copy the same format for the final boss battles from P3 and P4 (battle → social link support → win) for a character I wasn’t thrilled with, not to mention that there aren’t even social links in this game. I suppose it makes sense since Arena is her story more than any other specific character, but really? With Yu being the final combatant for the P4 episode, I expected Aigis for P3. You know, the protagonist of The Answer (the P3 FES epilogue), the only other character with the Wild Card, and AN ACTUAL CHARACTER FROM PERSONA 3. They even used Heartful Cry during that scene, a song that is not only used at key moments in The Answer, but also as Aigis’ battle theme in Arena and Ultimax. I am not even remotely happy with how this was handled.
Was I setting myself up for disappointment here? Maybe, but while certain expectations didn’t need to be met (such as the return of a specific character), the other issues are just inexcusable. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that I could write a better and more conclusive ending than what we got instead. Apparently I just expected too much from the writers, who were too busy shoving the “friendship is magic” message down the players’ throats to create a logical and conclusive ending.
Sound-wise, there are also some big issues. Right away, it is apparent that not only have some voice actors changed, but a lot of them seem lackluster compared to past performances. If I had to guess, they’re just sick of the characters after this and Persona Q. The most noticeable changes are Igor and Margaret. While Igor only has a few lines, I really hope they have his old VA back for P5, assuming that he returns once again. Also, compared to P4 (I’m not positive about Arena) Kanji and Naoto have new voice actors as well. I’m pretty sure that Naoto sounds less androgynous and more feminine each time I hear her voice, and I don’t think it’s intentional.
Next, music in the game is all over the place. Outside of battles the majority of the soundtrack consists of songs from P3 and P4. While these generally fit, there are many times where something is overused, commonly for inappropriate situations. As one example, Burn My Dread -Last Battle- is used way too much and not always at tense moments of the story, killing the impact of the song.
The worst offender sound-wise is actually something I was very excited with for the game – the battle themes for the Shadow variants. When it was announced that the Shadow characters would have battle themes using songs from the P3 and P4 soundtracks, I expected something along the lines of the remix of Heartful Cry that Aigis had for Arena. Instead, they used the songs in their original forms. No remix, no edit, nothing. They are used exactly as they were in the original game, and this is a huge problem.
Music for fighting games needs to be high energy for quick and brutal fights, whereas RPGs have a lot of time to let a song play through and loop, not to mention when they’re used at specific points for emotional or atmospheric impact. A few characters luck out, such as Yu and Junpei, but most are stuck with songs that sound so bland in this context and take away from what should be a fast-paced battle, especially Teddie, Naoto, Ken/Koromaru, Chie, Yukari, and Akihiko. It’s a problem, and it screams laziness.
If there’s one thing I can credit the game with, it’s that the gameplay is much improved from Arena!
Right off the bat, it is very clear that some balancing has been done. Certain characters don’t hit as hard (such as Kanji with his OP command grab), and others have an extended use of their Persona (such as Shadow Labrys and her omnipresent “Persona”). While some characters, particularly Yu, still seem to have an easier time stringing combos together, there are even more ways to counter and get out of tough situations – or rather, avoid tough situations.
If you’re familiar with the mechanics from Arena, you know that there is a ground dodge that is the best way to avoid attacks short of actually guarding. Unfortunately, there was no similar feature for midair situations. Not anymore! While the command input is different for whatever reason, it is possible to dodge attacks in midair, which is a great improvement. There are also many new cancels built into the game, such as for jumps, dashes, and evading, and these allow the player to have better maneuverability when trying to keep away from the enemy or catch them off guard.
Character auto combos have been revamped, with the Shadow variants having the original combos from Arena. There are also plenty of new moves, such as as Yu’s ridiculous “Thunder God Dance” and Aigis’ “Multi-Mounted Machine Gun Orion” and “Extreme Orgia Mode.” Characters such as Chie, who commonly had trouble managing ranged enemies in Arena, have better zoning abilities to get up close and personal with their opponents.
Every Shadow variant is a complete glass cannon, lacking the Burst ability that can break an opponent’s attack and put distance between characters. However, what they do have now is the Shadow Frenzy. For a fixed amount of time, Shadow characters can unleash as many SP-consuming abilities as they want, even being able to string together otherwise-impossible combos for high amounts of damage. For the P4 cast, the Shadows’ in-battle mannerisms also tie into the characters’ actual Shadows from the game, which is nifty way to do things.
One of the most interesting character additions is Adachi, and you’ll know why if you’ve played P4. He also has a Joker (as in the Batman villain) color variant, which ties in with his Social Link in Persona 4 Golden, so that’s nifty. Most importantly, Rise has also been forced into a playable state, making her the perfect punching bag!
Outside of the general gameplay improvements, another addition to the game is the Golden Arena Mode, which is a bit of a fighting game/RPG hybrid. Within the Golden Arena mode, characters level up and learn passive abilities, all while gaining stronger abilities from their partner through “Social Links.” As a whole, it’s a pretty interesting approach to combine two different genres, but it suffers from the lack of any thread to pull the player along – no story, no substantial rewards, etc. So while it uses RPG elements such as leveling, stats, and abilities, it lacks the best parts of the genre. It would be awesome to see this kind of integration in the main story, but there aren’t enough fights to really justify it.
Besides abilities such as Sukukaja, Tarukaja, and Rakukaja, which passively boost specific stats, there are also those such as Dekunda – if your character has a status ailment, such as paralysis, pausing the game will eliminate the ailment. It seems a bit odd at first, but it can really come in handy. Some abilities are also specifically aimed at negating your opponent’s abilities.
As a whole, am I happy with the game? Yes. It’s more fun to play than Arena with the improved mechanics and larger cast, but the story is a tremendous flop of a disappointment. I really wish that they gave everything a conclusive ending, because now I’m just dreading that they’re going to drag out the P3/P4 story even more.
Play time – Story is 10 hours or so in total, but arcade, Score Attack, Golden Arena, and online modes will likely bump up the time spent on the game drastically, even if you’re not particularly fond of fighting games.
Price – 60 USD on release
Recommendation – If you dislike fighting games, don’t bother. If all you’re interested in is the story, watch it on YouTube or something, and don’t waste your money for ~10 hours of story.
If you like fighting games, this game is definitely worth the purchase. You can also buy the story from Arena for $10 as DLC instead of getting the full game, so you’ll be able to get caught up on what happened beforehand.
Either way, you should definitely play Persona 3 (preferably FES on PS2/PS3) and Persona 4 (preferably Golden on Vita) beforehand, otherwise Ultimax will just spoil a bunch of important things for you.
* Adachi and Marie are free DLC until 10/7 (in the US at least). Download them now! Even if you’re not sure whether or not you’ll get the game!!!
The featured image is a vector shoop I did based on Yukari’s Instant Kill. All screenshots are from Atlus, either from their US or Japanese YouTube channels or pre-release screenshots.