Back in 2012, Atlus and Arc System Works got this unorthodox notion to turn Persona 4, a beloved JRPG, into a 2-D fighting game. The result was a hugely successful, critically acclaimed gem known as Persona 4 Arena, which beautifully balanced fan service and fighting mechanics in a neat little spin-off sequel. Now that the novelty of a Persona fighting game has worn off, Atlus and Arc System Works have returned to the ring with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, ready to deliver a knockout conclusion. For the most part, the game lands hit after hit, especially in terms of its spectacular, well thought out gameplay, but where it misses, like in its story, it misses big.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax picks up a day after the events of Persona 4 Arena as both the Investigation Team and the Shadow Operatives are swept into yet another fighting tournament. It’s all done through the familiar Arc System Works story tree style, which reveals the story little by little in an episodic manner. Though there are a few charming moments sprinkled here and there throughout the main scenario, P4AU‘s story suffers from a couple major issues, including clunky dialogue and a predictable plot.
First off, the amount of repetitive exposition is incredibly mind-numbing. I understand that because of the switching perspectives, it makes sense that each character new to the situation would need a quick summary of the events and people around them. But to the player, who is an omniscient observer, this becomes increasingly tedious with each subsequent explanation of “Who are the Shadow Operatives?” or “What are the rules of the P-1 Climax?”. Atlus does occasionally attempt to dampen the repetitiveness, such as fading to black for long-winded accounts or trying to spice up each exposition with the focused character’s voice and mannerisms. Yet due to the already conspicuous nature of the story, these attempts lose their appeal fairly quickly as I found myself scrolling through blocks of text that I already knew the information to. Try all you want Atlus, the brilliance of Persona 3 and 4‘s characters, from Chie’s adorable obliviousness to Aegis’ robotic sincerity, is not a crutch for repetitive exposition and uninspired dialogue.
Another aspect of the story that’s brought about some controversy are the changes to voice acting. Fans of the series will find that a good amount of familiar voices are not to be found in P4AU, but it’s not all discouraging. Matt Mercer, filling in for the role of Kanji Tatsumi instead of Troy Baker, does an incredible job at nailing Kanji’s mannerisms and his likeness to Troy Baker’s voice makes this change a subtle shift. Similarly, Naoto Shirogane’s new voice actor, Valerie Arem, may not sound too much like her previous voice actor but she does an excellent job in the role, adding her own, unique style of the calm, calculating teenage detective. On the other hand, there are some voices that are ill-suited for their characters, bordering on cringe-worthy. Igor and Margaret’s casting choices are way off the mark, and though they are only in the game briefly, they lack their characters’ sense of mystery and a devilish playfulness. It’s a pretty even mix across the board; some improve on their characters and others are horribly off-putting.
Plastered all over P4AU is that delightfully eerie flair which accompanies the Persona series. It’s flashy, it’s vibrant and its an entertaining blend of pop culture and menacing undertones that harbors a unique kind of intensity. The same could be used to describe the music of P4AU, which features an interesting blend of jazz and pop with a dash of rock here and there for added adrenaline. That’s the visual and audible aesthetic which makes Persona stand apart from its JRPG peers and there’s no shortage of it in P4AU.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
What I love about Arc System Works’ approach to fighting games is their ability to satisfy both casual fighting game players, like myself, and competitive level enthusiasts. For those with trouble entering inputs or who don’t want to invest too much time into learning each combo, P4AU brings back the auto-combo system as well as the new “S Hold System”, which allows players to use super moves by simply holding down an attack button. These mechanics enable casual players to achieve a sense of fluid gameplay lost in other, high skilled fighting games. Simultaneously, P4AU offers all the subtle nuances of a competition fighting game, such as stringing combos, frame counting, options to cancel and break strategically; it’s all there for skilled enthusiasts to master and combine on their own terms without sacrificing too much. The execution of both styles in P4AU is flawless and superb.
Which brings us to the biggest addition in P4AU: the inclusion of Shadow characters. These new characters mirror their normal participants in every way minus the fact that they can’t use Personas; instead, they employ a “Frenzy mode” which allows them to chain super move after super move, regardless of SP, for a set amount of time. It’s a two-fold move that expands the roster while also introducing a new moveset that’ll change your approach to how you play your favorite characters. Simple little changes like this are what make the Persona 4 Arena series spectacular; by tweaking one aspect of the mechanics, there’s a broad range of possibility to tinker with and take advantage of.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax finds itself on a golden balance scale with all the weight dropped into the gameplay saucer, leaving the story up in the air and mostly empty. A plot mixed with questionable voice acting and repetitive dialogue does grate on the story mode experience, but the fluid, fantastic combat at the heart of the game has been improved over its predecessor, offering more characters and options to both casual and competitive players. I’d recommend this game to anyone who is looking for a stellar fighting game experience, whether you’re a Persona 4 fan or not.
Final Score: 8.5 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood