‘Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax’ delivers fast, fresh fighting and story

This article originally appeared on The Oakland Press.

Understanding what Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is requires first unpacking the name. Ultimax is an expanded, updated version of 2012’s Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game based on the characters from Persona 4. Persona 4 is a Japanese RPG in the Persona series, itself a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series.

A pop star fighting an android in a food court is one of the many weird matchup possibilities in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.

A pop star fighting an android in a food court is one of the many weird matchup possibilities in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.

If any of that sounds convoluted, don’t worry. To put it succinctly, it’s a blast for fighting junkies and Persona fans alike, and no prior knowledge of the series is needed, though it certainly enriches the experience.

For long-time fans of the Persona RPGs who maybe aren’t familiar with the fighting game genre, you don’t have to understand Ultimax’s many different, character-specific fighting styles or have razor-honed reflexes to enjoy the story. In additional to the standard easy, medium, and hard, arcade mode includes a “safety” difficulty setting which “allows anyone to play” through the story. Story mode even has an automatic setting that will have the computer control your fighter for you.

On the other hand, fighting game players will be able to appreciate the intense, mechanically solid and diverse gameplay, which seems to draw inspiration from the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fighting games and from fast-paced 2D brawlers like BlazBlue. Each character (with one notable exception) fights on a 2D place with standard weapon as well as calling on their Personas for assistance in combat. The Personas tend to be humanoid gods and demons, whose appearance and behavior reflect their controller’s inner personality. When called upon, the Personas can bring out huge weapons or screen-filling elemental attacks to aid their users.

Developer Arc Systems Works is known for making brawlers that feature sprawling, dialogue intensive story modes, and Ultimax is no exception. It differs from its predecessor by ditching the separate storylines for each character and instead offers one all-encompassing story that jumps from one character to another. Be ready to block out a chunk of time to play story mode, the fights are secondary here to the dialogue. I was almost an hour into story mode by the time the first bell had rung.

Initially, “Episode P4” is available to play, a story which revolves around the characters from Persona 4. But completing that unlocks “Episode P3,” which retells the events of the game from the perspectives of the Persona 3 characters. The story is great for Persona fans, bringing back the characters they love for another adventure, and the story mode is well written.

The cast consists of all the main characters from the last two Persona RPGs. The Persona 4 characters seem somewhat uninventive, being mostly high school students wearing similar uniforms, but their personalities come through during the story mode. However, the designs of the added Persona 3 characters, who have graduated and since become adults in the Persona universe, are wildly different, including a baseball player, a Power Ranger-esque archer, and a boy who fights with a spear alongside his dog companion, both of whom have their own personas.

Ultimax's story mode is vast, and mostly told through talking heads, but the personalities are so fun, you won't want to skip a thing.

Ultimax’s story mode is vast, and mostly told through talking heads, but the personalities are so fun, you won’t want to skip a thing.

Impressively, the characters all fight in a unique way, and mastery of any single character will take time. Expect tough competition in the online modes, though the blazing fast action seems to suffer from few online connectivity issues. You won’t be able to blame any losses on lag this time.

You’ll definitely want to take Ultimax online at some point, as a trio of downloadable bonus characters add even more variety to the existing cast, bringing the total of playable characters up to 21. Each bonus character costs $4.99. One of the downloadable characters even has his own story mode.

However, other available downloads seem barely worth the cost. Your mileage may vary on the option to purchase new background music or announcers, but it’s hard to understand the reasoning behind selling different color schemes for the fighters. While some fighting games allow full customization here Ultimax asks actual money for it. That said, each character has quite a few color options available from the get-go, and the lack of having a pink jacket and yellow hair doesn’t change the gameplay.

The music is outstanding, as tends to be the case with Persona games, however the majority of it is transplanted directly from Persona 3 & 4, so fans are going to hear some familiar tunes. The voice acting is some of the best for a dub of a Japanese game in any genre, and it seems like great lengths were taken to make the translation sound natural to English speakers.

Though it’s a deep, mechanically intensive experience that hardcore fighting game enthusiasts will able to delve into, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is also friendly enough that players who just want to experience the story set in the Persona universe can dig in. If you’re looking to get some more mileage out of your last generation consoles, or just need a fighting game fix, Ultimax is a solid bet.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is available for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Publisher Atlus provided a review copy of the game for the purposes of this article.

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