Ultimax, despite being a made up word for all we know, describes the latest and reportedly last of the Persona 4 Arena series. It is in many ways the ultimate rendition of an Atlus x ArcSysWorks fighter; with revamped combos, a slew of new characters, and versions of both new and old characters that change the mechanics completely, all with new and improved modes to test your mettle against computer and human opponents.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, this is a near perfect fighter. It is extremely easy to jump in to Versus mode and go a few rounds with your friends; this game is high level tourney ready. The new mode du jour is Golden Arena Mode, a nod to the RPG roots of Persona, being made of towers set up not unlike Tartarus in 3. After selecting a character, you compete in one round matches against set AI opponents, earning experience and leveling up for stats and new skills, all lifted directly from the skills used in the original games (Hassou Tobi and Heat Riser stay strong, son). This mode challenges the player to play carefully as health and meter carry from round to round, and checkpoints are guarded by beefed up characters. Golden Arena can easily become the de facto time burner mode, with hundreds of levels, ranging from beginner to balls out challenging and plenty of skills to experiment with. You can really learn how a character works against most opponents in this challenge.
Returning is Score Attack and Arcade Modes, both quick ways to get 8 or 10 matches in against computers. Arcade Mode is still perfect to immediately grab a character and start pummeling, and will probably be your first mode selected. Score Attack has been rebalanced from Arena, allowing easier difficulties before tackling the Risky difficulty, against a whole line of fully charged opponents. This mode is arguably the last step you should take before entering online play as it uses every system a character can throw at you constantly. Getting past some of the later characters requires a real understanding of both your combos and systems as well as their reads and weaknesses.
Online play has been revamped, at least on the PS3, to include a neat little lobby system that organizes and adds even more ties to the series. While there are still options for jumping right into Ranked and Custom matches, the lobby is worth noting for its sheer amount of fan service, something the Arena series has used to its advantage plenty before. Each lobby is named and numbered after a location in 3 and 4 and the Major Arcana respectively, and is populated by chosen avatars of popular characters. I personally enjoyed a short time roaming Junes halls as Nanako before throwing down with Shinji or Kanji just for the hilarious image. The online matches I engaged in (mostly with people I knew for sanity’s sake) held up as perfect as our internet connections would allow. The history of good online play from ArcSys continues to say the least. Players are still listed and ranked based on gained wins and performance, and it’s easy to tell if a thrashing is headed your way, which if it’s your first time attempting online play against actual humans will be most if not all encounters.
New characters Junpei Iori, Yukari Takeba, Rise Kujikawa, Sho/Minazuki (solo and Persona user ver.), & Ken Amada x Koromaru (one fighter), along with available DLC characters Tohru Adachi, Marie & Margaret, bring the console roster to a staggering 22, bringing in more variations of classic fight styles to choose from. Each character is, much like in the first Arena, built around the personality and skills from their prospective original titles mixed with borrowed ArcSys moves and systems; Yukari uses her bow to set plenty of ranged attacks, Junpei is a fiery slugger, trading his old swords for an aluminum bat that racks up hits and runs as on screen buffs (and makes the most satisfying noise when it connects hits), Rise is able to scan and pinpoint characters (and even has a super that is a rhythm game, a hard nod to her Dancing All Night future), and Adachi uses status ailments and dicks around with the character. If anything, it’s worth trying each new character to see how well they translated the RPG characters to one-on-one fighters. New to the series is the S Hold system, a charge attack that increases from a regular skill to supers and IKs with time, acting similar to a Focus Attack. Using this, especially against human opponents, is risky and requires knowledge of when to knockdown your opponent and what will come of the charge.
On top of entirely new characters, most of the cast gets a new Shadow version, with entirely different combos and mechanics, specifically the Shadow Burst mode. Shadow characters are able to expend their filled meters for a short time in an enhanced state with each meter move burning the timer down, allowing for a short burst of near infinite skill use. This adds another opportunity for players to use SP skills more and possibly turn the tides, not unlike the golden and counter bursts of past.
If I can suggest putting up the coin for the additional characters (4.99 each), I would for variety alone (plus one of your friends may or may not throw a fit if his favorite isn’t present). If you are against paying extra for all the characters, research the available options and see if their playstyle is to your liking. I would, however, suggest picking up Adachi for his extra story mission Episode: Adachi, which adds on and weaves around both the original storyline and the new threads being made in the Story Mode.
This version of the Story Mode, divided into Episode P4 and P3 (in that order for reasons unknown), rely on a much more linear narrative, displayed in arcs that trail downward and connect and separate as characters and parties group and are removed in the narrative. the UI of the story is clunky as all get out, resembling a conspiracy theorist’s yarn lines leading to the conclusion of each episode, but follows a narrative nonetheless. Plenty of the interactions and cutscenes play well to the characters, seeing the old crews in action was almost like popping in the old PS2 games and seeing the Social Links all over again. As far as continuing both the narratives of the mainline Persona series and the setup for the first Arena, Ultimax falls short. For fans of the series, seeing the characters of the games clash and team up was a dream come true in the first fighter, but by this time is rarely pushed forward and relies heavily on established character tropes and fan service.
Not that Persona Fan Service isn’t the best in the business.
Claiming to be the Climax of this spinoff may be it’s biggest downfall, keeping the historically well written and developed characters in a safe place to make sure fans are kept happy (yes, Junpei is still Stupei). Anyone looking for more Persona lore will be met with mixes of nostalgia and disappointment; whereas this could have really wrapped some loose ends up (specifically regarding Elizabeth’s involvement and development), it instead becomes a few quick quips between new and old friends tied looser with the excuse to fight again and an unexpected villain at the center. Attempting to make the first mystery in Arena a legitimate jump off point was ambitious, and where the writing really fails is its inability to deliver final results like a Persona game should. The places each character ends up beg for more exposition, which after nearly 20 hours of Visual Novel meets fighter, should not be the case. If this the last P4A title, the narrative is left broken at a whole.
The decision to buy this game comes down to which fan you consider yourself. Fighting fans will be satisfied with tight online and local gameplay, plenty of varied modes and a great roster. This game could easily be on next year’s major FGC tourney stages if it already isn’t. Persona fans will have a harder time justifying coming to this title for the story like the first Arena. It is entirely possible to call yourself a super fan and never know what the Sam Hell happened in both Arena games. Despite being confirmed canon, they seem oddly apocryphal. It seems to be a competent-nearing perfect fighter with a strange lore at the core. Perhaps that is the facade it must deal with to overcome it’s hardships. Hopefully, this series gets a third chance to face it’s Shadows.