I think I get some kind of license revoked if I don't get a new favorite fighting game once a year. Last year it was the first Persona 4 Arena game, and now it's the second one.
I just typed up my personal history with the Persona series a few days ago in my Persona 2: Innocent Sin review. This is it right here. You can also look up the "Persona" label on the Categories tab to the right to see all the Persona-related blog posts I've ever written. Right. So I'm still in the midst of a years-long Persona obsession that will continue at least through one playthrough of Persona 5, and very likely beyond. I bought Persona 4: Ultimax on day one, and now you'll hear me talk about it. After this quick message about the developer.
I've never liked Arc System Works games. Guilty Gear seems convoluted, BlazBlue seems exactly the same as Guilty Gear, and I've never been good at those "anime-style" fighting games in general. I grew up on a steady diet of Capcom and SNK fighters, and hold particular affection for Super Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, The Last Blade 2, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and the many incarnations of Street Fighter IV. Wow that's six games. And those are just my favorites. Damn. But I never got into Arc System Works, until early 2013.
After beating Persona 4 I was seeking out more ways to slake my Persona thirst, and did some research into Persona 4 Arena, the fighting game released the prior year. It seemed like something that I was interested in, if only to play another game with the cast of Persona 4, but it also surprised me with its gameplay that was both deep and accessible. I'll be using those two words a LOT in this review; here's an apology in advance.
Story and Characters
The story in Ultimax takes place shortly after the events of the first Persona 4 Arena. The Persona 4 crew is still hanging out together as Narukami visits during spring break, and the Persona 3 Shadow Operatives team has added Labrys to their ranks. Everything goes sour when the unknown adversary from the first Arena title strikes again, covering Inaba in red mist and capturing the Shadow Operatives. Of course, the Persona 4 characters spring into action, and pretty soon they're fighting shadow versions of each other and running around Inaba tracking down their missing allies.
The story mode is styled after a visual novel like the first Arena, but it's much less convoluted. Instead of twelve separate story modes with different details surrounding the same events, the story flowchart in Ultimax does a fair job of telling two stories from multiple perspectives: one starring Narukami and the Persona 4 cast, and one starring Labrys and the Persona 3 cast. The two stories are basically the same, but you use new combinations of characters for different events in the P3 story, which is unlocked after the P4 story is completed.
So you follow different characters around until you defeat a Shadow version of each major character in the game. Since most of these characters are traveling in groups, for most fights you'll have a choice of at least two characters to control in each fight. For example, early in the Persona 4 story Yukiko and Kanji are traveling together. For every fight in their plotline you can choose to control either Yukiko or Kanji. Eventually the whole team reconnects and for some late-story fights you can choose between at least six characters. It's faster, more forgiving, and less tedious than the visual novel story modes in the original Persona 4 Arena, and you still get character moments in the early introduction phase and the pre-credits final cutscenes.
...but just because it's a better execution of a visual novel doesn't mean it's a better story. The major villains teased in the first P4A are revealed to be Sho Minazuki, a young boy wielding dual swords, and a mysterious entity that he communicates with. They've teamed up with Tohru Adachi, who somehow escaped prison and is aiding Minazuki. Sho deeply resents the camaraderie that our heroes share, and is FURIOUS that they have such strong bonds. That's... most of his character. Eventually it's revealed that he has a dark past connected to the events of Persona 3 and can use a Persona, but it's an awkward plot twist that doesn't really feel earned. I'll be frank: I think that the story in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is dumb. Sho is interesting from a gameplay perspective, but not great from a story perspective.
One thing that I do appreciate about the Persona 4 Arena Ultimax story is that it brings in some new blood. Well, new to the Persona fighting games anyhow. Rise is playable for the first time, wielding a microphone for singing attacks and her Persona changing form for combat. Returning from Persona 3 are Junpei, Yukari, and Ken (fighting alongside Koromaru) and being included as DLC are Persona 4 characters Adachi, Marie, and Margaret. Counting the two versions of Sho (for story reasons, Sho has a solo version and a Persona version, since his Persona powers are limited) that's nine new entries on the character select screen. That's pretty cool.
But honestly? The best parts of the story in Ultimax are seeing what these familiar characters are up to. Junpei coaches a Little League team in his spare time. Yukari is a college student, but works as an actress and model and is currently starring in a Super Sentai-esque show. So yes, that's why Junpei fights with baseball bats and Yukari looks like she's dressed up as the Pink Ranger. Ken's grown up a little and now wears a middle school uniform.
And hey, these games are in part about Persona fanservice. I got a real kick out of Chie hanging out with Akihiko again ("sensei!"). When Rise and Yukari are talking about work and complimenting each others' looks, it's adorable. I haven't played Persona 4 Golden, but Marie seems awful. Persona fans want to see their favorite characters doing cool / cute / funny things, and Ultimax delivers on that front.
And I should mention: some Persona fans think that Sho (and possibly Labrys) will be involved in the story of Persona 5. I seriously doubt it. I expect Persona 5 to be a self-contained story with Persona references and not a continuation of a larger Persona narrative. Sho develops an explicit rivalry with Narukami (since Sho rejects anything resembling personal connections and Narukami is the king of swag) and Labrys is now firmly with the Persona 3 team. If there's another Arc System Works Persona fighting game (a definite possibility), then we'll probably see Sho and Labrys play larger roles. I would be very surprised (and not in a good way) if they play major parts in Persona 5.
Playing the Game
I spent way too fucking long on that first section, so I'll be relatively brief here. Here's my review of the first Persona 4 Arena game. Most of the basics of gameplay, from All-Out Attacks to SP meters to character variety, should be included in there. Read that again. The nuts and bolts of fighting are the same in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, but I'll go over a few of the new changes here.
The biggest new change are these new characters. Yukari is a very capable ranged attacker. Junpei is a short-range guy who gets stronger as he lands more successful hits (represented by a baseball scorecard at the bottom of the screen). Ken and Koromaru fight together, and using Persona buttons can have Koromaru act in tandem with Ken for some pretty interesting setups. Rise can land bonus stuns easily with her musical note attacks, and has one SP Attack that turns into a rhythm game (it's awesome). Sho is a very aggressive character who gains additional dashes and air moves if you fight without a Persona, and some powerful projectile and misdirection moves if you fight with his Persona. It's pretty cool.
I won't get into the three DLC characters, because I haven't played them as much. I was able to get the Adachi and Marie DLC for zero dollars, because Atlus is doing this thing where they offer DLC for free for the first week of release, probably to encourage buying new. As someone who will buy every Persona game on week one anyway, I have no complaints. Ultimax has some more DLC with costume colors and game unlocks, but I won't be indulging in those. I might throw some money at the PSN to get Margaret eventually, but I'm not interested in cosmetic DLC for this game.
Then you have Shadow characters. All characters in the game other than Elizabeth, Boss Labrys, the two versions of Sho Minazuki, and the three DLC characters have playable Shadow characters. This makes them deal less damage with each hit and removes their ability to Burst or enter Awakening, but has their SP meter slowly increase overtime and enter SP Overdrive. SP Overdrive provides infinite SP for as long as the SP meter allows (it's now draining instead of gaining). Overdrive also widens windows for chain combos, allowing moves that couldn't always combo before to string together.
Shadows, which are all of the encounters in story mode and arcade mode (other than the non-Shadows like Sho), add a new level of complexity to strategy. Shadow characters will obviously get more SP moves and EX moves in, so characters that get a lot of power by using multiple SP moves in succession make good Shadows. Shadow Chie seems to be a popular character online, with her ability to stack multiple Power Charges into a God Hand combo. That shit can deal 70% damage. Yikes.
In addition to the visual novel-esque Story mode and traditional Arcade and Training modes, Ultimax introduces a Golden Arena mode that works similar to an endless arcade fighter. You fight sets of as many as 100 enemies back to back, earning EXP with every win. You gain levels with that EXP and obtain new stats and passives (providing a chance to inflict status effects, additional SP gained, bonuses to attack and defense, etc.). It's not mind-blowing, but it's a fun alternative to the normal single-player.
And thankfully, they changed Score Attack mode. Score Attack was a monstrously-difficult gauntlet in the first Arena, where you had to defeat 12 of the game's 13 characters in a row, but at the highest possible AI setting and with major disadvantages, like opponents with infinite SP and a variety of statuses inflicted with each attack. It was brutal. The new Score Attack has a variety of gauntlets of varying difficulties selectable from a menu, and focuses on record-keeping rather than just being able to complete it. Probably for the best.
The online multiplayer is a little more functional, but it's still online multiplayer. If you have a good internet connection and don't mind the lobby system, online fighting is great. But if you don't want to deal with any of that, there's still plenty of single-player content beyond the story mode. That's all I got. I only tried online once. Asshole quit on me because I kept landing EX throws as Kanji. Fuck online.
Visuals and Audio
Ultimax looks gorgeous, with really sharp hand-drawn sprites and lots of frames of animation; that's kind of how Arc System Works rolls. I really like the fighting game interpretations of the P3 and P4 cast (especially Mitsuru's catsuit, because dayum) and I have no complaints from a visual standpoint. Attacks are big and flashy, the new interfaces are easy to use, and the character designs are pretty cool. I even like Sho's swords and Persona design. No complaints here.
The sound is a bit of a mixed bag. The character themes are okay, but formulaic and they run together. When you use the Shadow verison of a character, their theme becomes some regular audio from Persona 3 or Persona 4, which is a nice touch. Character voice work is pretty good, but not the awesome highlight it is in Persona 4 Golden or even the first Persona 4 Arena. There isn't enough new stuff for me to be really wowed by the voice acting, but the script is fine and the performances are consistent. Kanji's new voice actor was so spot-on that at times I forgot that Troy Baker wasn't voicing him anymore.
The Final Word
If you wanted another Persona 4 Arena game, then here you go. They didn't fix what wasn't broken, and most of the changes are meaningful and positive (Shadow Chie is perhaps an exception). They added a bunch of new modes, made Story mode much more palatable, and gave us six new characters, plus 3 DLC characters. All of that is dandy. So why isn't this my game of the year?
...I've already played this before. I'm glad I have it, and I will continue to play it through 2015 when me and my fighting game buddies are hanging out, but I have only so much tolerance for an arcade fighter experience when I don't play arcade fighters nearly as much as I used to. I still like fighting games, and I'll continue to try new ones as they appear, but, well, I could only get so excited for an expansion to Persona 4 Arena. Bring on Persona 5, already.
Games Beaten: 2014 Edition
1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default
19. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
20. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
21. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
22. Dragon Age: Inquisition
I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition Sunday night, so my path is clear: I have a day and a half to beat XenoBlade Chronicles. Woof. This won't be easy. That game is long and tricky, and I'm only at level 55. My last blog post of 2014 will be about my gaming plans for 2015, and you'll see that post on the afternoon of December 31st. Hopefully by then I'll have put that game behind me. Wish me luck!