Test: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax for PlayStation 4, Steam and Nintendo Switch

It’s still hard to believe that a fighting game based on the Persona series exists, let alone a good one, but Persona 4 Arena was certainly a pleasant surprise. Atlus and Arc System Works are two separate studios known for creating very different types of experiences, but they’ve managed to merge their unique strengths into a stellar fusion.

It must have been a tall order trying to captivate two disparate audiences at once, but the developers proved more than capable of rising to the challenge. Now they’ve returned with a follow-up in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, hoping to land two smash hits.

Ultimax picks up where P4A left off, set almost immediately after the events of the first game in the familiar setting of Inaba. The area experiences a blackout and is suddenly covered in a mysterious red mist. It doesn’t take long before the double shadow appears and our heroes are back in the ring.

Unlike most fighting games, Ultimax honors its RPG lineage by offering a substantial story mode. The narrative unfolds much like a visual novel, with plenty of dialogue, brilliant characters, and ancient melodies by composer Shoji Meguro. Oh, and there are a handful of fights that get thrown into it from time to time.

The story is divided into two campaigns, one focusing on the cast of Persona 4, while the other focuses on the party of Persona 3. The story unfolds from different points of view and struggles with the new structure. You’ll be forced to witness repetitive events, as one character grapples with what’s going on, only to see someone else go through a similar scenario. Eventually, these threads intertwine and the story continues, but until then it can get a little heavy.

However, smugness is just an excuse to spend more time with characters we know and love. The chance to catch up with Yukari Takeba, Junpei Iori and Ken Amada is a real treat as new fighters join the roster and give us a glimpse of what life is like after the events of P3. It’s not Persona’s strongest story, but it certainly has its moments.

However, maybe you didn’t understand what I just wrote. Maybe you’re here for the fight and don’t care less about Persona. Well, Arc System Works always has you covered. This is an outstanding fighting game, regardless of the source material. It’s just one of the fans of the series who will be able to appreciate on a different level.

Ultimax is the kind of experience that takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master. It’s both accessible and incredibly complex, giving new players a shallow end of the pool to play in, while veterans are given the tools to dive deep into the Mariana Trench.

The combat engine at work here has many subsystems, but it’s designed to be incredibly flexible. Pressing the light attack button will launch the character into a series of awesome combos, which can be rewarding for the type of person who struggles to perform quarter-circles on a regular basis.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s an incredible amount of nuance for those straying from the lowlands to discover. As with Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, Arc System Works has created a fighter with a satisfying sense of weight and momentum. It’s fast and the animation is surprisingly smooth, something anyone can enjoy, whether focusing on getting those one-frame links or just for show.

Ultimax also helps bridge the gap between players of different skill levels with its training modes. The lessons available here do their best to impart the basics and really put beginners on the path to mastering the systems in play.

The real strength of the game is in its roster, which will appeal to both Persona fans and fighting game fans. There is a wide variety of characters with equally varied playstyles, ranging from ranged and rushing characters to area and brawler types. There is something here for everyone.

One of my favorite parts of the experience is its fidelity to the source material. Little things like the new addition Rise Kujikawa swinging around a mic stand in battle or just seeing personal skills and all-out attacks so lovingly recreated in a fighting game makes instant play a joy.

Besides Rise and the trio of new P3 characters, the most notable addition is newcomer Sho Minazuki. Sho is the game’s antagonist and comes in two forms, one of which has no Persona. To compensate for this shortcoming, he is incredibly fast and powerful, perhaps too fast and powerful. I guess time will tell if that’s the case.

Most characters also come equipped with Shadow variants. They are more precarious skill-based brawlers that sacrifice normal attack damage, defense, and instant kills. In exchange, they gain the ability to carry SP through matches and rampages, granting them an infinite amount of SP for a limited time. So be careful with that!

Beyond the story and standard modes like arcade and versus, there’s Score Attack and Golden Arena, which should be a curiosity for anyone looking for a more RPG experience. While the main game already incorporates small touches like temporary states for players who fight too defensively (in an effort to encourage aggressive play), Golden Arena lets you fight in “dungeons”. There, you’ll try to survive while leveling up, improving your stats, and learning new skills. It even involves socializing with your browser persona.

The netcode looks pretty much unchanged from P4A, which was good. My tests with the online features were lag-free and fully functional. A new component is a lobby that is configured to look like an arcade. It’s a nice little addition that lets you craft a Persona-style avatar and sit in a cabinet with another player to start a match. Yes, it’s absolutely adorable.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is pretty much everything a fan could ask for. It’s a satisfying, high-octane fighter that’s synchronously accessible and unfathomable. Atlus and Arc System Works have forged an experience that surpasses its predecessor, adding new content, characters and stories to the mix; so it’s an easy recommendation for Persona fans and fighting game lovers.

Standard Edition available now for €29.99

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