PERSONA 4 ARENA ULTIMAX REVIEW

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is that one classmate of yours that always looks and sounds their incomparable best. They never have a hair out of place, they never put their foot in their mouth, they just look and sound infuriatingly good at all times. Ultimax dazzles with such unrelenting style that one might naturally assume that it lacks substance, and yet it’s a far deeper brawler than its predecessor thanks to all-new characters, shadow versions of existing ones, and a laundry list of smart system tweaks that spice up the already excellent gameplay significantly.

Just like 2012’s original Persona 4 Arena, Ultimax puts on a great show regardless of how good you are at fighting games, especially if you’re a fan of the wonderful JRPG series it’s based off of. Every part of the experience, starting from the opening cinematic, feels like it’s actually from Persona 4. That game’s exemplary tunes are put to good use in Ultimax, lending it a driving, toe-tapping energy both in and out of combat.

The meaty story mode benefits the most from the direct connection with Persona 4. It picks up where the events of Persona 4 Arena left off, which itself was a direct extension of the story told in Persona 4. Developer Arc System Works collaborated tightly with Atlus to create a ton of story content using the same voice actors, and presentational elements as the source material. The result is a story that’s equally well-written and entertaining as anything from Persona 4. That’s no small feat, especially for a fighting game.

Just be warned: if you’re just here for the fighting, story mode will test your patience with seemingly interminable stretches without any actual gameplay. It’s more like a graphic novel with a few fights sprinkled in. There’s even an option to have the computer do the fighting for you, so people who just want to experience the story can do so.

Even outside of story mode though, Ultimax fully leverages the unique personality of Persona 4. Characters use Persona-appropriate spells like Ziodyne and Sukukaja, important locales like Junes are used as backdrops, and victory quotes make clever callbacks to the original’s story. No other fighting game commits this completely to its own fiction, or weaves such a convincingly consistent world.

Even if you don’t get all the references, the eye-popping color palette and strangely macabre art-direction are a one-two punch that gives every fight real character. If Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 impresses with the “kitchen sink” approach to visual design, Ultimax’s brand of art direction and color theory is more akin to feng shui. That isn’t to say it doesn’t look out-there or audacious, because it most certainly does. But its character silhouettes are just so memorable, and its use of color so well-tempered, that it comes off as high fashion rather than total chaos.

Ultimax’s infectious personality and top-notch presentation aren’t a smokescreen intended to hide other deficiencies though, they’re just the garnish atop a well-prepared meal. The fighting here is every bit as accessible and deep as in P4A, but with even more nuance for intermediate and advanced players to delve into.

A host of new characters come with Ultimax, and they share the ingenious designs of the returning cast. Each is cleverly built around a unique mechanic or resource, like music, dogs, or baseball. You know…the fighting game staples. Where some games would stop at using these ideas cosmetically, Ultimax just runs with it, creating Dance Dance Revolution-esque mini-games, or a strike/ball/out counter to give characters like Rise and Junpei a fully fleshed-out, wholly unique feel.

As entertaining as they all are though, it’s the various subtle changes to the fighting system that really impressed me. The entire cast has been rebalanced, and while there are still dominant characters, the overall power curve between them feels flatter, making matchups that felt kind of hopeless before more workable.

The newly included Shadow versions of nearly the entire cast provide an entirely different way to approach characters you already know. They lack awakening mode, or a proper defensive burst, but in return they get constant access to their awakening super, the ability to carry super meter over between rounds, and something called Shadow Frenzy, which grants them nearly unlimited meter for a limited time. The combination of these elements makes them risky to play, since they don’t have a get-out-of-jail-free card, but when fully utilized, Shadow Frenzy allows you to convert almost any loose hit into potentially match-ending damage. The risk and reward are pretty in line with one another, and scoring a fast second-round KO with a shadow character feels incredible.

My favorite overall change though, is how Fatal Counters now work. In addition to having moves that will score a fatal when landed on counter hit, there are now moves that, when stuffed or punished, will always result in a fatal, no matter what move was used to do so. It makes many moves that were once fairly safe more of a commitment, and opens up fatal combo possibilities considerably. Unrelenting pressure is still a huge part of how Ultimax is played, but at least now there are more opportunities to turn a good read into big-time damage.

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