The P-1 Grand Prix comes to a very worthy climax.
I want to clarify one thing before we get into this review: I’m terrible at fighting games, but I’m great at Persona. Ergo, I’m coming at this beast as a person who isn’t capable of getting too heavy into the technical side of the fighting game. If that’s what you’re looking for in a review, I’m afraid I cannot help you. However, if you want to know how this package is for what I imagine is the average Persona fan, then I’m the guy you want to talk to.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the sequel to Persona 4 Arena, where the concept was to bring together cast members of Persona 4 and Persona 3 and bring them into a fighting game scenario. Like it’s predecessor, Ultimax manages to deliver in every way on that concept, and does so by running down a checklist of improvements and nailing every single one.
The core gameplay, developed by Arc System Works (BlazBlue, Guilty Gear) is as typical a fighting game as you can get. Each character has unique movesets, there are super bars that you build up by beating on your opponent, and the first person to lose all their stamina loses the match. It’s all fairly cut and dry, and anybody who’s picked up any fighting game should be able to get the basics. What makes the Persona 4 Arena series unique is that there’s a low barrier of entry. Moves are relatively easy to pull off without any super complex button and joystick maneuvering, and even the most novice of player can feel special just by hitting X a bunch of times and watching the auto-combo’s fly. This may seem cheap, and on a certain level, it kind of is, but any advanced player that really digs into the meat and potatoes of this game can easily overcome those auto-combos and lay down the law. I know this because I’ve played online and the X button did nothing to save me.
The big draw to this series for me is the story mode. If you haven’t played the original Persona 4 Arena, you’re going to feel quite lost as this is a direct sequel in every way. (Fortunately, you can buy the story mode to the original game as DLC to this game and play it first! It’s cheaper than buying the whole first game if you don’t need to.) Without getting into a whole lot of detail, it’s better in both presentation and quality. A strange red fog rolls into the real world, causing all technology to shut down like a mixture of the Midnight Channel and the Dark Hour, leaving our Persona-summoning protagonists befuddled. Their confusion doesn’t last long, however, as General Teddie shows up to inform them that they have one hour to reach the mysterious tower that has appeared over Yasogami High to save their captured comrades before the world ends.
Rather than picking every character from a select screen and replaying essentially the same scenarios again and again, you’re given a set of story threads that you can bounce between. It’s a large cast, so it makes sense that people are split up, but not having to see the same cutscenes and stories play themselves out like they did in the first Arena is a welcome change. There’s still the gratuitous amount of event recapping to keep you up-to-date on the scenarios, but even that isn’t as egregious a problem as it was in the first game. The events hanging over the giant “To Be Continued!” of the first Arena are neatly tied up in this one, but that isn’t to say there aren’t a bunch of new mysteries drummed up first. Overall it’s as engaging a plot as ever, and more well presented.
There are a few new modes this time around, and most of them are kind of throw-away fighting game modes like Score Attack and training challenges. However, one new feature might be interesting to some; it’s called Golden Arena Mode. In this, players pick a character and start going through “dungeons,” fighting CPU opponents and actually gaining experience. Experience grants levels, which in turn grant special abilities and stat boosts. Anybody who has played Persona 3 or 4 will immediately recognize the layout and concepts behind this, and it’s a pretty interesting way to spend some time playing the game. Ultimately, though, there’s no real hooks other than just maxing out your character’s stats, so I found that while this mode was interesting, it didn’t add a whole lot to the experience. It may have been better tied into the story mode, which itself lacked a great deal of fighting, but then that would have been dragged on for perhaps too long. It’s difficult to say, but it is a neat experiment regardless.
The DLC in this game is a bit harsh, especially considering how much of it was day one. On one good hand, anything you bought from the previous game carries over, so if you have the voice packs, alternate color packs, or glasses packs, those all carry over for the existing characters. However, you’ll still need to buy new packs to add colors and eyewear for all the new characters. You can also buy the story to the original Persona 4 Arena, as I mentioned earlier, which is kinda handy. But from there there’s also a ton of new voiceover DLC, music DLC, and character DLC. The characters are, in my opinion, the most terrible DLC in terms of game content for a number of reasons, namely setting up tournament play potential behind a secondary “paywall.” That said, the characters they offer are really good, so I’d have to advise getting them. Just know that’s going to be extra money you’re going to spend on an already full-priced game. It’s a bit much, and I can’t help feel like a lot of it is unnecessarily held out to make a few extra bucks. If DLC like this is something that turns you off, I have to think that you’ll be soured by the smattering of offers they have in this game. However, if you like DLC to extend your content, then perhaps you’ll be bellying up to this all-you-can-download buffet.
In the end, Arc System Works took a checklist of everything that makes a better sequel to a game, and made sure to hit every box. They cleaned up the visuals, they added more music, they added more stages, they added more characters, and they improved on their previous modes while adding new ones. In short, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is everything I loved about the original, and then some. The gratuitous amount of DLC for a full priced game can be a bit off-putting, especially when characters are involved, but everything else about this game is exactly what it needed to be to make a better sequel.