Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, and the previous Persona 4 Arena, is a lot like Nintendo's Smash Bros. games, if you really think about it. Both games are tasked with taking tons of existing lore and somehow making it work as a fighting game. We all know by now that Nintendo has pulled this off with flying colors, but I'd argue that the universes of Persona 3 and Persona 4 provide an even bigger challenge. Both acclaimed RPGs span hundreds of hours and are populated by tons of complex characters, and the games' RPG-style dungeon crawling and social links don't exactly scream "fighting game." Somehow Persona 4 Arena Ultimax makes it all work, and the end result is both a Persona fan's dream and a complex, competent 2D fighter. I really can't believe it myself.
First off, if you haven't played both Persona 3 and Persona 4, what are you waiting for? Seriously, though, unless you've played both games, you won't understand a lick of what is going on in this game plot-wise. If you are a pure fighting game fan and don't care, you'll be fine. But if you want to have any comprehension of the plot, and there is quite a story here, you'll need to play those two games first.
If you fit the bill, story mode is the place to start. Unlike any fighter I've ever played before, you don't actually even need to fight to move the story along. Instead, you can automate the actual fighting and treat the game as a visual novel. While it is weird at first, I can see it being a major selling point with Persona fans who don't have the fighting game chops and just want to see the story from start to end.
Whether or not you choose to actually fight makes little difference when it comes to my main problem with the game - Sho Minazuka. He's a returning character from Persona 4 Arena, though he has never appeared in an actual Persona game. Sho undeservedly serves as the main protagonist in a sea of fantastic characters, and somehow has no personality whatsoever. As you move through story mode's chapters and characters you know and love pop in and out of the narrative, Sho is the only constant. His motivations and eventual conclusion are completely ridiculous, and by the time I reached said conclusion, I seriously hated the character. The story in Persona games is always a strong point, and that is no exception here, but we didn't need a generic tent pole to hang all this on, the existing characters could have been plenty. Oh well.
So we should probably move on to how the game plays, right? It plays beautifully. If you've ever spent any time with 2D fighters like BlazBlue or Marvel vs. Capcom, you should fall into the swing of things pretty quickly. If not, there is a Lesson Mode to bring you up to speed. That said, I've never been much of a fighting game fan myself, finding things like combo counters and juggles too fast and tough on my ever-slowing reflexes. Lesson Mode helped me understand enough to finish the game, but I struggled to correctly pull off tougher moves and combos even in the practice mode. The complexity of the fighting system tells me that serious fighting game technicians will enjoy the game as much as Persona fans, though I unfortunately only fall into one of those categories.
If Story Mode is for Persona fans and the fighting system is for fighting game experts, then the Golden Arena is where the two subsets of fans meet. This mode has you choosing a single fighter and attempting to beat down fifty opponents, survival style, and proves a stark contrast to the constant swapping of playable characters in Story Mode. In beating opponents, it is possible to level up your fighter much like you did in the core Persona games, and maxing out your favorites (Junpai, Chie and Rise for me) will keep you playing long after you've finished the roughly 20 hour story. Golden Arena, believe it or not, has the chops to make RPG fans into fighting game fans and vice versa.
Though I never played Persona 4 Arena, I feel like maybe I missed out on something great. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, even with a lame protagonist, manages to tell a great story while also being a top-tier fighter. It marries the two polar opposite genres in ways even Smash Bros. couldn't, and should be commended for doing so. If you know Persona 3 and 4 to be the great games they are, then you really need to give this spin-off a look.
Final Rating: 91%. A top-tier fighter in spite of the best efforts of its lame protagonist.