Persona 3 and Persona 4 have a considerable legion of fans that most JRPG’s could only dream of having, and while still at work on Persona 5 which has had trailers and information for it slowly trickling out of ATLUS HQ, this hasn’t stopped the Japanese developer from working on spin-off titles to appease the fanbase. While fans internationally still have dungeon-crawling RPG Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth and rhythm game Persona 4: Dancing All Night to look forward to in the coming months, right now have the chance to check out the second and presumably final installment in the ATLUS x Arc System Works fighting game collaboration: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax.
Seeking to build upon the experience first provided to fans in 2012, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax bolsters the character roster to include every currently alive character from Persona 3 and a handful of characters from Persona 4 as DLC content, a completely new storyline that continues on from the first and a plentiful number of changes to gameplay and modes catered towards newcomers and veterans alike. But while there is plenty of new content for fans to jump into… does everything provided meet the quality that fans have come to expect from the franchise? Read on to find out!
Shortly after the events of Persona 4 Arena, the midnight channel once again appears to the protagonists of Persona 4. The clip that plays once again depicts themselves and Mitsuru’s Shadow Operatives taking part in a fighting event known as the P-1 Climax, similar to the P-1 Gran Prix which they had successfully put an end to in the first game. However after the clip plays, all powered devices switch off and an ominous red fog blankets the town. With Yasogami High School replaced by a Tartarus-esque structure, shadow forms of Persona users wandering around, Mitsuru and her team held captive by the culprit and a threat that the world will end should one hour pass… the Investigation Team head out to investigate and once again save the world. This time around they are not alone, with the familiar faces of S.E.E.S.: Junpei Iori, Yukari Takeba, Ken Amada and Koromaru called into action alongside Labrys.
The major issue with the storyline of Persona 4 Arena was that there wasn’t a canon progression of events, with each playable character taking on the role of protagonist in their own route. While it allowed you to battle as a particular character during the P-1 Gran Prix and each had their own slightly unique ending, most events were very similar and quickly became repetitive. Rather than forcing players through the same experience, ATLUS and Arc System Works refined the story into just two arcs – each detailing a timeline of the storyline with characters having their own canon events inside their own routes. Sometimes you will follow Yu Narukami, sometimes you will take control of Yukiko Amagi and occasionally you will see the story through the eyes of Teddie. However you won’t replay the incident as every character, and most battles give you a selection of present fighters to choose from.
The two core routes in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax are simply known as ‘Episode “P4″‘ and ‘Episode “P3″‘, with the latter only being available upon completing the other route. Both arcs have some conflicting events that were made to give characters a bigger chance to shine, but in general have the same outcome and core events that take place. The Persona 4 route primarily focuses on Yu Narukami, Naoto Shirogane and Rise Kujikawa (Although all characters have playable and monologue roles), and serves as a solid overview of the main events that take place. The Persona 3 story on the other hand primarily follows the newcomers alongside Labrys, and provides more depth on the antagonist’s backstory and other events surrounding him.
Both routes were enjoyable with some solid ideas added to the mix, far surpassing anything the development team provided in Persona 4 Arena. However I can’t help but feel like I wanted more from some of the characters whose roles could have been considered secondary in this game (Yukiko, Kanji, Elizabeth etc).
In terms of DLC content, Adachi also receives his own dedicated “Adachi Story” arc which looks closer at why he pops up during the P-1 Climax case. Only a couple of battles take place in this arc, with storyline being of greater importance. However it was pretty good story that helped wrap up his role in the series quite well, and not bad considering his price point of <$5 (or free if you downloaded him during Week #1 post-launch). Unfortunately DLC characters Marie and Margaret haven’t received the same treatment, which is a shame considering that it is made clear that both had roles during the events of ‘Episode “P3″‘ and ‘Episode “P4″‘. In my opinion, both of them deserved more than a few lines of dialogue across both arcs.
There is also a $10 Persona 4 Arena story pack available on the PlayStation Store, which I highly recommend everyone who hasn’t played the first game to pick up… as you will not be able to appreciate the story of P4AU without first knowing about prior events.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also sees the return of Arcade Mode, which replicates the experience that Japanese gamers would have had when playing the game in arcades across Japan. As was the case in Persona 4 Arena, every character has their own set of battles which are occasionally complemented by dialogue that helps progress a storyline similar to the one presented in the main story mode, albeit with that particular character as the main protagonist. At least, this is the case with playable characters from the Arcade version. While newcomers Junpei and Yukari enjoy their own set of events – Ken Amada, Rise Kujikawa and the DLC characters are simply provided battles with no story attached to them. It is disappointing that the writing team couldn’t have spent some time writing a few lines of dialogue for these characters.
Design / Music / Voice Acting
As this is a simple sequel to Persona 4 Arena instead of a completely new title, Ultimax reuses a majority of the character assets from the predecessor. There is no issue with this as the original sprites still look fantastic in battle, with a majority of the changes involving each characters improved skill set and respective attack animations. A lot of work and effort has clearly gone into designing the new characters as well, which are in no way inferior to the veterans. The background designs are a mixture of new and old, with some new designs based on Persona 3 locales also introduced.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax features a more diverse compilation of music tracks than its predecessor, not only sourced from the two Arena games but also from Persona 3, Persona 4 and the portable re-releases of both. The newly commissioned music is fantastic in keeping with the fast-paced battles, however there is something oddly enjoyable about a major fight with the Junes theme song playing in the background. One particular highlight is Margaret’s battle theme Battle Hymn of the Soul – Ultmax Ver-, a fantastic rendition of Elizabeth’s battle theme and remix of renown Velvet Room theme Aria of the Soul.
While some may be disappointed that ATLUS USA were not able to retain the Japanese voice acting for Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s story mode (Apparently a trade off for removing the unpopular region locking that left PAL gamers fuming for months in 2012), the English voice cast is competent in their roles despite a number of voice cast changes. Some of the most notable changes include Marisha Ray as Margaret (Formerly Michelle Ann Dunphy), Matthew Mercer as Kanji Tatsumi (Formerly Troy Baker) and Valerie Arem as Naoto Shirogane. That being said, while they changed Igor’s VA for example, they still retained some common lines from the first game. The English voice cast, new and old, do a strong performance of their respective characters. Japanese voice acting is still available in battles for those who prefer it.
Those who have played Persona 4 Arena or any other Arc System Works fighting game (eg. BlazBlue) before should be familiar with what to expect during battles. Each fight takes place in a standard themed arena with a pretty background but absolutely no traps, tricks or platforms that you might expect to find in say… Super Smash Bros. Battles are purely 1 vs 1, and will see the two participants do battle until the HP of one reaches zero. After X number of fights have been won by someone, that person is claimed the victor. Battles have been designed to have some depth to them for seasoned veterans, but for RPG fans who have chosen this as their very first Fighting game, there are allowances made to make the experience more accessible.
In addition to returning the Auto-Combo system from Persona 4 Arena, a new S-Hold system has been introduced. This allows players to perform skills that would usually require complex button presses by holding down the A-Button for a set period of time. It is not practical for battles by anyone other than beginners (Due to it being broken the moment the opponent hits you), but it helps newcomers perform simple skills and combos as they learn the ropes. Given that neither Persona 3 or 4 originated as a fighting game, it was a nice inclusion to ensure that those unfamiliar with fighting games are not locked out of the story or other game modes.
One of the major introductions to Persona 4 Arena Ultimax are shadow forms for each Persona user. While these forms retain the same appearance and Persona of their human counterpart (Aside from the yellow eyes), these aren’t just simple character copies. There are a number of differences in how they handle in battle, including slightly altered stats, retaining the characters original P4A auto-combo when applicable and having access to a special “Shadow Rampage” ability. In trade for their ability to perform certain moves, shadow forms can use “Shadow Rampage” to give themselves access to unlimited SP for a limited period of time.
Many of the other features involve special game modes that were not present previously. The major one is “Golden Arena” where a character of your choice fights his/her way through dungeons containing tens to potentially hundreds of floors, with each floor being represented by a battle. Attempting to incorporate mechanics from the RPG’s into the experience, players can level up their characters, boost their stats and even form a social link with their navigator for particular perks. Partnering up with Rise Kujikawa for example will initially grant players a HP restore option while teaming up with Nanako Dojima continuously increases the characters SP gauge. While it can become repetitive, it is hard to deny that this was a clever way of incorporating RPG elements into the fighting experience. There are other options as well, including an enhanced Score Attack mode, character-specific challenges and the obligatory versus mode where you can fight friends or the CPU on your own terms.
No fighting game can be without an online play mode nowadays, and ATLUS / Arc System Works managed to provide a good balance of social and gameplay elements with their online functionality. While players can jump straight into Ranked or Player battles, it is also possible to go into a lobby and choose an opponent by sitting at a paired arcade machine, similar to what is shown above. Each lobby set is catered towards a different kind of player dependent on playstyle, location and experience level. But from what I can tell only the “Boss Characters” lobby actually has restrictions placed on it, and personally I would recommend staying away from the Beginners Lobby altogether if you aren’t confident in your skill. When I was brand new to the game I only ever seemed to be paired up with players who had racked up quite a few experience points and very rarely someone of my same level. T’was satisfying when I managed to take down their characters with ease… but may not be entirely newcomer friendly.
Netcode on the other hand was almost perfect, with none of my battles suffering from any significant lag or issues.
Final Words on Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
And so we have finally come to the presumed end of the very first Persona series spin-off franchise, and I can happily report my satisfaction with the overall improvements and experience provided by Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Featuring a crossover story that many fans should leave satisfied with, approachable yet diverse gameplay and solid production values, it is hard to fault any one thing that is presented. Persona games have often been synonymous with quality, earning themselves legions of fans because of it. P4AU have retained that level of quality, giving a peek into the lives of characters we might have otherwise never seen again once the curtain closed on their story.
In all honesty though, I think ATLUS have set themselves up for something more with the Shadow Operatives. Persona games have generally involved high school students and will likely not change anytime soon. However small glimpses at the tasks and operations undertaken by the Shadow Operatives left me wanting to dive into the world that Mitsuru has immersed herself in more closely – something which P4AU didn’t allow.