Persona 4 Arena Ultimax review: Tune in, knock out

There's no rest for the wicked, but there's even less for those trying to save the world. Less than 24 hours after the events of Persona 4 Arena, the malevolent (yet adorable) General Teddie has returned to kick off the P-1 Climax fighting tournament. In Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, the heroes of the first fighter return to once again battle the Shadowy scourge with hyper-kinectic 2D fisticuffs, but this time they're joined a by host of new, yet familiar faces from Atlus' Persona role-playing games and a psychopath who forgoes the aid of a Persona in favor of wielding two serrated katana.

Crucially, beneath these additions lies a combat system that's not quite novel, but builds on its predecessor in ways that should appeal to both new players and series veterans. Unfortunately, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax faces an uphill battle. That gameplay description could easily apply to the original Persona 4 Arena, leaving fans to wonder if this new game brings enough to the table to warrant a wholly new fighter. Developer Arc System Works seems to think so, and luckily for fans, the studio still has a few tricks up its sleeves.

Atlus describes Persona 4 Arena Ultimax as a sequel to Persona 4 Arena, and its plot bears that out, but the differences between the two games are more akin to the changes Capcom added to Street Fighter 4 to create Super Street Fighter 4. The majority of the game's cast is the same, and most of those characters behave similarly to their previous iterations. Don't take this as a knock against Ultimax, however. Persona 4 Arena was a great fighter featuring gorgeous animation, solid mechanics and a phenomenal soundtrack, and the additions present in its updated incarnation only make that solid base more appealing.

Back to the plot: A mysterious red fog has blanketed the Inaba region. Shadows have begun appearing once again, and as in Persona 4 Arena, the most dangerous Shadows are able to take the form of Persona's heroes. Unlike the first game however, these Shadows can summon Personas – physical representations of the psyche that manifest as powerful creatures – identical to those that accompany their flesh and blood analogues, making them much more formidable fighters. This comes as a shock to the assembled heroes, and draws a number of new fighters to the conflict, including Persona 3 favorites like Yukari Takeba and Junpei Iori. Unlike the Persona 4 cast members who remain quite similar to their appearances in Atlus' most recent RPG entry, the Persona 3 cast have matured into adults. Junpei is now a baseball coach, while Yukari is a starlet most famous for her role in a tokusatsu (think: Power Rangers) television series.

In terms of gameplay, the fingerprints of Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works are all over Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Combat is fast and frenetic, but thanks to exceedingly fluid animation and some of the prettiest 2D sprites ever seen in a fighting game, the chaos of battle never threatens to overwhelm a player's senses. Attacks are flashy and devastating, and some – particularly the difficult-to-land Instant Kill attacks – could serve as grandiose summon animations in the most decadent of Final Fantasy entries. Complementing the fluid combat and lovely aesthetic is a soundtrack that's best described as drawn from Atlus' RPGs, but enhanced with Arc System Works' trademark high-octane rock and roll. The overall effect is a game that's both inviting and intuitive for players and a cinematic cloudburst of spectacle for onlookers.

The fighting aspect of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax should never have been in question – the original game was solid and Arc System Works has a known pedigree – but the most important, helpful additions found in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax have more to do with basic functionality than with individual character tweaks. The Story Mode, which served as the single-player core of the original game, was praised for its depth, but it often involved players reading through reams of text punctuated by all-too-brief battles. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax goes a long way toward solving that problem by offering a non-linear story in which players choose which episodes they'd like to play through. Each of these episodes can be completed in less than 10 minutes, making the story more easily digestible and thus inviting for those who'd rather not read a novel when playing a fighting game. The plot is on par with what fans would expect from any of the Atlus RPGs that serve as the basis for Ultimax, but anyone allergic to moon-eyed characters and frequent bouts of anime-style high school histrionics probably won't get much out of it.

Don't worry fighting game fans, Arc System Works' additions aren't solely focused on those who enjoy Persona games all by their lonesome. The easy combo strings, in which a player can simply tap the light attack button repeatedly to launch into an impressive, damaging combo, return from Persona 4 Arena, but now they function less as a crutch for unskilled players and more as a viable tool in each fighter's arsenal. Instead of a single attack which offers a limited set of combo options, these simplified combos offer a quick, reliable string of five-plus hits, almost all of which can be comboed off of for more damage. Building combos in this way is the most efficient method to learn to offense in the game, and its to Arc System Works' credit that the learning curve feels so natural and intuitive.

Though these simple combos allow new players to jump into the fray and immediately feel the satisfaction of landing a dozen consecutive hits, it only takes a few hours of practice for players to learn multiple counters for this predictable tactic. Still, that's far more reward than most fighters offer new players, and it's a compelling reason for even the least experienced to work toward honing their skills. More experienced players, on the other hand, will find an almost daunting wealth of gameplay systems - between poison, freeze, mute and the game's other five status modes, the Counter and Fatal Counter attacks and the omnipresent spectre of blocking enough to accrue a shameful Negative Penatly, there's a lot to learn. Working to master these should result in competitive players discovering new techniques for quite some time.

As in any fighter, the true multiplayer potential of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax won't be realized until the hardcore fighting community has had a few months to dig into each character. I can't claim that Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is perfectly balanced or that the game is horribly broken – there's just not enough data available yet. That said, in the online games I played, the only character who immediately seems overpowered is newcomer Sho Minazuki. Given that he effectively serves as the game's boss, that's not surprising, though rarely did it seem as if Minazuki was impervious or guaranteed to win any given matchup.

Ultimax's new faces largely fight in the familiar human-plus-Persona duo, with a few exceptions. The aforementioned Sho Minazuki will do battle without the aid of a Persona, but in return he's especially fast, does immense damage and can land painful combos almost at will. Problematically, his character seems a tad too "edgy" to fit in alongside the largely optimistic high school kids that populate the cast. By contrast, a teenaged Ken Amada and wonder pup Koromaru join forces in battle, and while Ken is no less annoying than he was as a child in Persona 3, that adorable, deadly dog rivals Teddie as the game's best character. "Fuzzy pervert" just can't compete with "cute-as-a-button, potentially divine dog that knife fights demons while wagging up a storm."

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My biggest complaint against Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has nothing to do with what the developers have added and everything to do with what has stayed the same. Specifically, the game's online multiplayer functionality. If the developers have improved the netcode since Persona 4 Arena, it's not evident. Not that the old netcode was bad, it just wasn't anything to write home about. Most matches go off without a hitch, and assuming you're within a reasonable distance from your opponent and have a good connection, you'll most likely have a relatively lag free experience. As the distance grows and you encounter players with less than stellar connections though, the game becomes hampered with small hitches and slow motion lag. In a fighter that relies on precise timing and reflexes, this can quickly become a glaring problem. Fortunately, the majority of my online matches were perfectly functional, and connecting to a game is both quick and simple.

If the developers behind Persona 4 Arena Ultimax set out to seamlessly blend Atlus' RPGs with Arc System Works' hyper-kinetic 2D fighters, they handily accomplished that goal – in the original Persona 4 Arena. Ultimax simply takes that winning formula and improves upon its best parts. Fans wanted to see more characters from the Persona series in the fighting game universe, and Arc System Works delivers with all the storytelling aplomb of their original games. Much as Persona 4 Arena was a great fighter in its day, Ultimax immediately renders it obsolete. Whether you're a fan of fighting games or just want another chance to hang out with the familiar faces of the Inaba region, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has you covered and then some.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, provided by Atlus. The PS3 version was also tested. Images: Atlus.

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