"Accessible enough for beginners but complex enough for fighting game veterans, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the joyful occurrence of a Venn diagram overlap between two audiences."
The Sister Complex Kingpin of Steel returns. The Persona series and its wild success has spawned no shortage of spin-offs across all types of media. From anime to manga, audio dramas to live shows, and T-shirts to Teddie plushes, there's little the behemoth franchise hasn't experimented with at this point. Persona is most at home, however, on gaming consoles, and 2012's Persona 4 Arena made me wonder why more RPGs — with their typically well-established characters and worlds — haven't made the jump to the fighting genre. It's probably because not all IPs have the luxury of being lovingly handled by the whizzes at Arc System Works, but I digress. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the iterative evolution of P4A, featuring brand new characters, re-tuned mechanics, an RPG-esque "Golden Arena" mode, and the continuation of P4A's narrative. Accessible enough for beginners but complex enough for fighting game veterans, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the joyful occurrence of a Venn diagram overlap between two audiences.
I'm somewhere in the middle of the road when it comes to being skilled at fighting games; I understand mechanics quickly and know how to cheese the CPU, but when it comes to high-level play, my execution and (lack of) mind games leave something to be desired. The great thing about Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is that it is open from the get-go to players of all types. At first glance, the game's four-button control scheme — two standard attack buttons and two Persona attack buttons — make it seem like a simple affair, but this simplicity belies surprising depth. Just about every combination of buttons does something different, from character-specific "Furious Actions" to the series' signature All-Out Attacks, which pummel opponents and send them flying. Beginners can easily jump in and find some success with flashy auto-combos, which are executed by repeatedly pressing the weak attack button. They look great and give the player a real sense of power and style, but do less damage than manual combos, thereby incentivizing technical play. Furthermore, the roster is bigger than ever this time around, and since each character plays quite differently, there's bound to be a fit for everyone.
Speaking of characters, six (well, five-ish) new faces join the fray right out of the gate, with three more coming right after launch via DLC. Ultimax introduces series fans once again to Persona 3 veterans Yukari Takeba, Junpei Iori, and Ken Amada partnered with Koromaru. Yukari, now an actress, wears her Super Sentai-esque Feather Pink suit to battle, making use of acrobatic maneuvers and screen-filling archery attacks. Little League coach Junpei bunts away projectiles and powers up as he hits with his baseball bat, while Ken and Koromaru act as a tag team: Ken stabs enemies with his lance from afar while Koromaru dashes up close to control space. The P3 crew is rounded out by everyone's favorite combat idol, Rise Kujikawa, and the dual sword-wielding duo of Sho Minazuki and... Sho Minazuki. While ostensibly the same person, they occupy separate character slots, as they have wildly differing personalities and only one uses a Persona. It's less confusing than it sounds, honestly, and the game does a good job of explaining why they exist. All six characters fill voids in the roster that I didn't realize needed filling, and with differently-balanced Shadow versions of each character plus three more fan favorites on the way, there's plenty of variety to give P4AU a long shelf life. Did I mention that each character has a catchy theme song? I could listen to the smooth groove of Pink Sniper all day.
Sho himself is at the core of P4AU's lengthy narrative, which recounts the story of humanoid weapon Labrys and her role in the P-1 Grand Prix fighting tournament before moving on to reveal the true nature of an eerie red fog that has rolled into Inaba. The introductory and concluding segments of the story are the most engaging, as the overarching mystery has definite allure, but most of the existing cast seems to have reached the apex of their collective development. Even the best fsteak jokes and bear puns can grow tiresome with enough exposure. Luckily, Labrys gets more much-needed time in the spotlight, and Sho is an interesting character who bridges the gap between Persona 3 and Persona 4's stories convincingly. There's also some fascinating foreshadowing for the long-awaited Persona 5. I won't spoil anything, but I'll be shocked if this is the last we see of the Rule-Smashing Pun Machine.
P4AU completes the RPG-to-fighter conversion circuit by introducing the Golden Arena, a mode where characters partner up with a navigator (creating a Social Link), accrue experience points, and gain new skills by defeating waves of opponents. Skills have effects like adding a chance to cause status effects on contact, restoring HP mid-battle, and so on. This mode doesn't change the mechanics of the game significantly enough to feel like a completely different experience, although it is a welcome diversion from grinding through Arcade mode when you're in the mood to play solo. Of course, P4AU supports online play, and sports profile customization as well as a player ranking system. I didn't tool around with this mode too much, but it works as expected, and that's enough for me.
Everything about Persona 4 Arena Ultimax oozes quality and polish. It's sharp and colorful, it has a menagerie of catchy tunes, and it has solid mechanics that hold up under expert scrutiny. The cast is as lively as ever, and new faces add welcome variety to an already robust roster. The 50+ hours I've eagerly put into versus mode alone are proof that I'll be playing this one for months to come. P4AU is another worthy addition to the Persona franchise and a fine fighting game besides.