Direct sequels to beloved RPGs are often incredibly divisive, not looked upon too keenly by critical fans. Sequels to beloved RPGs that mix up the status quo by being an entirely different genre? Well, they’re even less common and far more divisive. Yet this is exactly what Atlus and Arc System Works did with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Does the 2D fighter manage to capture the depth and charm of the original RPG and its characters, or does it feel like a genre mashup’s pale imitation? For RPG fans, a highly detailed and expansive story mode will help to ease some of the concerns they might have as the plot retains the same feel as its precursor. Those familiar and fond of the fighting game genre will also find a very solid foundation at the game’s core.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is very much a tale of two games in many different ways. The first is the obvious combination of the RPG and fighting game genres with some visual novel flavor in how the story is presented. The second is that Ultimax actually contains the story modes for two games: the titular Ultimax as well as its predecessor, Persona 4 Arena. Thirdly, calling the game a sequel to only Persona 4 Golden is a tad misleading. Characters and plot threads central to the acclaimed third title in the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off series, Persona 3, also play a major role, even more so in Ultimax where several more Persona 3 characters become essential fighters in the cast. With that in mind, while I’m personally a fighting game fan, I chose to approach this review more from the RPG fan perspective since I feel that is more appropriate for our coverage.
The story for Persona 4 Arena begins at the beginning of Golden Week. The protagonist of Persona 4, Yu Narukami, returns to Inaba to spend his vacation with Dojima and Nanako and catch up with the rest of the Investigation Team and his other friends. A bewildering occurrence happens that night when the Midnight Channel mysteriously returns, showing some Investigation Team members fighting amongst themselves in what appears to be a tournament of sorts. To top things off, some of the team have gone missing. Yu, Yosuke, Chie, and Yukiko decide to once more enter the TV world to find some of their missing friends, but they might also run into new faces who know a thing or two about Personas and Shadows themselves already.
Ultimax‘s story begins shortly after the events of Arena‘s, as The Midnight Channel makes another unsettling tournament announcement, and a red fog descends over Inaba that causes most of its residents to disappear. Can the Investigation Team and their newfound allies, the Shadow Operatives, fight their way to the heart of the trouble and find out what’s causing it? They’ll have to hurry if they’re to have any hope of not only saving Inaba but the entire world itself!
To say that Persona 4 Arena Ultimax‘s story mode is meaty is something of an understatement. It comprises of several lengthy episodes, which all connect and build upon one another in surprisingly intricate ways. I’d estimate that Persona 4 Arena‘s campaign alone takes over 20 hours to complete as you must fight through several stages with a multitude of characters to piece together the whole picture. The developers clearly went with the mindset that, since the Persona games are so rich in story content, they’d best make sure the story here is treated the same. I was thoroughly impressed by the level of detail put into the game’s story mode as I haven’t played too many fighters that try to do this. It’s a word-heavy affair, which displays its RPG routes by presenting story scenes in a visual novel format, complete with dialogue choices at times that can alter what ultimately happens on a given character’s route. I actually first reached an alternative joke ending while playing as Yukiko because of this!
RPG fans who want to see how the game ties into Persona 3 and 4 will most likely spend the majority of their time in story mode at the beginning. Arena initially sees you selecting a severely limited number of characters, but completing character routes unlocks more fighters to choose from. At a certain point, one route will become locked until you advance further in another character’s story, culminating in you unlocking everyone’s full endings if you play through the story mode in its entirety. This takes a while, though each route helps shed further light on the mysterious tournament.
Ultimax‘s initial story has you playing through the Persona 4 side first, unlocking a side story featuring Adachi, then another scenario where you see things from the Persona 3 casts’ perspectives. If you add up everything you have to do to reach the game’s true ending, you should expect to spend quite a lot of time on the game even before delving into its extensive other modes!
Regarding the story, those worried that a fighting game plot can’t hold a candle to an RPG will be relieved to know that, while not as robust or choice heavy as Persona, Ultimax offers quite a bit in terms of plot and falls in line with what one expects from a Persona game. I wouldn’t go into Ultimax looking for its narrative to be as strong as Persona 3 or 4‘s, but it manages to be a decent continuation of those tales. I especially like the little nods to each character’s development within those games, such as Mitsuru and Yukari’s continued friendship or the more encouraging rapport between Rise and Kanji this time around.
The ways in which these characters have evolved since their last appearance makes sense given what happened in their respective games, and they develop throughout the events of Arena to Ultimax too. Elizabeth’s journey around the tournament grounds and Rise’s evolution into a fighter herself in Ultimax are of special note. I also recommend playing through Adachi’s story if you’re familiar with his role in Persona 4 as it is quite an insightful look at a very complex character. New characters such as Labrys also fit right in and have excellent character development and growth. Personally, I loved seeing how the Persona 3 characters, such as Fuuka and Akihiko, had grown since the end of that game, while I also enjoyed seeing many of the Persona 4 characters, like Yosuke, still pondering over what their futures might hold.
In Arena, you essentially have to play through every character’s route. Ultimax streamlines this by jumping from perspective to perspective and, at times, giving players a choice of who they want to fight as if multiple characters are together in a given scene. I prefer the way Ultimax’s story is laid out as I felt like the Arena format dragged on at times. However, both are very narrative-intensive for those wanting to see just why the Investigation Team and the Shadow Operatives are working together. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of the Shadow Operatives in potential future Persona games!
As far as gameplay goes, the use of Personas transitions well from a turn-based RPG battle system to a full-blown, combo-oriented fighting game. Character movesets are easy to pick up, but learning how to use each character effectively takes practice. I love how the game implements status effects and magic spells into fights once you accrue enough SP! You get a sense of how most characters play throughout the story mode, though a few fighters — such as Margaret and Marie — are only available in Arcade, Versus, or other modes. My favorite fighters to use in battle are Yukiko, Mitsuru, Labrys, Kanji, and Ken with Koromaru, and there’s enough versatility in the roster that you’re sure to pick up your own unique mains! Many of the fighters even have Shadow versions of themselves that you can select if you’re feeling particularly dark in Arcade or other modes.
Those looking for more of a challenge can test their mettle out on high difficulty tiers, though those who just want to experience the story can turn the difficulty down to more manageable levels too. There is even a Safety mode option that’ll let the computer fight for you if you’re really getting stumped with a fight. I appreciate that Ultimax tries to appeal to both the fighting game crowd and RPG fans and, for the most part, succeeds by being easily accessible to both.
From a visual stance, Ultimax wonderfully captures the feel of a Persona game. The visual novel-esque story presentation is reminiscent of how dialogue scenes in Persona 3 and 4 play out. The text boxes and dialogue choices use Persona 4‘s format to help link the games further. Character portraits are expressive, and the anime art is used to great effect throughout, especially in Ultimax and the highly detailed anime cutscenes. Backdrops are familiar locations for Persona 3 and 4 fans, and the 2D character models are incredibly detailed. I especially thought the visual cues when a character’s phone rings were a nice throwback! Playing Ultimax on a Switch in handheld mode looks absolutely gorgeous, though certain scenes and battles are a bit rougher when the Switch is docked.
Sound-wise, there isn’t too much to complain about either. The English voice acting is top-notch, with actors for both new and returning characters delivering lines emotively. Sound effects such as the wind blowing, a monitor coming to life, or the bumps and thumps of battle are handled well too. The music contains several iconic tracks from Persona 3 and 4 that are intricately interwoven into the game, though I wish there’d been some more musical variety, especially in story mode. But I do love how catchy the opening theme song is! You can also listen to voice samples in a gallery, alongside some unlockable illustrations.
There’s a wealth of single-player content in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, not only with the extensive story mode but various other modes such as Arcade, Versus, and Golden Arena Mode, where you fight through dungeons and build stats. Unfortunately, the Switch port is lacking in the online compartment as it doesn’t offer the rollback netcode, unlike the other releases. I’m also hard-pressed to recommend the title to anyone who isn’t a fighting game fan and who isn’t familiar with both Persona 3 and Persona 4. But those who happen to fall under both umbrellas will undoubtedly find an entertaining, solid fighting game experience with some surprising RPG undertones in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax!