Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review: Almost Fighting Fit
If it’s been ages since you’ve seen your friends, you naturally envision the reunion a certain way. Everyone’s happy, the setting is just right, and food is probably involved. But there’s definitely no psychotic bear throwing people into a television and humiliating them in fight club matches.
There’s a vast gulf between the ideal and the real in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, though, and there is indeed a crazed bear broadcasting fistfights between your friends’ inner selves while giving them embarrassing titles.
If the narrative setup sounds a bit stretched, that’s because it is. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s story is an odd blend of “here’s where they are now” and an interesting, if underdeveloped, narrative around a new and complex villain. Story is normally not what you play a fighting game for, but it’s a central focus in P4UA outside of the arcade modes.
The fighting itself is top-notch, though, a thrilling blend of chaos and skill that never gets old. It's just a shame the story lets it down so much.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review: Almost Fighting Fit
P4AU picks up with Yu, Persona 4’s protagonist, heading back to Inaba for Golden Week celebrations with his cousin and uncle. It’s just months after the original game’s events end, and this is already where P4A Ultimax’s conflicts begin.
The Persona 4 nostalgia hits hard when Yu steps off the train and the Inaba backdrop comes into view – but there’s genuinely no reason to even be there. The Midnight Channel starts broadcasting again that night, as you knew it would thanks to the extended foreshadowing that takes up the previous 10 minutes of the game, and having the phenomenon you put an end to in the original P4 make a reappearance for the sequel just feels a bit cheap.
The broader story is more interesting, a surprisingly deep and, well, Persona-like narrative you wouldn’t expect from a fighting game. It’s as much a sequel to Persona 3 as it is to Persona 4 and follows one of the Kirijo lab’s experiment subjects, a violent young man named Sho.
Though a bit more involved, Sho’s quest is to find acceptance and meaning in a world where everyone discarded him. There's also a sub-plot with Adachi, with Sho's artificially implanted Persona, and with yet another all-powerful being who wants to use human weakness as a vessel for destroying the world. Oh, and there's a clone of Aigis who isn't Aigis and ends up working for both sides. It's complicated.
The problem is you never get a chance to identify with Sho like you do with most Persona characters, which means the message is a bit underdeveloped, and the delivery clumsier than in mainline Persona games.
On the other hand, the plotline and the characters it involves make for a satisfying follow-up to some of Persona 3’s loose ends, which leaves its characters and even some major plot points without any conclusion. Persona 4’s cast plays a role, though it’s weaker, and I can’t help but think they were only added because that game is more popular than Persona 3.
The writing lets the narrative down as well. Characters often repeat themselves needlessly or labor far too long over simple concepts. The tone and style also feel looser and more stilted than usual. It wouldn’t be a noteworthy problem, but Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has dozens of lengthy cutscenes that take far more time than the actual battles.
When you do get to fight – or if you just ignore story mode – P4UA is a completely different and absolutely fantastic fighting game. Each character has a set of basic moves, including heavy and normal attacks, specials, grabs, and dodges, and because it’s Persona, you can also weave in special Persona attacks. It’s easy to master – in tutorial mode.
There’s a nearly limitless number of combos you can weave together, though if you’re new to the genre, you’ll probably be like me and learn them from being on the receiving end. Persona 4 Arena battles are tough, and there’s a definite learning curve if you’re unused to this style of fighting game.
Smacking people with a sword and using some lightning attacks still works, though few things compare to the satisfaction of pulling off a good combo – partly because it means you actually remembered how to do it. Each (living) main character from Persona 3 and Persona 4 has a unique skillset, and it’s simply a blast to play.
If you’re here for the fights and not the story, Golden Mode is a must. It’s essentially a series of ever-escalating challenges where you fight through dozens of battles against other characters and their Persona alts. It’s easily the game’s best mode and a good excuse to soak in the excellent pixel art and pre-rendered backgrounds. Whatever else Persona 4 Arena Ultimax may be, the artwork is absolutely gorgeous.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review: The Verdict
- Top-notch fighting systems.
- Golden Mode is brilliant fun.
- Gorgeous art style.
- Interesting narrative premise.
- The basic gremlin in me is just happy to see Persona 3 characters again.
- Story gets a bit convoluted and never develops its themes.
- The Persona 4 portion is welcome but feels tacked on.
- Writing is of a lower quality than you expect from the series, and there's soo much of it.
- No rollback Netcode for Steam and Switch is a huge bummer.
Nearly 10 years after its original release, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax's fighting is still superb. The satisfaction of finally understanding a character's move pool is matched only by actually pulling them off in battle, and Golden Mode and online battles mean you get plenty of chances for both whether you're playing solo or not.
It makes the decision to wrap all this around such a mixed and underdeveloped story even more baffling, but there's still more than enough to justify stepping into the ring.
[Note: Atlus provided the copy of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax used for this review]