Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review: Atlus and Arc System Works’ RPG-Brawler Hybrid Hits Just As Hard As Ever
Released on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2014, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is the second offering in Atlus and Arc System Works’ fighting game series based on the hugely popular role-playing game franchise. It successfully combined the high-energy brawls found in Arc’s other properties, such as Guilty Gear and Blazblue, with the narrative of Atlus’ hit JRPG series to create something fans of both hardcore fighting games and RPGs could appreciate. Which, at least in this writer’s opinion, is no small feat.
Now, eight years later, PlayStation 4, Steam, and Switch players have their chance to enter the P-1 Grand Prix to fight for fame and glory. While a few minor updates have been made, such as adding a new skill and themes for the game’s bonus modes, what you’re getting is more or less a 1;1 port of the original release bundled with all of the game’s previously released DLC. If you’ve already had your fill of the game, what’s being here probably won’t be enough to entice you to return to the Midnight Channel. However, if you missed out on Persona 4 Arena Ultimax the first time, there’s never been a better time to dive in.
As far as fighting games go, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is easy to pick up but, in typical Arc System Works fashion, packs more than enough depth to keep veteran fighting game fanatics busy for months on end. It features a streamlined, four-button system with two buttons reserved for light and strong physical attacks and light on strong attacks that utilize your Persona – each character’s inner self. Controlling your fighter feels crisp and responsive, and the various special abilities the game puts at players’ fingertips should be second nature to anyone who’s picked up a fight stick since Street Fighter II was released 30 years ago.
By pressing the light attack button rapidly, you can unleash an auto-combo. And if you have enough SP, you can finish it off with a powerful SP SKill, which is Ultimax’s version of Super Specials. This feature helps make Persona 4 Arena Ultimax feel like a beginner-friendly fighter, as even newcomers can pull off some pretty flashy assaults. But when you begin to peel back the layers, you’ll find a nuanced gameplay system that pins everything together, with Bursts, reversals, and a dizzying array of combos for each character to master. So if you’re a fan of the deep and weighty melees found in Arc System Works’ more popular fighters, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy with the game’s more than 30+ playable pugilists lifted from Persona 3 and Persona 4.
The meat of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s package lies in the Story Modes. Not only does it include the entire story from Prom 2012’s Persona 4 Arena, which picks up after the events of Persona 4 Golden, but it also introduces Episode II: P-1 Climax. Here, the Investigation Team is once again thrust into the midst of another mystery after a strange red miasma creeps over Yasoinaba, spiriting away its residents. Told from the perspective of both the P4 and P3 characters, it’s a well-written tale full of the twists and turns you’d expect from the Persona series. And the returning voice talent from those games should undoubtedly tremendously please fans of the franchise.
The new release of Ultimax also includes Episode III: Adachi, further fleshing out the story with a narrative centered around the titular Persona 4 antagonist Tohru Adachi.
As a big fan of the JRPGs that inspired Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, the Story Mode was by far my favorite part of this package. There are hours and hours of story to enjoy here, and it’s very much worth seeing through to the end. However, if you’re a fighting game fan with little interest in Persona, then you probably won’t be able to sit through more than a few chapters. The visual novel-style exposition is laid on heavy, and you can go for what seems like forever between fights, which end after a single round.
If you find yourself in that camp, then you’ll probably feel more at home with the game’s Arcade Mode. This is a no-frills tournament fighter where you choose from one of the game’s 37 playable characters (including the optional shadow versions) and fight your way through the competition without having to worry about walls and walls of exposition. It’s a good time, to be sure. However, I found myself spending more time with the Golden Arena. It’s a novel extra that allows you to tackle various dungeons, level up your character, and even unlock status-affecting skills to use against your opponents in true RPG fashion. The Golden Arena is incredibly addicting, and I can easily see myself revisiting it long after this review has been published to max out all of my characters’ stats.
When it comes to presentation, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax doesn’t look much better than it did the last time I saw it. The review presskit provided by Atlus West says the visuals feature higher resolutions. But having played both the arcade and PS3 versions recently, I’m pretty hard-pressed to see a real difference. Don’t take that as a knock against the game, however. On the contrary, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a great-looking title, and Arc System Works’ unrivaled art style shines through from start to finish.
As for the music, it’s lifted chiefly from Persona 4. But when you consider just how stellar Shoji Meguro’s compositions from that game are, there’s really no room to complain whatsoever. Each track fits the on-screen action like a glove and makes each encounter all the more exhilerating.
Of course, the true test of any modern fighting game is its only component. Sadly, as this review is based on a pre-release copy, I couldn’t step into the ring for any online bouts to gauge its performance. It’s worth noting, however, that the game won’t feature the addition of rollback netcode on Steam and PS4 until this summer. So if you refuse to play without it, you just might want to consider waiting a bit before adding Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to your library.
So, does Persona 4 Arena Ultimax hold up in the eight years since its debut? Absolutely. Arc System Works and Atlus’ slugfest of a spin-off is just as satisfying now as it was the day it was first released. The game’s easy to pick up yet challenging to master gameplay is suitable for fighting game novices and pros alike. And the excellent Story Modes that further flesh out the narrative are must-play experiences for fans of the franchise.
Of course, if you already own the game and all of the DLC, there’s little reason to plunk down the cash for this version. But if you’ve yet to see what Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is all about, there’s never been a better time to step into the ring.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), Switch, PC ; Publisher: Atlus West ; Developer: Arc System Works; Players: 1 – 2; Released: March 17, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: A Persona 4 Arena Ultimax review copy was provided by the publisher.