Just when life was getting back to normal the Midnight Channel blazed back to life with a gaudy video about a fighting tournament, granting Yu Narukami the esteemed title of “Sister-Complex Kingpin of Steel.”
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a direct sequel to the beloved Persona 4, and its re-release on modern consoles is the perfect time to jump into this overlooked gem. Developed by Arc System Works, of Guilty Gear fame, Persona 4 Arena almost perfectly adapts the ideas of Persona into a fighting game formula and wraps it all in a heartfelt story.
Just like with the original release, this version contains the story mode of both Persona 4 Arena and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which was a pseudo-sequel and re-release. The story is fully voiced by the cast of Persona 4, and the bigger surprise is the returning characters from Persona 3, including Yukari, Ken, Mitsuru, Akihiko, Junpei, and Aigis. Following suit from Persona 4, the story in the Arena games tends to be a bit light-hearted and has some genuinely great humor. Interestingly, it also gives a voice to Persona 4’s protagonist, who absolutely nails a dry sense of humor.
Don’t go in expecting the complexity of the mainline games, however, as Persona 4 Arena’s story is a straightforward, albeit charming, visual novel story broken up by the occasional fight. Still, it is a direct sequel that provides a ton of context on where the cast of both games end up, and the writing is absolutely top-notch.
Of course, the real attraction here is the fighting, and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax manages to strike a good balance between accessibility and depth. There are 22 different characters, each with their own unique moveset that fills some kind of fighting game archetype, like grapplers and item-based characters.
The game’s most unique element comes with the actual Personas, which have two dedicated face buttons for moves. Each character’s combos are split between light and heavy attacks and Persona attacks, which tend to be stronger.
There are four blue card icons at the bottom of the screen, and if your Persona is hit while using a move you’ll lose a card. Once all cards are gone your Persona will need to recover, leaving your options severely hampered for a time. It’s an interesting system that makes Persona 4 Arena feel quite different from any other fighter. Of course, there are also the typical mechanics you’d expect from an Arc System fighter, like auto-combos, air dashes, EX combos, cancels, and more.
It’s been nearly nine years since the original release of Ultimax, but it still feels fantastic to play. The controls feel snappy and fast, and it's simple enough that you can pick up and start pulling off combos and flashy moves. The more you dig into it, however, the more complex strategies and combos start to emerge.
The same is true for the game’s visual style, which has some phenomenal sprite-work. It may not be on the level of Guilty Gear Strive, but Ultimax’s style is still impeccable, and the visual novel sections boast the same high-quality character portraits you see in the main game.
While Persona 4 Arena Ultimax still holds up remarkably well, this re-release is mostly the same as the original game, although there are a few key differences. The biggest is the fact that the game is based on the last update for the arcade version in Japan, which saw a lot of rebalancing that the Western releases never received. Fighting game fans should also be happy to know that Ultimax will be receiving rollback netcode sometime in summer 2022.
All of the modes from the original release are here including Lesson Mode, Challenges, Arcade, etc. Outside of the story, the most interesting mode by far is Golden Arena, which is an RPG-inspired mode with elements from the Persona franchise.
In Golden Arena you progress through a massive dungeon with hundreds of floors, leveling up and raising your stats along the way. You’ll also partner up with various navigation characters that essentially function as partners, and increasing your Social Link with a navigator will make them even more effective. Golden Arena is an interesting mode that‘s easy to sink time into if you enjoy the core gameplay.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax may not be quite as deep or complex as Arc System’s other fighters, but it’s an admirable translation of the core Persona elements into a new genre. The series has seen a huge influx of new fans since the release of Persona 5, and Ultimax is more than worthy of jumping into if you can’t get enough Persona. Now we just have to wait and hope they make Persona 5 Arena someday.