If there’s one thing fighting game developers adore, its updates. As much as they love a sequel, the chance to add extra characters, stages and systems to an existing tried and tested title seems to be almost too good to resist. For example, Blazblue is currently on version number 3, whilst almost inevitably, Street Fighter 4 is ploughing on on version number 5. Ultimax is Persona 4 Arena’s first shot at an update, and it ticks all the usual boxes with added characters, new stages, new mechanics and balance changes to the existing cast. But at a time when gamers attentions are being drawn towards a new generation of consoles, and with the anime juggernaut of Guilty Gear Xrd looming on the horizon, does anybody really want another PS3/360 Persona fighting game?
The first thing that grabs you is how immaculately presented this game is. From the menus, to the character select screens and to the gameplay itself, P4AU has a fantastically distinctive style of its own that oozes quality from every pore. Like the original game, the cinematics, sound and graphics are all razor sharp, and like the first game, it plays instinctively and fluidly for both total newcomers and the hardcore fight fans alike. It has both style and personality to burn, but not for a minute do you ever doubt that it has the substance and depth to back this up.
Being a huge fighting game fan, but utterly clueless with regards to RPGs (let alone JRPGs), the story mode held little interest for me and felt like a bit of a chore to work through. However, I can’t argue that it isn’t a thoroughly deep, well written and substantial story and fans of both the main Persona games and the original Arena game will get a huge kick from it. Continuing from where the original left off, and using the same voice actors, it says a lot that you can again get the computer to play through the fighting for you to allow you to enjoy the story uninterrupted. The whole game is totally immersed in its own story and mythology, which despite being wasted on uninitiated types like me, must be an absolute joy to those in the know.
The new characters manage to segue seamlessly in with the new cast, and feel both utterly original and unique without ever moving away from the game’s original feel. Each character’s differences feel like genuine personality traits rather than added on gimmicks, influencing everything from their moveset to their Persona to their win quote, rather than just the clothes they wear. The new shadow versions of existing characters could have been an excuse to introduce a bunch of lazy pallette-swaps, but instead introduces a different way to play the game. Although they lose abilities such as defensive bursts, they gain access to new offensive abilities that make them a more vulnerable but potentially explosive option than their original versions. Additionally, the rest of the cast has been re-balanced, and it certainly feels like the playing field has been levelled, although inevitably some characters still feel almost genetically stronger than others.
P4AU plays pretty much the same as its predecessor, with the emphasis on rushing down and pressuring opponents with dash attacks and the use of normal, special and Persona attacks to try and find a way in. On one hand there are still a tonne of systems and mechanics to learn with new ones such as fatal counters to mix things up somewhat, but on the other you are still able to mash light attack and produce a pretty kick-ass looking auto-combo with next to no practise whatsoever. Its a difficult thing to pull off, but there really is something here for everyone. Newcomers have tools to help ease them in as they learn the fundamentals, and hardcore players have tools to continue to learn and discover new things for a long time to come.
This is more than just a new story with some extra characters thrown in. It’s an inventive, accessible and exquisitely made addition to a game that perhaps did not get the attention it deserved first time round, that comes highly recommended to newcomers and fans of the original alike. It will never be the biggest or most popular of fighting games, and may lose out once the long-awaited Guilty Gear arrives, but Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a superb fighting game and the follow-up that its brilliant original deserved.
Reviewed on PS3