I’ve always held that the best fighting games are the ones that don’t forget about the single player experience, the ones that provide ample lore and content for a player on their lonesome to enjoy rather than putting all of its eggs into the multiplayer basket. After all, communities fade and new games will come along, causing a game’s multiplayer to lose its luster and fall into obscurity. A strong story and good single-player content however helps a game make a deeper impression and remain relevant even after its initial shine comes off. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax understands that-perhaps fittingly considering its roots-and while it certainly has an online mode that will captivate fighting game enthusiasts for a time, it’s the game’s wealth of worthwhile single-player content that will keep most gamers coming back for more.
This is because P4AU is stacked top to bottom with interesting modes that are balanced for the average player and loaded up with story and context. You have a massive single player campaign that picks things up right from where Persona 4 Arena left off, a standard Arcade ladder mode with some unique story stuff in it for each character, a Score attack mode which is basically Arcade mode with more numbers, and Golden Arena mode which features an interesting RPG mechanic where you gain skills and stats just like in Persona 4 proper. Add onto that a deep and engaging training mode that’ll teach you both the basics and some more advanced maneuvers, and you’ve got more than enough solo content to last. Most importantly though it feels meaningful; the Story mode connects directly into the Persona cannon, the Arcade mode is given enough flavour to make it worth going through with your favourite fighters, and Golden Arena’s way of developing your characters is deep but also immediately apparent. It’s clear that this stuff was meant to be the core of the game and not just some tacked on ancillary modes meant to pacify long time fans of the series. It’s also worth mentioning that all this stuff is balanced in a way that non-fighting game fans can easily get into; the story provides the option of having the computer play for you, both the Arcade and Score Attack modes have a very accommodating safety mode for those just starting out, and Golden Arena offers the ability to turn auto-combos on to prevent the unfamiliar from experiencing naught but flailing defeat. There are of course higher difficulties for you to challenge as well and when P4AU wants to, it can be an incredibly fast and difficult game, but they let you discover that at your own pace and without gating off any story content behind insurmountable foes.
Speaking of that story content, why don’t we talk quickly about the story campaign and the premise behind it. As I said earlier, it picks up right from where Persona 4 Arena left off, with Labrys (a robot in the shape of a school girl with what is essentially a human soul) having confronted her shadow self which had been forcing our friends from Persona 3 & 4 to fight each other. She and the crew from Persona 3 head off and leave Persona 4’s investigation team to enjoy the rest of Golden Week back in Inaba but within literally hours of the first game’s events resolving, trouble starts again with the small town being blanketed by a dark red fog. It seems General Teddie (Shadow Labrys’ alter-ego) is back and he’s combined the TV World with the real world and is once again forcing everyone into one-on-one fights, the opponents this time though are the character’s shadow selves who are now mysteriously able to use personas. To convince everyone to participate in his twisted tournament, he’s taken some of the Persona 3 crew hostage, and he’s also threatening to destroy the world, which seems like overkill after that first thing. This being the case, the Persona 4 investigation team and most of the Persona 3 characters who didn’t show up in the last game, must band together to save their friends and stop General Teddie and his shadowy new accomplices. The story overall can definitely feel a little contrived in places and the visual novel presentation style does remove some of the gravitas that Persona 4 proper had, but it’s still nice to see all these characters again and it provides what could best be described as a true and proper epilogue to everyone’s stories, which is something Persona die-hards are sure to appreciate. My only real major complaint against the narrative here is that it references the last game, Persona 4 Arena, a little too much which can make things confusing if you never played it, though that’s mitigated somewhat by the fact that for $10 you can simply download the first game’s campaign into P4AU.
Moving onto the gameplay side of things, P4AU is a very fast and very smart fighting game that combines Arc System Works’ love of crazy character specific side systems with a consistent control scheme that allows for every character to feel deep but still be approachable. While systems such as Junpei’s baseball score card and Aigis and Naoto’s ammo counters add nuance to their playstyles, you can rely on every character’s base mechanics to work in the same way. It’s a game with a good overall theory to its controls and combat and it encourages experimentation as a result. You can comfortably move from character to character (which the story mode actually forces you to do, MK style) without losing a beat; this is fantastic because finding your favourite fighter and mastering them is a far less daunting task when you can take the knowledge and skill you’ve gained with one character and have it inform your work with the next. I will note however that the while the AI (at least on Normal and lower) is accommodating enough to let you find your sea legs, people online are not. This is a sequel after all, so much of the community is already well-trained and as such I got my ass kicked even in the lowest tier of the casual lobbies. Now I’m not a big fighting game guy to begin with so I was expecting as much, but newcomers to the series should definitely go into the multiplayer expecting to get the snot beat out of them a fair amount before they get their bearings. On a more technical note, the online is thankfully pretty sturdy in terms of connection and it offers plenty of different ways to get into a game. One particularly neat innovation (or least it seems new to me) is the ability to enlist for ranked matches. Enlisting basically means that the game will auto-search for a ranked match for you while you go off and play in arcade mode or something like that, taking the tedious waiting out of ranked multiplayer. In the more casual online modes there are both basic rooms where you can play and spectate on matches as well as big lobbies where you actually get to move an avatar around, jumping between virtual arcade cabinets, and chatting with others. For people like me, the game begins and ends with its solo content which is thankfully nice and weighty all on its own, but for those willing to brave fiercer competition, the online multiplayer is well-developed and seems to provide plenty of options for fighting game fans of all stripes.
I guess I should talk about the presentation but frankly there isn’t really much to say about it assuming you’ve played any of the recent Persona games. It features more or less that same stark UI with that same clean font and set of really well done anime style character portraits that we’ve been enjoying for a while now. That said though there are some very Arc System Works style touches throughout here as well, with the game featuring lots of bombastic transitions and dynamic lines. Arc also brings in its standard beautifully animated sprite work, which despite being a little hard to appreciate when it’s blasting across the screen at full speed, is wonderfully detailed and a joy to look at. Musically this game brings in some of the best pieces from both the Persona 3 & 4 soundtracks, offering a few slight remixes but for the most part leaving Shoji Meguro’s fantastic scores untouched. The voice cast here also seems more or less intact and puts forward a good performance as always. As I said, there isn’t really much to say about the presentation as it’s very similar to that of the last game, but when you have Persona’s awesome style and aesthetic that isn’t really a problem.
In the end I deeply enjoyed Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, both as a long-time Persona fan and as a casual fighting game fan. It’s got some really smart systems and more than enough content for both the single and multiplayer audiences to enjoy. While its story is a little contrived and leans too heavily on the last game, it still manages to act as a nice epilogue for these familiar characters. At the very least it’s inspired me to play through Persona 4 for a fifth time and that’s in no way a bad thing. So in the end I’m giving Persona 4 Arena Ultimax a 4 out of 5 stars, its weighty amount of single-player content and deep but approachable combat make this a game that can be enjoyed by Persona and fighting game fans alike.