Licensed games are only as good as the studio they are handed to, and despite how bizarre some of the Persona 4 spin-offs look (I’m especially looking forward to the Vita rhythm game), Atlus has consistently handed them over to people who know exactly what they are doing. When it comes to fighting games, very few people know what they’re doing better than Arc System Works, one of the very few companies that have been able to be very successful doing pretty much nothing else other than making fighting games. It’s probably the best team of people currently assembled who do. They’ve got some amazing competition right now, and we might be living through the best time that fighters have ever seen. If there’s a problem with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, it’s that Arc System Works is, actually, way too good at making fighting games, and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is maybe a little too much of an Arc System Works game for its own good.
Ultimax is accessible in a lot of ways and very much not in others. Systems wise, there are a ton of functions crammed into the four buttons the game uses, but they’re often clear and to the point, except for some really obscure stuff, like the command to turn around in midair that’s used for a very specific approach that isn’t in any other game. It’s in this one as kind of an experiment more than for the sake of what would be simplest, which is funny considering how much of the game is beginner friendly. If you just keep pressing A, for example, you’ll do an autocombo which takes away one of the earliest walls to progress in airdash fighters, which is that you’ve got to memorize combos just to deal any kind of damage at all. The autocombos aren’t the most optimal but they are useful at all levels of play and they give beginners a chance to do damage.
If Arc System Works could settle down for five seconds Persona 4 Arena Ultimax might be a stunningly accessible fighter. For every feature that makes things easier there’s something ten times more complicated than necessary dropped on top of it, though. There are easy inputs for special moves, but complicated canceling to create combos. You can make a super quick attack from the air with an air dash or a short hop. If you keep hitting the weak attack button, you’ll automatically do a decent damage combo, but you can also spend 50% of your meter for special cancels that let you do much more complicated and damaging combos. You have a Burst, which can let you escape from a combo, or get full meter and push someone back, or extend a combo. You can play as alternate “shadow” characters with different combos and a high risk and high damage Shadow Frenzy instead of a burst, which means you can chain together all sorts of attacks you normally couldn’t and you can hold down a button for like three seconds to do a special move without putting in an input and you can turn in mid air for ultra-specific cross ups and hey Arc System Works you need to CALM DOWN.
So Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is kind of at odds with itself in terms of accessibility. It’s still a fantastic game, and that’s probably due to how many new things this game tries. Some of the new characters are very wild—Rise, whose persona is important to the plot, now gets to throw her mic stand at people and summon her persona to bombard with lasers and music notes. There’s also Sho, who has a persona-less version of himself that alleviates the inherent complexity of Persona 4 being a game in which you control two characters. Both versions of him provide a very strong (maybe too strong) and easy-to-use new character, while newcomers like Yukari, Junpei and Ken are much wilder—characters that use direction changing arrows, baseball scorecards, and a dog, respectively. These characters are very complicated, but because of Ultimax’s many beginner friendly systems, they’re more manageable than high execution characters in comparable games. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax doesn’t eliminate the learning curve but it smooths it out enough that some of the stranger characters are more attainable.
The characters, of course, are the other half of why you might be here, and certainly it is the reason that Persona 4 is popular enough now for Atlus to hand Arc System Works the license in the first place. There’s a big branching story mode which is pretty fun and basically just a big visual novel. You can even have the fights run on AI, which is like, finally, skippable combat! I have been skipping story for years, it’s really nice to get to skip combat too. It’s a much, much bigger story than Persona 4 Arena, less chained to the format of a fighting game story but more chained to the format of a visual novel. That’s not necessarily the best thing.
In Arena, there was a certain amount of pressure to get from one fight to the next that necessitated a lot of silly plot devices and inexplicable segues into fighting. Ultimax is much bigger and not as hard pressed for time, but it seems maybe overly traditional to use as many words as possible to describe everything happening. Part of this has to with the story jumping perspectives between the characters, which is neat because each of them gets their own arc, but this also tends to involve hearing a lot of inner monologues that repeat stuff we literally just heard because they happened, and we just read about it happening, plus also it is a visual novel and also showed us a picture of what happened. I’m right now reading the protagonist describe a room to me as blue, while looking at a picture of a blue room.
A hot tip for a visual medium might be to let those visuals do the talking. I care about the Persona characters so inherently that I am playing this mode because of that, but I’m also a person who really likes to read books, and this is not as good as one. That is usually okay, because videogames, but I’ve read a lot of visual novels and this stuff bugs me more than usual. Also, I played Fire Emblem: Awakening earlier this year and it did so much more with so much less that I can never be nice to visual novels again.
The thing is, though: I kind of love these idiots. I love all their stupid jokes and I love watching them be melodramatic anime Buffy the Vampire Slayer idiots and I am willing to forgive kind of too much because of that, like the protagonist describing a picture of a blue room to me. Idiot. I sorta miss them a little! And it’s a weird place to see them, but it’s a game that really loves them, as overcomplicated and impenetrable as it is, and even if the design decisions are excessive they put a lot of love into the characters and hey: same.
Aevee Bee is freelance writer who maintains a surreal videogame terror blog at mammonmachine.com and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is both a popular resource for anime puns and flirtation advice.