[Disclosure: This review is based on a PlayStation 3 retail copy provided by the publisher.]
For fans of the hit Persona 4 Arena fighting game, there was likely no question as to whether or not they would be interested in yet another round of fisticuffs within their favorite RPG world. But are a handful of new combatants, a brand new story mode and some tweaked systems in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax enough to warrant another trip into the P-1 Climax Tournament?
If there's one thing the developers at Arc System Works know, it's how to make a fast and furious fighting game. They proved that fact back in the day with the Guilty Gear series, solidified it this past generation with BlazBlue, and further drove it home just a couple of years ago with the original Persona 4 Arena. All of these games boast gorgeous animations, well-rounded rosters and deep combat systems that, while familiar, offer all sorts of unique bells and whistles for dedicated brawlers to dive into and figure out.
That tradition is kept alive and well in Ultimax, a game which offers all of the positives of its predecessor, as well as a heaping helping of new content for series vets to sink their teeth into.
There's no point in even discussing a fighting game if the core mechanics aren't solid and, thankfully, Arc System Works has pretty much nailed that aspect down air tight. There's loads going on in the midst of an Ultimax fight, but the vast majority of it can be ignored by those who simply want to mash buttons and have a good time.
Most characters have four basic attacks to unleash. Unlike most fighting games, which include a weak and strong high attack and a weak and strong low attack, Ultimax introduces the Persona series' trademark avatars into the mix, massive mystical creatures who can jump into combat alongside their owner. Each character has a weak and strong attack of their own, as well as a weak and strong attack for their Persona. These can be strung together to create epic combos and augmented with directional inputs, just like in every other fighter, but an auto-combo option has also been added for those who don't want to have to worry about tapping weak-weak-strong-etc. in the correct order. That's one of the nicest things about Ultimax, actually: It works hard to make the game accessible to newcomers and old hands alike.
There are a lot of gauges to keep an eye on in Ultimax, including bars for your health, your special moves, Burst attacks and even a sort of health gauge for your Persona (If they get hit a certain number of times, you have to fight without them for a while). This is exactly the type of stuff that seasoned fighters like to dig into, learning how to maximize their strategies while juggling all of that information available on-screen. It can be intimidating at first but, like I said, newcomers can also ignore every bit of it and just go gorilla-mad on the buttons. Not only will their character likely do some pretty flashy moves, but they'll also be rewarded with all kinds of visual flair that the Arc team has become known for in their fighters.
For those who want to gain a better understanding of the game, though, there's an absolutely massive Tutorial mode that breaks down fighting basics in general, as well as all of the game's other systems. Arc System Works perfected the tutorial system in one of their later BlazBlue games and it continues over in Ultimax. If you've never played a fighter before, this game walks you through the process, never assuming that you know anything about the genre. If you're used to fighters and just want to know what sets Ultimax apart from the pack, you can just skip all of the early stuff and jump into the game-specific lessons, no problem.
From the onset, you'll have access to 19 fighters, each of which has their normal and “Shadow” fighting forms. Like so many other aspects of Ultimax, these Shadow forms help add a whole new degree of depth to the game, basically doubling your starting roster. The Shadow form tweaks each of your fighters, giving them lower damage and no Burst moves, and they cannot enter an Awakened state (You become more badass when your health is low). The trade off is that their HP is greater, their SP gaugue fills more quickly and carries over between rounds (used for pulling off super powerful moves) and they have their own Shadow Frenzy Mode for when things really get tough. In other words, they offer a different play style that means you now have basically 40 characters' worth of exploration to do.
But why, oh why, are these youngsters being called to the field of battle yet again? If you missed out on the previous game, the plot is covered in the Story Mode's opening bit of narrative, which is carried out in a visual novel style that should be familiar to Persona fans. The first scene took me an hour to read through, with the branching plots that followed moving at a more brisk clip. These are punctuated by extremely fast fight sequences, meaning that this is a story mode for fans of the game who are actually in it for the, you know, story.
If you could not care less why General Teddie is back in action, why the town is covered by a red fog and why the darkness that surrounded the original P-1 Climax tournament is now seeping into the real world, then you can speed through the Story Mode or ignore it completely. The rest of the game's modes are where the real fighting takes place, including your standard arcade, score attack, versus and online modes, as well as a brand new Golden Arena mode that carries over some of the RPG elements of the Persona series and lets you level up your favorite fighter and equip them with skill sets that you choose for yourself.
If you're used to the amount of content Arc System Works typically pours into their nearly annual enhanced versions of BlazBlue, you might be a little disappointed in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. This new fighter isn't bare bones by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it overflowing with a ludicrous number of play modes, full stories for every single character, etc.
And that's not a bad thing, really. The original Persona 4 Arena was a nice surprise and Ultimax adds to the recipe without tossing in too much fluff. The Story and Golden modes will entertain fans of the Persona series and lore while the other basic combat modes provide all of the options you could ever hope for in a fighter. The roster is big and varied, and I can't say enough about how solid those fighting mechanics are, offering loads of meaty bits for veterans and plenty of concessions for newcomers, too. If you already own the original Arena, Ultimax is certainly worth the upgrade. If you've had your eye on the series and are wondering if this latest (and supposedly final) version is worth checking out, then this is absolutely the P-1 Climax tournament you need to sign up for.
Platforms: PS3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360
Developer: Arc System Works