Arc System Works are responsible for some of the very best 2D fighters of the last few years. In Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, they have crafted some of the most visually stunning, technically impressive and brilliantly balanced fighters on the market. They obviously hold something of a niche appeal, but make no mistake, these are the best 2D fighters available outside of that little known brawler developed over at Capcom.
Last year (in the west anyway), Arc System Works added, Persona 4 Arena to that already impressive repertoire of fighters and arguably created the most fantastically niche title of the last generation. It might be hugely popular in the east, but over here, the fantastic Persona series is unquestionably one for the hardcore, and with 2D fighters already falling under the same bracket, the idea of combining the two, while perfectly sensible in Japan, will have invariably appeared somewhat insane (at least initially) to the vast majority situated on our shores.
Still, anyone who has played Persona 4 Arena will tell you that, despite the somewhat niche premise, Arc System did a brilliant job of combining the two rather disparate genres. Although, saying that, when you stop and think about it, the fact that the Persona premise lends itself so well to a 2D fighter really shouldn’t have come as such a big surprise.
While other cross-overs feel decidedly forced, the Persona series, thanks to its eclectic cast, emphasis on battle and unique Persona powers, actually fits the 2D fighting template rather well. If anything, it’s perhaps a little more surprising that the RPG elements bolted on to the 2D fighter framework worked quite as well as they did (and do), but despite offering a clever twist on traditional 2D fighter gameplay, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, like its predecessor, shines brightest when approached as a pure, technical 2D fighter.
Although understandably very similar to Persona 4 Arena on a fundamental level, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, the first game released from publisher Atlus since they were bought by Sega, adds more than enough content to justify its existence. It’s still more of an update than a genuine sequel, but everything new for this release adds something genuinely positive to the package with Ultimax providing the superior experience across the aboard. I guess that’s the least you would expect from a full retail release, but quality always trups quantity in my book and Ultimax certainly has quality to spare.
The story is still based upon a combination of the characters and stories from Persona 3 and 4 with abilities and unique skills derived from each characters’ capacity to summon persona spirits from their own psyche. Not only does this concept allow for some artistically intriguing fighters, but it also allows for a technically unique battle system (although admittedly similar to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure), that feels relatively distinctive in comparison to its most immediate peers.
While the tag battle system is a relatively unique feature that gives the core gameplay that additional level of tactical depth, it’s still the story and RPG elements that really help to make Persona 4 Arena Ultimax a genuinely unique and often compelling beast. In fairness, the story wasn’t great in the original, and it’s not fantastic here, but if you’re a fan of the series, the level of fan service if off the scale and, nonsensical or not, will leave you giddy with joy.
Outside of the new Golden Arena mode which plays out with a clever JRPG spin on survival by allowing for experience points that are used to upgrade your fighter as your progress through the Persona 3 inspired Tartarus tower, Ultimax once again reveals its RPG roots via status ailments and stun attacks during battle. These status ailments were of course present and accounted for in the original, but Ultimax does at least include the all new shadow characters that deliver the most dramatic change to the core combat. They might not be as diverse in terms of abilities as the standard Persona’s, but their Frenzy mode ability does allow for a brief period of unlimited special attacks while your super meter slowly drains away. Relatively simplistic in their own right, these Shadows nonetheless offer up a huge change to high level play and if nothing else, provide more than their fair share of visual pyrotechnics.
It may be a 2D brawler on older hardware, but believe me, this game is as good looking as anything you’ll find on next-gen consoles – this is a game of incredibly impressive art design. Both technically and artistically, this is a fantastically beautiful game. It might appear a bit much to the uninitiated at first, and while this is certainly a highly technical fighter with numerous systems and nuances to master, there is still fun to be had for beginners thanks to its brilliant art design and its simplified control schemes. Veterans will obviously scoff at 1 button combos and simplified special moves, but if you’re here primarily for the story, then this additional control scheme will allow you to enjoy the game without having to deal with all of those fiddly inputs.
While I personally kept to the standard control scheme, as a decidedly average 2D fighter myself, the simple inclusion of an extensive (and surprisingly enjoyable) single player modes really did keep me hooked for longer than I would have initially expected. Of course, I’ll still get my ass handed to me when I get back online, but thanks to my initial commitment to the single player portions of the game, I might (just might) be able to hold my own against the more serious fighters out there. If nothing else, it’s good to know that the online mode has at least seen an array of improvements and appears to run far smoother than the original – I’ll still get murdered, but at least I’ll get murdered without lag.
With new game modes adding a real sense of longevity to the single player experience, six new fighters filling out the roster (even if two are essentially the same character), Shadow characters delivering something genuinely new to the core combat and online matchmaking proving vastly superior to last year’s release, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is an unquestionably worthy sequel to an already fantastic original. The story is a bit of a mess, but while fans will inevitably lap it up, the rest of us can fall back comfortably on a set of core mechanics that manage to find a perfect balance between accessibility and depth.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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