A couple of years ago Persona fans had arguably the greatest year in the franchise’s long-history, that’s because 2012 saw the release of not only the excellent Persona 4 Golden for the PS Vita, but also an interesting fighting game entitled Persona 4 Arena. Developed by Arc System Works (the brains behind the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series) Persona 4 Arena was more of a story-driven game with fighting interspersed throughout the content, than an action packed fighter like a Street Fighter or Killer Instinct. Story was the king for that title, and often times it took close to 20 minutes of exposition between fights. P4A didn’t seem to care about its pacing; it had a story to tell and you were going to listen to it, dammit.
It helps that the P4A story was perfectly in line with the tone of Persona 4, so as long as you were a fan of the Persona series, then P4A served as the perfect sequel. The constant barrage of repetition and often weak story just doesn’t appeal to me in fighting games most of the time, but P4A provided a fresh experience and gave me something to invest in with the game’s interesting story (no matter how hokey), and characters that I wanted to care about. This time around we have some new characters, and additional RPG elements to further blend the line between RPG and fighting games.
I won’t delve too deeply into the story of P4AU, as it really isn’t something that’s too different from what you might expect. Midnight Channel, Shadows coming into the real world (resulting in our friends being able to wield their Personas outside of the Midnight Channel), P-1 Grand Prix, General Teddy, etc. Essentially, take the plot of P4A, and simply add “it all happens again!” to it, and you have the basis of this new game. It sets out to do what it needs to, and if you’re a Persona fan, you should find the story charming enough to sit through it. If anything, being able to watch your favorite characters again in a new adventure should be good enough for the general audience and the new features and upgrades make it a welcomed addition.
Graphically, the game impresses on many levels. The colors are bright and vibrant with crystal clear characters and environments. While the characters resemble more of the “animated talking heads” during story sequences, once you jump into the actual fighting, the animations come alive. All of it fast, furious, and fluid, just as I have come to expect from Arc System Works.
The Story Mode differs slightly from the first game in that you don’t pick a character and play through the title with that single character’s story arc. In the previous P4A, you played through each character’s story to its ultimate conclusion. When you finished with one character’s arc, you moved onto the next one, which is typical of this genre. In P4AU, the story is presented with the characters being chosen for you at certain points in the plot. One segment may see you as Yosuke, and the next section you switch over to Yu, other times you can jump into Yukiko’s shoes for a bit, then land with a turn with Teddie and Chie.
It’s an interesting way to present a fighting game’s Story Mode. It’s more of a focus on a linear story experience than a broken up, “Pulp Fiction” styled form of storytelling like the first game. The way P4AU presents the story makes it seem more whole, it was a welcomed change and done extremely well. You get one whole story presented with all of the characters, rather than having to revisit the same events from another character’s point of view. The downside to this is the fact that you are forced to play with character that you may not like, and as soon as you get comfortable with a character, you will switch to another.
Of course if you MUST play through with just one character, you can always just stick with the Arcade mode or the new Golden Arena mode. Golden Arena mode is like a mixture of a classic fighting game and an RPG. You pick a character and go through a variety of opponents until you reach a boss. Simple game formation. There’s no story, no long, drawn out sequences with text walls, it’s basically just a classic arcade mode except you earn XP and can level up your abilities. After every few matches, you can level up your stats and even earn new Persona skills just like you would rank-up stats and unlock skill-trees in an RPG. Old series mainstays like Dia and Mabufu are added to your repertoire and further blur the line between fighting games and RPGs. It’s a nice touch that reminds gamers where the series’ roots lie.
If you played the first game, then you know that in addition to the gameplay itself, P4AU offers a wealth of unlockables for the Persona fan to peruse. Everything from concept art, videos, and songs from the soundtrack can be viewed in the gallery once they are obtained. If you’re a fan of the series, you can easily sink just as much time checking out stuff in the gallery as playing the game itself. I know I personally spent many a night messing around in the gallery when I fired-up the game before I realized that an hour or so had passed and I wasn’t fighting yet. Unlike many other game where you might just unlock a few sketches or character models, P4AU has what appears to be nearly EVERYTHING a fan could hope for in the gallery. It’s something that any fan of the franchise should check out.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a unique game within the fighting genre, but fighting fans need not worry; it is a Grade A fighter through and through. If you’re looking for a tightly developed fighting game with blazing fast and beautiful animations, responsive controls, seemingly endless combos, and multiple game modes, then P4AU just might be your cup of tea. Just keep in mind that the story mode is not a “traditional” story mode per se, and that it is much more plot focused than gameplay focused.