Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a game caught in a compromise. One one hand, curled into a fist, it’s a fighting game, a hyper-technical exercise in skilled button presses and mind-games. Not only that, but it’s made by Arc System Works, creators of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, two of the most complicated fighting games ever. On the other hand, raised in front of someone’s face to block, it’s a game in the Persona series, which means fans of Persona 4, an RPG, have to be sated too. Even though Ultimax is the sequel to an already fairly popular fighting game (the first Persona 4 Arena), it still has to sell Persona fans on the concept of a fighting game. All at once, Ultimax has to be complicated and deep enough to satisfy ArcSys fans, while still being easy enough to pick up that RPG-loving Persona people can get into it. On a third hand, flying into the ring with finger-bullets, it also has to justify itself as a brand new game, not just a downloadable update to the original Arena. In true fighting anime fashion though, Ultimax eschews the compromise and punches right on through the part where it has to appeal to RPG-fans. Ultimax is all fighter, and it’s only a little bit ashamed of that.
As an entry-level fighter, Ultimax is pretty accessible. It uses a four button system, far less than most fighters this side of Super Smash Bros., but also has a neat dial-a-combo for every character in the game. The hardest part of learning a fighting game isn’t the mind-games or the basic systems, it’s the part where you have to spend hours just to get one measly combo etched into your muscle memory. The Arena series lets you mash out a (fairly decent) combo with repeated presses of the A button. New to Ultimax is the S-Hold system, which tosses out a stronger move the longer you hold A down. Is that double-quarter-circle-forward-C super attack too hard to pull off? Just hold down A for a while and it’ll come out no problem. It’s fairly unusable in standard play (you can’t really use other attacks while holding down the button) but it’s a handy solution for those having input trouble.
As a high-level fighter though, Ultimax might be the most complicated game I’ve ever played. It’s an airdash fighter (sometimes less-charitably referred to as “anime fighters”), which are identified by character’s ability to dash in the air. While that doesn’t sound like much, it opens the door to all kinds of high level approaches. For example, hit your two light attack buttons (A and C) on the ground and you’ll do a dash that passes through enemies. Do it in the air though, and your character will turn around for a brief second, which is used for a confusion tactic approach that only exists in the Arena series. Do it while crouching though, and your character will pull off a mini-jump, and I’m not even sure what the hell is the point of that one actually. Hit your strong attack buttons (B and D) instead and you’ll do a “furious action”, which eats up HP in exchange for a strong, invincible attack, a sort of “get the hell away from me” move. A and B together do an overhead all-out attack, which can take opponents into the air for a longer combo, but press those buttons while crouching and you’ll do a low-hitting sweep that knocks them off their feet, be careful not to hold back on the joystick while hitting the buttons though, because that will do an invincible counter attack that drains some of your super meter, don’t hit C with those buttons either, because that’ll drain 50% of your meter to cancel any attack into any other attack, which is similar to the burst that happens when you hit A C and D which throws opponents off of you if they’re trying to combo, but that runs off of a separate burst gauge under your character’s health bar, which can turn red when it gets low and throw you into awakening mode, which gives you extra meter to work with and more powerful attacks, some character’s don’t have that though, instead getting a shadow burst that lets them combo any attack into a stronger attack at the cost of a constantly draining meter and holy shit I’m out of breath.
So Ultimax is sort of halfway on the whole beginner friendliness thing. It’s easy enough to pick up and mess around with, but expect some hardcore practice sessions if you want to get even just a little close to the people you’ll encounter online. If you’re sticking to the offline game though, you’ll find the modes to be a little bit...weird. There’s story mode, which is a glorified visual novel packed with cute moments made to pander directly to Persona fans. At one point, Fuuka, Rise and Yukari stop for fifteen minutes of girl talk while the world is ending and if that doesn’t excite you, well, you’re a normal, rational person and you probably aren’t very interested in this game. Every once in a while the story will stop for an easy fight, but if you’re only in it for the plot (and I really have no idea why you would be) you can set the game to “auto mode” which has a CPU fight for you. Auto mode also pops up in the new Golden Arena mode, a series of back-to-back fights where you can level up a character and equip them with Persona-themed skills like Tarukaja (boosts damage) and Arrow Rain (deals constant light damage to your opponents). The easiest setting in the Golden Arena has you work through 50 straight fights, which sounds like torture if all you’re doing is watch a CPU do them for you, occasionally inputting which passive skills you’d like them to learn. At that point, it’s neither an RPG nor a fighting game. It’s weird and kind of pointless, a friendly gesture to an audience that isn’t there. Actually played through, Golden Arena is great, with plenty of options for customization and some genuinely challenging fights as the difficulty ratchets up.
So what is Ultimax then? It a pretty spectacular fighter, with systems that are genuinely easy to learn but difficult to master. It has relatively few characters, but each of them play so differently from one another (save the shadow versions of the cast that mostly exist to pad out the roster) that it feels a lot more varied than most fighters. It has a cute, if mostly ineffectual story mode, and a fun time sink in the form of the high-level, infinite battle Golden Arena (provided you actually, you know, play it). I can’t help but feel that Ultimax doesn’t do enough to bring in those RPG-oriented Persona players though. Auto mode is silly, why would anyone buy a game if they aren’t intended on actually playing it? Why not try to teach those players how to play the game with detailed tutorial modes?
Ultimax has a challenge mode, like many fighters do, which consists of a list of combos you’re asked to pull off. Most of them are impractical, and the game never tells you where the combo should be used, or how to mind game your opponent into giving you an opening to execute that combo. Learning what the move itself is is important, but Ultimax never goes that extra step, it never teaches you why you want to use that move, and when to use it. It never teaches you the basic rules of how combos work (every character can cancel A into B into C into a special), or when to use the game’s unique systems like the pass-through dash and the furious action. Ultimax is a great arena to cut your teeth in, but there’s no master here to show you the ropes. That’s not really a complain about Ultimax specifically, it’s something all fighting games need to work on, but it feels like this game, with its cross-genre appeal and a story mode that’s ripe for teaching and guaranteed to be played by beginners, would be the perfect place for a real tutorial. Ultimax is a great game for fighting game fans and people who want to put in the effort to learn the game. It’s not a compromise, and anyone who’s only in it for the Persona elements is in for a nasty ultra suplex.