Accessibility has become something of a dirty word these days. Instead of being welcomed, it’s met with scorn as fears of “dumbing down” spread. For fighting games especially, a genre built upon layers and layers of depth and complexity, where even the slightest change could upset the balance of the game, it’s a justified concern. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, however, strikes a fine balance. It’s a 2D fighter based on Atlus’ popular Persona series that provides a strong introduction to the genre, allowing novices (like myself) to compete without sacrificing any of the depth inherent to the genre.
Persona 4 Arena is a four-button game. Square and triangle (X and Y on Xbox) initiate light attacks while X and circle (or A and B) unleash strong attacks; square and X are reserved for standard weapon attacks, while triangle and circle summon your persona, a familiar of sorts. Pretty standard stuff. What makes Persona different, however, is the auto-combo assigned to square. If you can land a hit, keep on mashing that button and you’ll pull of a series of various attacks and finish with a super (assuming you have the SP for it). Not only does this give beginners an easy way to fight back, it serves as a handy fallback option for veterans. It makes button mashing a viable tactic, but that’s hardly to the game’s detriment.
The key to Persona 4 Arena’s accessibility comes from its controls and the fact that everyone shares the same moveset. Well, not exactly the same, but everyone’s range of attacks are pulled off using the same few button combos. Quarter-circle forward or backward plus any of the face buttons handle most of the fancy moves, while double quarter-circle forward or backward, when you have enough SP (skill points) built up, unleashes one of your character’s supers; an extremely powerful and flashy attack. The rest of everyone’s arsenal involves pressing any one of the face buttons along with one of the directional buttons.
When I first started playing Ultimax’s predecessor back in 2012, the auto-combo was pretty much all I relied on because I didn’t have much of a grasp of the greater depth contained within, let alone any idea how to use each character properly. Instead of having my butt handed to me over and over, I was able to hold my own while I learned how to play the game “properly” (something the lesson and challenge modes both helped with greatly). It hardly guaranteed victory, but it let me at least do something instead of remain helpless under the constant onslaught of combos from more experienced players.
Ultimax hasn’t changed much in that regard. Learning how to play the game remains largely the same. The lesson mode, which guides you through just about everything you’d ever need to know about the basics and a few advanced techniques, is still a very useful tutorial. Challenge mode, which presents a series of increasingly difficult combos to perform, helps you gain a better understanding of how to chain attacks together manually. On their own, the modes don’t do anything new that any other fighting game hasn’t done before. But combined with the relative simplicity of the controls, it establishes a strong foothold to work from. I went from barely knowing how to guard to pulling off complex combos in no time by going through those modes. As someone with little experience with traditional fighting games, the ease with which one can learn the mechanics is astounding.
Accessibility doesn’t come at the cost of depth, of course. Though every character plays differently by default, some have more complex systems at play. Ken and Koromaru are two characters in one, for instance, requiring double-time management of both Ken’s movements and Koromaru’s health. Junpei, being a baseball player, can build up “home runs” by landing successful combos, which, once enough have been achieved, gives him a boost in strength for the remainder of the match, carrying over into other rounds. Aigis has a limited stock of bullets she can use with some of her attacks, Naoto can perform an instant kill (a different one from the move everyone has) if certain conditions are met, Marie (one of the DLC characters) is affected by randomly chosen weather conditions, and newcomer Sho doesn’t even have a persona, making him play very differently from the rest of the cast.
Additionally, each character now has a “shadow” variant. The differences between them and the standard versions of characters are small – shadows can’t perform one-hit kills, nor can they awaken (wherein you gain an extra surge of SP upon entering critical condition) or burst – but significant. Their auto-combos are the same as those in Arena (all the returning characters have new ones in Ultimax), but more importantly, they can enter a state known as “shadow fury,” which instantly fills their SP meter and allows them to unleash a constant barrage of supers at a much lower cost than their counterparts. They’re SP meter also carries over between rounds instead of resetting.
Persona 4 Arena isn’t all fighting, though. It’s also a visual novel – at least in the story mode. Ultimax picks up immediately where Arena left off – like literally the next day following the events of the last game. Once again, the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 find themselves involved in a fighting tournament, known this time as the P-1 Grand Prix Climax. But instead of being set in the TV world, it’s set in the real world under the guise of a phenomenon eerily similar to the Dark Hour. Worse, if they don’t reach the top of the school within the hour, the world will apparently end.
Unlike Arena, where it was one story retold multiple times from different perspectives, Ultimax tells two interpretations of a singular story (one following the Persona 4 cast, the other the Persona 3 cast) and jumps around to other characters as necessary. The story is presented as a timeline, as such, instead of having you select a character’s individual story. It’s a far better presentation, as it cuts down greatly on the rampant redundancy of Arena and actually paints a clear sequence of events. Makes the narrative more cohesive and natural.
While the writing is sound, Ultimax doesn’t really bring much to the table as far as story goes. It’s a fun reunion – particular in regards to seeing the entire Persona 3 crew assembled again and seeing where they are now – but it doesn’t add anything onto the existing lore of the Persona universe. Where Arena felt like a natural extension of the Persona 4 narrative and introduced a new, interesting character with Labrys, Ultimax feels ultimately superfluous. Nothing of note or consequence happens over the course of Ultimax’s story. Sho isn’t that interesting a character or villain, his connections to Persona 3 feeling like a contrived excuse to make a bunch of callbacks to that game than anything with any real meaning. In fact, the entire premise of the story feels contrived. Having the characters fight their shadows instead of each other is inspired, but it feels forced; like something they had to do because it’s a fighting game, even though it would have stood just fine as a visual novel.
Arcade mode delivers a condensed version of the story if all you want to do is fight instead of read a bunch of text, but its use is limited as a single-player mode when placed alongside the variety of modes available in Ultimax. Score Attack pits you against increasingly difficult AI opponents as you try to get the highest score possible, only now it spans multiple “courses” with different difficulty settings instead of defaulting to a near impossible level of challenge. Golden Arena has you fighting your way through dungeons with hundreds of opponents, leveling up and earning skills along the way. It brings some of the role-playing game elements of the Persona games proper into the game, adding some interesting wrinkles to otherwise standard matches. It’s by far the most interesting of the single-player modes.
The online hasn’t changed much from Arena. The usual suite of ranked and private matches are still here, the community still relatively active in those spots. You can still set a custom title using a variety of per-determined phrases, which can allow you to make something silly like “Giant Bombs Double Steak Bowl” (courtesy of my brother). New to Ultimax, and unfortunately exclusive to the PlayStation 3 version, however, are the lobbies. Here, you and 31 other players convene in an arcade inspired by one of many locations from Persona 3 and 4 (Junes and Tartarus, for example), each serving as a different server, and mull around looking for challengers. All it takes is running up to a cabinet and waiting for someone else to do the same. They’re always well populated, ensuring you can find someone to play with, though it can take some time.
The best part of the lobbies, however, is that there’s almost always a wide range of players of varying skill levels. It’s not solely populated by the very best or people looking to win by any means necessary, but merely folks looking to get together for some lighthearted fun. A perfect atmosphere for a game so accommodating to newcomers, which remains Persona 4 Arena’s greatest strength. Where so many fighting games are bogged down with complexity, Ultimax continues to strives for balance and succeeds. I usually avoid fighting games because I don’t have the time to devote to them, but Arc System Works has found a fantastic formula in the Persona 4 Arena series. One I hope other fighting games take notice of.