HIGH That intro really got me pumped to play.
LOW I have absolutely no recollection of who Marie is.
WTF It's obvious the pillars are going up, not down.
When Persona 4 Arena it was first announced, it seemed totally bizarre—a fighting game based on a story-heavy RPG, and canon to boot? Against all odds, it won me over big-time, and proved not only that it could continue the Persona story that fans wanted more of, but it went one better by combining P3 and P4 in a way that no one expected. The end of the first Arena left a lot of unanswered questions, and I couldn't wait to see where the series would go from there.
Now that the sequel, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax is here, I'm sad to say that where the series went was… wrong.
While the fighting is fine and structure of the story mode is the same—a lot of dialogue punctuated by the occasional punching session—it's not nearly as compelling this time thanks to a script that's repetitive and dashed off in a very un-Persona-like manner. Since I'm guessing most fans are coming for the narrative rather than the fisticuffs, this is a big problem.
The plot of Ultimax picks up where Arena ended. For those who don't remember (or never played) it was essentially about Labrys, a new character who provided motivation for the Persona-lities to fight each other in a not-absurd way. She was also a compelling addition to the cast, and the soul of the Arena experience. In Ultimax, the writers fail to deliver a story even half as good as hers.
Essentially, the characters start fighting again thanks to a Big Bad whose reveal is the very definition of anti-climax, and the campaign is split between the P3/P4 groups. From the get-go, there are a couple of problems with this structure.
First, the plot is fully revealed at the conclusion of the first half, meaning that when players go through with the other group, there aren't any surprises left. Second, the writers spend far too much time telling and re-telling the player what each group is doing, and since they both follow the same plot, the info and encounters are repeated ad nauseum. That the events of the story aren't interesting or dramatic doesn't help the situation—it's about two hours' worth of boring script stretched out to be eight or ten (or more!) depending on how fast the text is scrolling.
The story mode is also undercut by being a highly non-interactive visual novel where the player suffers through huge amounts of text, and as far as I can tell, there's only one narrative choice to make in each half of the game. Despite its (relatively) brief running time, this mode felt like it took forever to trudge through. When I got close to the end of the second half, I was skipping the text altogether because I just didn't give a damn about it. For a series like Persona where the story and characters have historically been at the top of the genre, this is a catastrophe.
Fortunately, Ultimax isn't a total wash. Outside of the dreadful story mode, the fighting and supporting elements are just as good as they were the last time. The sprites are well-animated and appealing, and the straightforward engine is still easy to pick up thanks to the characters having similar command inputs. Although each combatant handles slightly differently, they all draw from the same basic set of quarter-circle and multiple-button-press movements, so there's not a lot of note-taking or chart-making needed to gain a good grasp of the basics.
Players wanting to get the most out of the game will have to study the wealth of complex systems and invest in a stick, since it's nigh-impossible to press three face buttons at the same time for certain moves. On the other hand, those who just want to see their favorite characters pulling off flashy maneuvers can fulfill that wish easily. However, it's worth noting that the game offers a devastating one-button auto-combo by hammering the Square button. Its existence makes sense since players not steeped in fighting games might need it to get through the campaign, but if there was an option to disable it in versus play (because it's cheap!) I couldn't find it.
Those interested in Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax for the fighting will be satisfied with what's on offer, but narrative fans curious about what happens to the gang before the next official Persona RPG debuts will likely feel burned. The story side is a tedious, thudding disappointment compared to the stellar stuff the series usually delivers.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 9 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the story mode was fully completed. 2 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes online.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains language, mild blood, suggestive themes, use of tobacco, and violence. The plot features typical teen-oriented stuff, and as a fighting game, people get punched, kicked, and Persona'd. There's nothing here outside of the fighting genre norms, so I'd say it's quite safe for most.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any problems. All dialogue is subtitled during cut-scenes, and since this is a fighting game, audio cues don't play a significant role. In my view, it's totally accessible.