Thursday, 4 December 2014

Review: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360
Price: £29.99 from Rice Digital (prices may vary elsewhere)
Release Date: Out Now

In advance of writing this review it occurred to me what sort of a “theme” would be appropriate for describing Persona 4 Arena Ultimax (hereafter referred as just Ultimax). That theme would be “The Best and Worst of Both Worlds”. After all, the story is about two groups of Persona users uniting a second time to stop a world ending threat, with all of their individual good and bad qualities on display as they fight shadowy duplicates and overcome personal trials. But it’s more than that, as we also have Arc System Works and Atlus once again collaborating on this sequel to Persona 4 Arena, and bringing their respective talents to the table. Ultimax, serving as the follow up, was an opportunity for Atlus and Arc Sys to build on the somewhat shaky foundation they had previously laid. Question is: just what did they build with it?

This review is free of spoilers, artificial flavours, preservatives and shitty bear puns.

Continuing the week after the conclusion of the events of Arena, Yu and the Investigation Team are still milling over the P-1 Grand Prix and the mastermind behind that tournament that pitted them against each other. That evening, the Midnight Channel reappears with everyone’s favourite cigar smoking doppelganger General Teddie proclaiming the end of the world. After the broadcast finishes, all electrical power to Inaba is cut off, a red fog blankets the area, the town itself is warped in mind bending ways, and on the site of Yasogami High now lies a giant tower. Furthermore, Mitsuru, Aigis, Fuuka and Akihiko are revealed to have been captured and crucified in the tower itself. While Yu tries to rally the scattered Investigation Team, Labrys and three previously unseen Persona 3 alumni proceed to Inaba by helicopter to lend their aid before the fated hour strikes and the world ends.

Ultimax, like most fighting game sequels, does not significantly change things up from Arena, instead focusing on refinement of both story and fighting game engine. All of the existing Arena cast have been changed up in various ways, with new moves each and some attempt to rebalance the roster more favourably, as well as trying to keep the characters fresh with new and changed combo routes. Joining the fray this time though are a mix of Persona 3 and Persona 4 characters whom we haven’t seen previously. From Persona 3’s roster we get the addition of Yukari Takeba, Junpei Iori and Ken Amada & Koromaru (as a tag team), while from the Persona 4 side of things we get Rise (yes, Rise, which I’ll come to later), Marie, Adachi and Margaret. Rounding out the list are Sho and Minazuki, two sides of the same villainous coin and who play very differently. Marie, Adachi and Margaret are DLC unfortunately, and unlike in the US or Japan have not been made free on release, although I won’t hold that against the game itself.

The new fighters introduced in Ultimax all have play styles very different from the existing roster, and it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into making them unique while still keeping to true to their origins and skills from Persona 3/Persona 4. Junpei for example must score runs with bat attacks, and after hitting ten runs he enters a powered up state where he becomes a lot stronger and gains new, more powerful combos, while Ken & Koromaru act independently in line with characters such as Carl from Blazblue or Eddie/Zato from Guilty Gear. To further freshen things up, some characters can be played as a “Shadow Type”, where they lose certain abilities but gain others such as “Shadow Berserk” which grants them vastly reduced meter costs for supers and specials for a time. The Shadow type characters also have unique victory animations based off their host’s stories from Persona 3 or Persona 4, and yes, Shadow Kanji speaks in that lisping voice and strips to a loincloth surrounded by roses when he wins. These little touches are very welcome call backs to the previous games, although the Shadow type characters are sadly not as strong as the regular cast pretty much across the board with the exception of Shadow Chie (who possesses touch of death combos) and Shadow Yu. 

Balance wise, the roster is still unfortunately tilted in the favour of a select few strong characters. If you were expecting the likes of Kanji and Elizabeth to become stronger and Chie and Yu to get hit by the nerf bat, then sadly it hasn’t been enough. Chie and Yu are still very strong despite both of their respective okizeme moves being nerfed heavily and the lower tiers still remain at the bottom of the pile. The new cast vary in strength also; Junpei is sadly lower in the roster while Yukari and Minazuki in particular are higher placed. Asymmetric balance is not an easy thing to pull off, that I understand, but I would’ve liked more effort on Arc Sys’ part to make as much of the cast viable as possible and also to not buff characters such as Aigis or Yu unnecessarily. I also still have some gripes with the fighting engine, in that auto-combos still go into supers which can be a pitfall for the unsuspecting beginner, and similarly the two button Furious Action moves remain. Despite the good intent behind these for beginners, they still can and will trip new players up, and it’s unfortunate Arc Sys didn’t change these for Ultimax. Indeed, the one concession they did add: Skill Hold or S Hold, is something I have not seen used once either in the matches I’ve played or in matches I’ve watched on YouTube, and is in fact being patched out for Ultimax 2.0 online anyway (where the majority of newer and less experienced players congegrate). Hubris isn’t the worst thing in the world to be guilty of, but not learning from your mistakes isn’t exactly a good thing either.

Ultimax’s biggest feature upgrade has come to its network mode though. Following on from BlazBlue: Chronophantasma, Network Mode now features a lobby system where players can meet and play each other on virtual arcade cabinets, while also defining their own avatar and title through a “P-Card”. While the 3D models used in Ultimax are nice, I personally prefer the 2D sprites from Chronophantasma with the goofy hats, but that’s a small thing relative to the fact that the Lobby Mode is a very welcome addition. Ranked matches, player rooms and the like are still in place as well. The netcode still seems superior to Chronphantasma but having been spoiled by Under Night In Birth’s superior netcode I still think this is something Arc Sys could’ve improved on for Ultimax yet for some reason chose not to, but as is it’s acceptable.

Offline the usual retinue of modes are available: Arcade, Score Attack and Versus Mode, along with a comprehensive Lesson Mode, free Practice Mode and Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode unfortunately continues to teach less than optimal combos, and there is still no inbuilt frame data, so don’t expect these modes to provide you with anything but a basic understanding of Ultimax, and going further will mean online study. New to Ultimax however is “Golden Arena” mode, which in reality is much like Abyss mode from Blazblue: Chronophantasma. Here, you take a character through various “dungeons” fighting AI opponents and levelling up their skills as well as accumulating a set of skills that provide certain bonuses like HP Recovery or immunity to poison. Like Abyss, it’s a fun side mode that you can throw a few hours into and compete with others in online in rankings.

Then there’s Story Mode. The fact I devoted an entire article to Arena’s failings as a continuation of the Persona 3 & Persona 4 canon should be telling enough, so I had hopes that Ultimax would do better. And while it did do better, it once again, to me at least, showed Atlus should’ve done this entire plotline in the same fashion as they did with Persona 3: The Answer; make it into an expansion for Persona 4 Golden and have it be another dungeon or two with associated plot. “Modern Persona” (from 3 onwards) has arguably been about the marriage of character growth in a narrative sense with character power in a mechanical one, which I think is great, but here I can sum up Ultimax’s story as “a sequence of events that happen to people”. No one has a character arc save for Rise, Ken, Adachi, Junpei, Labrys and Sho (Most of Sho's I should add is "told" rather than, at the risk of a bad pun, "shown" which contrasts with the effectiveness of Labrys' story in Arena), which is hugely disappointing. The Persona 4 characters end up where they started at the end of Persona 4 Golden when Yu left on the train, and it’s telling that the Persona 3 endings are far more satisfying because we pick up with characters whom we haven’t seen in the franchise’s narrative time for a few years. Seeing Junpei’s dream for example was a fantastic moment, but it was one of very few the game had to offer as ultimately everything is tied up in a neat bow by the game’s end. Thankfully, Rise’s inclusion as a playable character when previously she had the fighting ability of a possum is not only justified within the plot, it’s arguably one of the highlights. Had the whole story of Ultimax been full of character moments like this it would’ve been on par with Persona 3 and Persona 4’s character driven narratives, but as it stands is merely somewhat better than Arena, and again misses the potential of getting various characters on each team to interact for greater effect.

Story Mode is divided in Ultimax into “Episode P4” and “Episode P3”, which largely are the same plot but told from the perspectives of the Persona 4 and Persona 3 cast respectively. If you purchased Adachi’s DLC you also get “Episode Adachi”, which tells the story from his point of view. This is again better than the individual and completely incompatible character stories of Arena, but staggeringly, once again, “Episode P4” and “Episode P3” contradict each other. They are not accounts of the same scenario from different eyes, but broadly the same sequence of events with changes and embellishments, which again makes the cast out to be liars or that the writers didn’t recognise or care about their own continuity. Yes, Atlus may have declared anything and everything “Modern Persona” related to be canon, but that’s no excuse for lazy writing, and besides, it’s also a good idea to actually have your story be worthwhile in it’s own right rather than a pale imitation of previous successes. 

I’ll round out briefly by saying that Ultimax is better than Arena in every way, but that it is only a small improvement across the board. There’s new music old and new, the new backgrounds look nice, and I approve of the UI change to make everything look more like Persona 3 and give the game’s aesthetic a darker feel, but like everything else in Ultimax, these are just small touches to the existing Arena foundation without actually revising everything significantly for the better. If Arena were a printed essay, then Ultimax is the same manuscript handed back in with various mistakes crossed out and written over in red marker rather than a rewrite. For some, that’ll be enough, but personally I think Atlus and Arc Sys could’ve brought more of their “best” rather than “worst” (or indifference, perhaps) to this sequel.

Who Should Buy?

  • If you're a middle of the road Persona fan who can enjoy a satisfactory story.
  • If you're a casual anime fighting game enthusiast.
  • If you enjoyed Persona 4: Arena, as Ultimax is genuinely better.

Who Should Avoid?

  • If you're looking for the next chapter of the Persona 3 & Persona 4 canon and are hoping it's up to par with either of those games level of writing quality.
  • If you're looking for the best and most well designed anime fighting game currently available (that honour would in my opinion go to Under Night In Birth)
  • If you're a complete beginner to anime fighting games, as Arena's story is not included for free with Ultimax and the mechanics are not conducive to properly teaching you how to play games like this. 

Final Score: 7/10

- Shadon1010 would have the title of "The Snark Knight Champion of Dudley" in Persona-land. Most people just to tend to refer to him by a variety of four letter words.

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