Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review – Memories of Yu

Developer: Arc System Works, P-Studio

Publisher: Atlus

Platforms: PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)

Released: March 17, 2022

I suck at fighting games, but I love Persona, so naturally, I jumped at the chance to review this. I’m listening to “Memories of You” from Persona 3 while I write, reliving the emotional hurricane that engulfed me as I rolled the credits on that experience only a couple months ago. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a sequel to both Persona 3 and Persona 4, and I’m going to gauge whether it’s a successful successor to these two legendary games.

As a sequel to P4, it’s decent. The story starts with the protagonist of Persona 4 – now officially cemented in canon as Yu Narukami – returning to Inaba for Golden Week, before he and his friends get pulled into yet another supernatural adventure inside the TV world. This game nails the personalities of the P4 cast – granted, that’s not exactly quantum mechanics, as these characters were never the most complicated to begin with; they’re iconic, hilarious, and work well as a group dynamic, but a bit trope-y. The writers do a good job of diving into each character’s insecurities through inner monologues during their respective episodes, in ways that were often only touched upon or alluded to in the original game. Yu’s characterization is especially great: in P4, he was just a silent player surrogate, while here he’s a confident leader with plenty of determination, yet also enjoys an odd bout of stoic trolling (mostly towards Yosuke, his unofficial husbando). The story here is presented in a visual novel style, which works well enough, but tends to be quite wordy with a handful of oft-recycled backgrounds, occasionally broken up by high-quality, anime cutscenes.

While I do find it clever how they were integrated into the story, the Persona 3 characters themselves are where the writing becomes less impressive. That game’s cast is much more deeply nuanced, and they experienced a significant amount of growth over the course of their original game. That expected maturity isn’t really present, and instead they’ve been exaggerated, or rather, Flanderized. Take Akihiko Sanada for example: one of Elizabeth’s requests in P3 was to obtain some protein on a specific date, and you would get that from Akihiko; him being the performance-conscious pugilist that he is. That’s one of the only times protein is mentioned in that game. In Arena, he’s become a protein-obsessed junkie, jonesing for a jolt. Mitsuru Kirijo had a very domineering personality before, but now she’s basically a dominatrix. This isn’t a worthy successor to P3’s beautiful, emotionally resonant narrative; it’s still better than FES’ The Answer epilogue, but that’s not saying much. Execution aside, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t still cool to have this mammoth-sized cast of Persona users all interacting with one another. If you haven’t already played P3 and have any interest in doing so, DO NOT play this game – it spoils the living hell out of that game’s ending. Surprisingly, the story doesn’t really spoil much about P4, besides a certain character’s inclusion (originally DLC, but that’s all included here).

I could probably discuss the story all day, so let’s move on to the gameplay: it’s really good… I think? I’m no fighting game expert, but the combat is very fluid, energetic, and has a nice implementation of Persona abilities. I’m not going to bother explaining the mechanics here; hell, I spent the first few hours working through tutorials and challenges to even just grasp the basics – and I still don’t know what I’m doing! It’s really nice to get into a flow state, juggling my opponents, and the use of solo play-exclusive auto combos help to make even a scrub like me feel like an MLG. The skill ceiling is high, yet the skill floor is low – difficulty settings, auto combos, and the option to have the game literally play itself in story mode, contribute to a happy medium for Persona fans and fighting enthusiasts alike.

This package is bursting with content: you’ve got your bog standard Arcade Mode, two meaty Story Modes, online multiplayer, dozens of characters and stages all unlocked from the start, and possibly the most interesting of all, the Golden Arena, which adds a satisfying RPG spin. In Golden Arena,  you choose a partner character with unique abilities, to help you survive as long as possible battling competitors in one of 5 dungeons, all varying in difficulty. After every battle, you earn points towards your partner’s Social Link, which improves their abilities upon ranking up; as well as EXP, which earns you 3 points to allocate into your stats, as well as new Persona abilities upon leveling up. It’s a novel addition, and helps to fill that JRPG-sized hole in my heart.

The presentation here is excellent; from the stylized 2D graphics, to the excellent music that the series is known for, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears. There’s a serious fluidity and detail to the character animations and models, and the many available stage backgrounds are surreal works of art. Interestingly, you have the option of changing the main menu music, and there’s so many great picks from P3 and P4; from “Your Affection” and “Heaven” from P4, to “Mass Destruction” and “Want to be Close” from P3, it’s all here, but I wish we had the option to play these tracks during actual gameplay. The new music tracks for Ultimax aren’t among the series’ best, but they’re fine enough.

This package is a love letter to the Persona series, or at least the first two modern Persona titles. The story may just be a contrived way to get these characters fighting each other, but it’s a cut above the excuse plots of many fighter campaigns – better than I expected, but not even remotely on par with the mainline games; better as a sequel to P4 than to P3. However, I’m willing to give that a bit of a pass, because I can play as Aigis and kick Kanji Tatsumi’s butt (my favorite characters from their respective games), and that’s pretty neat. This is a fluid and stylish fighting game with dozens of fan-favorite characters, a lot of content and a whole lot of fanservice. Not the greatest fighting game nor Persona experience, but consider giving it a go if you’re a fan of either. It’s ridiculous that Atlus still hasn’t ported over ANY of the mainline titles to Switch, which puts this game at a disadvantage, since who wants to play a direct sequel without playing the originals first? I would definitely recommend playing P3 and P4 in some manner before touching Ultimax, if possible; let’s hope this game sells well, so Atlus pulls their heads out of the TV and gives us the goods.