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October 6, 2014

RE: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

Ever needed proof that I’m cursed?  Here it is. 

A fellow (supra-dynamic) blogger did a post on the latest iteration of the Persona fighting game, and in anticipation I thought I’d offer up my thoughts on the characters.  So I opened up a Word file to jot down my thoughts (and make sure I could keep things within the comment box’s character limit).  And as I wrapped up, I thought to myself: “Wait, what am I doing?  Does anyone care if I go this in-depth?”  So I realized the answer was no…after scraping together most of a blog post.

So here we are.  I didn’t intend to do a post on Ultimax, but because everything I touch turns into a novella, I figured I might as well do a lickety-split rundown. 

Let’s hear it for resignation to futility, and consistently making the same mistakes!

All right, so I got a chance to sit down with Ultimax, and mess around with it a bit.  If you want a ten-second take on it?  It’s just as good as the last game, and maybe even more fun than before.  Adding new characters and mixing up the old ones seriously does wonders for a fighter.

So if you’re in the mood, I’ve got some impressions for a number of things, and a handful of characters.  Don’t take it as the gospel, since I’m not an expert at the game.  Just some observations here and there.

The Miscellanea!!

It may seem strange to start with this first, but hear me out on this.  I don’t think I can overstate the importance of the aesthetics and artistry here in Ultimax (and by extension, vanilla P4A).  If not for the actual fighting that’s taking place in the game, I wouldn’t mind taking time out to just stare at the stages.  They’re more than a little chaotic, as you’d expect with the space-time shenanigans going on, but the tradeoff is that they’re a marvel to look at -- fusing the mundane with some otherworldy entropy.  I actually wouldn’t mind being able to explore areas like those in an RPG…or barring that, a 2D sidescroller.  Maybe that could be the next Persona spinoff, a la Dragon’s Crown.

But stages aside -- and the menus/HUD/general presentation -- the crowning achievement has to go to the sprites.  The animations of these characters go a LONG WAY toward selling their expressiveness and uniqueness.  Even in the absence of a story -- or at least a story that most diehard players won’t ignore -- you get a sense of exactly who these people are just by watching them move…and that’s on top of their move sets, game plans, and fighter archetypes.  If you get the chance, pause the game and hit select while you’re in Training Mode.  You’ll get to see the sprites for yourself, and marvel at the mad skillz on display.

On that note?  Holy shit, the art for the Shadows’ faces is amazing.  Run an image search for it the first chance you get.

The System Changes!!

P4A was never exactly wanting for better gameplay, so for the most part Ultimax isn’t some major revolution.  If you’ve put in time with the first game, you’re going to be fine with the second.  It’s worth noting, though, that I don’t think either game is exactly beginner-friendly -- even if Atlus/ArcSys have touted certain characters as “perfect for beginners”.  It’s true that you can get an easy combo just by mashing A, but after that?  It’s a pretty dense jungle of offensive and defensive abilities…and that’s before you take into account the fact that you’re ALWAYS going to have to manage two characters at once.

There’s some minor stuff here and there, but the system change that could have the biggest impact is the fact that each character has different levels of power for their Stand Persona.  That is, the amount of hits they can take before their Persona becomes broken (temporarily unusable) has been adjusted across the board.  So a character like Akihiko that’s an offensive juggernaut even without his Persona can only let his inner self get hit twice before he’s left alone -- down from the default four.  Meanwhile, Persona-dependent characters like Yukiko can take five hits.  It helps even the playing field, I’d say -- but I suspect that if a high-durability Persona gets broken, it takes even longer for them to bounce back.

That’d probably explain why Elizabeth is suspected to be bottom-tier in this game.  So much for Megidolaon.

The Story!!

I like Persona 4, and I like that effort was put in to try and give a fighting game a dedicated story mode.  But my time with vanilla P4A made me realize that…well, sometimes the two don’t mesh.

Taken individually, the paths of each character are entertaining, and can say something meaningful (though some are better than others).  The problem is that when I had to do it a dozen times, it ended up being less of a joy and more of a slog.  Too many of the stories went through the exact same trajectory without the thrills to mask it, and some of them -- Naoto’s and Mitsuru’s stick out to me -- couldn’t be bothered to offer more than just seconds’ worth of a good time.  You could toss the same complaint at Persona 4’s formula (I am a shadow, the true self…times eight), but at least it had the good graces to break that up with combat, dungeon-crawling, social links, and…fishing, I guess?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a P4A problem, but an ArcSys one.  BlazBlue: Chronophantasma also has a dedicated story mode, but it’s damn near Impregnable.   An onslaught of jargon that’s freakishly dense -- even if you’ve played through the other games’ stories, like me -- parrot exposition that strangles the charisma out of the better part of the cast, grating-as-hell archetypes (Noel, Makoto, you can leave the story at any time), and villains who don’t have much going for them besides being smug, just-as-planned types.  And on top of all that, it takes as much as TWO HOURS before you even get to your first fight.

I’ve got no problems admitting that P4A did better, and assuming that Ultimax will be better.  But I’m wary of jumping into a story whose format and progression threatens to punish the player for trying to dive in.  But I’m willing to brave it -- if only for a little while -- because I want to see the P3 and P4 casts come together.  I want to see what’s going on, and who Sho Minazuki is supposed to be, and why the Shadows are running amok again. 

Atlus and the Persona Team have earned a lot of goodwill over the past few years, and I’d hate for it to be squandered because I have to mash X to get through dialogue only slightly tweaked from when I heard it the fifth time.

…Jeez, maybe they should just make a Persona 2D brawler.  Go hands-on action with your favorite characters, and it’s all done with the good graces of a story designed to press forward.  Everybody wins.

As you can guess, I’m nowhere near the end of the story.  But based on my first encounter with it?  Yeah, I think it’s going to be a step up from vanilla P4A.  The first thing you see beyond the prologue is six of the eight Investigation team members meeting up to discuss the details of the present case -- or in other words, recap P4A.  It kind of devalues the first game, knowing that its conclusion was hardly such, but Ultimax proceeds to make the point moot.  It’s not long before the plot kicks in, with the gang -- and their town of Inaba at large -- plunged into a quasi-Dark Hour, complete with red fog.

Ultimax uses the same general format as Chronophantasma -- that is, instead of choosing an individual character and playing their story from start to finish, you follow a branching path and the narrative beats on-deck.  It works here better than it works there, least of all because it doesn’t revolve around adding MacGuffins on top of MacGuffins; most of the gang gets reunited, and they push the story forward.  When they’re separated --Naoto and Rise are the first two side-branches unlocked -- they’re advancing the plot and/or developing their characters for your satisfaction.  Rise’s section has me thinking of her in a different light, and put her on my radar in a way that not even P4 did.  That has to count for something. 

The story could fall apart at any point, and there’s always the threat that it could refuse to offer any fighting in…you know, a fighting game.  But for now?  I’m optimistic.  I’m looking forward to more...just as long as it doesn't crap itself.  Given some of the early dialogue, I have a theory on who the real culprit is -- and I hope to all of the gods I'm wrong.

The Fighters!

All right, let’s run through some of the characters.  Again, don’t take this as the gospel, because these are some very early impressions by someone whose reflexes are really too slow for fighting games.

--Yukari: the first character I tried out, if only because of her Sentai-esque costume.  She’s a long-range expert, but she’s got plenty of sneaky tricks and mobility; I’d think that with enough practice, a player could find ways to land every single shot she fires.  She strikes me as someone who takes plenty of practice to get down, and could have her game plan foiled by someone that breaks through her arrow offense.  Still fun, though.

--Junpei: the first character my brother tried, and subsequently used the most.  He’s…okay, I guess?  Zoning him out is pretty easy, despite him being able to reflect projectiles with his bat.  Beyond that, I'm not convinced that his regular attacks are all that great; some of them seem kind of unsafe, i.e. I could punish him for even trying to keep his offense going.   And it’s easy to break his Persona, too, as long as you’re paying attention to him.  Still, he’s GREAT at pushing you into corners, and one of his Persona attacks is pretty much a license to get in and go for his mix-ups.  (Voltech Pro Tip: Don’t EVER let Junpei use that attack.)  He’s got some kind of special gauge that powers him up, but…ehhhhh.  If it’s momentum-based, and you can stop Junpei’s momentum, you can cripple him easily.

--Rise: AMAZINGLY fun to play (with some of the best/funniest animations in the game).  She can fight up close and from afar, and switches pretty easily between the two.  You have to be careful about tossing out her Persona, but the tradeoff is that she’s got some incredibly useful moves.  She might be my new favorite character to play as…though the tradeoff is that you’d better be damn good at rhythm games if you want to use one of her Supers. 

Rise as a Cool Guy Girl.  Huh.  Maybe there’s a reason we’re getting Dancing All Night...

--Sho (w/Persona): This character’s gonna be a problem.  He’s got good moves and does some shockingly high damage -- but the real danger comes from his mobility.  Not only can his Persona practically teleport, but Sho himself can DEFINITELY teleport…so he’s mixing you up while he’s mixing you up.  I think his major weakness is that he’s got a glass jaw, but if he’s got complete control of a match -- and he likely will -- then that’s not a factor, is it?

--Ken/Koromaru: Incredibly good range, as you’d expect, and it’s likely that with Koromaru he can create some nasty situations.  Unfortunately, stopping Koro is pretty easy, letting you shut down a number of Ken’s options.  (It doesn’t help that his Persona can only take two hits.)  My bro only touched him a couple of times, so Ken could be another character you’ll have to practice with.  Still, that range alone could be his greatest strength.

--Yu: Stupidly good -- which I find odd because he was one of the best characters in the first game.  He lost one or two of his options, but in exchange he got a new move which pretty much takes opponents to Mix-Up City.  On top of that, he’s still got most of the tricks that made him good in the first place (as the Stand user in a cast full of Stand users).  On top of that, in one sitting I found a combo in the corner where you could take half an opponent’s HP…just by hitting the same two inputs over and over.  Yeesh.

--Marie: This is actually my first experience with the character, ever.  She’s a strange one, I’ll give her that; apparently one of her moves is unblockable by default, so I’d think that she can do some nasty stuff if you give her the chance.  Beyond that?  The rest of her moves seem kind of…random, I want to say?  At times she feels more like Faust than Teddie, the guy designed to be like Faust.  It’s hard to get a sense about how her moves gel together into combos and strategies, but I’m sure she works out somehow.

--Kanji: I don’t understand why people think this character is awful.  Yeah, he’s not the fastest, and you can zone him out like any other grappler, but he pretty much just has to touch you once to ruin your day.  He’s a grappler that can not only take nearly 50% of your health with one grab (at least on Yukiko), but can put himself in a position immediately after where you have to guess what he’ll do next -- and he has hard counters to any one of those moves.  Supposedly he got nerfed for Ultimax, but I don’t see it.  He’s a seriously threatening character -- no matter what anyone says.

--Yukiko: My main (wo)man, and going strong in P4U.  Some of her projectiles’ properties have changed, so potentially you can use certain moves as cover while you make your approach (or just harass an enemy from afar/with her Persona).  She got a new move that helps her game plan and combos, including one that has her Persona bouncing an enemy into her for some easy damage.  And thanks to the system changes, her Persona can take more hits before being broken.  (Yukiko’s still borderline useless when that happens, though.)  All in all, a solid character…though that’s to be expected when you play as a character that can potentially use A POWERED-UP, FULL-SCREEN, UNBLOCKABLE SUPER.

I sure know how to pick ‘em, don’t I?

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s about all I’ve got.  It may be a while before some of you reading this get to try the game, but until then keep this fresh in your mind: you’ll be in good hands with it.  If you’re starved for content, though, go to YouTube and look for a guy called Jourdal2012 -- there’s plenty of Ultimax footage there.

Along with footage for Guilty Gear Xrd…which you should consider grabbing even if you don’t think it’ll be your jam (and why wouldn’t it be, unless you have terrible taste?).  Something tells me that once it’s on consoles, it’s going to make the other ArcSys games obsolete.  Given who and what’s in Xrd, I can’t say I have a problem with that.



  1. Ah yes, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. It's pretty sad I only gave in and bought this (and original Arena) for the story, which everyone on the internet threw rocks at me for. (Those same guys are begging me to play them online, despite me reminding them endlessly about how much I suck at fighters and that I strongly prefer single-player over multiplayer mode.) I know they're not supposed to be Shakespeare levels of god-tier, but something reasonable. Many plot holes often crucified in other mediums can slide for one reason: LET'S WATCH THESE GUYS BEAT THE CRAP OUTTA EACH OTHER!!!!!

    Thus I conclude that if I ever formally talk about these games, it'll be rants, not reviews. This genre was not built for moi. :|

    Anywho, I get the sense that Ultimax is fantastic gameplay-wise, which I do look forward to. (Thanks school.) Akihiko, Aigis, Chie, and Yukiko seemed to work well for me, so I hope they didn't change too much to make them unplayable. Though now I want to try out Junpei, even if he's not the best, and the Pretentious-Footed Duo. I got Marie, but I dunno if I'll ever use her. At least she was free.

    The gist I get about the story is that fans of Persona 2 were absolutely floored when the Big Bad was finally revealed. I was annoyed myself, not just because of the wasted potential, but because of the oddly paradoxical justification for the Big Bad's existence. Then realizing Sho Minazuki is what happened to the Children in my fanfic if they were emo lead guitarists covering Linkin Park songs pretty much put me in a sour mood for an evening... I still hope what I read is far better executed than it sounds.

    Still, I get a feeling Ultimax is a solid game. I got the tarot cards and the Teddie bop bag, so I'm not gonna burn my copy and demand a refund. XD

  2. If we're being honest here? I seriously think you should try getting into fighting games. Maybe not P4A (unless you're bold enough), but one of the many, many options out there.

    Hear me out on this. In this day and age, it feels like right now one of the few genres out there that are being genuinely honest -- that cut out the chaff, offer genuinely good gameplay, put up a challenge, and actually TRY to be games -- are fighting games. What you see is what you get -- and what you get, more often than not, is a new perspective on things thanks to those playable characters. Using Rise just a couple of times has SERIOUSLY opened up my mind to some new possibilities -- in the game and out of it.

    So yeah, I wouldn't let "skill" or "sucking at fighters" get in your way. (Well, unless we're talking about Virtua Fighter, AKA one of the hardest fighters out there.) Just dig in your heels and give it a solid effort. Who knows? Maybe you'll find a new personal fave amidst them all.

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaand so ends that little round of salesmanship. Now, onto the main topic.

    I wouldn't let Junpei being possibly (or probably) low-tier get you down. Pretty much every other character I play in fighters are at or near the bottom. It's all about finding the one character you sync up with, and going all in with them -- character loyalty, as they say. You might have to work a bit with him, but Junpei strikes me as the type of character who lets you have fun even if you're getting your teeth shoved in.

    I haven't played the game enough to know much about Akihiko or Aigis, but there's a strong possibility that Chie's as good or even better than before. (Don't quote me on that, since I don't have much experience playing as/fighting against her.) She got a new attack or two that lets her cover horizontal distance quickly, so I'm guessing it's even easier for her to start her offense. I can see her being a problem character too, even if it's not as much as Sho w/Persona.

    As for the story? Fingers crossed -- although now that I think about it, it's kind of weird knowing that when the original P4A came out, Golden wasn't...and now that Ultimax is here, suddenly the gang decides to directly reference Marie even though she was a non-entity in P4A...despite Ultimax taking place just a day after P4A.

    Uh...huh. I think there's a name for that.