‘Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’ review: a decent anime fighter, if not necessarily the remaster ‘Persona’ fans want

Rival school mates

When a beloved JRPG gets a fighting game spin-off, it would be natural to assume it’s little more than a cynical cash grab. That much was disproven with 2012’s Persona 4 Arena, which was not only a solid 2D fighter developed by Arc System Works, already with acclaimed anime fighters under its belt such as the Blazblue and Guilty Gear series, but also allowed for Atlus to deliver the rich storytelling that fans loved.

That devotion extended to Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which could have been just an iteration like most fighting games (e.g. Street Fighter 3: Third Strike), with a smattering of new characters and mechanics to justify the release. Except in this case, it was also a proper narrative sequel, while the original Arena itself was also a direct sequel to not only the mainline game but also its predecessor Persona 3.

Of course, given its original home release in 2014 was limited to PS3 and Xbox 360 one year after the launch of their successors, it also meant it would have flown under the radar of most players save for the most dedicated fans. Its remaster is then welcome, not to mention at a decent £24.99 / $29.99 price point, including all DLC, while mechanics and balancing are up to date with the arcade’s 2.5 version.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Credit: Atlus

Part of that DLC is the ability to play through all of the story mode of the first Arena, more organically integrated in this remaster, as more character paths and chapters unlock as you play through the sprawling visual novel-style campaign. One note of caution is if you’re a newcomer who wants to play the story in chronological order, select ‘P4A: Story Mode’ first rather than ‘Episode “P4”’ at the top of the menu list, otherwise it’ll be like finding yourself starting an anime’s second season.

There is however a notable disparity in structure, where Arena would have you following each character’s plotline only for some scenes to completely contradict another character’s perspective. This was improved in Ultimax, which instead splits the story perspectives between P4 and P3 characters, with a True Ending path opening up when you complete both.

While we don’t want to spoil any of the story for new audiences, it’s going to be tricky to recommend the campaign for those who aren’t longtime fans of Persona who want to see what all the fuss about, as you’re going to end up getting a few significant plot twists from both Persona 4 and Persona 3 spoiled for you.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Credit: Atlus

Except, if you wanted to play those games first, you’re also going to have a problem getting hold of them on modern platforms. PC players have at least been able to play Persona 4 Golden since 2020 but that still leaves Persona 3, which is long overdue a remaster or remake. You can’t help but think that the chance to revisit the adventures of the Specialised Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) for the series’ 25th anniversary should have been a higher priority for Atlus rather than a lesser known fighting game spin-off.

Ironically, the Switch would be more suited for Ultimax’s visual novel delivery despite the mainline series having never come to a Nintendo platform in the past. While that hasn’t prevented other spin-offs in the past, such as the Persona Q series on the 3DS or Persona 5 Strikers on Switch, at least those games felt like they had more self-contained stories.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Credit: Atlus

This is however more a criticism levelled at publishing decisions rather than the game itself. Because on its own merits, Ultimax is a solid anime fighter that faithfully adapts the series’ characters and their personas movesets, while delivering an energetic J-pop soundtrack as catchy as the main games, with some familiar themes included in the mix.

Ultimax further adds to the 21-fighter roster with the main cast’s Shadow characters. Instead of just mirror fighters, they don’t have personas and have weaker normal attacks but compensate by being able to use SP attacks more frequently and aggressively.

For those not here for the story, Ultimax fortunately has a variety of modes to get you into a throwdown quicker. There’s the self-explanatory Arcade Mode where you choose your character and just fight about eight match-ups, with a range of difficulty options. Matches are bookended by event scene dialogue that’s a lot snappier than the story mode, which you’re also free to skip. Meanwhile, lessons and challenge modes make for handy tutorials that allow newcomers to get to grips with the intricacies of anime fighters, in particular an emphasis on aerial attacks and movement, as well as the game’s unique Burst mechanics. If it does begin to overwhelm, you always have the option to string combos together with a single-button auto-combo function.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. Credit: Atlus

Another welcome addition is the RPG-inspired Golden Arena structured like dungeons as you fight a series of battles to reach a boss at the end, all the while levelling up your fighter of choice, gaining new skill buffs and debuffs, and it even has a light twist on the mainline games’ Social Link system when you select a partner character to act as a support.

But as with any other fighting game, the real longevity will come with competition with other players. This remaster has every chance of reigniting interest to make Ultimax as big as it was in the tournament circuit a few years ago. That will be greatly aided by rollback netcode, although the bad news is this isn’t coming until this summer, while the Switch won’t be getting the update at all. Who can say why, perhaps Atlus assumes the latter is for a more casual audience just in it for the story or single-player modes – it’s worth mentioning that you don’t even have to be into fighting games, as an Auto mode option essentially lets the AI do the work for you in the story and Golden Arena modes. Arc System Works’ repertoire has gotten more sophisticated in years since with the likes of Dragon Ball FighterZ and Guilty Gear: Strive, but this remaster proves Ultimax still deserves to be a contender.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax launches for PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch on March 17. Tested on PS4.

The Verdict

Considering it arrived during the transition of the previous console generation, it’s good to see Persona 4 Arena Ultimax available for a wider audience. Series fans will love the aesthetics and storytelling while fighting game fans will find as much depth in the mechanics as any other accomplished anime fighter from Arc System Works.

Yet when there’s more demand for the mainline RPGs to make their way to modern platforms, especially during the series’ 25th anniversary, it’s hard not to feel like this was the wrong remaster for Sega/Atlus to have prioritised, with Switch owners in particular getting the short straw.

Pros

  • Great anime fighter with large roster
  • Lots of story for fans of both Persona 4 and 3
  • Decent variety of modes

Cons

  • Rollback netcode not coming until summer (and not at all on Switch)
  • Lengthy narrative will go over the heads of newcomers and spoil key plot points from mainline entries, which are unavailable on most modern platforms.
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