I Suck At Fighting Games: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax

If you would like to avoid spoilers, play Persona 3 and 4 before reading this.

For the first few days, I had no idea if I even liked Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. I anticipated it for months because the previous game is one of my favorite fighting games ever. This sequel takes the base of Persona 4 Arena and piles on a ridiculous amount of extra content like new characters, stages and game modes. They also changed the systems and the characters themselves so much that parts of it are unrecognizable.

I enjoy Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, but not every change improved the game.

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What's good about the game?

1. It's not too complicated.

In 2012, I praised the original Persona 4 Arena for its wealth of tutorial and training systems. Fighting games are extremely difficult to get into, but even a new player like me eased into Persona 4 Arena and could actually win matches.

I'm happy to say that this game continues that trend. It quickly teaches you all the important mechanics, and is a great game for new fighting game players at a low level.

The Lesson Mode is even more detailed this time around, with more tutorials and more detailed descriptions.

There's also Challenge Mode that teaches you the moveset and several combos for every character in the game, along with Demonstrations where the game shows you a brief video of what you should be doing. Every fighting game should have this!

The Training Mode is one of the best around, with multiple pages of options that allows you an unprecedented level of customization. Want to know exactly how fast Junpei recovers health with Victory Cry and 31 runs on the board? You can do it.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax already has simple inputs compared to most fighting games. 90% of special moves are quarter circle forward or quarter circle back, and there are only four buttons. Combine that with robust tutorial modes and an excellent training mode, and it remains one of the best fighting games for newcomers.

2. Lots of new stuff.

A lot has been added to this sequel. It's far from a simple expansion pack because of the amount of added content AND the changes made to each character.

New Characters: The characters added in this sequel are so cool that I wish I could play them all (except for Marie). Including downloadable characters, Margaret, SHO Minazuki, Sho MINAZUKI, Ken & Koromaru, Yukari, Adachi, Junpei, Rise and Marie are brand new. I won't waste too much space talking about them, but for the most part I found these characters enjoyable to play in their own individual ways.

Playing Ken & Koromaru tested my dexterity because they are basically two separate characters to control, with the dog even having his own health meter. When played properly, they are devastating. You can attack with both of them at the same time, covering some of Ken's slower moves with Koromaru's quick attacks. Fighting this pair can lead to situations where you're blocking for a LONG time because it gets overwhelming and you don't know when you can counterattack.

Junpei is possibly the worst character in the game, but he has the coolest mechanic I've ever seen in a fighting game. He is a baseball player with a BASEBALL METER on screen. Connecting with bat attacks builds up a run counter, and when you have 10 runs he goes into a super mode where he gets more powerful as well as regains health and meter slowly. More runs = more buffs. You can also lose opportunities to build your score, as whiffing attacks or getting blocked count as strikes! You're playing baseball in a fighting game, which is the coolest and most inventive thing I've seen in the genre in a while.

Junpei struggles to win against most of the cast, but he is so much fun to play as.

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All of the returning characters also received new moves and a Shadow mode. The Shadow mode isn't too special for most characters, but for some it is a major buff. More on that later.

The rebalancing and addition of new moves has lead to the returning characters playing differently from the last game, which has both forced me to learn new combos and drop characters like Yosuke because my brain couldn't reconcile how much they've changed. Overall, I appreciate how far they went to make the characters play differently, giving them new options and tactics. The tiers are slightly closer, and those extremely difficult matchups from Persona 4 Arena feel more manageable.

There are a handful of new universal mechanics that change up tactics as well. SP Skill Boost are EX Supers, costing 75 meter but dealing much more damage. Fatal Recovery is added to certain moves, meaning that getting counterhit after them is always a Fatal Counter. Guard Cancel Evasive Action allows you to roll out of blockstun and get some breathing room. And of course, the Shadow characters have their own quirks.

New Score Attack: In Persona 4 Arena, Score Attack was a brutally difficult variant of Arcade mode where you fought Boss variants of every character. Now, it's a bit different.

New Score Attack allows you to pick your difficulty and your course, the latter of which determines what 10 characters you will face. Depending on your difficulty, you could face five Bosses, ten bosses, or none. You don't really unlock anything if you're not on the highest difficulty, but the mode is good for a challenge against tough but fair AI.

Golden Arena: This is basically Survival Mode from any other fighting game with RPG elements. You fight several battles in a row, some of them being against stronger boss characters. All the while, you gain experience points that allow you to raise your stats, equip skills and customize your character just like in Persona 3 & 4.

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This mode is a cool way to tie together the RPG side of Persona games with the fighting game, but it has a few issues. You “equip” a partner for buffs, but unlocking them is explained. Rise is provided and it's shown that there are other Social Links to unlock, but you aren't told how to unlock them. Even after completing the first course (46 fights!) I was stuck with Rise with no hints of how to get anyone else.

The game also doesn't mention when your progress is saved. From what I can tell, the game saves after boss fights. However, it doesn't tell you this and it's not obvious when you are fighting a boss. From what I observed, bosses are probably the characters with slightly higher stats and are decked out in all-black colors. The rules could have been explained better on that. Still, Golden Arena is a cool twist on the Survival mode that some fighting games include.

3. Excellent Online.

I can't speak about new lobby system because I'm on Xbox 360. Get the PS3 version if you can because that thing looks awesome.

Besides that, the online experience in Persona 4 Arena is still great. Unranked matches allow for 8 player “Open Arena” lobbies where everyone can play with no waiting or spectating. Ranked matches allow you to “Enlist” and then back out of the menu.

While Enlisted, you can play the majority of offline modes while the game searches for matches in the background. When that happens, you get a little pop-up and can jump directly into a match. After that, it puts you back into the mode you were in.

I found this very useful while training. I'd warm up and practice combos in Training Mode, and a match pops up. I'd take the match and seamlessly get put back into training when I was done. It's a great feature.

Aside from that, the netcode is comparable to Persona 4 Arena. It's much better than most fighting games and rarely stutters online, even in situations where the bars look low. Just make sure you watch the intro before an online match, and any stuttering will magically fix itself.

What's not good about the game?

1. Marie is in the game. Remove her please.

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I'm kidding. I don't actually want her removed....unless you're gonna do it.

2. Shadow characters might be overpowered.

The Shadow characters in this game work a little differently than normal characters. They have lots of altered properties, but these three are the most important:

-More health

-Higher meter gain

-Access to Shadow Frenzy

To simplify Shadow Frenzy, it gives the character infinite meter for a few seconds and lets them cancel any move into any other move. This lets you do stylish combos and loops...which can do 50 to 100 percent damage on other characters.

Shadow Chie and Shadow Naoto are the best at this. They have extremely painful combos that are difficult to burst out of. If you used your Burst earlier in the round against Shadow Naoto/Chie, you're probably gonna die.

Most Shadows don't seem as good as those two, but I've seen and been hit by insane combos from Shadow Yukiko and Shadow Akihiko as well.

Shadow characters might be overpowered because their advantages are not balanced by many disadvantages. They do less damage overall, but their Shadow Frenzy combos can kill easily. They WILL get Shadow Frenzy at some point because of their increased meter gain and the fact that their unused super meter carries over through rounds.

Besides that, dying in one combo just feels unfair. It wasn't a regular occurrence in Persona 4 Arena, where Awakening mode gave you some more health and meter for a comeback. Fights against Shadows can feel hopeless as you get hit once and eat an 80% combo. It feels unbalanced in a game that is mostly fair.

3. Everyone got buffed.

In order to bridge the gap between low tier and high tier in Persona 4 Arena, every character seemed to improve in Ultimax. I play Kanji and I have appreciated his changes. His autocombo is much better, the Skill Boost versions of his supers allow him to do high damaging combos and make crazy comebacks, and his new shoulder charge move allows him to close the gap on zoning characters more easily.

However, buffing everyone made some balance problems worse. Yu Narukami was one of the best characters in Persona 4 Arena, but his buffs just made him annoying to fight against. He has a new command grab and his Cross Slash super has been made even better. Shadow Narukami is an entirely new level of ridiculous. Labrys has fallen even further in the tiers as the stronger characters around her got even better. Junpei is hopeless. Minazuki (with Persona) is so much better than Sho that he makes the latter irrelevant. Shadow Chie and Shadow Naoto make their regular versions irrelevant.

It took me a while to decide, but I ended up enjoying Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. However, it is a very different game than the first Arena. It's less balanced and has many more instances where a stray hit can turn into a fatal combo.

Despite all that, I don't get truly frustrated playing this game. It could be the combination between my unhealthy Persona obsession and the fact that every character has SOMETHING unfair in their arsenal. It's rough getting trapped in Minazuki's long, easy to execute, high damaging combos. But once I get into Awakening I can land a 70% super grab and turn the tide. It's unfair but enjoyable to employ those scumbag tactics. You could say it's FUNfair!

I'd recommend it to fans of Persona 4 for the story mode and other single player modes. At a low level, it's still great to get into for newer fighting game players due to its easy inputs and great tutorials. But if I wasn't already somewhat experienced, I'd probably be more upset at some of the insane things that happen. I still enjoy the game and recommend it, but I find myself playing online for shorter sessions than I did in Persona 4 Arena.

A common argument is that every fighting game is unfair or unbalanced in some way, and your personal preferences will determine what type of unfairness you're willing to put up with. Compared to its sequel, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax is MUCH less fair and balanced. But I can put up with it.

Is that damning it with faint praise? Maybe!

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