(Original photo by toyohara via flickr.)
For a lot of Western foreigners kicking off their new lives in Japan, most typically Americans, one of the harder transitions that can be made is getting acclimated to local renditions of some of their favorite meals from home. Superficially, much of it looks familiar, but enough aspects of the preparation are often skewed just differently enough to be more accommodating of the local palate that it can be difficult for such new residents to accept them as well and truly legitimate representations of those dishes. Japanese pizza, for instance, is known to have liberal dosages of corn and scrambled egg for toppings, while green tea is a flavor in many a sweet, ice cream in particular, and hamburgers are almost more ubiquitous in hamburg steak form that’s sliced and diced on a plate than as a slab of meat between two buns that’s supposed to be eaten with two hands. And as a native of Colorado, don’t even get me started on how hard it is to find a good burrito over there that isn’t made by your own two hands.
Of course, I’m not saying that international foods localized for Japanese tastes are lacking in their own merits or are inherently inappreciable to non-natives. I myself am known to enjoy a good slice of corn and egg pizza in Japan that’s then topped off with some of that green tea-flavored ice cream, heretical though an enjoyment of the former is widely thought to be. But when the differences stand out just enough between the Japanese rendition of a dish and a more tradition version of it as cooked up in its homeland, the starkness can almost be too much to bear and it’s often easier to just accept the Japanese variety as a unique new sort of meal in its own right, rather than a member of the same exact culinary family you’ve always known and loved.
But this, in a nutshell, is how I would ultimately describe my time with Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. There are clearly elements of it that are familiar to me as someone who has thoroughly enjoyed past Persona games, including the eponymous Persona 4 and the previous installment of Persona 4 Arena. A desperate attempt has clearly been made, particularly by the Atlus half of the equation as the one in charge of the story writing, to ensure that this game, one that very well could be the last console title to bear the Persona 4 moniker, is recognizable and enjoyable as an expansion upon the foundation of both games. But after having my fill of both its combat and storytelling buffets, it frankly feels less to me like the deep and meaty Chicago-style pizza that Persona 4 proper was or even its fun, but literally flimsier older brother, the New York-style Persona 4 Arena, so much as an awkwardly prepared, but still sometimes charming Japanese pizza. It’s not all bad in places once you get to know it, but it feels irreconcilably different from those other games in some significant regards, too distinct to really feel like a natural member of the existing family, even when pitted next to its closest stylistic relative. There’s no literal egg on top of this pizza, thankfully, but it is, for better or for worse, laced with its own metaphorical brand of corn a plenty.
Let’s start off with the aspects of this game that don’t make as quick to disown it as when I was once handed a burrito in Japan that substituted the spice of salsa with wasabi. From at least the perspective of someone who enjoys fighting games in a mostly casual capacity and grew up learning the Arc System Works school of thought even before Capcom’s, the actual combat-related parts, the ones where you’re hitting buttons in the hopes of shaving pixels off the enemy’s health bar, still feel great and are a lot of fun. Though I understand the mechanics well enough to keep up when watching competitive-level games, I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on how balanced it all is and whether the metagame aspects that all the changes and new elements introduced to the game are solid. There are people smarter than me out there when it comes to that stuff and the quality of online multiplayer, which I unfortunately didn’t feel I could evaluate fairly as someone with a poor connection, and I imagine they have lots of insightful things to say on both of those points.
What I will say is that while the core mechanics of it all definitely feel like familiar territory by and large in terms of raw mechanics, what is new in Ultimax by way of actual new characters —everyone plausible from Persona 3 that wasn’t already in and more!— and new Shadow versions for most of the cast and their associated quirks breath some much appreciated new life into a fighting game that I’ve personally been playing off and on for just about three years before the original arcade version was even officially out in Japan. When the game is just about me facing down an opponent and beating them up with myriad combos that I’ve practiced long and hard to pull off consistently, I feel the same sort of magic that I always did with the original game, compelling me to learn bits and pieces of the overall game and its individual characters at my own pace and then endlessly experiment with incorporating that knowledge into my strategies accordingly. I easily dropped over $100 onto the first game across both arcade matches and purchasing the console port and were I still living there, I’d be all too happy to do it all over again and test my mettle the hard way against others in person who actually know what they’re doing with the game.
For the rare creature like me that also even enjoys playing fighting games in a solo capacity against AI opponents for extended periods of time, Ultimax even offers more in the way of modes geared towards those sensibilities, as well as difficulty tuning that ensures most everybody can join the fun. Chief among that new content for me personally is Golden Arena Mode, which lets you take whichever character you like into a series of one round fights, leveling them up, bolstering their stats to your liking, and equipping abilities that are largely pulled from the original RPG editions of Persona 3 and 4, letting you do everything from inflicting status ailments on your opponents to restoring health at the press of a button, among many, many other things. Opposing characters are similarly equipped in creative ways when it comes to their ability loadout, meaning that as you go through the motions and climb higher and higher up the ranks, they become just as capable of pulling off feats that wouldn’t be remotely possible in normal matchups.
Obviously as a result, this arguably limits the usefulness of Golden Arena Mode as a proper training-mode-away-from-training-mode when playing by yourself, but it can make for an engaging diversion when you don’t feel like just going through the same old sorts of fights in Arcade and Score Attack Modes. Much like in the RPG games, it’s fun to have to start making tough decisions about skill loadouts when faced with the proposition of gaining a powerful new skill that could fundamentally change how you approach the game going forward. There’s not a whole lot going for it beyond waves of fights and the occasional stats screen when it’s time to level up and/or swap out abilities, as any and all major narrative content is saved for the story mode proper, but, again, as somebody fundamentally familiar already with how a Persona 4 Arena game is played and is long past that initial phase of learning the basic ins and outs of the returning roster, Golden Arena Mode is refreshing as a veteran player for its ability to make familiar fights in particular feel dynamic and entertainingly harrowing again as I grapple with new unknowns time and again. It could have done with a brief tutorial to better explain all of these subsystems since it appears to more or less just be a straight port of the arcade edition in that it just more or less throws you straight into the action with nary a word, but it’s all easy to grasp soon enough, especially if you start off playing it with a character you already know well.
It’s also worth briefly pointing out for fellow solo fighting game fans that Score Attack Mode has been changed to include not only five difficulty levels now, but also multiple opponent lineups for each level, as well as the ability to continue after losing. Compared to the previous game where the only difficulty was Self-Esteem Breaking with only one course of preset opponents and no chance to continue if you lost, Score Attack Mode in Ultimax is significantly friendlier and more approachable for casual fun. Fights in this mode from Normal difficulty upward still have instances of opponents being pre-buffed so as to make them tougher as was often the case in the first Arena game —although in the case of it occurring in Normal specifically it’s a bit oxymoronic considering the name— but the ability to now continue again at such fights, rather than start from scratch every time when losing, does much to take the sting off of defeat, something that I personally welcome, even as someone who eventually could fare okay in Arena‘s Score Attack Mode. Difficulty levels for both this mode and Arcade Mode are also now chosen before you begin each new run, rather than toggled through the options menu, making the process of experimenting with unfamiliar characters go much more smoothly than before.
Put simply in these regards, Arc System Works put out another really solid and fun fighting game as someone who was way into the original Arena. As before, the quality of its work shines beyond just the pure mechanics driving the fights themselves; there’s a demonstrable respect for the source material running throughout much of the presentation, too, right down to how the characters are designed both in terms of how they fight, as well as just how they move and conduct themselves on screen altogether. Make newcomer Rise walk slowly, for instance, and she’ll walk with the sort of subtle, but visibly confident swagger that’s expected of a major pop idol like herself. Make her fight, meanwhile, and her moves will play on her lore in interesting ways, ranging from her creatively liberal use of her trusty microphone stand to her ability to scan opponents and keep them in check in ways reminiscent of the fight against Shadow Rise in the original Persona 4. This sort of attention to detail was present in the last Arena game in spades, too, right down to how many of the RPG mechanics were lifted and applied to a fighting game context, but it’s still reassuring to see that Arc System Works has continued to endeavor to make Ultimax a legitimately recognizable Persona game beyond the branding on the packagine and while I’ve singled out Rise, when it comes to character designs, it very much so extends out to everyone else that’s new, too. Nitpicky stuff like the lack of tutorials for Golden Arena Mode not withstanding, so far as I’m concerned, Arc System Works did its job and it’s a pretty great one at that.
It’s the Atlus half, the one responsible for writing up the actual narrative that went into the story mode, that has me really leery of Ultimax‘s proposition overall in some respects.
To be certain, there’s enough precedence when going into most fighting games to not expect the most groundbreaking or even particularly worthwhile storyline in the world. That’s ultimately for good reason: all the well written lore in the world won’t save any fighting game from mediocrity if the actual combat, the part of the game that’s supposed to be its raison d’etre, isn’t enjoyable. But when your name is Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, one that very proudly boasts its connections to one of the most widely loved RPGs in the last decade and you dramatically advertise as your first major selling point on the back of the box with prolific capital letters and exclamation points, “MASSIVE STORY MODE!!! See the thrilling conclusion to Persona 4 Arena [a game that also leaned heavily on its narrative underpinnings]” and you dedicate 15-plus hours’ worth of content to it in a dedicated expository mode, I think I can be forgiven for expecting this sequel to at least walk the walk for all the talking the talk that it does.
Perhaps the biggest issue concerning the plot’s writing is that despite known Atlus writers being the caretakers of it, including major ones that worked on 4 and the original Arena, it ironically tends to exhibit far less respect for the characters, the growth they’ve undertaken until now, and the audience’s intelligence than Arc System Works’ own contributions to the game, despite the latter ostensibly not being the company that originally created Persona 4 in the first place. Ultimax‘s story is essentially filled with frivolous fanservice and while that’s not inherently a bad thing nor was it absent from Arena, in this instance, most all of it doesn’t feel particularly earned. Callbacks to events in Persona 3 and 4 and individual character tropes are extremely arbitrary and excessive, feeling less like a charming reminder of Ultimax‘s roots than it does a desperate plea by Atlus to try and convince players of its legitimacy as a True Persona Game, of something whose events and character developments should just inherently be accepted with the same amount of weight as the main RPGs.
So often are these sorts of moments, in fact, that storyline progression routinely grinds to a halt for the explicit purpose of making players indulge in throwaway skits that often amount to the game just saying things such as, “Hey! Did you know Chie likes meat? In case you forgot, boy look at we have cooked up for you!” or “Isn’t it just funny how Teddie’s brazen advances on the girls fail time and time again? He never learns!” It’s all done with the expectation that these moments by themselves, if forcibly inserted enough times throughout the story, will be enough to make players feel invested in how the Arena saga ends. If the existing characters are at least all superficially recognizable as being “themselves”, the thinking goes, then its job is done because the characters by themselves are what have sold myriad people on the Persona games, right?
But for me, at least, I don’t like Chie just because she’s a quirky girl who loves eating meat with everything and watching kung fu. I don’t like Yukiko just because she loves to laugh at every little thing. I don’t like Elizabeth and her Velvet Room siblings just because of how awkward their attempts at understanding and integrating with the real world often are. I’ve liked them a whole lot and the Persona series as a whole, older installments included, because the main players in those games all go on interesting, introspective journeys to discover themselves, grow, and make the most of their intrinsically flawed humanity, vying to become better people that aren’t chained to their worst aspects. It might not be without its own share of storytelling problems, too, especially in terms of structure, but even the other Arena game maintained that legacy respectably and even explored some interesting concepts the series hadn’t discussed as before, such as how our personal flaws and problems can still linger long after we’ve learned to recognize and embrace them, that our own demons still need attending to from time to time so as to ensure they don’t grow to be strong again. There wasn’t much room for major growth from most anyone save for Labrys given the small time frame between the ending of 4 and the beginning of Arena, but it nevertheless felt like there were honest attempts by the writing team at Atlus with that first game to bring that emotional and psychological depth and symbolism to a fighting game in ways that tried to accommodate that genre, despite it being scary new territory for the series.
This time around, though, everything just rings hollow. Rather than being moved by new backstories or being entranced by new personal struggles that the characters could be facing, I’ve been met with a barrage of characters that somehow feel less mature and refined than when they were first introduced in their source material and a plotline that has them often at best routinely acting in ways that are out of character and betray the growth that’s already been established for them elsewhere. And at worst, the story flies in the face of logic, established or otherwise, without a hint of self-awareness, compromising the integrity those core narrative values to the Persona franchise to an alarmingly nonchalant degree. There are a handful of moments that still show the sort of brilliance past games have demonstrated in spades, most notably with respect to Rise’s reasons for gaining a combat-ready Persona and Ken’s internal struggles with learning what it means to be a kid, but the game bafflingly relegates those things to the periphery as short, tangential vignettes in favor of focusing predominantly on the fluff, on the cynically composed character moments that are in service of nothing meaningful beyond halfhearted references to the games of Persona past made for the sake of making them.
There’s also the matter of complete Persona series new guy Sho Minazuki, a blazing red-haired fighter who wields a sword in each hand that is perhaps most emblematic of all of these missteps that have taken place in Ultimax. Insofar as I can gather when he takes the time in the game to actually speak intelligently and not just yell incessantly at the good guys for not being one of the bad guys like him, he exists purely to say the opposite of what the other characters say just to spite them in an effort by the writers to overtly, yet weakly drive home the point just how unwaveringly right the other characters and their convictions clearly are, no questions asked, as well as the basic themes of Persona 4 as a whole. When 4 protagonist Yu and company extol the values of human bonds ad nauseum repeatedly, as if sickly recalling the anime adaptation’s fetish for the term, Sho is ready and all too happy to shout them down and vainly explain just how very, very wrong they are incoherently to a near-transcendental level only matched by the likes of the eponymous Grinch from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
While, again, I’d argue that the integral themes of 4 and the series as a whole have tended to skew a lot deeper than just “friendships are great, you should try them sometime”, Sho as the main antagonist is essentially all of the story’s worst traits rolled up into one ugly ball, both inside and out. It’s not just his sheer argumentative repetition that makes him a poorly formed character, though. Aside from practically insisting that he must have no real nuances to his character and be a mere caricature as much of the other cast has been reduced to, he also exhibits profoundly wonky logic about how to go about fulfilling his aggressively evil ambitions and the few attempts made to flesh him out as an interesting character and justify his antics are quickly shelved so the game can return to being condescendingly pandering. Sho is almost never given the opportunity to branch out and grow beyond the traits that the audience is initially introduced to, yet the plot is still keen to plaster the spotlight on him a lot, as if Ultimax is hoping that, yet again, with enough exposure to him like the other characters and their excessively recycled tropes, he’ll ultimately be accepted as “one of the guys” for real by force. I didn’t set out to hate him just because he was new, but certainly by the end after I had trudged through all of the storylines that the game had to offer, including the optional one available as part of launch day DLC, I didn’t feel like he was all that welcome a member of an already burgeoning cast that had plenty of interesting things to say and do already amongst themselves.
None of this is meant to be a stab at the localization team at Atlus USA, nor the voice acting work that has gone into Ultimax. While those things aren’t without a handful of minor awkwardness, by and large, all of the effort that has clearly been expended to make the game accessible in English is professionally produced and of a technically high quality. Speaking from experience as a translator myself, sometimes you can only do so much to make a work shine in a new language when the source material just isn’t all that great to begin with. It’s unfortunate to see such circumstances befall Ultimax knowing the series’ general legacy, but I otherwise don’t blame the English side of the production in the least for how the narrative parts turned out. Atlus USA did its job; it’s some of the members of its parent company that I mean to give the stink eye towards. No more and no less.
Indeed, this condemnation of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax‘s plot isn’t intended to imply that the game as a whole package is lacking in any worth whatsoever. There totally is a fighting game underneath it all that remains as fast, fun, and exciting as ever to me and I definitely like that gameplay core well enough to, if not forgive the storyline for what it is, then at least go beyond it and still greatly enjoy those other elements on their own merits. I definitely see myself continuing to play it casually by myself and with friends in the years to come, much like I did with the original Arena, even after posting this review.
But that combat is only part of what’s supposed to be a bigger package and as someone invested in Persona games primarily for the stories and the ways that they’re told, this one fell way below the mark in terms of what the series can and has done before, even just within the realm of fighting games. I completely respect the writers’ decisions to compose the story that they did, egregiously fanservice-laden, precedence-breaking warts and all. I will never, as a fellow writer, tell another one to just go and write the sort of the story I think I want just to win my support and admiration. I’d rather have an honest, but bad story, rather than a good, disingenuous one that just caters to what someone else thinks that I want. But I’m also by no means obligated to stand up for those sorts of decisions when they rub me as an individual the wrong way and on that front, I think Ultimax is a much tougher sell as a supposedly story-driven game. I’ll take my Japanese pizza without those toppings, thanks.
Review conducted with the PlayStation 3 version of the game. A review copy was provided for free in advance of the game’s official release courtesy of Atlus USA.