Release date: March 17, 2022
Developer: Arc System Works
A longtime cult classic among Persona and fighting game fans alike, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is finally seeing a re-release on modern systems as part of the series’ 25th anniversary celebration. Atlus and Arc System Works came together a decade ago to create a crossover for the ages, pairing Arc System Works’ wild and incredibly fun fighting game style with the world of Persona and its unmatchable, overflowing swagger. That swagger is present in every facet of the game, including the familiar characters and aesthetic, electric soundtrack, slick flourishes throughout the presentation that would go on to take even Masahiro Sakurai’s heart later in the series, and its classic Persona-style mystery.
The story in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax centers around the casts of Persona 3 and 4, a new character named Labrys, and the mysterious P-1 Grand Prix tournament taking place inside the Midnight Channel. Those who enjoyed Persona 3 and especially Persona 4 will feel right at home with the game’s story, as familiar locations, supporting characters, and iconic music all return in the same amazing Persona style. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is technically a sequel to Persona 4 Arena with a completely new story taking place shortly after the original. Thankfully, the re-release on Switch features both stories; however, Ultimax’s story is curiously the first option in the story mode menu. If you’re interested in experiencing the full story, make sure you’re starting with the original Persona 4 Arena story, as the Ultimax follow up story will heavily spoil it right from the start.
While the story mode is heavy on exposition, at its core, this is still very much a full-fledged fighting game. Co-developed by Arc System Works, a longtime developer of anime style fighting games that recently rose to greater prominence after the success of Dragon Ball FighterZ and Guilty Gear Strive, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a fast-paced 2D fighting game featuring hallmarks of the genre such as air-dashing, flexible combo systems, and extravagant special moves and supers.
Players are afforded a great deal of freedom in getting around the screen during matches, with air dashes, double jumps, hops, and even the ability to turn and face the opposite direction in midair at their disposable, making movement in the game incredibly fun. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax also features an auto combo mechanic whereby a character will perform a standard combo (ending in a super if they have enough meter) by pressing the light attack button repeatedly. It’s a great mechanic for those looking to have fun with the game immediately or without spending a lot of time in training mode learning combos, and in keeping with the game’s freeform nature, each attack of the auto combo can usually be chained into other moves as well, opening up avenues for more advanced usage.
Whether it’s auto combos or custom combos, there are plenty of opportunities to dish out both, as Persona 4 Arena Ultimax’s single-player content boasts more than just a great story. The game features a Golden Arena mode, where RPG mechanics such as leveling up, stat boosts, and skill acquisition are layered on top of the 2D fighting game system as your chosen character tries to survive consecutive battles on each floor (a callback to the dungeons in older Persona entries). Arcade and store attack modes are present as well, with a bevy of difficulty options to suit the preferences of different players, as well as several avenues for learning and getting better at the game.
In addition to a training mode, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax has more guided options for practice such as combo challenges for each character and tutorials that explain the game’s various systems. The tutorial mode covers a lot of ground, from basic movement such as a backstep to more involved options like the One More mechanic used to extend combos. It does a great job explaining the purpose and limitations of each mechanic but could have been better served by forcing players to apply it in the appropriate manner during the practical phase (rather than having them perform it in front of a motionless target). However, that’s a minor complaint, as the tutorial succeeds in educating new players about the game in a concise manner, and the combo challenges are great fun when you’re ready to learn more about specific characters. Overall, the single-player offerings in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax are an impressive collection of fun, varied, and informative content.
Standard to the genre, the game features a capable one-on-one versus mode players can get a lot of mileage from if they have others to play with offline. If you have aspirations of taking the game online, that’s where Persona 4 Arena Ultimax gets more dicey. At best, I played online matches where the connection was decent: there was a delay, but not enough to totally ruin the experience. When the matches are bad, however, they’re awfully bad; and we’re not just talking Super Smash Bros. Ultimate bad where there’s a significant delay after the connection goes downhill but you can still muster up some fight. At times, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax reached the hallowed Super Smash Bros. Brawl slideshow level of literally unplayable.
Atlus has announced that Persona 4 Arena Ultimax will get rollback netcode on other platforms (which would, in theory, improve the online play), but unfortunately, the Switch version seems destined to be stuck with the current delay-based netcode. Without getting into too much detail, the result of rollback netcode is smoother online matches that get closer to the seamless offline experience. When executed correctly, rollback netcode is a game-changer; fighting games can be frustrating even at the best of times, so not having to worry about the online component on top of it is a great boon. We can hope it’s one that’s granted to Switch players eventually, but at least for now, it’s not on the horizon.
How much any given person enjoys Persona 4 Arena Ultimax on Switch will vary greatly depending on what they want out of the experience. If you’re looking to jump back into the world of Persona 3 and 4 and enjoy a cool story involving a crossover with these characters, the narrative aspects are entertaining and likely to please. For those seeking a fast-paced, versatile, and extremely fun 2D fighting game filled with exuberance and a lot of meaningful single-player content, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is similarly a winner. Anyone who wants to dive deeper into the competitive side of the game or grind online is likely in for some frustration, however, as the subpar netcode on the Switch version holds it back. Which is a shame, because Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is a truly magnificent package and love letter to both the Persona series and anime fighting games.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.