Saturday, October 11, 2014

Impressions #16: Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax: Part 1

It is a strange coincidence that Persona 4 Ultimax would be released during my so-called “Season of ATLUS.” Considering that I just finished Digital Devil Saga 2 the day before it came out, the timing could not be any better. As a massive fan of the Persona franchise, I would be lying if I said I was not predisposed to liking a new entry, even if its not a game in the main series. That was no less true when the original Persona 4 Arena was released. Even still, I am willing to stand firmly behind it even without the brand name appeal. There is quite a lot here, and much is done to appeal to every possible member of the target audience.

Fans of Persona 3 and/or 4 will be happy to note the inclusion of a story mode. Taking place after the first Persona 4 Arena, Ultimax details how the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 come together to uncover the truth regarding what happened. As both groups begin to start their investigations, a mysterious blood red fog covers Inaba. Both crews are thrown headlong into a new “P-1 Climax” battle tournament shortly afterward, and their captors state that the world will end if they do not succeed in winning the tournament in one hour. From there, the story goes in some pretty interesting, and surprising, directions at times. Being a canonical story in the Persona universe, it is almost required for fans to go through it at least once.
The tale is divided into episodes. First up is Episode P4, which tells the story from the perspective of the Investigation Team from Persona 4. After that is completed, Episode P3 becomes available, which retells the story from the point-of-view of the former SEES operatives from Persona 3. While the overarching story remains the same for both stories, there are significant differences between them. At the same time, there are plot elements that are only hinted at in one episode, that are explained in greater detail in the other, and vice-versa. Ultimately, the True Ending, which is unlocked by completing both episodes, makes it very clear that the P4 side to the tale is canonical, while Episode P3 serves as more of a “What If?” scenario.

Though the story itself is very well written, and an incredible job of bringing all of these characters together in a believable way, its presentation leaves much to be desired. Fans of the original Persona 4 Arena probably will not be terribly surprised to hear that, as Ultimax has the exact same style its predecessor had. The story is told in a manner similar to visual novels, where characters are represented by static 2D-artwork on top of a background image representing the area they are in. When this does not suffice to explain the action in the scene, a text description of the action is displayed on top of these elements. On occasion, these scenes are broken up by a battle, as dictated by the story. Even among fighting games, this is not a terribly unique style of storytelling.
The problem with this style, which feels even more pronounced here than it did in the first Persona 4 Arena, is that these scenes take a long, long time. It is not uncommon to spend an hour or more just watching characters talk to each other before ever participating in a battle. Because of the game's (admittedly handy) auto-advance mode for dialogue, this almost literally means that players will not be pressing any buttons at all for very prolonged periods of time. Even when fights break out, the AI for the story mode opponents is extremely stupid, so it takes almost no effort to trounce them with little more than a few combos and throws. Should even that be too much effort, the game even offers an “Auto Mode” which will make the AI fight for the player. Yes, this would literally mean that the player is watching the game play itself on the scant few moments that the story gives them a moment to interact with it.
And that transitions nicely into another thing I noticed when playing Ultimax. While Persona 4 and Persona 4 Arena both had very long cutscenes (even Persona 4 is infamous for having three hours worth of scenes before players ever got to fight a monster), they had an interesting way of keeping players engaged through that process. Persona 4 offered dialogue choices throughout all of these scenes. While those choices rarely, if ever, had any significant meaning, they kept the player's attention by giving them a chance to both think about what transpired in the game, and express their views on it, even if those views mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Persona 4 Arena also offered choice in terms of which character they used as a viewpoint character and in what order they were played in.
In either case, these kind of “meaningless choices” would serve to greatly improve the end user-experience for Ultimax. It almost seems like the writers forgot that they were making the script for a video game. Usually, the only choice players have is in which character in their current group gets to fight the upcoming battle. Aside from that, the only dialogue choice made is right before the final boss, and is one of the most obvious choices I have ever seen in a Persona game. The game's presentation would have benefited from some interactivity in order to keep players more engaged during the story section. Some people are going to hate it, others will tolerate it in the name of a good Persona story, but I hesitate to say that anyone is going to “like” the presentation.

Unfortunately, I appear to be a little too long in the tooth for this article. As I was writing it, I realized that I was quickly approaching 2000 words. I sincerely doubt many of you out there would be comfortable reading all of this in one sitting. As a result, I decided to break this up into two parts. We will leave off here, since I have finished discussing story and presentation. Next week, I will discuss mechanics, characters, and new additions to the game.

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