When we last left off, I was discussing my thoughts on Persona 4 Arena Ultimax. I discussed the story and presentation of the game. Today, we will continue past that point. This article is dedicated to the mechanics and gameplay side of the equation.
In terms of mechanics though, Arc System Works was working magic. Ultimax surpasses even its predecessor in terms of making a fighting-game friendly to both beginners and experts alike. For beginners, the game offers many helpful systems to get them started. As an example, every character has an “auto-combo”, an easy combo move that is performed by repeatedly mashing the A button. Veteran players will be able to easily block the entire combo if they see if coming, but this does give newer players a tool to start learning new characters, since everyone has that same combo input.
Another way the game facilitates beginners is through a simplified control scheme. Every special move in the game can be performed by a one or two quarter-circles in a given direction, followed by one the four attack buttons. Unlike many fighters, they are very few complex command strings that need to be input. The key to mastering a character is in knowing when to use a move, not how. Should even this be difficult to pull off, there is a new “S-Hold” system, that allows players to hold down the A button in order to charge the S-Hold meter. The longer the button is depressed, the stronger the move will be when it is released.
On top of these systems, the game offers facilities to help beginner and intermediate players improve their skills. Aside from the standard “Training” mode, two modes are also in the “Practice Modes” category. These modes are “Lesson Mode” and “Challenge Mode” respectively. “Lesson Mode” is designed as a tutorial for basic mechanics for the game, including new mechanics which were added. On the other hand, “Challenge Mode”, is unique for each character. They all have a list of challenges to perform, each one teaching the player about one of their combos. This offers the player a same environment to try to ingrain a combo into muscle memory, helping them transition into the state of being an advanced player. With all of these systems, beginners can start developing skill in a very user-friendly manner.
However, there is still a lot for expert players to play around with as well, in order to get the edge over their peers. Furious actions are commands that can be used to grant temporary invincibility frames and a decent attack at the cost of a little health. This can be used when the player is about to be attacked by a massive combo, in order to capitalize on it. Another option is referred to as Burst, which can be used in several ways. Most commonly, it can be used to break an enemy's combo by sending them flying. Alternatively, a One More Burst can cancel the player out of a combo, returning them to a neutral stance in order to keep up the pressure. Newly added to Ultimax is the Golden Burst. If the enemy is in range, but not connecting with attacks, a Golden Burst will send them back in order to gain full SP meter and all their lost Persona cards. Many intricate systems are all working together to create a truly elegant fighting game for the experienced.
In terms of balance, quite a bit was changed from the last game. One of the most notable changes is in the balance of Persona cards. As befitting a Persona game, every character, with one exception, has a persona that they can invoke during a fight to aid them. If the persona is attacked during the execution of a move, they are dismissed and the character loses one of their cards. Once all of their cards are destroyed, the persona is broken, and will be unavailable for a time. Persona 4 Arena gave every character 4 persona cards. Ultimax changed this by re-balancing the number of cards each character has. Characters like Elizabeth or Yukiko, who are heavily reliant on their personae to fight, get 5 or 6 cards. Meanwhile, people like Akihiko, who rarely ever need their persona, only possess 2 cards. More cards mean it takes more hits to break the persona, but recovering from a break takes more time.
Furthermore, movesets have been tweaked for returning characters. While they still have roughly the same attacks, new moves were added, and many had their properties changed. The most notable of these changes would be the severe nerfing Yosuke received to his Sukukaja, which would previously practically guarantee him the win for the round. Also, the buffing of Naoto's trap, which make it easier for her to perform her Hamaon/Mudoon instant kills. I personally really appreciate these changes, as many of them were greatly needed.
New additions have also found their way in. The biggest of them would be the addition of several new characters, to the point of nearly doubling the original cast. All of the surviving members of SEES who were absent for P4A are present in P4AU. Yukari returns, with her bow and persona, Isis. As befitting an archer, she is very much a distance fighter, not too great in close-range combat. Ken and Koromaru, who fight together, work better at mid-range. Junpei, on the other hand, is not that great in anything. Other characters from the P4 fiction, like Marie, Adachi, and Margaret, join the cast as DLC for $5 each. Each are fairly good in their own right, but serve different playstyles. Also included in the game, Rise joins the cast as a playable fighter for the first time in a Persona game, without any DLC. Lastly, the antagonist, Sho Minazuki, is another newcomer to the cast. He has two forms, with and without a Persona. Both forms serve the same general role of a rushdown character, but they are unique in many different ways to each other.
Another huge addition is that most characters have a “Shadow Type”. Shadow Type characters play very differently from their original counterparts. For starters, they use the old auto-combos from the original Persona 4 Arena. Also, while they cannot Awaken, they can use Awakening SP Skills even in their normal state. Furthermore, SP for a shadow carries over between rounds, adding a new layer to resource management since any SP left unspent can make the next match easier. On that same token, if they max out their SP, then they can enter a Frenzy, where skills no longer cost SP for a short time, until the Frenzy runs out and SP resets to 0. Lastly, they have more health and deal less damage, in exchange for the inability to Burst. Honestly, while the addition is appreciated, most Shadows are pretty useless aside from a select few. I rarely ever used them. Enough tweaks, balances, and additions were made to the game that it feels like a brand new game all its own.
Overall, ATLUS and Arc System Works developed a excellent game that appeals strongly to both fighting game and Persona 3/4 fans alike. The mechanics are easy to understand at a surface level, but experts will find many layers of depth and variety should they wish to dig deeper. Enough was added since the original Persona 4 Arena that the price point more than justified. It is an incredibly easy recommendation to make.