2D brawlers aren’t often known for their stories, which is what made 2012’s Persona 4 Arena such a giddying surprise. This year’s sequel, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, easily leaps over that bar, wrapping up not only its own cliffhanger, but serving as a satisfying epilogue for both Persona 3 and 4. Moreover, Arc System Works and Atlus wisely keep the two styles—JRPG storytelling and fast-twitch arcade fighting—partitioned into Story Mode and Battle Mode. The former plays largely like a visual novel, featuring full voice acting (largely from the original cast) and scenes selected from a massive flow chart that keeps track of the dozen or so first-person perspectives; there’s even an Auto mode that allows the computer to take over for those just in it for the story. The latter cuts straight to brawling and, if you’re inexperienced, the bawling. (What with all the combo cancelling and skill-point-based special moves, this isn’t a game for button mashers.)
It’s a smart separation: The new Golden Arena mode, which bridges the two by allowing characters to level up and learn stat-boosting skills, is a rather repetitious and plot-less experience. The main modes earn their place by excelling at narration and at evenly matched combat, but this one grind-fest feels like fan service for a mechanic best left to an actual RPG. This mode also misses the point of the game itself, which is less about focusing on a single character and more in learning to juggle the various unique play styles that each one brings to the ring. For instance: Naoto’s a detective who can pull a gun and fire at long range, while Chie’s best at close-range counters; Aigis, on the other hand, needs to carefully defend until powering up her Orgia mode.
Of course, it’s hard to hold an experimental and optional mode against Ultimax itself, especially when the something-for-everyone approach makes it easy to stick to the modes that you actually enjoy. And the game is all about making players at ease, from the reconfigurable control scheme (which allows novice players to map special moves directly to trigger buttons) to a lengthy and well-designed Practice mode that not only demonstrates the proper use of a self-harming Furious Attack, but reveals the frames of invulnerability granted by Persona-channeling Burst counter or an evasive dash. Drills allow you to practice specific moves, and suggests various combos; it’s also a great place to glimpse each player’s instant-kill move, since they can be rather hard to successfully land in the middle of real combat. (Hell, given the detail of hand-drawn animation, it’s nice to just see the fluid and idle actions each character takes when you’re not in the middle of combat.)
Ultimax, in other words, is an excellent and well-earned moniker, since it not only refines (and sometimes rebalances) the gameplay from Persona 4 Arena, but vastly expands it, with a story mode that’s twice as long and a roster of characters that’s increased by six (not counting upcoming DLC), to say nothing of the alternative “Shadow” versions that most characters have. This feature is more than a palette swap, mind you: These are all-out fighters who think little of defense and who have the ability to overclock an infinite number of special moves for a limited time. As with the rest of this package, it’s a well-considered addition, one that adds new layers without upsetting or unbalancing any of the foundational gameplay. The same goes for the new characters, who have interesting, but not game-breaking, mechanics: Yukari’s annoying arrows and bombs can be swatted right back at her by Junpei’s baseball bat, and while Ken tag-teams his opponents with his dog Koromaru, antagonist Sho Minazuki’s speed allows him to easily sidestep both. Rise has the most amusing of special moves: As a musician, her powered-up throw is literally a rhythm-based mini-game.
Even the purely aesthetic choices are elegantly handled. You can, of course, play Versus mode in the traditional way, matchmaking online through a Network or playing against a couchmate. Far more fun, however, is the ability to create your own avatar in Lobby mode, marching your character through virtual arcades, observing other players, chatting with them, and eventually challenging them, racking up chains of consecutive wins (and bragging rights), just as you would in an actual arcade.
It’s this constant attention to potential player needs that elevates Ultimax. Whether you’re playing with friends at home, emulating the arcade experience online, getting intimate with the single player story, taking fighting lessons from the computer, or grinding experience, this is the entire package. It’s enough to make even the game’s cheesiest, oft-repeated line golden: “Bring on the ring” indeed.