Persona 4 Arena was my first real fighting game, and introduced me to ATLUS and the Megami Tensei franchise. It was an important part of my life when it was introduced, and a pretty fun fighting game. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax changed everything, though. It turned me from a fan into an enthusiast. I got a fightstick, participated in local tournaments, and spent hours after classes in my freshman year of college labbing characters. I’ve been into fighting games ever since, but none have ever been able to match Ultimax.
So obviously I got excited to see it finally announced to escape PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. My ideal platform for fighting games is whatever I can connect my fightstick to, but I think the Nintendo Switch is good for them in theory. Most fighting game Switch ports tend to be lacking, however. Whether it’s from awkward controls, poor optimization, or a myriad of things, they often just don’t click with me as much. I’m pretty surprised I get to say this Switch port is probably one of the finer fighting game conversions on the system. I’m impressed.
This re-release of Ultimax comes loaded with all major downloadable content, alongside the inclusion of a massive arcade rebalancing we never got on consoles. This means that even though Ultimax is a sequel to Persona 4 Arena, you get to play the original game’s story campaign. I’m not going to claim either story mode is well told, but for a fighting game, they’re charming stories with characters you love and get the job done more than well enough in my book. I adore the casts of Persona 3 and 4, even as exaggerated caricatures of themselves because that’s the most fun thing you can do in a fighting game.
This was made back when Arc System Works made their story mode visual novels with choices and occasional fights, and I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic as I revisited the Arena stories and the world of Persona 4. With the Switch being the most comfortable console I own, I fit right back in. A huge upgrade over playing these with my PS3 hooked up to my tiny monitor in my dorm all those years ago.
That’s not the only bit of single-player content on offer, with a decently robust RPG mode called Golden Arena that lets you level up characters and gain skills. Arcade mode offers multiple difficulty levels, the tutorials are quite in-depth, and the Challenge mode is a great way to learn new characters. The meat of the single-player content is in the story, but there’s plenty here for people who aren’t comfortable going online. That’s a good idea for new players. There are sharks online, who have spent years practicing on seventh-gen consoles. Hell, you could run into me playing Kanji. I sure hope you don’t.
The visuals, the brilliant pixel art, and gorgeous backgrounds look better than ever and I’ve noticed no downgrades. If anything, it looks better undocked and docked than it ever did on PS3 and 360. If I were to have some gripes, one would be that the text didn’t get as upscaled as I would have liked. Those with a sharp eye will notice it can be a tad low-res, but that doesn’t take away too much from the spectacle that is this game’s explosive art direction. Also, the anime cutscenes have some weird quality issues at points and this version seems to have the animation in them ghost at points.
If you play fighting games exclusively with the d-pad, I’d recommend not getting this port without a Switch Pro Controller. I had no issues with the controls that way, the game plays like a dream. If you prefer the analog stick and want to play casually, then I’d recommend Switch for sure.
The gameplay of Ultimax is the selling point, and I still don’t think Arc System Works has ever topped this level of quality, consistent, or engaging moment-to-moment gameplay. The original Arena did a great job introducing newcomers to fighting games with a simple control scheme and great player feedback. People not good at fighting games can jump in, mash away with auto combos and see characters pop off flashy moves. Even if they’re not playing at a high level, they’re probably having a good time playing. There’s enough room for growth, with plenty of combos and command moves to master, that those who want to improve and play competitively have more than enough reasons to keep coming back to the well.
Ultimax slightly lowered the skill floor in clever ways, but shot the ceiling up. Arc System Works, getting a chance to make a sequel, really went all out. The roster nearly doubled. Every character got a Shadow variant that served as an extreme glass cannon with unique voice lines, art, and intro animations. The returning characters all got new auto combos with unique animations that can be canceled into normal moves, making them far more viable.
Kanji’s auto combo setup is my favorite in the entire game, being able to knock a character up in the air and command grab dive down without them being able to break out of it. The returning characters also got new moves and enough tweaks to make the match-up potential turn on its head. All those years ago, I knew Ultimax had its hooks in me when I lost my mind learning that light Yu’s Raging Lion was cancelable by holding the button. If you aren’t invested, that will mean nothing to you. But learning Yu’s most visually stimulating command input could be faked out with proper timing to defend and punish was just… the coolest thing.
I’ve heard murmurings about the 2.5 update for years, with many saying it turned the solid Ultimax into an unbalanced mess. I don’t think Ultimax was ever the pinnacle of balance, but will admit that a lot of the changes are questionable on paper. Shadows now have a burst that makes it far easier to chain powerful specials one after another. I’d look up Shadow Chie, Naoto, and Mitsuru if you want a look at how nuts this game can be at high-level play. Having said this, I haven’t felt it has really affected the experience in such a negative way. Experts at the game tend to play other experts, the people who will be able to pull this off. For everyone else, this is a goal for them to strive for and not one they’ll necessarily have to achieve. The game is fun, and it’s more fun than I remember it being. That’s good enough for me.
The Switch ports biggest crutch is the lack of rollback netcode, which all the other versions are confirmed to be getting this summer. This is a shame, because I think the Switch’s removal of the original’s chibi-based lobby system Arc System Works has since ran with is a blessing. I can’t stand it, and I don’t like the extra time wasted walking to virtual arcade cabinets. Classic lobby systems that streamline the online matchmaking are always preferable to me, so this version not getting rollback is a shame. But I will say, I’ve been surprised at how solid the Switch port’s netcode is so far. My first set of matches were with players in Japan, and I never noticed any kind of input lag. Days later, when the game officially launched, I was able to play with American players. The netcode was quite good. Not rollback good, but quite good. Far better than most non-rollback-based fighting games on Switch. I hope ATLUS changes its mind about this, because it’s a blemish on a great port.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax is fascinating. I love to play it, I love to study it, and I love to watch it. No fighting game has ever felt as good to play, in my opinion. I think the Switch port is the weakest version by default (I’ve only played this one and the PS4 release), but I’m still more than pleased with this version. The frame rate is perfect, the matches feel great to play, and the visuals are just as good as they’ve always been. I was expecting to stop playing this as soon as I had access to the other versions, but here I am… still labbing on Switch. If you have no other systems, and want to get into one of the strongest Persona spin-offs out there, check out Ultimax. I’m beyond excited to grab it on PC as well, to instantly boot it up when innocent trash-talking on Discord needs to be hashed out in the Arena.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by ATLUS