Persona 4 Arena Ultimax shares a lot with its predecessor Persona 4 Arena. When it comes down to the 2D fighting, they are largely the same game. However, outside of the fighting engine, there are a lot of new additions that make it worth playing -- especially for Persona series fans.
New Playable Characters
Perhaps the biggest addition to the game is its expanded roster. Persona 3 characters Yukari Takeba, Junpei Iori, and Ken Amada (with Koromaru) are now playable. From Persona 4, Rise Kujikawa joins the fighting cast as well. Then there's the villain of Ultimax, Sho Minazuki, who (like Labrys in the last game) has two versions: one with a persona and one without. There are also several DLC characters from Persona 4: Tohru Adachi, Marie, and Margret for those who want to expand their roster even further.
The game also comes with shadow versions of almost all the characters. These play largely the same as the normal versions but have additional skills that increase their offensive capabilities while losing several of their defensive ones.
Like with Arena, Ultimax sports a massive story mode in the form of a voiced visual novel with the fighting game battles occasionally interspersed. It serves as a direct sequel to Arena's story (taking place a few days later) and ties up the lingering loose ends of that story -- namely, who is behind the whole tournament and what their true objective is.
While Arena had a separate story mode for each character -- each of which tended to contradict every other characters' version of the story -- Ultimax only has two versions to tell: one centering on the Persona 3 characters and one centering on the Persona 4 characters. Thus, instead of choosing just one character, you follow the whole team, often switching between smaller groups as they split up and try to discover what exactly is going on.
There is also a short DLC story mode (for those who buy it) showing the game from Adachi's point of view.
Golden Arena mode is basically a twist on the usual survival mode. You enter into one of four 50-floor dungeons (each floor containing an enemy to fight). Every five floors you reach a checkpoint, allowing you to continue from that point in the future. As you progress, your character levels up. You then increase their stats as you choose and occasionally learn new passive skills to strengthen your character in other ways. Besides your chosen character, you will also be able to choose a navigator character to cheer you on in battle. As you build a social link with your navigator, they gain skills and become able to aid you remotely in battle.
While more simplified match-making modes exist in Ultimax, the multiplayer lobby mode makes the experience of finding an opponent reminiscent of walking into your local arcade. You make an avatar, walk around a virtual arcade, choose a cabinet to sit at, and wait for someone to challenge you -- or simply sit next to a waiting player yourself. You are also able to look at all your opponent's fighting information before hand, allowing you to pick your battles.
Lots of Little Tweaks
One of the more major gameplay tweaks involves giving more persona-dependent characters more persona cards (so persona breaks happen less often) and reducing the amount of cards for characters where the personas are less important. Another is the ability to charge normal attacks to do more damage. Special attacks can also be boosted in strength for those willing to use more of their SP. There are also changes to auto-combos and short hops along with a thousand other little balancing tweaks that I, as a casual fan of fighting games, can't hope to understand all the little ends and outs of.
Persona 4 Arena Ultimax was released in Japan on August 28, 2014, for the PlayStation 3. It will be released in North America and Australia on September 30, 2014.