Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Persona 5 pulled me in immediately, with stylish visuals and music, some fresh ideas on gameplay and of course what always carries this series: characters I truly grow to care for. I struggled to put down the controller for any length of time and I frequently found myself asking ‘what if I had chosen to do this instead?’. All clear signs that I was invested in this RPG masterpiece.
One major success of this latest release in the series is how it manages to successfully balance being a welcoming title to those new to the franchise, while still clearly demonstrating its roots to the franchise as a whole. There are many familiar nods to the earlier titles in the series along the way, but you do not have to possess experience with the prior games to enjoy what Persona 5 has to offer.
As usual with this series, Persona 5 finds us following a cast of young people through the trials of teenage life – but a lot more as well. Persona 5 starts us off with a fantastic opening sequence that sees our primary character moving around the landscape in fast, fluid fashion. So often people associate RPGs with ‘slow and stodgy’, but that is not the case here and Persona 5 flaunts this aspect of its gameplay right out of the gates. It also sets the stage for a somewhat unique narrative device as our protagonist winds up recounting the events that led him to his current state. The fast majority of your time is spent filling in those blanks, playing those days gone past that got us here. Every now and then the story jumps back to the present, to dangle the carrot a little and lead into the next section of gameplay. It is a refreshing break from the norm – a description and aptly describes most of the game.
Our protagonist has found himself on the wrong end of a one year probation for doing the right thing to the wrong person and getting punished for it. It sets the stage for a story that is heavy on themes of being captive to circumstance, having the fortitude to do what’s right and redemption. These themes are etched into the framework of our primary character, but you dictate a lot of his decisions along the way. In true roleplaying fashion, you are moving towards a destination in the story, but while the lines of it are drawn out, you get to color them in along the way.
Before too long, our protagonist realizes that while he is on probation in a new location, Tokyo is playing host to the same kinds of problems that got him into trouble back home as well. With corruption, lust, greed and more lurking around many of the corners, it falls to you to do the right thing, even if it’s not always the easy thing. Luckily you are not alone in this endeavor as a colorful cast of characters get introduced and become your companions along the way. Most of them start as familiar archetypes – common for this series. One of your earlier acquaintances is Ryuji Sakamoto – and he reminded me of Yosuke right out of the gates. He’s a little loud, a little abrasive, he likes to swear and… well, they both remind me of a couple of my best friends growing up. I believe that is a big part of Persona’s charm. On the surface you see some pretty familiar personalities, but what makes them more interesting is how much more there is to them the longer you spend getting to know the characters.
These things all fit pretty neatly in a box, but it begins as a very uncomfortable box. Just as a brush with authority led our hero into his current predicament, it does not take long for him to get trapped in a very similar box where rules are made and not always fairly. Just as things begin to look hopeless, our small cast of misfit characters discovers an alternate universe where demons / shadows lurk. “Palaces” are formed in this alternate reality, each palace shaping to the twisted desires of the person they are tethered to. In the early going you wind up at odds with a teacher at the high school. This teacher is taking advantage of his fame and station to get away with absolutely abhorrent behavior in reality. This in turn creates a dark, twisted version of himself inside of a palace that represents those desires.
This is where the majority of the action takes place as your characters move around the environment, which has some light puzzle solving elements baked in. Sometimes you just need to find a switch or the proper items to continue, but one of the great aspects of the level design is the vertical element that has been added. You may have to climb boxes, run across beams or chandeliers and more to navigate through the area. On top of that, shadows lurk about and encountering them will trigger a fight. You can try to sneak around them or take them head-on, though if you ambush one from outside of its line of sight, you will have a much easier go of the combat. This does introduce a simple cover mechanic that is a little rough around the edges at time, but offers up a nice twist on existing RPG gameplay as well. It can be a little ‘sticky’ at times, but getting the jump on an enemy shadow is a satisfying way to initiate combat.
From there the combat is turn-based RPG goodness. Characters have personas that lend themselves to specific elements and abilities, and as is the case in many classic RPGs, you have element weaknesses and resistances as well as attacking and defending to consider during combat. Where things get interesting is when you temporarily hobble your enemies by exploiting their weaknesses. You can call on an all-out attack to try and finish them off then and there, but you can also talk with the demon. This might yield items, or money – but most interesting of all you might be able to recruit the demon. For Shin Megami Tensei fans this will be a familiar mechanic, though it’s better realized here. Sometimes the inane things the demons have to say when their backs are against the wall are pretty funny. Sometimes, they are just plain obstinate (they are demons after all) and they might attack you. It adds an extra layer of risk versus reward with some pretty nice payoff as these personas really are one of the keys to your character’s advancement.
While each of your companions has a set persona, our primary protagonist is unique from his friends because he can work with any persona. This makes the recruitment option particularly compelling. On top of that, there is a special room later in the game – The Velvet Room – that has appeared in prior Persona titles as well. Here your character is imprisoned as well – reflecting a lot of the previously mentioned themes. You can also execute a pair of different personas to free their essence and merge them into a new one. This is a great way to keep the combat skills and progression fresh. It is also a pretty good indication of how much darker Persona 5 is than the typical RPG. The persons you want to merge aren’t high-fiving one another before happily merging. They’re getting hooded and placed in a magical guillotine so they can be beheaded.
Of course, the entire storyline of Persona 5 is willing to take challenging topics head-on. We aren’t looking at fantasy tropes here, but instead examining things like sexual assault, guilt, greed, dishonesty and more. One area I thought Persona 4 was perhaps just a little bit more interesting was in the antagonists, because they were alternate versions of our characters. This allowed for an interesting examination into their psyches and created fuzzier lines between right and wrong. Persona 5’s villains are clearly in the wrong when their palaces are established, and while their resolutions often give us further insight into the characters, they never feel quite as fully fleshed out as the bosses of Persona 4.
That being said, the palaces are all exquisitely themed, matching the twisted desires of the villains associated with them. I thought the worlds of Persona 4 were pretty cool, but Persona 5 takes the environments to an entirely new level, and almost every one of them knocks it out of the park. At the center of each palace is a treasure that our heroes need to steal. Doing this resolves the twisted desire of the actual villain. This element of ‘steal the treasure’ versus ‘beat the bad guy down’ adds an interesting twist to the storyline as well. Our heroes decide to take on the role of Phantom Thieves. It is all a little unnecessary, and sometimes the dialog around this particular narrative point can get a little hammy, but all in all it is refreshingly different. It suits the slick visuals that have a distinctive anime style to them, with lots of bright colors splashed against inky black shadows. There are numerous anime-quality cutscenes here as well that help to tell the story. The soundtrack also continually fits the mood and is generally excellent, though I personally prefer the music from Persona 4 – but that game’s soundtrack is among my all-time favorites.
However, the focus of this review has been on the action side of things. To borrow one of two quotes from one of our team members, Jed: “I love this game as much as Morgana loves cuddling up against treasure”. Acquiring these treasures is important – but it’s not the only objective in this game. In fact, I would argue that while the dungeon explorations are a major portion, I probably spent less than half of my time in them. That’s because the rest of the game is something of a social simulation. Obviously this is where some people either fall in love with the Persona series, or find themselves at something of a loss. I firmly fall into the former category.
The Phantom Thieves are after all just high school students. Days are broken up into segments, and some days get hijacked from you by specific events already predestined for that day. However, once you get past the first several hours (this is a long game – you can easily spend 80+ hours on it), things open up. They all have an impact on your ability to navigate and survive the palaces, but in a variety of ways. You might spend time with your companions to raise your connection with them – and by extension have more success in combat and be able to build stronger personas through merging. There are daily tasks you can do that improve some of your stats. Maybe you want to read a book or watch a movie that improves your proficiency, which in turn allows you to make more tools like lock picks for dungeon exploration. Perhaps you just want to do pull-ups in your bedroom and improve your maximum hit points. There’s a good chance you’re going to need money – so why not take a part time job after school?
All of these activities have some sort of practical impact on your ability to beat the palaces. More than that however, they add a lot of color to the overall gaming experience. Spend time with one of your friends and you open up entirely new lines of dialog while the reveal more about themselves than they would have just playing through the storyline itself. A rainy day of studying still feels like time well-spent after you gain some new skills, but listening in on random conversations in a business district also gives you some additional information about current events. For the text-adverse, this might not be the game for you. There is visual novel-like content here to take in, and most of it is well-written and the voice acting is fantastic. It helps to make Persona 5 a richer, more interesting world to spend your time.
If all of this sounds like a lot – know that it is, but Persona 5 does a fantastic job of easing you into things. The early hours provide a near-continuous drip of content that unlocks new locations, introduces you to new characters and along the way slowly broadens the scope of what you can do with your time. In the end, you really are roleplaying because you are shaping your character’s personality through these many different connected interactions. And of course if you’d rather be fighting than talking? There are plentiful opportunities to do that as well. However, for me the time spent with my companions is what makes the Persona series click, and that is still very true of this release.
2017 has been a great year for gamers, and as we sit around the one-third point, there are already some Game of the Year contenders starting to shape up. Right now, Persona 5 is the leader in that race, and for me it’s not even close. Memorable characters, an engaging storyline, fantastic systems and fluid combat all come together to create a fantastic experience. Jed’s other quote:Score: 10 / 10
“Is it just me, or is Persona 5 a controlled explosion of awesomeness? :)”
It’s not just you, Jed. Couldn’t have said it better myself.