The Persona 5 release date has been a long time coming, but boy was it worth the wait. After many hours embroiled in this twisted Tokyo tale, I can confidently say that this is another big feather in the PlayStation cap, and one of the finest RPG’s for quite some time.
The Persona series (an offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei) is adored by a passionate fanbase, and 2008’s Persona 4 in particular thrust it into a wider worldview, but it’s fair to say it hasn’t had the most prominent place in PlayStation’s catalogue, despite providing the undernourished Vita with what many believe to be its finest game (Persona 4: Golden). Persona 5 comes at a time where Sony have a staggeringly large and diverse audience for PS4, and this presents the series with perhaps the biggest platform it’s ever had. Now should be the time where Persona stands tall amongst the best of the best of Sony’s roster, and with Persona 5, it does just that.
As with previous Persona titles, the basics remain the same. You star as a student in a Japanese school who gets thrust into the world of Personas; beings manifested from the personalities of those who created them, and subsequently used to battle otherworldly foes in turn-based combat for some cause or other. All the while, you have to maintain your day-to-day life as a student, attending class, taking exams, getting jobs, and having a general social life.
Persona 5 sees your silent protagonist starting as a new student of Shujin Academy in Shibuya,Tokyo after an indiscretion led you to leave your hometown. This part of the story is told in flashback form as you are sat six months later, recalling the story of how you became a founding member of the group known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts; an outfit fighting against the corruption and injustice suffered by the youth of Japan by correcting the distorted desires in the hearts of some truly reprehensible folk by bringing down ‘palaces’ representing the target’s cognition in a ‘shadow world’. Along the way you’re joined by Morgana, a talking cat that holds the key to uncovering the shadow world’s secrets: quarter-American wannabe model Ann Takamaki, excitable horndog Ryuji Sakamoto, oddball artist Yusuke, and a few more beyond that. The how, and the why of your friendships with these people is best left for you to experience, but it’s fair to say, an admirable job is made of ensuring you connect with each of them pretty quickly, flaws and all.
The relationships you strike up during the course of the game prove to be an integral part of Persona 5, and there’s much warmth, humor, and care to be found in your time spent with fellow students, teachers, and of course, your team mates in the Phantom Thieves. Even as characters are introduced 20,40, and 60 plus hours into the game, they all get time to grow and become as much a part of this story as the very first people you meet. I was always happy to spend time with them, and even doing something as trivial as shopping or playing retro videogames together felt like time well spent. It means you genuinely have concern and interest in their individual and collective plights.
There’s some dark, and downright creepy story beats that occur in subjects such as abuse, suicide, and corruption. For instance, the motivation of the boss characters have a depth that enriches your own. At first, some seem like straight up cardboard cutout baddies who might be a bit mean, but as you learn more and more about them, it becomes clear they are fully-deserving of being taught a lesson. The question is, should the Phantom Thieves really be the ones to administer that lesson?
Some subject matters dealt with seems pertinent to today’s problems in the reality. The Phantom Thieves’ fight to change the hearts of the corrupt and immoral resonates with the ‘hacktivist’ movement, and sees you exploring and debating the morality of what you’re doing. There’s a focus on the ignorance, and greed, of the adult population, and heavy leanings into the issues of social media perception. Targets change alongside the group’s popularity with lain as day cowardly scumbags making way for dangerously methodical people of power on the Phantom Thieves’ journey from internet whisper to phenomenon. There’s a perfect sense of escalation to it all, as naturally, this group of teens finds things getting out of hand the further they expand their sphere of influence.
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Visually-speaking, Persona 5 is ridiculously flamboyant. It just doesn’t let up with its stylish presentation once, yet never gets dull or overbearing. There’s a punk/comic book aesthetic with bright visual flourishes to everything, from the turn based battles, to phone messenger apps, and XP results screens. When characters speak, the visual novel style text pop ups aren’t just mundane word blocks, and you don’t get cardboard cutouts of the person speaking. Instead, the flamboyance bleeds into it with flashy perspective changes. Screens get scrunched up into balls like they were paper, and zig-zagging color accompanies the fanfare of every victorious battle. There’s a resolute consistency to this design, and the result is a game very much in harmony with its aesthetic.
The underlying engine is actually fairly ordinary, but a game with a great sense of art direction can rival a graphical powerhouse easily. Persona 5 has that art direction, and despite how flashy and in your face it may appear, I haven’t tired of it, or been distracted by it. If anything, it keeps your attention more effectively, and makes Persona 5 a treat for the eyes for every damn hour you lose to it. I’ve noticed little details many hours into the game, such is the care and attention paid to Persona 5’s style.
This certainly extends to the locales. The streets of Shibuya and beyond are bustling with activity, and begin to feel like home the deeper you go into the game. Fast-travelling to specific points is often sensible, but early in, I found myself taking the more manual approach, soaking in the locations along the way. Just as you get overly familiar with certain areas, others open up, offering you new activities, shops, and people. On the other side of it is the ‘palaces’. Your shadow world heists take place are greatly varied and cleverly skew their conventional origins by twisting the distorted desires of their rulers into a variety of novel dungeon locales that go beyond the prior floor after floor approach from Persona 4’s identikit dungeons.
There’s also a visual representation of sound effects, from the clacking of train carriage wheels against rails on the subway, to the shrill peep of your phone’s notifications. It adds an atmospheric depth quite unlike any of its contemporaries,and effortlessly melds the sound design into the visual. I have to bring up the soundtrack while I’m talking sound, as it’s one of the many highlights of the game. A smooth, jazzy selection that stands up well to repeated listening (and you’ll hear some of it a lot). The various versions of ‘Behind the Mask’ stand out as the most memorable, delivering a dreamy, solemn backing to your everyday life. Also of note is the victory theme, which, even as I type this, is swirling round in my head on a delightfully maddening loop. Arguably, it’s up there with the very best fanfares in JRPG history.
So I mentioned earlier that you’ll spend your time balancing the life of an outcast schoolkid with dungeon-crawling adventuring for the duration of the game, but the layers don’t stop there. Persona 5 may be a turn-based RPG, but the social/school life side has roots in strategy, visual novels, and dating sims. That the game handles these different aspects so well, and does so in a cohesive manner, is thoroughly impressive. There’s a freedom to what you choose to do next. Go hang out at the mall? Yup. Study under peer scrutiny in the library to up your knowledge and your guts? Go for it! Delve into a seemingly endless dungeon, stealing the hearts of lower-profile targets for an afternoon? It’s there, and far more beyond. If you’re not fond of a particular part of this mashup, then there’s going to be lulls, but the worst accusation you could throw at Persona 5 is that it handles things competently.
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Your life is made a little easier thanks to the streamlined explorative approach that means you don’t get too fatigued doing any one thing. Any threat of a laborious routine is broken up fairly swiftly by events big and small, some of your choosing, others the game’s.
In the regular world, you have a large variety of options that sometimes chop and change in availability terms depending on the events you need to deal with in the other realm. School takes up the majority of your time, leaving you with a small window of time to do anything else after the bell rings. Everything you choose to do has an impact on your abilities in and out of normality. Hanging out with friends and acquaintances can build up your ‘Confidant’ ranking with them (each based on a particular Arcana), bolstering your chances in battle and learning by unlocking new skills and abilities. Positives include increase in party XP for members not in your four person team, slacking off in class, and second chances at negotiations.
Activities are swift, simple affairs, and quite diverse. You can use your free time to study, go fishing, eat out, watch films, play games, read books, cook food, or even dedicate it to making the perfect cup of coffee. Mundane activities by videogame standards, but highly valuable for Persona 5’s depiction of a student living a double life, and the short, sharp nature of these activities means they never outstay their welcome, and always leave you wanting to return to them. You end up mentally living in Tokyo, almost in a dreamlike fashion given the abbreviated manner in which you flit from place to place. When you cross the border of normality into the metaverse however, time shifts accordingly.
There’s a tonal shift whenever you switch to dungeoneering. You can stay as long as you need/can to make a chunk of progress towards your final goal, with save rooms scattered about them to allow for respite and recovery. The exploration is limited to offshoots of corridors and rooms at first, but later palaces are full of nooks and crannies to poke around in, often revealing a treasure chest or an important switch as reward. By the time you reach the final hours of dungeoneering, you’re having to solve increasingly challenging puzzles to reach your goal, all while slogging your way through the patrolling enemies. That is, unless you avoid those enemies altogether, which is a more feasible option in Persona 5.
You can now sneak about to some degree in Persona 5’s palaces, avoiding a few unwanted tussles along the way when you are in desperate need of reaching the next save point. You can hug to corners when prompted with X, and it shrouds you completely in shadow until you leave cover. Once in the open, it’s all a matter of timing if you wish to continue flitting by, and occasionally there’s a sense of inconsistency to what constitutes being seen, but mercifully, the balance is tipped in your favor.
The stealthy approach also gives you the opportunity to ambush enemies, giving you an advantage going into battle. It’s all simplistic, but feels more fleshed out than in previous games.
Onto the combat itself, and it’s much the same as before on the surface, but some tweaks alongside the stylish visual flair breath new life into the traditional turn-based battling. You have the usual selection of weapon attacks, and elemental magic via the Persona’s individual powers (powers that can be upgraded, added to, and switched out in the returning Velvet Room via a series of grisly ‘executions’), but guns also feature, with real world replica guns being converted into death-dealing creations once inside the metaverse. They, like other forms of attack, can exploit certain enemy weaknesses, but beyond that I felt they didn’t add all that much in terms of tactical innovation, but hey, still looks pretty cool, right?
It’s not all routine stuff though, there’s a variety of team up moves, including the Baton Pass, where if one party member stuns an enemy with an attack they’re weak to, you can either take another shot at them for free, or hand over to another party member to inflict even more damage. Then there’s a few high Confidant level-specific maneuvers which I’ll let you find out about, but the move that is probably most in keeping with Persona 5’s style is the Hold Up.
The Hold Up occurs when you down all enemies in a fight by exploiting their weakness. Your four person team surrounds the groggy baddies and you get several options. First off, you can go in for an all-out attack, which triggers a wildly colorful set piece of silhouettes flashing this way and that past the dazed enemies, often ending with a comic book panel-style victory pose for whoever triggered the move.
The other options involve negotiating with your foe, a callback to earlier games in the series, and the best addition to Persona 5’s combat. You can barter for a random free item, or even some extra cash, but also you can negotiate with these beasts to become a Persona for you. To do this, you’ll have to answer their existential questions in a way that best appeases their personality. The dialogue here is hilarious, even if the range of questions and answers proves to be a bit more limited than it first appears. Failure isn’t the worst thing thankfully. Sometimes you’ll get hit with a cheap shot as they retreat, but sometimes they take pity and offer you an item instead of their service (this also happens if they’re too high a level for you).
Online features return, and feed into battle as well as still providing an at-a-glance look at what others did on a the same day. Later in the game, you can call for assistance from other player’s clan of Phantom Thieves in certain battle situations. Much mirth is provided by being rescued by some of the dafter names out there.
All I’ve mentioned so far sounds intimidating, yet Persona 5 is marvelous at letting you set your own pace despite giving you deadlines and ultimatums. There’s no one way to play through. Even if some ways are more beneficial than others, you’ll be rewarded with something different for trying something new. If the plundering of dungeons gets too much, you have so many other outlets that also prove useful to your character’s ever-improving skillset. The standalone nature of the story is pretty welcoming to curious newcomers, in much the same way as Persona 4 was, but Persona 5’s refinements mean it’s a far better sequel in accessibility terms.
All through my time reviewing Persona 5, I’ve dreaded the inevitable end. It is so much more than just an ‘RPG with social skills’. This is a game to live and breathe in, one to savor every moment you get to spend with a bunch of wonderfully flawed people. Sure, the overarching story holds plenty of pulpy intrigue, and the individual tales of woe pretty much all hit the empathy buttons, but the best moments are nearly always the conversations the Phantom Thieves have with each other, bickering, joking and supporting each other in a manner that feels refreshingly honest. I’ve rarely wanted to spend this much time in the company of videogame characters, but this group, even more so than Persona 4’s endearing warriors, are excellent company. It’s a fine RPG, one of the finest examples of the genre in fact, but the interaction between you and your band of merry men and women that’s the key to Persona 5’s magnificence.
Persona 5 review copy provided by publisher.