Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
After a cryptic teaser way back in 2013, Persona 5 finally released this past April to universal critical acclaim. Development on the game reportedly started after the completion of another Atlus title, Catherine, way back in 2011. An original release of date of 2014 was pushed back to the eventual Japanese release in September 2016, in order to further improve the quality of the game. And it shows.
There isn’t a single aspect of Persona 5 that feels rushed, and in the current climate of the video game industry, that’s saying a lot. Persona 5 borrows from its predecessors in ways that are obvious to any long-time fan of the series; it is abound with engaging story lines, funky J-Pop battle themes and charismatic characters. However, it also innovates in surprisingly successful ways. The monotonous dungeon-crawling of the previous titles in the Persona series that typified so much of the JRPG genre in last 20 or so years has been translated into a comprehensive, modern package. Scaling obstacles, taking cover, sneak attacks on unsuspecting enemies, and creative puzzle-solving are just some of the welcome additions to the old and tired formula employed by Persona 3 and Persona 4 in particular.
Concept and Execution:
Persona 5 is a dungeon-crawling RPG set in modern-day Tokyo. The protagonist is the leader of the illusive Phantom Thieves, a group of high-school students who have taken it upon themselves to rectify the immoral behavior of certain prominent figures in Japanese society by assaulting their Palace, which is a manifestation of their nefarious desires and corruption. They achieve this aim by utilizing their power of Persona, which is a physical manifestation of one’s personality, to steal the treasure that these Palaces hold. Stealing a Palace’s treasure causes it to collapse, and the Palace owner’s desires collapse along with it. As such, each of the game’s villains has their own unique Palace. In terms of gameplay, Palaces are large dungeons consisting of multiple floors and containing treasure and enemies. The Phantom Thieves must navigate these Palaces with the help of their Personas, with each character possessing his or her own unique type. Ryuji, hot-headed and stubborn, has a Persona called Captain Kidd, a skeletal pirate that specializes in physical attacks. Ann, fierce and beautiful, has a Persona called Carmen, an elegant femme fatale that specializes in fire-based magic.
The protagonist is unnamed and largely silent, as is to be expected in the Persona series. However, one way that Persona 5 breaks away from previous titles is in the nature of its opening. The player is immediately thrown into the middle of a heist gone wrong, and must navigate through a lavish casino, jumping from chandeliers and avoiding the police. The protagonist is then apprehended, and forced to confess to crimes that he (presumably) has not committed. Choosing your player name is done by signing the confession that is forced on you, setting the tone for one of the more important themes of the game: injustice. The protagonist is then interrogated and made to recount the events that led up to his capture. It is through this narrative lens that the player experiences the game. We see the scene in the police station develop over time as we progress through the story. By constantly referring back to the scene in the police station, Persona 5 manages to maintain of feeling of unease throughout the entire game.
We soon learn that the bulk of the action in Persona 5 does not take place in the real world. By day, you and your friends are normal high-school students. Your activities include studying for exams, hanging out in ramen shops and going to the beach. Secretly, however, the protagonist and his friends have stumbled upon the Metaverse, which is a cognitive world that exists alongside reality (oh Japan!). In the Metaverse, the characters can access their Personas. While your friends are bound to whatever Persona they initially unlock, the protagonist has the power of the wildcard, which allows him to gather multiple different Personas. Gathering and fusing Personas is one of the more involved aspects of the game, and adds a significant layer of gameplay diversity. The sheer number of Personas means that two playthroughs of the game will never be quite the same.
The majority of Persona 5‘s story focuses on the Phantom Thieves identifying targets, infiltrating their Palaces, and stealing the corresponding treasure. The aim of the Phantom Thieves is their genuine desire to reform society. The concept of youth rebelling against the corruption of adults features prominently in the story, as well as the corresponding themes of injustice and self-interest. As we progress through the story, we come to sympathize more and more with the Phantom Thieves. Each character can be thoroughly explored by the player, and each has their own individual motivation for teaming up with the Phantom Thieves.
The relationships that the player builds with his friends are a core component of all Persona titles, and Persona 5 is no different. The player can develop relationships with his friends by spending time with them, which in turn also strengthens their prowess in battle. Upon reaching the maximum relationship Rank 10, the character’s arc is completed, and their Persona evolves into its ultimate form to reflect this development. As such, the time and effort that the player puts towards exploring the characters is substantially rewarded, and can be considered almost as important as pursuing the main story itself.
While the story may be convoluted at times, the game is held together by the charm and charisma of the ever-expanding cast of characters. The game earns its considerable playtime by constantly engaging the player with story, while simultaneously granting the player time to explore its vast cast of characters. Persona 5 is long, but it doesn’t feel nearly as long as it actually is. The game does not drag, and it manages to stay surprisingly fresh and intriguing throughout.
Concept and Execution Grade: 25/25
Persona 5 is founded upon a turn-based battle system. As such, the actual mechanics of the game are fairly bare-bones, but intriguing nonetheless. The battles focus on discovering an enemy’s weakness and exploiting it. Each character has a different combat specialty, so planning your party-formation is essential, especially in the higher difficulties. One of the ways that Persona 5 improves on the classic turn-based battle system of JRPG’s is by removing the need to navigate through layers of menus to give a command in battle. Instead, Persona 5‘s improved UI features a variety of shortcuts to major commands in battle, such as melee attack, Persona skills and items. This increases the pace of combat, making Persona 5 a game that incorporates the more traditional, tactical aspects of previous JRPG titles, while simultaneously acknowledging the need to modernize the classic turn-based battle system.
Large portions of the game are just story cutscenes, leaving the player little to do apart from the occasional dialogue option. Dialogue decisions aren’t particularly significant, but they go a long way to break up the monotony of a 30-minute-long story sequence (and there are plenty of those), keeping you engaged and involved with the plot even when the pacing begins to slow. Some of the more ridiculous dialogue options can illicit humorous interactions from your friends, but have little to no impact on the progression of the scene. Although I can appreciate it to a certain degree, the addition of dialogue options felt to me like a half-hearted attempt to emulate the style of Western RPG’s such as Mass Effect and The Witcher.
The majority of the gameplay in Persona 5 involves the player trekking through linear corridors, sneaking up on enemies, scaling objects and gathering loot. The player also has access to a ‘third-eye’ which reveals hidden treasures and climbable objects. Despite these additions, which are clear improvements over previous Persona titles, the actual mechanics are still fairly lackluster. Jumping is only possible when prompted, and the most impactful developments of the game are carried out through cutscenes and dialogue. As stated before, there are certain points in the game where you might go a good 30-45 minutes without even touching your analogue stick, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your preferences. Some players might feel slightly discouraged at being forced to sit through long, unskippable story segments, but the sheer quality of Persona 5’s story earns this time investment. For every period of restricted freedom, there is a period of substantial freedom that follows it. As such, the game balances itself out quite nicely.
It is important to note that the mechanics of Persona 5 aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re quite good, but for the purposes of reviewing a game of this quality (spoiler: it’s stellar), it’s necessary to focus on the not-so-good stuff a little more than usual. While players of such games as Assassins Creed and even other JRPG titles such as Kingdom Hearts might be a little disappointed with the simplistic mechanical aspects of Persona 5, it is by no means the centerpiece of the game. Emphasis, instead, is put on player strategy and character development. Though the actual mechanical aspects of the gameplay might be quite straightforward and simplistic, there are hundreds upon hundreds of unique dialogue instances that occur throughout the game, propelling the story forward. It is also interesting to note that in my first 120-hour playthrough of Persona 5, I didn’t encounter a single bug. In the current video game climate, where games are frequently rushed, unfinished and sometimes damn near broken, this was a welcome change of pace. Persona 5’s seemingly-endless development cycle suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.
Persona 5¸ though fairly minimalist in execution, is a smooth gaming experience. Every small detail, from the stylistic menu design to the easily-navigable map, feel incredibly refined and user-friendly. The game has innovated enough on its tried-and-true formula to produce a comprehensive gaming experience that is more fitting to the modern age of gaming.
Mechanics Grade: 22/25
The world of Persona 5 is a masterclass in atmospheric build-up. At the start of the game, the protagonist is a victim of society; a misfit who is forced to live his life according to a pre-determined ruleset. This is reflected in the gloomy tone of the soundtrack early on, as well as the sedated, almost dystopian atmosphere of metropolitan Tokyo. The words “Live an honest life” are constantly displayed on the screen, as if daring the player to move outside of the strict path that society has set for him. It is at this critical juncture that the protagonist unlocks the potential of his Persona, which functions throughout the game as a symbol of resilience and defiance.
These prominent themes of oppression, bondage and social upheaval, which are featured prominently throughout the game, are counteracted by the charismatic quirkiness of the main cast. The often-humorous dialogue provides some much-needed levity to a game that might otherwise be depressing. However, it is this contrast that makes the game so fulfilling. There’s no better feeling than finally fighting your way through an emotionally draining dungeon. The popularity of your group increases every time you hit these milestones, and you are always rewarded with two or three blissful in-game weeks of hanging out with your friends.
Visually, Persona 5 resembles something more akin to a comic book or manga rather than a video game. Flipping through the menus is like leafing your way through a graphic novel, and each character has a unique, stylized illustration of themselves that lights up the background when they deal the killing blow in a battle, complete with corny catchphrases. This is a welcome change from the grainy, static menus and post-battle screens of previous games, and goes a long way towards creating a distinct atmosphere of Persona 5 as an interactive visual novel rather than a standard-fair JRPG.
Sound-design and voice acting in Persona 5 are of a very high quality. The game is filled with easily recognizable, effective noise. From the sound of a melee attack hitting or missing its mark, to the sound of summoning a Persona; each sound feels unique and thematically consistent. Sound-design is most effective while navigating the streets of Tokyo. The sounds of train doors closing, passengers murmuring and laughing, and the sound of footfalls on concrete feel incredibly realistic. These various sounds of urban-life are intermingled into a rich tapestry that compliments the stylized art design, while adding a much-needed sense of realism to a visual style that might feel juvenile to some. Considerable attention, too, has been paid to voice-acting, with Atlus having taken more than half a year to perfect the English localization of the game. There are thousands upon thousands of lines of voiced dialogue, with each character getting its fair share of screen-time. Each character’s voice perfectly fits and reflects their unique personality. The English voice-acting is of a very high quality, and features some fairly well-known voice-actors (Pssst, Yusuke is McCree). There is also free-DLC available for those among us (Anime purists) who might prefer the original Japanese voice-acting.
Environments also play a huge role in developing Persona 5’s atmosphere. Palaces, the main dungeons of the game, are physical representations of a corrupted person’s mind. The symbolic significance of some of these palaces is quite striking, and this goes a long way towards helping to understand a character’s personality and motivations. In addition to smaller dungeons (palaces), which are thematically-narrow, there’s also a larger dungeon accessible throughout most of the game that is thematically far broader, called Mementos. Mementos’ scope far exceeds that of the individual palaces, boasting over a dozen levels, each with multiple sub-levels that the player has to fight through. The dark, moody soundtrack and the macabre décor make Mementos the more atmospherically striking environment of the game. Mementos is always there, lurking deep below the surface of Tokyo; a seemingly endless maze of bloody, pulsing walls filled with immoral peoples’ distorted desires. Mementos doesn’t feature very prominently in the game’s story until the end, and instead is meant to be explored little-by-little. As the player progresses further, the symbolic significance of the dungeon increases until the very end of the game, where it is the centerpiece of the final act. This gradual progression throughout Mementos contributes towards a balanced and consistent thematic build-up, making it one of Persona 5’s most effective story-telling devices.
Atmosphere Grade: 25/25
Earlier, I mentioned that I had put 120 hours into my first play through of Persona 5. This 120-hour experience netted me exactly 55% of the game’s trophies, and left me disappointed at having failed to complete certain character story lines. This might sound harrowing to some, but Persona 5 is incredibly effective at breaking up the more monotonous aspects of the game. I’m already 20 hours into a New Game+ save file, and it’s surprising how fresh it feels. New Game+ in Persona 5 lets you keep your Personas, money and social stats, meaning you can continue developing the character you spent a hundred hours on in the previous playthrough. This gives you the freedom to explore previously-undiscovered aspects of Persona 5’s vast world.
Maybe this time I’ll see what fishing is all about. Or maybe I’ll finally hit a homerun in the batting cages and net the Slugger trophy. Or maybe I’ll spend a little more time on the vast cast of characters that I didn’t have time for in my last playthrough. We’ll see. It’s all possible in New Game+, which really is more of an extended play through rather than a brand-new game. For a game with such a long story, it’s surprising how much replay value there actually is.
Persona 5’s combat is another thing that won’t tire into a second play through. Discovering an enemies’ weaknesses and exploiting them is immensely satisfying, and employing your conversational abilities to influence enemies after they’ve been disarmed is consistently challenging and entertaining. Persona 5 also has 5 separate difficulty levels, ranging from Safety, which is for players who want to enjoy a good story, to Challenge, which is in an entirely separate realm of difficulty. This allows players to tailor Persona 5 towards their specific needs, and with 5 difficulty levels it’s hard to imagine that anyone won’t find a difficulty that’s perfect for them.
The most satisfying parts of Persona 5, however, don’t come from its gameplay. They come from its characters. The main-cast of characters have a very diverse set of personalities that frequently collide, leading to consistently entertaining dialogue. Getting to know your team is always one of the focal points of any Persona game, and Persona 5 delivers perhaps the best cast of characters of any previous title.
Entertainment Value Grade: 25/25
Thematically, Persona 5 is one of the most thought-provoking gaming experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of beholding. Its story line has sociopolitical dimensions that elevate it above its peers. This, combined with a robust cast of characters and a diverse set of environments waiting to be explored, makes Persona 5 one of the finest RPG’s of the last 20 years, and one of my favorite games of all-time. Period.