It’s a little disheartening to reveal that my first impressions of Persona 5 were a minor disappointment. This disappointment didn’t come from something as identifiable like game difficulty or UI or even art direction. It came from pacing and some pretty hackneyed storytelling.
The game opens in medias res with your character escaping what appears to be an intense heist of some kind. You have several characters communicating with you as you leap and run from hiding place to hiding place while security tracks you down. There’s even a brief combat encounter where you appear to be using late-game abilities against quite intimidating foes. But it’s a very quick battle and leads to a scripted cutscene where your character is arrested by the police and taken into custody.
From here the game has the hero in an interrogation room with an agent grilling him for answers as to what he is doing. From here the game flashes back six months to when the character first arrived in the hustle and bustle of the Shibuya district.
Honestly, I enjoyed what ATLUS was going for with this beginning in concept. Persona games in the past can easily be criticized for being very slowly paced with boring openings, usually to establish a baseline of normalcy before everything turns into an existential acid trip. And flipping through three to four hours’ worth of text and dialogue isn’t exactly the best hook for a series that effectively skipped an entire console generation’s worth of narrative and storytelling delivery improvement.
Instead this action-packed beginning is squandered. Without going into specifics here it is established in Persona fashion that your character will be spending a year in this city. Attending its school, getting to know its characters, and most likely juggling at least seven different hobbies and part-time jobs because this is still a video game. But, in keeping with this game’s overarching themes of crime and justice, your character is actually on probation due to a crime committed in the past.
This is poignant because the dungeons and major threats in the game are contextualized as major heists of some kind. You don’t enter a level to kill a boss, you’re there to steal a crown jewel of some kind. The Social Links, the bonds you share and grow with major characters, are instead referred to as Confidants, like the aids in a criminal conspiracy.
And this would be fine… if the game simply let its own events play out.
Instead, Persona 5 continuously cuts back to some time in the future with your character in the interrogation room talking to an agent. It cuts back with an elaborate scene transition every time you find a new Confidant, all so the agent can give one or two lines of dialogue, which is extremely annoying no matter how much it gets normalized through repetition. And it cuts back after every major dungeon and story event so the agent can basically give away who the next antagonist will be for the plot.
This sort of predetermination undermines a lot of the inherent intrigue and sense of danger the Persona games are great at creating. How easy it is for your entire party to be defeated from one bad move, how the dialogue system secretly judges you and pays attention to the most innocuous choices in order to determine what ending you get. Even in terms of emulating a heist movie, it undermines stakes and motivation by this reveal. I know my character survives until a fixed point so there’s a lack of tension, one that could have easily been avoided. Thankfully, this agent doesn’t completely give away the details and the methods as to how the party encounters their next target for their next supernatural heist, and there is some intrigue to be had, but there is still some sense of surprise lost.
The greatest insult is the missed opportunities for brevity and a flimsy commitment to this very structure. In medias res is usually done in order to get right into the action, into the meat of things. The original God of War game used this structure after all and that was a high-octane action experience, it made sense it didn’t want the beginning to be weighed down with exposition.
But Persona 5 bungles this in terms of gameplay progression and even in how the narrative is framed. First and foremost, the fights you have in the beginning are treated as big deals, both in terms of threat and in terms of your capability. But rather than use this as a moment to introduce a combat tutorial, a way to show the player how deep the game’s rabbit hole goes, the enemy is basically nailed to the ground with a giant bulls-eye painted on it. So you have a battle where you are free to figure things out in a situation where things are dire, a perfect opportunity to show off all the tricks in the book, and then about three hours later when you get back into combat there’s a bunch of tutorial menus explaining how things works and its driven into the ground with elements being introduced piecemeal. It is exactly as obtuse and frustrating as it sounds.
Also, having an extended flashback from a character’s perspective follows an unspoken rule: never leave the direct perspective of the storyteller. Keep it focused on the character, your player avatar. He is the one narrating this story after all. But even then Persona 5 breaks this rule, cutting away from his perspective to show other characters in other parts of the world, their goings on happening in tandem with his actions. There’s a stretch of an answer that some of the characters become important in some capacity later or directly interact with the hero, and there is a small merit to this. However, since this is a police interrogation where the point is direct and concise facts, details, and procedure, it makes absolutely no sense to go on a tangent about how a secondary character has trouble at home that won’t be important until later.
If this was presented like a regular JRPG this would just be regular storytelling, a means to break things up. But since Persona 5 chose to go for this structure and this narrative conceit, it leads to a lot of messy problems.
This is admittedly a very harsh first impression of a franchise but it comes from a place of love for a series I have nothing but the highest respect for. I love the Persona games. I love their visual designs. I love their interesting characters and character drama. I love Shoji Meguro’s catchy J-Pop soundtrack. I love the combat; even when it’s kicking me up and down the sidewalk while whistling showtunes. But above all I love how it perfectly balances a grounded and realistic observation of high school life, teenage drama and issues, and modern Japanese culture with more outlandish and bizarre metaphysical threats like a murder mystery where the method of execution is through a parallel world found inside television sets. As such this is still painful to express.
Thankfully I have spent more than twenty hours into this game’s world and there is something resembling a groove that the game is settling into, one that I am enjoying. I am starting to like these characters and am getting wrapped up in the plot and I want to see where everything is going. The issue is that I wish certain developers would understand why certain storytelling devices are used for reasons beyond the superficial and trying to ape Hollywood. Because a game with poor pacing is one thing, but a game that inflicts problems on itself trying a new cinematic trick is just painful.
I mean David Cage tried framing his last arty experience all non-linear like Quentin Tarentino and it wound up sucking noodles.
Expect my full thoughts on Persona 5 in a more concise and holistic review very soon. Let us know your thoughts of the beginning of the game in the comments section and feel free to share this around.