Persona 5 is one of those rare experiences that brings a lot to the table. On the most fundamental gameplay level there is a lot to enjoy. The plot boldly tackles mature subject matter while balancing it with engaging characters and conflict. It manages to have a unique look and atmosphere all its own in a franchise that is known for having each installment appear radically different from one another. A game that managed to eat up dozens of hours of my time and I barely noticed.
But after coming out of a stupor of combat, high-school drama, and harsh bright colors, I couldn’t help but notice there were some notable issues with the game that hold it back from being a brand new JRPG classic for the ages to being just great.
In the tradition of Persona, you play as a teenager settling into a new town somewhere in Japan; an entire year of school and new relationships awaiting you. However, your character isn’t the usual inoffensive player surrogate with a nebulous backstory, you are on probation due to criminal charges for assaulting someone. The record makes you out to be some violent criminal, in reality the context is a lot more sympathetic but no one else will see it that way.
Things take a bizarre turn when you and your friends discover an official in the school abusing their power and making life miserable for several students. The source for this corruption: an alternative world where his very heart and soul has been distorted into something horrific. But actions taken in this world can have an effect on people in the real world.
It is in this Metaverse that your crew of outcasts learn to use an inner power known as calling a Persona, a spiritual manifestation of their willpower and resolve. From here begins the team’s adventure as supernatural vigilantes known as The Phantom Thieves, a group dedicated to infiltrating the unhinged landscapes of dangerous individuals and stealing their twisted desires, forcing them to reform and confess to their crimes in the real world.
The plot is essentially a mash-up of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika and Ocean’s 11 mixed with a slice-of-life anime all wrapped around gameplay that can easily be summarized as Pokemon for adults.
The connection to Nintendo’s franchise isn’t made lightly as it is a perfect comparison to Persona management. Each party member has one which they use to fight enemies in the game’s various dungeons. They have various physical attacks, can perform certain magic spells with elemental and status effects, and some can even heal the party. But your character is able to command multiple Personas, an entire team of six that can go up to twelve.
But rather than capturing them or picking them up through your travels, Persona 5 brings back the negotiation mechanic from the Shin Megami Tensei games. Whenever you land a critical hit on the enemy or hit their elemental weakness, your party holds them up, from here you can choose to either deliver a devastating all-out attack or talk to one of them. If you ask them to lend you their power you are asked several questions, depending on how you answer them and their demeanor they’ll either leave, give you an item or join your collection of Personas.
A collection that will be continuously in flux due to how demanding the game is outside of dungeons as well as within. In addition to being to able to fuse Personas together to create more powerful ones, mixing and matching their various abilities for optimal butt-kicking, the various classes or Arcana they belong to are tied into the game’s social link mechanic. Whenever you aren’t in the Metaverse fighting monsters, the game encourages you to interact with certain characters in the real world, which can range from your party members to minor persons of interest in the world. By getting to know them in between school work and dives into the other world, you develop a bond which helps empower certain Personas.
It’s a formula that Atlus has used to great effect before in past Persona games and this installment is no different. A fantastic feedback loop that gets you invested in the personal drama and motivations of the game’s large cast, with the reward being more tools to help you handle the more intense combat sections you need to forward the plot. Something as simple as empathizing with the pressure and motivations of a talented shogi player gave me the ability to switch members of my party around mid-battle, a tactic that saved my butt in a boss fight later on for example.
Also the game is absolutely drenched in style. From the sharp color palette to its surreal noir aesthetic all given its own distinct identity by yet another eclectic jazz/hip hop/ electronica soundtrack by series composer Shoji Meguro. Even something usually static and utilitarian as the user interface is dripping with artistic style without becoming too much of an assault on the eyes. An impressive feat considering how much harsh red is used and how many disparate art styles are used for the hundreds of Personas and enemies.
Persona 5 must also be praised for its massive update to its level design. While prior installments’ dungeons can charitably be called grind fodder, a lot of repetitive battles to level up your party through uninteresting stretches of interchangeable rooms and hallways to get to the next juicy piece of story, Persona 5’s dungeons are large complexes with security measures and patrolling guards and inconvenient traps, all standing in your way to reach the treasure room. There’s a greater emphasis on navigation, stealth, some light platforming, and even some varied puzzle solving in addition to the combat encounters.
For those that do enjoy some grind there is another area you can visit in the game known as Mementos, a perpetually changing otherworldly subway station full of challenging enemies and treasure to collect. The entire area is also home to side-missions you can complete for additional rewards. They usually amount to hitting a certain floor of the dungeon and fighting a mini-boss, but since the combat is so consistently rewarding it hardly feels like a chore.
You will want to make a habit of running through Mementos between major story dungeons because the difficulty curve ramps up quickly. About halfway through the game’s plot I was beaten down by a major boss battle and went through about three hours of retries. Since I was just going from dungeon to dungeon with little to no grinding in Mementos I was actually six levels lower than recommended for the entire dungeon and boss. I won, but it was a lot of time wasted that could have been saved with better time management.
Which does bring me to some issues I do have with the plot and characters. I wrote extensively about how Persona 5’s prologue and narrative structure lead to a lot of flawed storytelling, and north of sixty hours later my thoughts on that beginning haven’t changed. However, credit has to be given to Atlus with how the ticking clock leading to the game’s opening moments is not the only story thread explored. In addition to the actions of the Phantom Thieves being investigated by the police, a bunch of criminals suddenly confessing to their crimes is suspicious enough without calling cards being left around, there are hints of a massive government conspiracy, dubious and shady science experiments, and even the hint that there is a third party in the Metaverse. It still doesn’t forgive the glacial pace of the prologue or how often it seems to repeat itself in the first act, but the second act finally settles into its own groove and leads to some set pieces and character moments that are a wonder to behold all the way to the finale.
As for the major characters, they’re reliably sympathetic but lack a certain spark past entries had. Each major character is a series staple Problem Child dealing with major issues but the level of severity can be a bit inconsistent. There are some dark themes at play such as guilt and trauma, one character has to cope with losing a beloved family member right in front of them and not a single beat is lost. But that’s more the exception than the rule, with others’ issues being something as ethereal as wanting to stop being a wall flower or getting over being thrown off a sports team.
It is also frighteningly bizarre that a story about a bunch of outcasts trying to seek justice doesn’t have any major characters under the LGBT spectrum. Normally, this wouldn’t be as large of an issue but Persona 4’s biggest moments came from two of its popular characters, Kanji Tatsumi and Naoto Shirogane, dealing with this crucial part of their identities. It was a progressive step in the right direction beloved by fans that became muddled by its PlayStation Vita port sanding off these characters’ traits, and Persona 5 takes another step back in that regard. The only representation I’ve seen have been a cross-dressing bar hostess that is tucked away in a side-mission and two highly effeminate men that show up solely to be the punchline to some embarrassing jokes. Twenty years ago this stuff may have been fine, but it is unbelievably tone deaf now.
Even by JRPG slow boil standards, Persona 5 takes forever to get going and trips over its own feet along the way, losing some progressive teeth in the process. But once it starts going it is still an absorbing experience thanks to some tight gameplay and fetching visuals. If you’re craving a new JRPG that will steal at least a hundred hours of your life while keeping you entertained, this one is for you.