Reviewing Persona 5
Atlus’s Persona 5 is pure wish fulfillment for everyone who has ever felt circumscribed by society’s hierarchies and expectations. In this game, Japanese teenagers gain the mystical power to change people’s hearts and force them to confess to their crimes and misdeeds. No one is too important or too powerful for these “Phantom Thieves” to hit. And strikingly, the narrative is driven more by the heroes’ proactive attacks on villains than it is driven by heroes reacting to villains’ attacks. In other words, this is a game where the heroes uncharacteristically go on the offense, and it relays a powerful message–you are the master of your own fate, if you are willing to fight for it.
Mechanically speaking, Persona 5 perfects the formula that Persona 3 began. By removing some of the more forgiving elements of Persona 4 and tweaking many other aspects, this game feels challenging and fair in generally equal portions. The addition of several elements from Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse works out surprisingly well in the game’s favor too. And there have never been as many different ways to spend your days as in the expanded life simulation options present here. Basically, the game just works really well on every front that it tackles, and it does so with an unprecedented amount of style.
Some quirks and redundancy in the narrative leave me unable to prefer this game over 4, but if you’ve never played a Persona before and only have the time to take on one of these gargantuan adventures, you should probably make it this one.
Style and Substance
First, let’s talk about something that people rarely get excited to discuss regarding a video game: user interface (UI). Good lord, Persona 5 takes something as basic as menus and makes them into flowing, dynamic experiences where everything is animated and personality oozes all over every moment. Battle menus too are streamlined to minimize the amount of inputs ever needed to execute a command, and much to my surprise, this streamlining resulted in only very few instances of me accidentally inputting the wrong command. It makes me realize how antiquated the UI of most video games (or at least most JRPGs) has become, and Persona 5 offers some badly needed innovation in that area.
Aside from UI, the game puts a lot of effort into faithfully recreating the flavors and sights of Tokyo. The graphics themselves are nothing that will task the PlayStation 4 hardware (not surprising, since it’s available for PlayStation 3 too), but the character and enemy models are very nice. Shigenori Soejima’s character designs are visually distinct and generally pretty attractive to behold. And it’s nice to see Shin Megami Tensei monsters fully realized in HD quality.
The soundtrack, meanwhile, falls a peg short of Persona 4. That’s not to say it isn’t of high quality; nothing could be further from the truth. Persona 5 has several fantastic songs, including “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There,” “Life Will Change,” “Last Surprise,” and “Jaldabaoth.” Songs like these encapsulate the vicious, obstinate spirit central to the game’s themes. But Persona 5 also has many subdued songs that establish the mood without being especially memorable. Persona 4 by comparison had songs that were spectacularly catchy and melodic for virtually every occasion–from happy moments to ominous moments to dreadful moments. If Persona 4‘s soundtrack was Everest, then Persona 5‘s soundtrack is Kilimanjaro. Which, ya know, is still a mountain.
And one more quick detail–the load times throughout the game are outstanding in every situation, on the PlayStation 4 at least.
Palaces of Desire
Persona 5 is fully one-half traditional RPG dungeon crawler, one-half Japanese school life simulation, and one typically bleeds into the other. Unlike the past two games, this game has meticulously crafted dungeons (called “palaces,” which exist in a world of perceptions called the Metaverse) that are not randomly generated and make use of basic stealth mechanics. The stealth is actually kind of wonky and very perfunctory. But the look and feel of palaces play directly into story events, and each palace uses different gimmicks and puzzles in an effort to keep the gameplay fresh (which is necessary, because each palace will take several hours to complete). Some of these gimmicks are more fun than others, but the majority of palaces are entertaining until the end of the game; the final dungeons are surprisingly subdued and under-designed.
Outside of palaces, there is also a regularly accessible dungeon called Mementos, which actually is randomly generated and functions like Tartarus from Persona 3. This is the place to go to grind for money or to complete subquests. It is a simple, harmless addition that again agrees very well with the game’s narrative thematically. And the fact that all sidequests in the game are tied to Mementos makes it much easier to keep track of them than it was in previous series games.
A change to Persona 5 is the fact that, outside of boss fights, every monster in the game is recruitable to be used as the main character’s (MC) Persona–and most of the monsters are pulled from Shin Megami Tensei. Acquiring new Personas and fusing them to create even more powerful Personas has always been a major aspect of the series, (Personas are what establish the MC’s stats and usable skills at any given time.) but recent games divided combat and Persona collection into separate tasks. Now that they have been reunited, it means you have to negotiate with monsters to make them join you as a Persona. Negotiation in past Atlus games used to be a big hassle! It’s mercifully not like that this time around though, because the game provides hints into the best ways to talk to monsters. However, if you stay vigilant in fusing your Personas into every option available to you, you will usually already have every new monster that you encounter in combat. I did not spend a lot of time actually negotiating with monsters after the first couple dungeons.
The combat has changed too, albeit mildly. Weaknesses to specific weapon types are gone; guns with finite bullets are now a separate attack option (but it is typically safe to ignore buying or upgrading guns altogether); there are now normal, non-instant-death versions of light/dark skills; new nuclear and psychokinesis skill elements exist. And importantly, like in Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse, there are now specific skills that Personas can and cannot learn, so that not every Persona you fuse is a walking tank packed with all of the strongest skills you ever found. This is a case of limitations making for a better experience, as it forces to you to perform even more stringent resource management of the various skills available to you at a given time.
Speaking of resource management, it is not as easy to regain SP (the equivalent of traditional MP) in Persona 5 as in past games. You are mostly reliant on discovering and buying accessories that regenerate SP during your turn in combat. Finding these items early on is critical because time is a precious commodity in the game, and you don’t want to have to leave a dungeon just because you ran out of SP to fight the enemies.
Otherwise, the rest of your party members perform the same as always, as very traditional RPG characters. At its core, Persona 5 features very traditional turn-based battles in general. The only twists are that exploiting weaknesses grants extra turns and power bonuses, and status effects can now be used to enhance the damage of specific attacks. The status effect stuff is a nice effort to add something new to something that is very old, but in practice, I didn’t find much reason to take advantage of it on the Normal difficulty. This game isn’t challenging the way Persona 3 was, but bumping up the difficulty will likely take care of that, if you are looking to punish yourself.
The major thematic color of Persona 5 is red, evoking passion, defiance, and–importantly–rage. As mentioned above, the party characters in this game actually get proactive about looking for trouble. As the Phantom Thieves, they seek to “reform society” by forcing all the cruel adults in positions of power to have a change of heart and repent for the suffering they have caused. They even hope to get famous, with the end goal ostensibly being to inspire society to take back control from people who abuse their authority.
The narrative develops in a somewhat predictable direction in spite of its unique and exciting premise, and in fact, some aspects feel far too familiar to events from Persona 4. Other times, the bad guys that the Phantom Thieves target just don’t feel like that big of a deal. Such things are made more disappointing by the fact that the inciting incident of the game–which I won’t spoil–is really engaging. It feels like a lot is on the line while traversing the first palace, and it’s incredibly vindicating to see what results from your actions. So in some ways, the first 10-15 hours of the game are the best ones. But the other 100 (literally) hours are really darn good too.
When you are not navigating palaces or Mementos, you are just the MC, a Japanese student on police probation for a crime you didn’t commit. Now, you have moved away to Tokyo for a year in order to let the heat die down from those unfortunate circumstances. And it’s up to you decide how to spend all your time after school every day: You can hang out with friends, go to work, study, go fishing, hit up the batting cages, watch a movie, or even work out. And as always, an amusing amount of personality exudes itself in how these events unfold.
Persona 3 introduced the idea of Social Links, where the MC could unlock new Persona-fusing power as he fostered genuine relationships with various (almost arbitrary) people in his life. These people have been rebranded as Confidants in Persona 5, and the principle is virtually identical except that Confidants unlock a multitude of bonuses for gameplay now. However, whereas in past games the MC just built general bonds with people, the MC in this game always makes deals with people. There is a “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours” aspect to the relationships in this game, and it works with mixed results. Some relationships make perfect sense. Others make very, very little sense, (Long story short–it involves a sexy maid.) and there are options to trigger a romantic relationship with nearly every female you meet–even adult women. It creates unfortunate (albeit… sexy) moral quandaries that unnecessarily muddle the narrative.
At any rate, the ultimate goal of the limited calendar time in your daily life is to max out every Confidant relationship, which entails boosting your social stats (Knowledge, Charisma, Charm, Proficiency, and Guts) and completing sidequests in Mementos. Without Internet help, there is almost no chance of doing this on your first time around, but there is a New Game+ option of which you can take advantage. Or you can supplement with just a bit of Internet help (I looked up all the best ways to talk to Confidants.) and still max out everybody in one go, if you have strong time management skills.
In the end, almost all party members and Confidants have to deal with authority figures who seek to keep them subjugated. Thus, the game has an extremely suspicious and cynical air to it–which coincidentally agrees with the tone of discourse in American news and politics right now. Persona 5 features a very timely narrative. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t think of more ways to use its bold themes creatively or coherently. The game starts with a bang in its first act yet is content to conclude with just a warm fireplace crackle. The ending is comfortable, but all the dynamism of the beginning is missing.
The End of the Calendar
When I said, “Persona 5 perfects the formula that Persona 3 began,” I actually meant it as a threat. I don’t think the series can keep growing in a healthy direction if it continues this current daily life/dungeon format, because Persona 5 squeezed the last juice out of that orange. Persona 6 must be something completely new and wild (like their previous project, Catherine, was) to continue to capture imaginations. But in the meantime, overall, Persona 5 lives up to my expectations. And that’s a really huge deal for me, because I had really high expectations for this game.
Persona 5 doesn’t always hit the mark, but it hits the mark often enough and with such a high degree of polish that it’s going to warrant fond discussion and recollection for years to come.
Lingering Final Thought: I gave Tokyo Mirage Sessions this same score. Does that mean I think these two Atlus-made games are of equal quality? Well, let me think. On the one hand, Persona 5 is clearly so much bigger, with so much more to do, with such deeper concepts that it explores. On the other hand, Tokyo Mirage Sessions dared to actually try some (relatively) new things, and I’m inclined to score games higher when I see them experimenting successfully with new ideas.
So, ultimately?… Alright, Persona 5 is definitely a superior work of craftsmanship, but I don’t lament or take deep issue with scoring both games the same. I love Tokyo Mirage Sessions more than Persona 5, actually.
Yeah, I’m just that kind of weirdo.