Persona 5 Review
System: PS3, PS4
Love at first sight is a wondrous and uncommon thing. It’s even more rare when it lasts through 92 hours and 47 minutes. Matt Sternberg, May 9, 2017
Here’s something that’s becoming a recurring theme of the year: I’ve never played a Persona game before.
If you’ve been following my stable of reviews this year I know what you are probably thinking, “Gravity Rush, Nier, Mass Effect, Now Persona? Did you even play a videogame this past decade, Matt?” “What next?” “You gonna review Shadow of War later this year and say you never played Shadow of Mordor?”
*Cough* *Cough* *Slowly tiptoes away*
I know, it’s bad, but hear me out though. Though I may never have played a mainline Persona game, I am more than familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei series that it was borne from. In fact, even though my only run in with Persona has been the excellent P4 Arena fighting game and the studio’s unique and challenging puzzle spin-off Catherine, I have spent hundreds of hours in the MegaTen universe with the likes of Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, SMT: Strange Journey, and SMT IV. Hell, just last year, I spent almost a couple hundred more between the incredible SMT IV: Apocalypse and the surprisingly excellent Fire Emblem crossover, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE – which was just as much a Persona game as the main cannon.
Regardless of which mainline game or spinoff I played, they each built off the same foundations of excellent Japanese role-playing that have made the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spin-offs a critical success among the giants of the genre. While they never reached the commercial success of a Final Fantasy out west, they nonetheless were at least beloved by the fans and this love culminated with the critical and commercial success of Persona 4, widely regarded as one of the greatest the genre has ever seen.
Flash forward almost a decade later and we are graced with its follow up entry Persona 5. After having the countless cries of excitement from fans – and even my own roommate’s – for this franchise fall on my deaf ears, I can finally say that I am now indeed “woke”. Persona is not only of the best JRPGs ever made, its one of the best games ever made, period.
Unlike other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, which usually revolve around the infestation of demonic beings in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, games in the Persona series follow the lives of seemingly ordinary high school students dealing with societal and familial issues.
In Persona 5, you start off as a nameless male high school student – a series staple – who is framed for a crime he did not commit and is sent away to live in a suburb of Tokyo with a family friend and start his life over in a new city. It is here he begins to attend the nearby Shujin Academy where he will meet a group of young students, a mysterious talking cat as well as a smattering of seedy adults who will change his life forever serve as a catalyst for what’s to come. What follows is your formation of a ragtag group of warriors of justice, aptly named the Phantom Thieves, who’s goal it is to bring down these corrupt figures in order to bring balance to a society that preys on the weak. This is done by entering their “Palaces” – physical embodiments of their corrupt desires – through a mysterious cognitive network called the Metaverse, where stealing hearts results in the changing of an individual’s cognitive makeup.
What makes the story so interesting and so unexpected from its typical “superheroes in high school” set-up is the myriad ways in which it tackles mature and timely themes such as abuse of power, control of the media, and the ethical dilemmas in bringing forth justice. What makes it special is that it rarely feels heavy handed and maudlin and even though it occasionally suffers from expository overload in some scenes – typical of the JRPG genre – it is surprisingly well written and thoughtful in its portrayal of such tough subjects. It hits all the right notes without feeling preachy, righteous without veering into self-righteousness.
It is only further buoyed by an incredibly engaging cast of characters you meet throughout a 100 hour adventure. From the hotheaded and virile goofball Ryuji, to the strong-willed and intelligent Makoto, to the idiosyncratic and socially inept Yusuke, to the tech wunderkind shut-in Futaba, to even Morgana, a talking cat who yearns for humanity, each character is well-developed and will stay with you long after the credits rolls. Not only are they distinct and three-dimensional, but each also has their own story arc alongside the main attraction that serve to connect you more to them and the world they inhabit. They range from serious subject matter to goofy fun – such as Ann’s photo shoot run-in with a “determined” competing model – but almost all of them are satisfying in their own right. It’s rare in videogames to see such great character development, but Persona 5 really sets the benchmark for traditional Japanese RPGs in this regard.
Persona 5 is a traditional JRPG in the sense that it features turn-based battles as opposed to the action-based efforts mostly seen in today’s games. It’s almost antiquated to see any big budget RPG – Japanese or not – to not only employ this style of gameplay, but to wear it on its blazer like a badge of honor the way Persona 5 does: and boy does it knock it out of the fuckin’ park! It’s fast, it’s fluid, it’s more dynamic than what you would expect from a turned-based system and even after dozens of hours in, it doesn’t get boring.
Akin to many of the series’ prior entries, Persona 5’s battle system revolves around you fighting, collecting and fusing demons, called Persona, to do your bidding – it’s almost like Pokémon as designed for the Hot Topic crowd. Where it differs from a game like Pokémon or classic Final Fantasy is in the way you approach each battle. Each enemy has a weakness and exploiting said weakness opens up additional opportunities for you or your party to attack again. Conversely, if an enemy targets your own weakness, you will be left helpless and open to multiple attacks as well. It’s a unique system and an extension of previous games in the SMT franchise such as the Press Turn system from SMTIV and it adds an intriguing level of depth to standard JRPG battle conventions. For example, exploiting the weaknesses of an entire group of enemies opens up an ambush situation, in which you have the ability to either recruit said demon, gain more money or an item, or just plain annihilate them with an incredibly over-the-top “All-Out Attack”, which sends your cast bum-rushing the enemy into submission, highlighted with an incredible ending pose.
Recruiting Persona is an incredibly important element to the game. Unlike Pokémon, where physically catching them is required, using you silver-laced tongue to court them is the name of the game. Through wonderfully obtuse questions posed by each demon – which the probability of success can at times be as much of a guessing game as it is due to your eloquence – you will have the ability to convince hundreds of unique specimen to your team, each outfitted with unique abilities. Also unlike Pokémon, leveling up these demons takes way too long for you to just focus on a set party during your entire playthrough and that’s where fusion becomes important.
Once you gain access to the Velvet Room – the main recurring element from the series – you will have the ability to execute – literally – two and sometimes more Persona to form even more powerful Persona that are imbued with the skills of its late parents. The farther you progress in the game, the more options open up to you, such as forfeiting Persona for item fusion and training current Persona for additional abilities, which help to give more options on the way you cultivate your group of demonic helpers. If you are one to get attached to your critters, fear not they can be registered with their stats and abilities intact with the ability to reclaim at a later time for a cost, but just be forewarned, if you intend to get farther in the game, fusing new personae is tantamount to success in battle.
Battles take place in the Metaverse in one of two places, the aforementioned Palaces – tied to an individual jackass – and Mementos – made up of the collective consciousness of society, who share some jack-assy tendencies as well.
Palaces are the absolute highlight of the game and also where you will be spending most of your time. They are sprawling and beautifully crafted dungeons that get progressively more intricate the further you get into the story. Each hosts a unique theme, visual motif, and gameplay hook, implementing a welcome element of stealth in which you can approach encounters in advantageous ways by hiding behind furniture, corners and walls and jumping out for an ambush attack with press of the X button. Without spoiling them, they will blow your mind and are the prime example of how to develop a roleplaying dungeon in 2017. They alone are worth the cost of admission.
Mementos, on the other hand, will be very reminiscent of Persona 3’s Tartarus, in that it is a singular procedurally generated dungeon with traditional floors. It is here where you take can take on individual quests that you receive from the Phantom Thieves Phan-Site – ya, you’re bigtime now motherfucker. These quests are simple one-off fights that you can find throughout the dozens of floors of Mementos and are worth participating in for their story beats as well as the EXP and items they will net you. In fact, progressing throughout Mementos is always a fun and beneficial activity on your days off from slaying moral demons in Palaces as it can house high level weapons and equipment that will help you greatly in the more difficult fights you encounter throughout your travels.
Speaking of days off, we haven’t even talked about a whole half of what this game is all about: the social simulation aspect. While you will spend many of your nights as crime fighting vigilantes, by day you are just a normal high school student with all the responsibilities that it entails. Yes, you will be participating in the daily grind of school life, but not to worry, it is a blast and it will bring great benefits.
Studying, hanging with friends, taking on an after school job, going to the gym, and even going to a maid café or bathhouse are just some of the activities you will experience on a normal weekday. Each of these activities with take up a portion of your busy schedule, but will also grant you skill points which will level up different attributes: Charm, Knowledge, Proficiency, Kindness, and Guts. These attributes are essential in gaining new Mementos quests and even help you forge social clout with your fellow Phantom Thieves and other colorful characters you will meet in form of Confidants. Building up rapport or social links with these Confidants is beneficial in two ways. Firstly, they are each attached to a certain Arcana type, which is also attached to every Persona you obtain, so leveling them up will grant EXP bonuses when fusing Persona of the same Arcana. Secondly, whenever you level up your relationship with a particular Confidant, you will gain new abilities, which can be of great importance in the real world and the Metaverse. For example, leveling up your fellow Phantom Thieves will give them abilities such a Baton Pass, which will allow for you to switch to another character after exposing an enemy weakness mid-turn and help chain together more attacks than previously possible. Leveling up a different confidant might give you the ability to purchase health restoratives on the cheap, or another will allow you to create SP restoratives – this game’s equivalent of magic/skill energy – which are hard to come by and might give you that extra boost in a Palace. One confidant, who happens to moonlight as a Japanese maid, will give you the ability to take on more activities than usual and might be a better investment in the long run than spending time with another confidant who might give better short term benefits.
Time plays a huge factor in this game as everything, from going to a Palace, to Mementos, to any extra-curricular activity will move the clock hand forward. Seeing as there is only so much time – usually you only get 3-4 weeks to attempt a Palace – deciding where to spend most of your time is a constant question throughout the game. Do I go the Palace today or do I level up Haru’s Confidant level in hopes that I gain the ability to cultivate more SP recovering items that will make traversing the Palace take half as many days, giving me more free time to work on shoring up another relationship or working on another skill attribute. There are so many interesting and fleshed out layers in every aspect of this game, you will rarely find a moment where you feel like you aren’t being rewarded for your time spent. It’s perfectly balanced and supremely confidant in each of its systems.
This impeccable confidence is further exuded in the game’s wickedly stylish presentation. The game knows how cool it is and isn’t afraid to slap you right in the face with it’s own brand of awesome. From its incredibly slick menus, to the seamless integration of jumping in and out of battle, to the astonishing Palaces, to the incredibly eye-popping character and enemy designs, which range from mystifying to grotesque – one of them is literally a cock on a wagon, I’m not making this shit up – the game doesn’t waste any inch of the screen nor any second of your time without assaulting your cornea with its mouth-watering visual Valhalla. It makes you forget that the game employs visuals from a bygone era with low poly models and some particularly blurry texturing, showing its humble roots as a game built from the ground up on the PS3 originally. None of that matters a lick though when you have something that peacocks as much as this game does with its vibrancy. It puts the muddy and bland environments and battlefields of technically superior games to shame.
Equally as impressive is the sound design. Series composer Shoji Meguro brings back the swagger with his jazz-infused score that ranks among the best in the genre. It might not feature the grand sweeping orchestral arrangements found in games like FFXV and Nier: Automata, but it is no less as absorbing as those classics and will have you humming its tunes long after you put the game down. Special props go out to the piece, Last Surprise, which hands down is the single catchiest battle theme I’ve ever heard.
Voice acting is also a great touch. While your protagonist is mostly mute, each of your main compatriots is admirably brought to life by a string of great vocal performances. They are each unique and fitting and in an age where the community heavily criticizes English dubs of JRPGs, Persona 5 can be looked at as a great success. It’s not going to win any Oscars by any stretch of the imagination – and some of the ancillary and background characters have some less consistent performances – but these performances help to enhance your bond with these characters – I just wish there was more of it throughout.
There are very few places where Persona 5 makes a misstep, but nonetheless even an A student will get a B once in a while. While the game is almost perfectly balance, dying, for one thing, can be an extremely frustrating event. There were over a half dozen times where I lost 30 minutes or more of progress because I either fell to an enemy that ambushed me or got one shot by a death spell and had to return to a previous save. In an age where restarts are commonplace, an archaic system such as this is painful reminder to those who shy away from hardcore JRPGs, why they don’t give the genre more of a chance. It would’ve been more of an issue if the dungeon design wasn’t so good, but even still, in a game that you might be spending over 100 hours playing, losing even 15 minutes still feels like a massive impediment. At least it will allow you to restart from the beginning of a boss fight after an unsuccessful attempt, which begs the question: why not every encounter?
Beyond that there are a few tiny nitpicks such as Persona not registering in the compendium if released upon recruitment and a somewhat rushed final act, but overall there are too many rousing successes to keep this keener out of an Ivy League school.
5 out of 5
Persona 5 is an incredible achievement any way you look at it. From its excellent and timely story, to its incredible cast of characters, to its perfectly executed battle system, to its engaging social simulation aspects, all wrapped up with such incredible style, the game never misses a beat.
Rarely does a game – let alone a JRPG – come along that I feel can be recommended to anyone regardless of tastes and have them coming out enjoying it in some capacity, but I think this is one of those game. It’s a game made for lovers of Saturday morning superhero cartoons. It’s for lovers of comics. It’s for those who have a love of Japanese culture. A game for lovers of great stories and for lovers of great art. It’s a game for the genre’s hardcore faithful and for those who have never played a JRPG in their life. Most importantly it has a cat bus.
It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.