Let us start the game.
Format: PS3, PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: April 4, 2017
After five consecutive delays and many, many broken dreams, Persona 5 is finally here! I’ve been a huge fan of the series ever since I first played Persona 4 during my high-school years. Even 6 years after finishing it, I think it has one of the most relatable and engaging stories I’ve ever played. It was somehow able to look at dark, and at times incredibly difficult themes that occasionally hit personally close to home while still feeling fun, bright and upbeat. It introduced an interesting combination of systems, being both a challenging but satisfying dungeon crawler, as well as a surprisingly deep life-simulator. And even after a litany of spinoffs, including two fighting games, a non-cannon crossover with the previous series entry, and even a rhythm game, the Persona games have still held a special place in my cynical little heart.
Unfortunately, unlike many lucky critics, we weren’t able to get our hands on an early copy of this game. And since it reportedly takes well over a hundred hours to beat, I don’t think it’s humanly possible for me to offer a prompt, full review of Persona 5. And to be honest, I don’t think I want to even if I could. Because of my deep fondness for the series, Persona 5 is of the few games I want to sit down and really enjoy, as opposed to flying through it in less than two weeks without bathing or sleep in order to rush out an already week-late review. But, as you can tell, that doesn’t mean I won’t give at least my impressions of it now that I’m a decent twenty hours into the story, otherwise known as the “ten percent” mark amongst series fans.
And let me tell you, from what I’ve seen in that small percentage of time, Persona 5 is pretty fucking amazing!
Our story begins as many good stories do, with a high school student wrongly convicted of assault after trying to protect a woman from being sexually harassed. Kicked out of school and branded as a criminal, you take the role of the game’s unnamed protagonist as he begins his probation period in Shibuya. Labelled by society as an outcast, the protagonist soon meets other students who have also been unjustly isolated. Realising that their society is run by toxic and cruel adults, the gang of troubled teens take it on themselves to live double lives. By day they live as regular high-school students, but by night they are the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, given the ability to enter “The Metaverse”, an alternate reality where humanity’s twisted desires are made real. Their mission: rob evildoers of their corrupt and disturbed hearts and right the injustices of the world.
If this is your entry point into the Persona series, don’t let the “5” in the title fool you. With each game being its own separate tale, you can happily enjoy the game without any prior knowledge. From the moment I started the game, I found myself almost immediately invested in Persona 5’s story. By placing you in a situation in which you’re unjustly branded as a criminal and then being treated as such by the characters around you, the game really quickly gets you into the “fuck the system” vibe it strives towards. Then once you’ve reached that point, the story introduces its more supernatural elements, making way for some incredibly dark themes including mental and physical abuse, corruption of authority figures, and even teenage suicide. It feels as though Persona 5 wants you to experience these ugly injustices firsthand so that when the call to fix them comes, you take it without a second thought. In my mind, the only weakness in the game’s story is its characters. I just wasn’t as immediately endeared to its cast as quickly as I was with those in Persona 4. That being said, the starting cast of Persona 5 are still a likable gang of misfits that have engaging personal backstories that serve to further the game’s intended tone that you’ll see echoed throughout its rebellious punk aesthetic.
Speaking of which, I absolutely love this game’s stylish presentation. The music is a real treat for the ears, using relaxing melodies for the more mundane aspects of the protagonist’s daily life, as well as funky 70s-esqe tunes to match the sneaky and dangerous infiltrations into the Metaverse. Everything that would be standard in any other JRPG is given this unique sense of identity, all coated in a pop-punk colour scheme of red, black and white. The main character runs through the battle results screen. Random encounters explode into a gushing fountain of colour and giant letters. Even simply opening the in-game menu is characterised with the protagonist covering the camera with a “talk to the hand!” expression and an impactful slapping sound effect.
Despite these new changes to presentation, however, the basic Persona gameplay formula is the same as previous entries. This is a game about productively using your after school time and days off. Since you’ll frequently be faced with scenarios that require beating a boss before a certain deadline, you’ll have to think carefully about what you do in every in-game day.
On one hand, you could spend your time going to the Metaverse to make progress towards reaching a boss or simply grinding for experience. Or you could partake in activities around Shibuya to improve your personal stats by studying or going to see a movie. You can also spend time with your party members and other friends outside of the Phantom Thieves in order to gain access to new “Personas”, essentially demonic Pokémon that will fight for you if you can capture them. You’ll even gain other perks, such as new stock or discounts at the game’s item and equipment shops. It’s a great feeling to know that you’re never really wasting your time when everything you do makes your adventures into the Metaverse easier in one way or another.
But this doesn’t mean that Persona 5 is just a copy of the previous games with a new lick of paint. It also manages to bring some incredibly welcome improvements to its challenging dungeon crawling gameplay. For example, rather than navigating a clunky menu during combat, you’re now given a much more user-friendly button-assigned combat interface. You even have a handy “assist” button that quick selects attacks and spells that enemies you’re facing are weak to, but only after you learn these weaknesses.
But the most welcome change of all for me is the new approach to the game’s dungeons and how you explore them. In previous series entries, the general dungeon exploration game play would consist of simply running around randomly generated corridors and trying to smack an enemy over the head before they notice you. Persona 5 takes on a stealthier approach to its combat encounters, asking you to hide behind cover and ambush unsuspecting enemies without them spotting you. Failing to do so will raise the dungeon’s security level, which you’ll need to keep to a minimum if you don’t want to get kicked out for that day. In order to make this new style of exploration feasible, the game’s dungeons, otherwise known as “Palaces”, have now been hand-crafted in manner akin to the Dark Souls games. As you explore and fight your way through them, you’ll uncover useful shortcuts and alternative entrances that will offer paths of less resistance for future visits. It’s an awesome way to make you actually feel like a Phantom Thief as you infiltrate a Palace and plan out your route to the final floor, making the moment when you finally take down the Palace’s boss all the sweeter when you recognise the effort that went into just getting that far.
Even though I’m already 20 hours into Persona 5, I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it has to offer, both in terms of its story and its gameplay. I have yet to gain a new party member outside of the starting cast. I’ve only just gained access to “Mementos”, a secondary dungeon that appears to offer an alternative grinding method outside of the main Palaces. I’ve only just brought one of the game’s many villains to justice, and I’ve only just uncovered the identity of the Phantom Thieves’ next loathsome target.
And yet, despite all of these unknowns and undiscovered content, I already feel like Persona 5 has set a gold standard for future JRPGs. Its gameplay is both fun and delightfully challenging. It’s full to the brim with a remarkable stylish sense of self. Even its story is incredibly engaging, performing a remarkable yet natural balancing act between comedy and dark drama.
There are many games that I’ve played endlessly just so I can see how thier story unfolds. But Persona 5 is one of the few games that I’m looking forward to playing all over again before I’ve even seen its ending. And once you start playing it, I think you’ll feel the same as well.