It’s really hard to keep yourself from smiling while playing Persona 5.
Just about everything pops with enough character and style that even the menu animations are marvels to behold. At one moment you’ll be fighting demons inside someone’s corrupted heart while in another you’ll be learning how to make a killer cup of coffee. There’s a lot going on in Persona 5, but it always allows its character and heart to shine through. Over the course of about a hundred hours with the game, it’ll leave you all the happier for it.
Like previous Persona games, you take the role of a young – and mostly silent – Japanese student who’s been sent to Tokyo under parole. While previous games would often meander about, usually taking tens of hours to get to the action, Persona 5 opens with a bang. Boldly showing you a moment late in the game, you’re introduced to the world in a glamorous fashion only to be taken back to the beginning of the story, making most of the game play out in flashback.
It is by far the most interesting story that the Persona series has featured yet. As you and your ragtag band of misfits study for midterms and partake in part time jobs by day, they’ll explore the supernatural ‘metaverse’ by night. Learning how to use the powers of their Personas in hopes to turn the hearts of some nasty adults, the peculiar Phantom Thieves will hope to bring courage to the downtrodden. While the setup may sound like an afterschool special, Persona 5 often tackles some surprisingly dark subject matter. Even more surprising is how poignantly it handles the material. Never feeling out of its own depth, this is game that takes a bold look at our modern lives, sometimes crossing into topics like teen suicide, sexual assault, and self-worth.
Without a doubt, Persona 5 has something to say about today’s society. It’s in our modern political climate that the game approaches themes of abuse of power by authority figures. Safe to say it couldn’t have come in a more opportune time. Viewed from the eyes of Japan’s youth, this is a game about rebelling against the failed establishment. Unsatisfied with the state of the world, Person 5 offers real, tangible change in the face of adversity. Not only does it understand the problems of our times, it presents answers to them. Not every aspect of its subtext and commentary may stick their landings but it nevertheless is a bold stance most games would shy away from.
Yet as with any Persona game, its biggest selling point is how the game explores such ideas through its colourful cast of characters. At first glance, many of them feel like one-dimensional retreads of what’s come before, often succumbing to the tropes of the genre. There is, of course, the loud-mouthed best friend, the overly-sexualised femme fatale, the animal mascot, and plenty of others. Any fan of the series knows what to expect here. However, it isn’t until later that their true complexities reveal themselves. We explore each of their backstories, seeing their struggles and their journeys. They all feel genuine and real, even if some of them don’t get the chance to shine as brightly as others. In many ways, the cast of Persona 5 feel even more interesting and fleshed out than in any other game of the series.
The game of course does this through its ‘Confidant’ system, which replaces the Social Links of previous games, yet works in just the same way. By building closer bonds with certain characters you unlock more rewards for Personas of a particular Arcana type. Left mostly untouched from previous iterations, it is a system that offers significant motivations for exploring different characters’ side stories. While romantic options also make a return, some may be disappointed to learn that the game only allows for hetero-specific options. It’s an odd choice, especially since the game is so expressively progressive in most regards. However, while the Confidant system may be reminiscent of what’s come before, Persona 5’s new dungeons are probably the game’s most substantial adjustment to the series.
Dungeons in past games like Persona 3 and Persona 4 were, generally speaking, boring and repetitive affairs. Automatically generated hallways and corridors made the dungeons of past games feel like chores to get through, usually offering littler variety or flair in their overall design. Persona 5 pushes that formula to the side in the optional Mementos dungeons while the new “Palaces” take centre stage. Masterfully designed setpieces, these new Palaces are thematically linked to characters Persona 5’s world. With new traversal and stealth mechanics to take advantage of, Persona 5 finally breaks the series’ habit of uninteresting dungeons and instead turns them into some of the most enjoyable and stylish aspects of the game.
Of course, the Palaces wouldn’t be much without an equally engaging fighting system. Taking the traditional turn-based fighting system of previous games, Persona 5 ratchets the speed up nominally. With snappy animations and an incredibly entertaining background song, fights in Persona 5 feel lively. More importantly, they help the game’s cast of characters feel like a more interwoven group of friends. By chaining attacks together and focusing on enemies’ weaknesses, characters can also tag-team each other in and out of combat to deal even more damage without taking another turn of action, culminating in the classic dog-pile team attack in the end.
Alternatively, Persona 5 also features the ability to coerce enemies to joining your ranks via a short interrogation sequence. A system that has long existed in the Shin Megami Tensei games proper, it’s a welcome addition to the Persona series, putting more emphasis on the collecting nature of the game, only adding to it’s already alluring personality.
It’s all the more unfortunate then that Persona 5’s world lacks the same spark as the rest of the game. Depicting a faithful adaptation of different parts of Tokyo, the world feels reactive to much of what you do in the game. While crowds whisper about the Phantom Thieves like an urban legend, making the world feel more alive and lived-in, the portions of Tokyo that you’re allowed to explore feel detached from one another. They feel more like a series of disparate instances and zones rather than an actual, continuous place. It becomes noticeable that despite the development time given to Persona 5, it couldn’t escape some of its more obvious limitations.
Yet, because of how many things you are able to do in Tokyo, there’s undoubtedly a lot of fun still to be had in its streets. With the series’ classic time mechanic returning, Persona 5 often forces you to make decisions with how to best spend your time. Do you use your free afternoon to rank up a Social Confidant? Or do you go take on the burger challenge and raise a few of your stats? These decisions always feel important, since your time is often a valuable commodity. Because there are only so many hours in the day, you won’t be able to tackle everything you’ll want to do. Even with the year-long timespan of the the game, there will undoubtedly be many times when you lament a decision to do one thing over another. It makes every day important and, like many other Persona games, also means that the chances for making crucial mistakes are high. Without an active autosave option, make sure to remember to save frequently, lest you run yourself into a corner with no way out.
When all is said and done however, any minor shortcomings are easily forgiven. Persona 5 is good. It’s very, very good. It’s the sort of game that only comes around once every few years. It’s a game that is so unique in every aspect that it’d be impossible to mistake a single moment of it for anything else. It’s also a game about real life, despite the wacky hijinks you’ll often find yourself in. It’s about the moments you have with your friends, laughing around a hot pot as you make jokes only those there would understand. It’s within those moments that Persona 5 enters a league of its own, untouched by its contemporaries in every respect. While I could go on, I must eventually start new game plus so I’ll finish simply with this: Persona 5 is undoubtedly one of the best RPGs of all time. It is truly a special game.