The Persona series has always held an interesting position, despite them all taking place in the same universe, the games are often set several years apart and in different locations throughout Japan. This makes so apart from the odd reference here and there, you have an almost entirely unique story with each entry. Likewise, the long absence between entries makes it easy for a fandom to form around the world created in a specific title not unlike Final Fantasy.
Due to the limited run and extreme localization of the first two titles, Persona 3 served as an introduction to the series for many. As such, the success of Persona 3 lead to a wider release of 2008’s Persona 4 resulting in an almost unanimous mainstream acclaim. This is all important to note, because though Persona as of late has garnered critical and financial success, there still exists a vocal community of players that have chimed for the series to return to its roots and bring back the features that have been omitted from the past two titles. After clocking in a staggering 89 hours with the game, I can safely tell these fans that Persona 5 is the game for they’ve been asking for.
The game kicks off by placing you in control of the main character, Joker, immediately after a brief anime cutscene. And as soon as you take control, you are greeted with a loud of new features that help train you for the adventure you are about to undertake. Jumping over platforms when prompted, running while holding down R2, and using stealth to avoid enemies are all new mechanics to the series, and all are introduced within the first 5 minutes. This is a masterfully implemented sequence that gives the player a taste of every basic mechanic in the game lets one decide from the get go if this is a game they’re interested in going the distance with.
Once the intro ends, the player is introduced to the plot, which is presented in one of the more creative ways in recent years. Rather than it flashing back to the beginning as a means of teasing the audience that great things are to come, the game is presented as a testimony given by Joker during a police interrogation. This not only keeps the player in constant anticipation for when the plot will eventually catch up with the present time, but it also gives all the side characters a greater sense of significance.
The main story itself is nothing too special. After an incident with the law that resulted in an unjust conviction, Joker is sent to live with an old family friend in Tokyo to serve out his probation. A mysterious app appears on his phone that allows him to enter a world made up entirely of the city’s negative cognition. When someone’s cognition gets extremely distorted, they can create a reality entirely of their own called “Palaces.” The entire backbone of a palace a possession treasured by the owner’s cognition. Stealing this treasure results in the destruction of the palace and a total switch in the mentality of the real world owner. Joker and friends team up with a strange cat-like creature named Morgan to seek out and steal these treasures under the name “The Phantom Thieves.” It has its moments, but players should be able to guess the outcome of most plot events well before the official reveal.
Youth rebelling against corrupted adults is a primary theme of the story and it sets the tone for most motivations. Throughout the game you will encounter a variety of characters that are wronged by society in one way or another. And although it manages to touch on some of the more extreme topics that affect youth such as suicide and extortion, it never manages to explore these topics more than a few lines of dialog, which is admittedly disappointing.
Where the narrative falls flat, the cast more than makes up for it. Each character has a distinct personality. On the surface they appear to be little more than generic anime stereotypes such as an otaku or an uptight girl, but as their individual arcs progress they reveal a complexity that goes far beyond what was initially seen. Further, each character you interact with gives you a social link rank corresponding with a specific persona class. A higher social link allows the player to fuse a persona with added experience boosts and a 10 star rank allows for the fusion of the strongest persona in that class.This makes the optional character interaction have an actual impact on the game rather than a way to squeeze more plot out of an already long game. Though, the game does allow you to fast forward through any cutscene in the game if you so desire. Meaning that you don’t need to spend a lot of time with a character you don’t like and still manage to complete a social link.
Gameplay and player control are the what sets this entry apart from the other persona games. In past games, the player only controlled the protagonist while the party members were controlled by AI. The AI control is still a feature in the game, but it defaults to manual control for the first time since Persona 2. This immediately makes a statement that user inputs and strategy will play a stronger part in combat.
Combat is the best it has ever been. This is all thanks to the brilliant streamlining of the button layout. Instead of proving a list of menus to scroll through, each menu and action is set to a specific button. After a brief learning curve, this allows the player to execute strategies with precision that feels not unlike pulling off a combo in a fighting game. Because of this, the turn based combat always gives off a sense of player engagement that is rarely dull.
There is a large arsenal of weapons at your disposal. Every party member has a specific weapon and gun type attributed to them along with their unique persona. Meanwhile, Joker is able to hold multiple personas at a time and switch between them once per turn. The sheer amount of personas to choose from is staggering. Ech persona has a unique design, backstory based in real mythology, weakness, strength, and natural abilities. Personas can then be fused to create newer and stronger personas and you are guaranteed to not end the game with the team you start out with.
When you an enemy is hit with an element it’s weak to, it gets instantly knocked down and the party member responsible gets a second turn. Players can chain this to knock down all enemies. Doing so brings up the option to either team attack the enemy shadows or interrogate a specific shadow. Interrogation brings up a minigame where you can ask for money, an item, or for the Persona to join you. This requires the player to successfully complete a conversation by picking answers that correlate with the personality type of the shadow. Failure can lead to the shadow running away or to get back up and attack. This was one of the most praised features of the original Persona, and it’s good to see return in a state that’s better than ever.
The battle system has a lot of refinements and fine tuning that make it feel great, but this presents a different problem. The game can simply be too easy for seasoned veterans of JRPGs. Even on the hardest difficulty, I rarely found the average battle last longer than a few seconds, often times the lyrics in the fight theme hadn’t even started by the time combat was over. To make matters worse, a mechanic is introduced later in the game that allows you to sacrifice any persona to power up another. Sacrificing gives experience points as well as one randomly selected ability, allowing players to essentially give any ability to any persona in order to almost effortlessly create a single persona with every weakness found in a specific palace making entire fights end in a single turn by Joker.The lower difficulty doesn’t necessarily hurt the overall experience, but a tougher challenge would have been nice.
Random encounters are not an aspect of this game, rather you can choose to fight or avoid almost any enemy shadow you come across. This is done through the new stealth system. Whenever you’re by a corner or a pillar, you can press the X button to take cover. While in cover you can quickly move between other covers around the area or ambush a nearby shadow to begin combat. Ambusing results in the players attacking first with the occasional stat debuff. On the flip side, a shadow initiation combat results in the enemy turn going first and can often lead to hazardous outcomes.
As you infiltrate a palace, you have a detection meter on the top left corner. Getting spotted by a guard raises your meter by 10% and winning a battle with an ambush will drop it by 5%. A higher detection percentage results in an increase of enemy activity and 100% detection instantly removes the player from the palace. While it sounds good on paper, the implementation of the stealth is less than stellar. For starters, it is initially implied that shadows and lighting play a part in your ability to hide. This however is never actually an aspect in the game. Sound is also not a major influence as I was able to run directly up to an enemy several times. There was also an assortment of incidents where after a successful ambush, a new shadow spawned directly in front of me, causing the enemy to get the upperhand. Further refinement of the stealth system have made it feel more like stealth and less like jumping from cover to cover like a third person shooter.
As you leave the palace for the day, you are given a checklist that states all of your accomplishments so you can check your progress. This allows players to make educated judgements based on doing side activities or completing a palace within the deadline.
Outside of palaces there are a majority of activities the player can partake in. These including reading books, going to restaurants, playing at an arcade, watching movies in a theatre, working a part time job, cooking, studying, visiting bath houses, batting cages and more. All of these activities have an impact on your social stats, which allow you to make later progress in social links as well as choose different dialog choices throughout the story. There is also a randomly generated dungeon with multiple floors called Momentos for the player to explore. Exploring Momentos allows players to obtain items and personas they missed in a previous palace and complete side quests all while also searching for the mystery of Morgana’s identity. All of these activities come at the price of your day. The whole game is set to a very strict time limit and failure to complete a palace heist by the deadline results in an instant game over, leaving the player in a constant state of juggling their duties as a Phantom Thief and their duties as a regular high school student.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Everything in Persona 5 is amplified by an outstanding presentation. Even the most mundane of tasks are pulled off with an immeasurable amount of style. The high saturation of colors, the smooth acid jazz soundtrack, the camera angles, and fluid animations all blend together flawlessly to give off a hyper stylized world that is never not a marvel to look at. Every character model is given a great level of detail and they emote extremely well. We have long past the days of blank faced character models that were never zoomed in on. However, the rendered presentation is executed so well that it makes the hand drawn anime cutscenes, once the highlight of the series, seem out of place and weak by comparison. The cutscenes created with the excellent character models are far more effective in getting the mood across. If there is one true complaint about the presentation, it’s the frame rate. The game is locked at a solid 30 frames per second regardless of the PS4 model you’re using. With the game being delayed in the west, a patch to support 60 FPS would have made everything look even better than it already does.
Persona 5 had a lot riding on it. It was the first game since 2008, the first since the buy out by Sega, and it was the follow up to the most acclaimed entry in the series. Persona 5 was always going to face an uphill battle and it comes out like a shining, jazz blasting champion that isn’t afraid to ask for seconds. It hits a few snags along the way, but even the most cynical gamer can find something to love about Persona 5.