When starting this review, there was a large temptation to just write ‘Of course Persona 5 is amazing,’ and call it a day. Everything oozed stylistic flair right from the get go, from characters skating colour across a dark city in the title sequence, to the toe-tapping menu music. If it wasn’t for the controller in the way, I would have rubbed my hands together in glee.
The Persona series is most famous for its rather odd sounding formula of crossing a high-school dating/life sim with a JRPG. Although the combination sounds strange, it’s definitely a ‘don’t knock it till you try it’ situation. Go to school, chill with friends, and don’t forget about that double life as a Phantom Thief. By all means, it should be a ridiculously messy clash of objectives, but the story easily holds everything together.
No time was wasted in slinging me into the action. I was dropped into a casino, mid-heist, controlling the masked protagonist as he darted between cover, jumped over chandeliers, and dispatched enemies. Just as it seemed like everything was going smoothly, the police finally caught up. After being thrown into a cell and beaten up by officers, the questions began about the illegal organization they claimed he was leading: The Phantom Thieves.
Before getting any answers, the calendar flipped back to a year prior. Unfortunately, Akira (I named him after the protagonist in the manga) wasn’t having much luck at this point in this life, either. For trying to save a woman from assault, he found himself with a criminal record as the real perpetrator used the boy as a cover for his own crime. Akira then got shipped off to Tokyo where his new guardian, teachers, and classmates made it painfully clear that they wanted nothing to do with him.
Persona 5’s dark beginning set the tone for the many difficult themes it tries to handle. Issues span from hard topics like rape and suicide to more general commentary on how teenagers are being made to feel like outcasts of society by adults. It would be remiss of me to say that this is the first time a Persona game made me think or feel, but it definitely got under my skin a bit more this time around.
Akira’s harsh situation also makes his relationships with others much more meaningful. Friendships have to be earned and are more risky than the previous game’s ‘just the new kid at school’ approach. No matter who I talked to there was a sense of both our pasts being important, and I easily got attached to people, be they a sassy doctor or washed out politician. There were so many people that I was really grateful for the way that friends would message me if they wanted to hang out. I was never in danger of forgetting about anyone.
In a clever move by the developers, extra rewards for spending time with people encouraged me to build as many relationships as possible. Some examples include gaining better items, party members helping out with extra attacks, or even more tactical possibilities. Having an extra layer of choice in this way really boosted the feeling of creating my own personal experience with the game.
Don’t worry, the dating element is of course still around. I could even go for multiple girls at once; the school president and a fortune teller you say? Be warned that some of these relationships are a little base, but in general I just had fun with them. What did disappoint me was the inability to go after guys. It wasn’t exactly a problem, but did clash with the game’s message a little given that Persona 5 is all about young people pushing society forwards.
Much of the game is about being a student, whether that means holding down a part-time job at a flower shop, cramming for exams while gulping down coffee, or goofing off at the batting cages. I really enjoyed just travelling around and taking in the sights. It was a fun way to spend my time, and there was nothing like the success of finding a new place to hang out or person to talk to.
Exploring is also a great way to appreciate Persona 5’s sense of style. Characters just ooze charm, while the realistic bustling cities contrasts wonderfully against the over the top dungeons. Then, smoothly tying all the locations together, there’s the funky soundtrack. No matter whether I was taking down enemies, or catching a movie with friends, the music always managed to boost the atmosphere.
As easy as it would have been to spend my whole time milling about the world, I had to carefully manage my time if I didn’t want to end up in hot water. Every day gave me two time slots to do what I wanted with, but it was a real balancing act. Choosing one activity meant letting go of another, like grinding in a dungeon sacrificing study time for my upcoming exams, but then there was also that game of shogi that I promised to attend. No matter what I chose, the calendar would move closer to the end of the story, a constant reminder that time wasn’t always on my side.
I wasn’t just an average high-school student, either – I was a Phantom Thief. Early in the game, Akira finds himself in the Metaverse – a space where the desires of people’s hearts are seen. Here, a kitty called Morgana (Persona 4 had a giant teddy bear, so why not a cat?) explains that when a person’s heart becomes distorted, a Palace is formed in the Metaverse. These represent the game’s main dungeons, with aesthetics that captured the owner’s desires. So the Palace belonging to a teacher, who believed he ruled the local high-school and its students, appeared as a castle.
I was given the mission of stealing the treasure at the heart of the Palaces belonging to bad people. Morgana explained that this would cause the reason for the owners desires to disappear, forcing them to repent their past feelings and actions.
In past games, the dungeons were often said to be the weakest area, but now they’re something to truly look forward to. Palaces were filled with puzzles and traps while encouraging stealth. I felt like a true Phantom Thief, flattening myself against walls, then waiting for a Shadow in order to sneak-attack them. Surprising enemies in this way is immensely satisfying, pouncing on their backs and ripping off their masks to reveal their true form. It wasn’t just a gimmick either. If an enemy saw me, an alarm meter would raise, effectively upping security in the area.
Combat is still the turn-based affair that fans will recognize. My party of four had to use their Personas (the masks within their hearts) to gain elemental advantages over the Shadows. Naturally, the main character is special, so can hold onto multiple Personas at once. A few bits and pieces have been added to make battles even cleaner, too, such as a new gun skill, the ability to pass your turn to teammates, and gaining new Personas, which is now done through a fun interrogation system.
Not only criminals have distorted hearts though, so as a nice aside it was also possible to visit Mementos. Serving as a place to grind, or take on additional quests, Mementos are essentially a call back to past games, posing as a huge multi-layered labyrinth. Since Palaces cannot be revisited once destroyed, it’s a useful inclusion, although its length does make it feel a little overwhelming at times.
Aside from the combat and exploration being great fun, I had to appreciate how the morals were handled. During exploration, and once a boss was defeated, their opinions rang loudly through their Palace, as they tried to justify their opinions. I was impressed that most weren’t just labelled as simple villains. Just like the protagonists, they too were victims of society, even if their actions made them difficult to sympathise with.
For the majority of the 100 hour gameplay time, I found the story to be really solid. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the length, though, it does lose momentum at times. Most of this comes about through the odd rushed story moment, or an overly long dungeon. My main frustrations came when the game removed my control, such as Morgana insisting I should do nothing but sleep for over 5 days in a row because ‘I’ve had a busy day pushing X to progress the story.’ I’m trying to protect my future here, cat, I’m sure I can miss a few hours of sleep to save the world.
In general, Persona 5 manages to wrap both its old and new features into a tight bundle through the story and art style. Sure, there are a few blips of frustration, but they do very little damage to the package as a whole. Even with the long playtime, I happily put in the hours, completely absorbed in each story beat, character moment, and dungeon. Persona 5 has certainly set an impressive bar for other JRPGs to look up to.
This review is based off the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.
Persona 5 smoothly surpasses previous entries in the franchise with its stylish coat of paint and emotive storytelling.