Game Review: Persona 5

There was a time when I thought I wasn’t going to get to review this title, in 2016 when everyone thought the apocalypse was nigh, but it’s 2017 now, year of amazing game releases that offer amazing worlds to explore and problems to solve, escapes from reality that help you forget about all your mundane problems.

In Persona 5‘s case, the amazing world is Tokyo and the problem is high school.

This is actually the cover of the fantastic steelbook edition. I LOVE PS4 steelbooks.

In Persona 5, like its predecessors Persona 3 and Persona 4, you assume the role of an ordinary high school student. After attempting to stop an assault, the protagonist is arrested, branded a criminal, and sent away to attend the only school that would take him: Shujin Academy. As he’s settling into his new home, a cramped attic space above his new guardian’s coffee shop, he discovers a mysterious app on his phone. Later he discovers that the app is the gateway to the Metaverse, a space where the desires of corrupt adults become Palaces where they hide their deepest, darkest secrets. Seeking to change the hearts of these corrupted adults, the protagonist and his friends become the costumed vigilantes dubbed the “Phantom Thieves of Hearts” who infiltrate Palaces to steal the Treasure at its heart, thus changing the heart of the corrupt adult in the real world.

Persona 5, like its predecessors, marries typical JRPG dungeon-crawling, treasure-finding, and boss-fighting to a life simulation where you make friends, try to ace your tests, juggle three part time jobs, hit the batting cages, brew coffee, watch movies at the theatre, and possibly find time for romance. You know, just like real life. You’ll typically attend classes during the day. When classes are out, you can choose to hang out with other characters or participate in activities to raise your social stats, or you can choose to infiltrate a Palace. Infiltrating a Palace takes up the afternoon and evening, so you usually can’t do anything else that day if you choose to go dungeon-crawling. To make matters more complicated, you only have so much time to steal the Treasure before something really bad happens, fail to steal the Treasure before the deadline, and it’s game over. This means you do need to manage your time somewhat: do you make progress in the Palace or do you hang out with the friend who asked if you wanted to go to a movie that day? Fortunately, the game is generous with its deadlines for the most part and you can usually complete a Palace within the first three days at the start of the mission.

Palaces are Persona 5’s dungeons, they’re all unique and reflect their owner’s personality. Unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4, which had randomly generated dungeon floors, Persona 5’s dungeons are hand-crafted. Enemy shadows roam the dungeon, and coming into contact with them initiates a battle. Persona 5 takes a more stealth-based approach to gameplay (you are thieves, after all), you can hide behind objects in the level and ambush enemies to gain an advantage in battle. If an enemy spots you, the Palace’s security level will rise, and if it reaches 100%, you’ll be kicked out of the dungeon and need to return the next day. Safe rooms can be found throughout the dungeon where you can save your game, check your progress in the dungeon, and heal up using items that can only be used in safe rooms. Palaces also contain puzzles, these puzzles generally won’t keep you awake for days trying to solve them, but they’re a nice break from battling.

Speaking of battles, the endless menus of the previous games have been mostly done away with in favour of every action being mapped to a controller button. Press X to attack with your melee weapon, press Circle to guard, you can see and target enemy weaknesses with the press of a button. Persona 5 uses the familiar “One More” system, where targeting enemy weaknesses knocks them down and gives you an extra turn, managing to knock all enemies down allows you to perform a powerful All-Out Attack, or to negotiate with the shadows. Negotiation is a staple of the Shin Megami Tensei series and the earlier Persona games, but it disappeared in 3 and 4. You can negotiate with shadows for money, items, or their mask (which allows you to summon them as a persona). Negotiation is basically a matter of choosing options you think the shadow might like and hoping the RNG likes you. Occasionally, if you leave an enemy on the brink of death, they will attempt to negotiate with you, which is an easy way to gain their mask if they don’t have easily exploitable weaknesses. Speaking of exploitable weaknesses, enemies can also exploit your party’s weaknesses. It can be frustrating yet hilarious to watch enemies ambush you and then proceed to destroy your party before you even get a chance to react. The enemies may also take your party members hostage, failing to negotiate their release will make them unusable for the rest of the encounter. While still very much a turn-based battle system, the player feels a bit more involved in the action. Once you’ve obtained personas, you can take them to that old series staple, the Velvet Room, and fuse them together, sacrifice a persona to strengthen another, put them in “lockdown” to train them, or turn them into various items. Speaking of fusion, you have much more control over skill inheritance, especially when you factor in skill cards that you can use to give a persona certain skills.

The ability to form bonds with your party members and other characters has been an important part of the series since Persona 3. Persona 5 calls these relationships Confidants rather than Social Links. Each confident is linked to one of the Major Arcana, and usually all it takes to increase a confidant’s rank is to have a Persona of the same arcanum in your stock when you speak to them, but some levels might require certain social stats to proceed (for instance, a character won’t even speak to you if your knowledge isn’t at rank 3). While previous games treated social links as ways to give experience bonuses to personas during fusion, Persona 5‘s confidants all have impacts on the gameplay. For instance, one allows you to brew coffee and make curry, which is used to restore SP (used for skills), a valuable skill since SP-restoring items are few and far between. Another confidant might help you with negotiation, give you access to unique skills in combat, or allow you to do more things during the day. Each confidant has their own story and issues to overcome, and this ties into the second major dungeon area of the game: Mementos. In a nutshell, Mementos is everyone’s Palace, for regular people who are not quite evil enough to have their own Palace, but have still fallen victim to corruption. Occasionally (either through the Phantom Thieves’ fansite manager or your other confidants) you’ll receive requests to change someone’s heart in Mementos. It’s basically a matter of heading in, wandering around until you find the area with their shadow, and beating their shadow to complete the quest. Since Palaces disappear after you steal their Treasure, Mementos is your go-to grinding spot as well as a place to obtain Personas you missed in the Palaces.

Persona 5 might not have the most cutting edge graphics in the industry, but one thing it does have is style. Everything from the main character’s climbing animation to the menus oozes style. The shadows/personas themselves look fantastic in HD and this absolutely needs to be a series standard now. Even the (awesome) victory screen seamlessly transitions to the dungeon. It just looks so cool. While Persona 3‘s colour scheme was a melancholy blue and Persona 4‘s was a more upbeat yellow, Persona 5 has an aggressive red colour scheme that fits its themes of revolution and change. The soundtrack is amazing. “Rivers in the Desert” (a track that plays during certain boss battles) is one of my favourite boss themes in the entire series. I also love the upbeat “Life Will Change” which plays when you infiltrate a Palace for the final time to steal the Treasure. “Beneath the Mask” the track that plays during the evenings and on rainy days, has that “relaxing with a hot beverage and a book” feel.

I’ve been talking a lot about the game’s systems and not so much about my own personal opinions, but I think most of my readers are aware that I love this series, and this game is no exception. I loved hanging out with my party members. Persona 3 and 4 by no means had awful social links, but I found that I genuinely wanted to hang out with the confidants. I looked forward to messages they would send me asking if I wanted to go to a movie or hang out at the coffee shop. I liked making curry for them. I grew to love these quiet moments outside of battle. By the end of the game I was wishing it let me spend more time with the social aspects than the actual dungeons (not that the dungeons are awful). Their stories range from a washed-up politician trying to atone for his past mistakes to a woman who needs the courage to leave an exploitative cult, to fake dating one of your party members so she can check up on one of her friends, and, as I said, each one has an impact on other systems in the game. I absolutely loved the way Persona 5 makes you feel like a mysterious phantom thief, complete with sending a calling card to the target the day before you steal their Treasure. The actual heists, where you infiltrate the Palaces while an awesome track “Life Will Change” is playing in the background will make you feel like a badass. One last thing, boss fights have interesting strategies and at times you can send a teammate to perform special actions to weaken the boss. While this does make the majority of bosses ridiculously easy, I thought it was an interesting “hold the line” mechanic.

I also love the little touches in this game, like the fact that the tarot images you see when you rank up a confidant are from the Marseilles tradition instead of the Rider-Waite Smith, to the way the protagonist rakes his hand through his hair when he gets out of the bath. One minigame I loved was the flower shop part time job, where you have to choose the right flowers to match the customer’s order.

One major criticism I have is the fact that the game won’t let you do anything else that day even if all you’ve done is talk to your friends. The game makes you waste days doing nothing but meetings with your friends and sleeping. While I do appreciate, just as a person, that Morgana is reminding the protagonist to take care of himself and makes sure that he’s getting enough sleep, as a player it’s frustrating (so much so that Morgana telling the protagonist to go to sleep is a meme). It feels like Atlus is anticipating the release of “Persona 5 Crimson” which will give players more time to do things (which is another issue for another day) but at present, it’s really annoying that a game about time management doesn’t appear to respect your time. The other thing that I’m salty about is the fact that while the protagonist can initiate romantic relationships with any of the lady confidants (including his teacher) he can’t date the guys. While this is unsurprising seeing as Japan is still very conservative and there are few protections for non-straight, non-cis people, it’s particularly unfortunate considering a major theme of the game is rebellion against systems of oppression. To add insult to injury, two recurring characters are a stereotypical gay couple who exist to make Ryuji and the protagonist uncomfortable. I also didn’t like how Ann, a sexual abuse survivor, is constantly sexualized by the game and other characters even though she’s obviously uncomfortable (not to mention being body-shamed by Ryuji for liking sweets). Many people have pointed out that Lala Escargot, a trans woman (or drag queen) who works in a not-gay bar in Shinjuku, is a more positive portrayal of queer identities. The game refers to her with the correct pronouns and she is the voice of reason in Ohya’s confidant events (as well as your employer if you choose to work there), but she still speaks in a stereotypical husky masculine voice and plays a support role in Ohya’s story. Personally, I didn’t care for Ohya as a confidant and think that Lala’s story would be much more interesting, but it’s important to acknowledge that one positive portrayal doesn’t change the fact that someone decided to stick some gross stereotyping in their game, especially since Persona 2 gave us the option to have Tatsuya voice his attraction to Jun. In terms of actual gameplay things, the second to last dungeon was a long drag and culminated in a series of boss fights without an opportunity for a break. I also would’ve liked to see more opportunities to avoid combat (there’s a point where you have to convince some NPCs to give you invitations and there’s no option to avoid a fight completely). Lastly, I found the game overall to be pretty easy. The boss I had the most trouble with was the second story boss, but after that it was mostly smooth sailing barring some enemies getting the drop on me.

In terms of potentially triggery content. The opening scenes involve the protagonist being drugged and beaten by police. The very first antagonist you encounter is physically abusing male students and sexually abusing female students, including an implied sexual assault that drives one student to attempt suicide. There’s another suicide later in the game, but it’s revealed to be a murder. One of your party members is threatened with the prospect of sex slavery. The “bad ends” you reach by failing to complete palaces before the deadline also reference suicide and sex slavery. Several sidequests involve abusive boyfriends and girlfriends, abusive family members or bosses, stalkers, animal abusers, and other unpleasant people. A number of characters have unpleasant home lives that involve abuse or neglect of some sort. Suffice it to say if it’s something awful humans can do to other humans, it’s probably in this game in one form or another.

There’s so much more I could say about this game (such as influence of Gnosticism in its narrative) but that would involve heading into spoiler territory. The game has me clocked in at 150 hours and 50 minutes and I’ve only filled half the compendium, maxed about seven confidants, and didn’t even try activities like fishing. There’s so much to do that Persona 5 is easily worth your time and money despite its shortcomings and my personal gripes.

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