Persona 5 Review
Uses its social aspects as the main foundation, while building on turn-based combat to great effect
I have two friends who played Persona 4 and 5, respectively. They’re both firmly entrenched in the more western-side of gaming. Persona 4, unexpectedly, became one of the first friend’s favourite games. The second friend that started playing Persona 5 messaged me the day he got the game, asking "It’s been over two hours and I’ve only had two battles so far. Is this normal?"
Persona can be pretty divisive—the gaming equivalent of Marmite—if you don’t quite know what you’re getting yourself into. And Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of games has certainly grown in popularity in Japan, and has over the recent years rubbed off on the west. It’s a JRPG series with its feet planted in the "role playing" aspect of the acronym. Persona 5 is a game that uses its social aspects as its main foundation, while building on its turn-based combat to great effect.
In Persona 5, you are a nameless teenage protagonist who has just found himself in a new social environment, as is typical of the series. This time, it’s after an altercation with a powerful, corrupt politician. With a growing reputation as a reckless youth, you have to adapt to life in a new city, balancing your school commitments and double-life as a thief capable of infiltrating the Metaverse, a realm built from people’s emotions. As the newly dubbed "Phantom Thieves of Hearts", you and your merry band have the ability to steal a target’s "heart", an object in the real world that they deeply cherish. By successfully pilfering said item, you galvanize a change of heart in the mark. From small targets—the first being your high school’s gym teacher—you slowly work your way up the social food chain to your biggest and most dangerous score. To help you in this quest, you can recruit various confidants and harness the power of Personas, which bestow you with magical abilities.
If we could say that one of the influences in Persona 4 was a "pop" aesthetic, its bright colours, soundtrack and characters building on this, then Persona 5 is all noir, funk jazz, and intrigue. Regardless of the fact you and your partners in crime are cat burglars—one of your companions is even a cat (though don’t let them hear you say that)—you’re fully thrust into the Hammet-esque world of crime when arrested by a special agent. Over the course of your interrogation, you relay the game’s plot back to the investigator, slowly and carefully peeling away murky layers like a man trying to remove wallpaper in a house made of Jenga blocks.
It’s best to approach Persona 5 like a series of a TV show, with each target making up a season. The majority of the time, you’re going to be watching as each day unfolds, filling your allotted slots—morning, afternoon, night, etc.—with different activities. These activities range from mandatory plot points to spending time with companions, from mini-games to having a job to improve your stats. What might strike some unfamiliar with the series right away is the fact you only have the aforementioned time. You’re on the clock. If you don’t complete your plot objective in that period then it’s game over. Do not pass go. Do not collect 100 yen. The best thing you can do is head back a week prior and try to get it right on another attempt.
In recent memory, as far as AAA games go, Final Fantasy Type-0 was the only one I recall using the same format. While it’s nothing new, of course, with a lot of games focused on player freedom and using your time as you want, it can come as quite a shock. You need to become as master of the social calendar if you want to survive in Persona 5. While it’s easy to plan ahead and say to yourself "it’s going to take me three days to complete this plot point", it becomes more stressful when you think about what to occupy you in your off days. Time is precious in Persona 5. Do I spend it with Ryuji? Have I fed my plant at home? Should I be working at the diner right now? Are my "guts" high enough so that the weird doctor can perform medical experiments on me by the 25th of the month? My god, did I visit the smoothie place that only has specials on Sundays?
Pressing questions. Depressing questions. My biggest social choice of the past week was deciding the toppings on a sandwich. If you let it, you can boil how to effectively spend your time in Persona 5 down to an art. You can become the Howard Hughes of the JRPG. On the other hand, you can just let all that social responsibility slide over you and simply focus on the plot.
Each plot beat contains several stages. You find a target, investigate them, infiltrate their "palace", a dungeon reserved for those who are particularly loathsome, and locate their treasure/heart. Once located, you then make a final push for the treasure, wait to see if they have a change of heart and shake off their criminal ways.
Each palace has a certain theme, ranging from a castle to a museum or a bank. Compared to the older games, the levels are certainly nicer. Each locale has a solid thematic design running through it. And while graphically and from a design perspective many may find them lacking because of their simplicity, there are elements to keep you on your toes. You’re a thief, after all. Thieves employ stealth, so each level is built with corners and objects to hide behind, vents to explore, platforms to leap across, and locks/chests to pick.
This stealth element is a nice change of pace. However, at times, it can be frustrating and this lies with the mechanics. I can’t think of how many times I planned to snap to another area of cover, only to have it toss me into the open where an enemy immediately sees and therefore attacks me. Being spotted increases a caution meter, which, at 100%, kicks you out of the dungeon. You either need to stay out of sight or keep attacking enemies to lower it, the latter of which can turn into a form of self-flagellation.
Combat in Persona 5 is the most forgiving in the series. But, boy, you can be in for a shock. I’d forgotten how frustrating it could be. The best way to approach it is to launch a sneak attack on enemies, giving you the ability to have your party all act first. Your greatest asset in combat is not the power of friendship (which is a close second), but your Personas.
Personas are like Pokemon or Digimon, in that you can collect them, and in doing so gain access to different elemental types, abilities, and stat-buffs. To acquire new personas, you can battle them in the wild, then, when weakened, negotiate with them. Conjuring flashes of Undertale, it’s a nice touch to choose from a non-violent resolution such as robbing them blind, bullying them into parting with an item, or forcing them into eternal slavery. With the persona added to your bank, you can equip them, or create new ones in the Velvet Room.
The Velvet Room is neither made of velvet or a room. Liars. It is, in this iteration of Persona, a cell, because you’re a convict. Here, the jailer, Igor, who looks like a cross between a butler and mad scarecrow, allows you strengthen your personas. You can throw a couple in a guillotine to create a new persona, harvest others to strengthen a summon, pay a fee to drag recently registered creatures back from the ether, and more. What’s important is having a balanced team, with offense and defense, and, more importantly, a good variety of elements.
As mentioned, battles are frustrating. Perhaps as a metaphor for life, it is the fear of the unknown that makes them difficult. Enemies can steamroll you. Battles in a new area function like a form of terrifying Russian roulette where you’re cycling through elemental attacks, praying you hit on one that weakens an enemy to knock them down. When in this knocked down state, your party can launch a combined attack, in most cases finishing them off.
However, with the need to improve yourself and constantly use attacks that require SP (skill points, mana, etc.), you’re going to run out soon enough. This transforms the latter end of a palace crawl to a nail-biting experience. It is insanely difficult to find items that replenish SP, and the game wants you to take things slowly. I never listen, though, because I need to further my relationship with a fictional person. This usually results in you staring dejectedly at your reflection in the TV while the "game over" music plays, wondering how far you could launch your PS4 out of the window.
To tackle each palace, you need to be prepared. The Metaverse itself is different from a palace, and more reminiscent of the (I’m assuming) procedurally generated corridors and dungeons from earlier entries in the series. Here, you can fight enemies, level up, gain treasure, and perhaps more importantly, discover personas.
Another, perhaps more important way to improve yourself is enhancing your relationships with allies and making new accomplices. It’s relatively easy to build a bond with people; you simply spend time with them. Doing this gives you the opportunity to rank up your relationship, strengthening your ability to enhance personas, and unlock new skills.
Aside from increasing imaginary numbers, the social aspects of Persona are what most people buy into. Because the story is such a central part of the game, if you’re not invested in it or the characters, the whole game will be much less enjoyable. I love the story’s noir styling and find the characters quirky, interesting, and each one you encounter has their own story to discover. The dark tones running through the series, scratching the murky surface of Tokyo and its inhabitants is rather Lynchian and you never know what kind of perverse character you’ll encounter next.
Hey, but I like all that stuff. And those noir strokes bleed into the game’s visuals. Artistically, P5 has an awesome style, with classic red and black in abundance. Even the animated menu changes just look so darn pretty. However, from a graphical standpoint, models, textures, etc. it could be considered to be at the PS3 level of quality. But you’re not buying Persona 5 for its raw graphical fidelity, and more for the way it expresses its tone and themes with a great visual flair.
What further enhances the game’s theme is the music. Each palace has its own jazzy, rocky, noir-ish soundtrack. I found myself humming along to the different themes as I was roaming around or chilling out with companions. I specifically bought the game edition that includes the soundtrack because it’s a really nice collection of acid jazz.
As in the sliding scale of JRPGs, I feel the same applies to Persona 5. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, I don’t have to say too much; you must play this. If you’ve sort of in the middle, having been exposed to western RPGs—BioWare’s titles and other open world fair—and focus on the characters and story, Persona 5 is still recommended and a great game to explore. But if you’re right at the other end of the scale—hey, I heard about this colourful game from Japan that’s making waves—it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, for as good as P5 is, it likely won't turn you into a fan of this game genre.