Developer: Atlus | Year: 2017 | Price: $59.99 | Buy from Amazon
The Persona series of Japanese role-playing games started in 1996 when Revelations: Persona was released for the PlayStation. Persona is a spin-off of the larger Megami Tensei series, whose games are often set in the present-day and feature darker themes. Persona was a pretty standard dungeon-crawler, and the well-loved Persona 2 duology was pretty similar gameplay-wise, but starting with Persona 3, released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2, the series started to incorporate certain visual novel elements, allowing the player to alternate between a high-school life simulator by day and dungeon crawler to monsters at night.
Note: This review contains early-game story spoilers as well as details of various gameplay mechanics.
Persona 5 follows much the same formula. Cast as a nameless sixteen-year-old male, you are forced to move to Tokyo after a run-in with the law. There you are tasked with leading an “honest school life” for a year-long probationary period. As the game progresses through different situations, it quickly becomes unclear what being a good student entails, and eventually the player finds himself the leader of a small activist group called the Phantom Thieves that takes down dishonest people of power.
To do so, they the Metaverse, a physical representation of people’s deepest thoughts and feelings. For the general public, this manifests as Mementos, a giant dungeon reminiscent of Tartarus from Persona 3. But for certain twisted individuals, a Palace will appear in the Metaverse that houses the person’s perverse view of the world. If the palace is infiltrated and the Treasure at the centre stolen, the person can undergo a change of heart in real life. But Palaces are often guarded by Shadows that fend off would-be thieves. As the person’s paranoia in real-life increases, the alertness of the Shadows in the Palace increases as well. (If you’re thinking Inception, you’ve got the right idea.)
The story and general concept are pretty convoluted but do well to explain themselves. And although Persona 5, like other games in the series, starts out with quite a lot of exposition, this time it’s quite a bit more palatable. The opening cutscene actually starts the player off around the turning point of the game’s story before zooming back to where the story begins. Over the course of the game, you’ll repeatedly be returned to the turning point to add context to your actions as well as provide some mystery and intrigue. Your actions matter in this game, and though having a mechanic that keeps taking a step back to remind you of this can get tiresome, it pays off when you finally reach that point in the story and everything clicks into place.
On a day-to-day basis, you’ll be tasked with sitting through lectures, hanging out with friends after school, and making money through part-time jobs, all while keeping an eye out for social injustices. Your party starts out as a simple trio in the first Palace, but as you encounter other evildoers in the real world, you’ll also meet other downtrodden kids who awaken in the Metaverse as Persona users. Personas, by the way, are manifestations of a person’s inner self and can be used to fight Shadows in the Metaverse. Most party members have only one Persona, but the protagonist can switch Personas at will, as well as persuade Shadows to join the party as a new Persona. This is a mechanic that was absent in Personas 3 and 4, and I really like that it’s back as it gives Personas a sense of personality.
You can only hold a certain amount of Personas at a time, but they can be fused together to form stronger Personas. All Personas belong to a certain class (named after one of the Major Arcana of the tarot deck) and each class is linked to a certain person in the real world. The better the player’s relationship is with that real-world person, the more experience the Persona will have when it is fused. Because fusing Personas is one of the primary ways you’ll obtain them, and because leveling up Personas is extremely slow, you’ll want to keep up with your real-world relationships. You’ll also want to do so because it’s extremely fun and rewarding. The Persona series has some of the best-written characters in modern video games, and it’s not unusual to feel invested in their stories. Many of these characters, called Confidants, are also members of your party, and leveling up their Confidant Rank will grant them special powers in battle, something which is new in Persona 5 and really spices up the battle system.
Battles in Persona 5 are a lot more fast-paced than in earlier games in the series. That said, it’s still a JRPG, so if fighting faceless enemies across a dungeon isn’t your cup of tea, you may find the battling portion of the game tedious. (The game is split roughly into 70% school life simulator, 30% dungeon crawler.) That said, many improvements make the dungeon crawling a lot more digestible. Save points are a lot more abundant, and this paired with the fact that you can restart a boss fight if you die means you’ll spend a lot less time redoing segments of a dungeon because of a cheap death. Party members can now be switched in the middle of a battle and they gain some experience even if they don’t fight, meaning you don’t have to worry about using all your characters equally. Just bring who you think you need and the rest will keep up, experience-wise. Smaller additions like the addition of guns as a separate melee class and the baton-pass mechanic also speed up the pace of gameplay, with the side-effect of making the game quite a lot easier than previous installments in the Persona franchise. Seriously. In Persona 3, I died on almost every boss at least once and I sometimes reached a point where I had to grind a couple levels to get past a certain part. In Persona 5, I didn’t have to grind at all and yet I beat most bosses the first try.
The game looks great visually, but this isn’t a praise to the game’s engine so much as a testament to the art style. In fact, Persona 5 was originally intended as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, something which is sometimes apparent in some jagged shadows and blurry textures. But you won’t notice most of that because of just how ridiculously over-the-top the game’s design is. Everything, down to the menus and loading screen, is making a statement of some kind or assaulting your senses in some way. Persona 3 was a cool blue, Persona 4 played with bright yellows and greens, and here Persona 5 is decidely red and black. It’s really quite something for a game to choose a visual motif and stick to it so adamantly, and Persona 5 is a joy to behold all the way through.
Persona 5’s soundtrack is no slouch as well. Most of the background is jazz of some sort, but even if you’re not usually into jazz, you’ll find something to love about the soundtrack, be it the incomprehensible lyrics, the slickness of the battle themes, or the chillness of the overworld themes. Take a listen to the theme that plays in the protagonist’s home and tell me you don’t feel relaxed:
I wholeheartedly recommend Persona 5 to anyone remotely interested in JRPGs or anime. If you’re new to the Persona series, you’ll find that Persona 5 is the easiest place to jump in, even if the length might be a little daunting. The whole thing took me 85 hours to beat, which makes it one of the longer games I’ve ever finished. There are times, especially near the end, where I felt a section or two could be trimmed, but overall it was worth the time I put into it. And because it takes so much to get invested in the game, you’ll no doubt feel some sort of emptiness when it’s all over. The characters are so likable and the world so fleshed-out, that it really is a bittersweet feeling to leave. Oh well, that’s what New Game Plus is for, I guess.
Overall Score: A
Man, it feels real good to finally finish a game and put a review out, especially a Persona game! I’ve been working on the same Persona 3 Portable save file since October 2014, but I’m around 75% through now and will put up a review of that when I’m done. I’m going to be done with my military service soon, so look out for lots more content in the coming months.
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