PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3
The Persona series is much darker in tone than most games we’re used to play these days, and Persona 5 is not different. It deals with world-changing events and unfriendly gods, and the group of school kids that manages to stand up to them. Now all that’s left to establish is whether the sixth installment in the Megami Tensei spin-off series is a success, or a persona non grata.
Persona 5 follows a high school kid that gets in trouble after doing the right thing and pissing off some some powerful people. Now, he is treated as an outcast, and is forced to move to Tokyo to a new school. Japanese society isn’t very forgiving to those who rock the boat, like those who stand up to bullies but cause trouble to the school. The message of not giving in to an unjust system might not be all that new around these parts, but where this game comes from it hits closer to home. Back in Tokyo, our hero discovers the power to summon a persona – his inner psyche that manifests as a powerful mystical being. Together with a group of kids just like him who call themselves the “Phantom Thieves”, the hero infiltrates people’s subconscious and steals the corruption from their hearts, or rather force them to understand the error of their ways and repent.
The more you get into the story, you discover how good it actually is. The villains are never over the top, and act just evil enough that defeating them fills you with a sense of accomplishment and catharsis. They also make sense as real people within a really (and twisted) world. For example, there’s a school gym teacher who bullies students, but the school keeps it quiet so not to hurt its reputation, and a gangster the police never manages to charge with anything. On top of these “mini-plots” that revolve around each villain, you also have the overall story, with its own twists and turns. Persona 5 is a very dark and grim game, even compered to previous titles in the series. It deals with subjects like sexual harassment, prostitution and drug use, and while it’s never explicit or in your face, it’s something you can’t really steel yourself against.
When it comes to the characters and dialogue, things are somewhat less effective. A lot of the times characters complain how everything is about “adults taking advantage of kids”, without touching on the larger social issues at hand. It comes off childish, but than again, we are talking about teenagers here, who are focused on their own personal problems and issues. The game also likes to drill in a point its trying to make, and keeps repeating the same ideas over and over again until they lose all impact. It’s a bit annoying to see how a few bad moments take away from the excellent overall plot.
The main characters themselves, however, are all well-rounded and well-written. Each of them has its own backstory and a reason to join your fight against people who exploit the system to hurt others. It’s fun to see and hear them talking with each other, but it can get a bit much after a while. The game doesn’t give you a change to take a break from the serious and heavy story. There aren’t enough moments where the game plays around with the group’s dynamics, even in relatively relaxed settings. It’s always about the overall plot, and we don’t have a lot of moments where the game breaks away from it to focus on a certain character and let her grow. It’s s shame, as most main characters have a great potential to become even more interesting if we only had a chance to get to know them better. Side characters, on the other hand, are all great and fun to interact with, and the game knows exactly when and how to involve them in the plot.
The game is split into two parts: the normal world and the supernatural Palace realm that houses the mental structures of the villains. You have a limited time to steal a target’s heart, or treasure, from their palace, so each day you’ll to decide what to focus on. You can go to school, work on your relationships with other characters, go to your part-time job, or just hang around – all of which raise different character attributes. When you’re ready, you can enter the Palace realm and start your mission. You can miss quite a bit during your first run through the game, so you’ll really need to manage your time if you want to make the most out of it.
When you enter a person’s palace, you’ll sneak your way past enemy “shadows” until you reach the center of the palace. The stealth system is pretty simplistic, but does the job at giving you that tense feeling you could get caught at any moment. My only gripe with this system is that there are shadows you can’t sneak past and must always fight. It’s not always obvious which ones you can or can’t sneak past, and even if you think you might be able to pass by undetected, their patrol pattern will suddenly change when you get near.
Luckily, the great combat system from the previous games makes a return, and its better than ever. Every character gets to perform one action per turn, but exploiting an enemy weakness can grant you another turn (which you can assign to any character you want). The combat moves and magic spells at your disposal keep getting stronger as the game goes on, but so do your enemies and you can always fail if you’re not careful. The combat system is fun, fast and requires tactical thinking. The only real issue is that once you get the hang of it, you can take down almost every enemy using fairly simple strategies. Even bosses aren’t as powerful as they used to be.
Apart from the physical and magical attacks, you also have your personas, those mystical creatures you summon to fight for you in battle. You can also combine personas into a new, more powerful one that shares all of their moves. The main hero can use more than one persona in a fight, and can even gain new ones by negotiating with enemies and convincing them to join you. The negotiation system is a little annoying to be honest. The enemy will ask you two questions: one helps you establish the tone it prefers and the second determines whether you managed to recruit them or not. A lot of the time its hard to understand which answer corresponds with which tone, and you often left feeling frustrated after another failed attempt.
In the normal world, you can chat and build relationships with the various characters. This is where the Social Link system from the previous games returns as Confidant Links. In the past, talking with other characters gave you the ability to create new personas, but this time around it can provide you with extra time during school hours, new items to purchase, and new combat abilities. This doesn’t only affect the gameplay, but makes the relationships themselves much more rewarding and satisfying. The interactions with other characters, whether they are part of your team or random NPCs, are all well-written, and helping them is always exciting and fun. It’s a great example of how both aspects of Persona 5, the combat in the Palace realm and the social simulator in the real world, can work together perfectly.
The graphics are good, and the character and personas design is down right excellent. The game’s overall visual style is commendable. Characters strike impressive poses during combat, important dialogue lines are accompanied by dramatic zoom-ins, and the UI and menus all look unique while fitting the game’s theme. Even the loading screens look amazing. The game simply oozes style that leaves a lasting impression. Each palace looks interesting, and really conveys the villain’s twisted and disturbed perception of the world. However, some of them aren’t as well-designed as others, and there are a couple that are downright awful to play through. The music is still great, whether it’s during combat or ideal conversations, but it’s not as good as it was in previous games. Still, it conveys the appropriate mood at the right time, and is general better than what you usually hear these days.
Persona 5 is another great entry in a great series. It improves the formula in almost every way possible, and provides around 80 to 100 hours of fun gameplay, impressive visuals and twisted story. It’s easy the recommend this game to fans of the genre, but it’s also a pretty opportunity for those want to try playing a JRPG and don’t know where to start.