20 Years ago Shin Megami Tensei and Persona team unleashed Revelations: Persona on the world. Featuring a group of high schoolers granted power by the gods, the ability to draw upon their innermost “selves.” While engaging in antics tm across their hometown, these young women and men would find they could now peer into a realm created by people’s darkest desires, battling entities named shadows, fragments of a person’s corrupted psyche or their ‘true’ selves. Aiding these youths was the power to manifest dreams into reality, be it the facets of their true personalities i.e. the titular Personas, or witnessing rumors, gossip and desire made material. It’s only in traversing the Sea of Humanity (yes that’s what this space where Personas, Shadows, Desire and Twisted Worlds is actually called) that these teens could smack some sense in adults and reshape the world towards a future where humans, not gods, could take charge of their own destinies.
20 years and six games later (Persona 2 was released in two full game components, one called Eternal Punishment and the other Innocent Sin) Persona remains true to its basic themes. Petty gossip is still dangerous. Hidden desire gives rise to twisted hells. Shadows of the self rule said worlds while Personas are used to slam good sense into individuals and wipe the floor with unknowable gods and goddesses. The fate of humanity is still very much in the hands of teenagers, doing all this while leading their own lives, going to school, doing homework, hanging out at beaches and in restaurants, dating, falling in love and making sure they take time out to catch a viewing of the Dark Knight or two as to raise their kindness stat. All while keeping an ever watchful eye on the calendar to take care of exams and prevent humanity’s increasingly inevitable demise.
Yet the game is fun, can you believe it? Yes, Persona tends to deal with the realm of the very dark. For all of the links people made between Persona 4 and Scooby-Doo, Mystery Incorporated never had to go out and solve grotesque murders. Persona’s party members are often twisted up by a battle of self spurred on by real world pressures and trauma. An individual being emotionally blackmailed and sexually abused, another believing they were born the wrong gender because society threw up the false notion they could never compete in a man’s world, yet another ostracized by their peers with their life dreams dashed after a mentor beat them badly enough to dole out a career ending injury. But don’t forget, between all this you can play a UFO Catcher game and have zany antics at an all you can eat buffet.
It might be Persona’s ability to balance this darkness with slapstick that gives it so much appeal. It’s also one of the few series, despite the vast majority of RPGs starring young adult heroes, that goes out its way to embody that teenager mindset. The kids in Persona 5, just like the veterans before them, are spurred on by rebellion and optimistic. Despite the heavy burdens they bare they face life with an unquestioning justice that states tomorrow will always be better. Do they let shit get to them? Absolutely, but their response is to do something about it, not just be a bystander, not just let things happen to them. This is all anchored exactly by the simulated pressures of being a high school student. Yes I really want to study for midterms, but I also really want to hang out with Ann and Ryuji. I want to help Ann with her goals of being a double threat model and actress while working with Ryuji towards his sports goals. It’s not a party that exists soley in service of Persona 5’s silent hero Joker, but a crew willing to support each other and all united by one goal, to rob bustas blind, look stylish doing it and bring a little justice into the world.
Stylish it is. Persona 5 is oozing with it. First Grand Theft Auto V, now Persona 5, I suppose there’s just something about loading up your fifth entry with grand heists that makes it so damn satisfying. Dungeons are no longer randomly generated, well, save for one long dungeon that’s attempt-able at any time, instead they are all pre-generated. Don’t think for a second this makes them any easier or shorter. In fact some of the Palaces appear to be longer than the RNG Midnight Channel and Midnight Hour worlds of the last two games. Instead your merry band of thieves has to carefully chart an infiltration route, a perilous task riddled with high end security, traps and guards looking to put a most immediate and deadly end to your capers. Once you’ve sussed out a route to this coveted treasure, the heart of your target’s twisted desires, you must then temporarily evacuate to the outside world and leave your target a calling card, leading immediately to a boss battle near immediately upon your next palace visit. It’s this interplay between the real world and palaces that ensure they will be lengthy ordeals, as not only leaving a calling card, but conducting investigations in the real world is vital to pulling off heists across the sea of desires. You can’t engage in one action without engaging in the other, so forward thinking in both worlds is key to progress and avoiding those pesky deadline related game overs.
Nabbing treasures and ultimately going head to head with bosses however are well worth the ordeal. Narrative wise, Persona 5’s most minor villain is far more engaging than the best efforts of the core antagonists in competing RPGs. Any target the kids wanted to take down, I wanted to take down, beyond just being invested, the depths of their villainy were palpable and even my first three encounters made for some of the greatest scumbags to ever scum. Gameplay wise, bosses were epic and rewarding. Each boss is a bit of a lengthy ordeal, but require a high level of strategy to take down, with nasty tricks waiting to be unleashed, however your party also carries a few aces up their own sleeve that can dramatically turn the tide of battle.
While the Rock, Paper, Scissors gameplay of Persona returns, ice beats fire, lightning beats wind etc., the game tosses in quite a few new tricks (and returns to a couple of old, once forgotten ones) to keep combat fresh and interesting. Guns return in persona 5, and the kids have learned to point them in the correct direction, no longer blowing their own brains out but using them to burst fire down their targets and stick them up at gunpoint for goods, money and the occasional new Persona. Tied directly to this is the ability to hold demon negotiations, a feature present in the original Persona and its two sequels, as well as several games in the SMT series at large. Other actions such as the Baton Pass and Follow Up gives an even greater sense of teamwork to the Phantom Thieves than even the Inabari Investigation Team carried. All Out Attacks in this game are just damn stylish, I was eager to try finishing blows with each character just for the decorative wallpaper pose it provided, and not once did I get tired of seeing it. Stealth and platforming plays a big part in this game, and would you believe I actually like it? It doesn’t feel tacky or forced, but more like it ingrains itself nicely in the amount of advanced strategy Persona asks of the player.
It’s not perfect. Sometimes I’m eager to get on with a palace just to be kicked out to continue an investigation in the real world. At times being bounced out did give some pretty great drama bombs and gave me extra time to create vital thief tools or a nice cup of java to bring with me into the next dungeon, other times it risked feeling like busy work, like they were just doing it to pad and take me closer to the looming deadline. It may just be me, but time management feels even more restrictive than it did in Persona 4. I will concede there are ways to alleviate that through the right acquaintances or activities that allow you to multitask, but the time limit of the recent Persona games have always been a relatively tight noose, and anything tighter than that is strangling. Social stats, your Knowledge, Charm, Guts et all also felt as though they were taking longer to raise. There are more activities to participate in to raise them, but given the restrictions that doesn’t make it any better. In Persona 4 I was done raising all my social stats by summer and I really didn’t mind that, I’m inching closer to July in 5 and I can’t say that looks to be remotely the case here. Hopefully there won’t be any endings related to a confidant with an incredibly strict deadline (looking at you Dojima and Nanako), but only time will tell.
So far however I am massively enjoying my time with Persona 5. Aside from maybe still too rigid a timeline, I don’t want an easy game but I want some wriggle room especially since Persona is built on a single ‘perfect’ run rather than, say a Way of the Samurai or Dead Rising-esque ‘do the one thing you want to see per run.’ Though I think that really speaks to how much I like the game so far, I do want to see everything, clean every dungeon of treasure, tackle every request, do as many odd jobs possible, and link up to all my Confidants and watch their funny, touching, dark, exciting stories unfold. Everything else that needed fixing in past Persona’s has been addressed, it may have started as a PS3 game but doesn’t look it, unlike other JRPGs that started natively there and look just as dated *cough*Berseria*cough*. It will be awhile yet before I have my verdict, I’m 40 hours in with a game that touts an average of 80 – 100, but fans of any of the prior Personas will find a lot to love here.