Alarms blare as a spotlight follows a slick ashen black coat disappearing into darkness. Demons in the guise of guards give chase, hiding their true grotesque form behind a mask. Their target, a young man, wears a cocky smile on his face as he evades their myriad security systems. He could fight his pursuers by calling upon the help of an otherworldly entity, a god-like fragment of humanity called a Persona, but for now this leather and latex clad, gun toting adolescent’s allies have convinced him escape is the best option. Without a second thought he throws himself out the fifth story window of the palace he has just infiltrated. With that same cocky grin he checks over his score, an amount of loot easily equal to a few hundred yen. Just another typical day in the night of your average Tokyo high school student.Welcome to the Phantom Thieves. A guild of gentlemen thieves and lady cat burglars that steal people’s hearts for the good of all Japanese society.
This is a highly stylish game, carried by a cell shaded animation style over a Jazz, Soul and Disco inspired soundtrack. Visually it’s a great example as to how a video game can do a lot with a little, for as stylish as it looks there’s not very much going on under the hood graphically. Emotionally, Persona 5 really tries to reconcile the more upbeat, stylish, bubblegum pop culture of Persona 3 and 4 with the darker, character oriented Persona 2 Eternal Punishment and Innocent Sin. For the most part Persona 5 blends these aspects smoothly making for a title that is both fun loving and dark, a world that is modern and believable while allowing for laughs.
Reconciling the series goes beyond characters and story, extending to the title’s gameplay. Returning from the first trilogy and the greater SMT series is the use of firearms, as well as the ability to negotiate with demons. Are you trying to reason with a demon as to why they should join your team, but they choose to give you lip? Fire a warning shot into the sky. Guns also provide their own elemental class, being a second type of physical damage and effectively returning to Persona’s earlier series usage of multiple physical damage types. Persona 5 adds two new elements to the gameplay mix as well, returning to the old Nuclear oriented Frei line of spells and tossing in Psy damage, which I personally extend to mean Psychedelic due to its trippy 1960s spell animations.
The last of the new combat features includes the ability to send a member of your team off during a major boss battle to sneak around and do some serious damage. This made for truly exciting bosses that required I be on my toes, be smart about which Thief I was temporarily removing from my rotation, and coming up with strategy to counter boss behaviors. At least at first. As the game goes on it begins to lose focus on what made those initial bosses so great. I would say some even mix the worst of new school and old school features, where bosses became a simple DPS race (new school) after a long series of resource draining boss rushes (old school). There were a couple of bosses that required some of the classic and incredibly fun SMT gameplay of juggling buffs, debuffs and exploiting elemental damage, but more often than not bosses would forgo any kind of weakness, resulting in a rather boring match that required pure brute force.
Stealth makes its way into the franchise for the first time. Sneaking behind an enemy’s back or hiding behind a pillar would ensure they couldn’t see you, while running versus walking would garner loads of attention. You could also ‘hide’ behind objects, chairs, tables, plants, to be completely invisible to your enemies. This all played key into combat and difficulty. More alarms meant more enemies on the lookout for the sneak thieves. Hiding meant positioning yourself for an ambush, while being spotted allowed the enemy to surround you in battle should you be caught. As the game goes on ambushing and being ambushed play a more significant role in tactics. Stealth was mostly inoffensive, if rudimentary and not particularly challenging, though made for some eyerolling moments when a wonky, somewhat locked camera refused to give you a good angle on where to move next.
The dungeons, called Palaces in this title, are similar in that they initially offer up really tight design and aesthetics, then slowly deteriorate into long chores that don’t have much to offer in terms of interesting scenery. P-Studio has mostly dropped randomly generated dungeons, though there still is one, in favor of pre-made romps. While the first half of these palaces are amazing (a-MAZE-ing?) I could have done without several of the late game crawls. I can guarantee that most palaces in the game will be long distance sprints that eat up hours of your time.
I didn’t mind that an entire evening could disappear crawling through a single palace just as long as the puzzles were interesting and well thought out in their challenge, but the second half of these dungeons opted for gimmick based gameplay that played up the cheapness. We go from the brilliance of a bank with a loop around shortcut structure to long narrow corridors that throw out the game’s stealth mechanics and force combat with easy fail states. The game painfully, excruciatingly, confuses a resource drain on SP, your magic points, for difficulty. In Persona 3 and 4 it was up to my judgement when I left a dungeon, whether it be from exhaustion and item attrition or having satisfied myself with loot and boss kills. In this title it feels like they were trying to force me out simply by not giving me reasonable ways to refund my magic.
There is a not so optional, optional, dungeon called Mementos. A winding, twisting subway track that runs into the depths of the unknown right beneath Tokyo. It’s here you’ll go to grind out levels between palaces, pick up personas you might have missed, loot up, get your paper up and complete side quests. Completion freaks and casuals alike can be sure they will be spending a lot of time here. There’s also one point where Mementos stops being a light suggestion and becomes a hard requirement. So if you were pumped the dungeons are no longer randomly generated, or thought the random dungeon wouldn’t be needed to clear the game, sorry.
The story mixes heavy pseudoscience, Persona’s regularly obsession with gods and trickster spirits, and several high concept areas with what is otherwise a very, very down to earth story. Some of the plot twists are miles off obvious, while it has one or two tricks up its sleeve that genuinely surprise, making for a very odd mesh of high concept science fiction, heist film and independent teen drama. Very odd in fact, after I had been waist deep in a dungeon having science-like jargon launched at my head with mach speed, I’d return home to be reminded I was just a student on probation who had exams in the morning. Despite the attempt to integrate Persona’s often strange mythological world with the slice of life story of a high school student, the title begins to feel like two different games past summer. The Phantom Thieves are normal kids after all, the Confidants are people just trying to get by in life, but somewhere out there is are otherworldly beings and dreamscapes that threaten to unleash great, unknowable evil on the world.
Now to highlight the one area I have no qualms with whatsoever: The Phantom Thieves. From Innocent Sin through Golden, Persona has always been in the upper echelons of RPGs when it’s come to character, but this may be the best yet. Well written with deeply personal backstories, clear motivations and fun quirks. They are marvelously charming and smartly written. By day Phantom Thieves are completely socially awkward, sweetly naive, not always the brightest but most definitely the nerdiest of teenagers. However by night they ooze with a killer debonair style that made me want to throw on a skintight outfit and swing from chandeliers (Don’t worry, I never actually did that).
Each Phantom Thief starts out as slightly antagonizing towards your group, but once they’ve had a rather badass and painful looking awakening to their personas, they join your team as unshakable friends that prove quickly endearing. I really dug their disillusion with a system that had quite deeply betrayed each one of them, leaving them with an unquenchable thirst for rebellion. They made me laugh, and the tragedy that befell some of them was truly appalling, yet I found them all the stronger for it. One of your earliest party members, quarter American (yeah…) supermodel Ann Takamaki was so believably written I couldn’t help but compare her to friends I had in my young adult life. I was really invested in seeing what happened to each of them, and how they would come together as a team.
In combat I found them equally exciting. The returning Follow-up and All-Out Attacks made for some truly epic battle moments. The brand new Baton-Pass made for not only good combat strategy, but sent home the idea of teamwork and group cohesion. Two of your team are exclusive showcases of all the new, cool stuff you can do in Persona 5. That’s not to mention your new Navigator, who out-classes other series tacticians in not only the strategy she delivers, but the way she can literally hack the game and send powerful buffs your way. Overall, they’re just damn cool to look at, with series designer Shigenori Soejima knocking it out the park, and both Japanese and English voice actors providing excellent performances.
Persona 3 and Persona 4 ingrained hefty social components into the Persona franchise, while social behaviors and personal interactions were always a mainstay of the series, Persona 2 you had to spread gossip and rumors to your advantage for example, Persona 3 brought with it a dating simulator element that required you forge friendships with people relatively unrelated to your team. These other companions in prior games, from the sickly young man who enjoyed lazy afternoons in the park, to the budding thespian hoping the school play would make her a star, were called Social Links and were absolutely vital to unlocking new Personas that would allow you to place the hurt on your shadow opponents. Naturally these cooperative S-Links return in Persona 5, and given the heavy criminal themes they have been re-branded “Confidants.” Your confidants are, in a word, awesome. Fitting with the themes of the game every single one of them is a pariah painted with a scarlet letter whether earned or unjustly branded. However each Confidant walks it off with a shrug, an attitude that very much consist of “Fuck yo couch nigga.”
It’s not characterization alone that makes the Confidants so great. The subplots that unfold as you entertain each one are perhaps some of the most engaging Persona has put together yet, while Confidant story lines do get pretty dark the more mature writing of this title prevents it from slipping into the melodramatic soap opera territory earlier game Social Links fell to. Unraveling the reason these Confidants were excommunicated by their peers and victimized by their mentors, seeing how they endured rather than fall victim, is indeed part of the fun. Hanging out with them, even while not building up the relationship, lead to fun antics and sometimes an awkward cosmetic gift to stuff in your room.
This time around Confidants prove vital to gameplay. Party Confidants provide a wealth of team work skills that, and this is the professional terminology, can absolutely wreck the enemy. Other Confidants provide access to sweet loot or provide very valuable skills to aid in your social life, dungeon crawling and combat. By the time you get even halfway through a Confidant’s relationship the skills they grant makes it feel as though you’re breaking the damn game. Unlike prior Persona’s where you maybe chose who to spend time with based on waifu status or the Personas you wanted to earn, here you’re going want to juggle all 20, yes, 20 relationships appropriately. I certainly did.
All the while you would be drinking fruit tea to increase your charm, making flower arrangements to boost your kindness, and other activities to boost your social stats. It’s a shame then that my time with my Confidants, my Party Members, side activities and my free time as a student felt so restricted. Persona 5 definitely feels like it’s the stingiest Persona when it comes to time, which is regressed from Persona 4 Golden allotting more free time in which to have antics. The calendar is choking and events inflexible. Mix this with some of the bizarre start and continuation requirements of Confidant relationships and you’ll feel the game is attempting to force you to screw up at your social life rather than allowing you to make mistakes on your own as in games prior.
All of this throws a serious wrench in planning. You may think you’re going to hang out with your bro Ryuji on Sunday, but the next thing you know an entire month passes until you actually get to see him due to all the automated events. By the time you get a feel for how the calendar actually works the game is half over. This can end up being quite obtuse and overwhelming for new players, as you’ll be bombarded almost constantly with new things the game says you should try and no time to try them. I feel as though I scraped by the final hours with a near-perfect run, but I also had two Personas and their re-issues under my belt, and it makes for a higher metaphorical ticket price to the most ‘accessible’ of the SMT franchise.
Now some of these events were fantastic, and there is a bit more flexibility and interactivity with said events than in prior games. These were also the events I’ll say I could easily see coming up on my calendar or was given ample warning over. The class trip for example was generally one of the most heartwarming and realistic gaming experiences not just from the Persona series, but most RPGs I’ve played. it was these warm touches, or Persona 5’s general rule of cool that made the overall ride a memorable experience. Though the time management feels like a regression, there are at least thankfully no major repercussions storywise for not achieving certain goals.
It’s no exaggeration to state this game was ultimately held up on the strength of its cast. Given the staying power of Persona 3’s characters, the marketability of Persona 4’s cast and the memorability of Eternal Punishment’s heroes, that shouldn’t be a surprise. However Persona 5 really, truly nails these characters, making each one feel like a living, breathing person, and causing me to hunger for Confidant ranks for more of this eclectic cast. Good thing too, because it’s the characters, not the plot or the gameplay as good as they were, that eventually kept me coming back after that 50 hour mark. I can’t recall very much of the heavy psuedo-science, nor did I care for the villain plots all that much unless it had something to do with our Phantom Thieves. Sure the game’s style helped in the opening hours, but after your thousandth battle executing your nine hundredth all out attack, things like your team’s victory poses, the 1970s pastiche, even Shoji Meguro’s seriously great soundtrack, flat out lose charm.
Fantastic characters elevate an otherwise overbearing plot, while a stylish presentation with an impressive soundtrack helps ease the game’s sometime bitter medicine. The first half of this game is truly jaw dropping, then it goes on, and on, and on making me wish P-Studio knew when it was time to call it quits. I genuinely feel if there were maybe one or two less dungeons, and if said dungeons were shorter overall, this would be a truly memorable experience instead of just a ‘good’ experience that wears out its welcome. That said Persona 5 is probably the most perfect of a largely imperfect franchise, and while it’s still harsh on newcomers, series fans will want to spend away their days in Shibuya’s Shujin High School.
This game was reviewed using retail code provided to us by the publisher.