It’s cheap and cliche to open any review of a game now with “I know it’s been an amazing year for games already, but!” However I’m nothing if not cheap and cliche so, I know it’s been an amazing year for games already, but Persona 5 is a nailed on Game of the Year contender. The moment I knew I liked Persona 5 was when I suddenly realised that what I was playing was effectively Harry Potter except with less British people and significantly more time talking with an annoying cat.
You see I’ve never really understood the reverence with which the world holds the Persona series. I played a few hours of Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita and after the several hours, it took my hands to reform into the shape of a hand following the endless stream of X-ing through dialogue looking for some gameplay in there I felt a bit left out. However, with Persona's long awaited debut on the PS4, I thought it’s time I actually sit down and dedicate some time because if I’m going to scoff at something, I at least want a little basis in my snark. Thankfully, however, the opening sequence in Persona is so full of style and charm it made me feel like quite the idiot for doubting it. A few hours further in I was literally searching prices for flights to Japan on Google, I was thinking to myself “I’d probably watch anime featuring these characters, I like them so much”. When a game causes you to commit thoughtcrime like that you know it’s something special. That’s when the week long obsession with staying up till 5 in the morning just to work on my relationship with one of my confidants overtook any desire to play anything else. Persona 5 is absolutely enormous, and writing about it feels a bit like compiling an index of every blade of grass on the planet but if you would lend me your time and patience, let me explain to you why I think it’s just so incredible.
In Persona 5 you play as the trademark mute, yet somehow irresistible protagonist, who after being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit is sent to live in Tokyo in the guardianship of a misanthropic coffee shop owner with a mysterious past. While on probation you are sent to Shujin academy where rumours about your past spread fast and you are soon alienated. Upon meeting Ron Weasley, um I mean Ryuji Sakamoto you both suddenly discover you have the ability to travel to a parallel universe known as the “metaverse” in which people's darkest desires manifest as physical objects contained inside enormous structures known as “palaces”. Upon further investigation of these palace’s, you discover that you possess the power to harness “personas” which manifest as powerful spirits that function as the game's various spells and abilities. Things get even more Pokemon when you discover that as the chosen one and the game's protagonist, unlike other people who can only harness one Persona, you alone can capture and use as many as you want.
The game's initial palace is based on Shujin academy itself following rumours that the schools lauded volleyball coach Kamoshida may have the slightest touch of Jimmy Savile about him. After years of secretive abuse, a suicide attempt by one of your classmates is the catalyst for you to meet your third member of the team Hermio-sorry I must stop that, Ann Takamaki. From there it’s up to you, Ryuji, Ann and your four-legged exposition machine; Morgana to form The Phantom Thieves, a group of progressively expanding teenagers with attitude that track down criminals to infiltrate their heads and change their hearts. While doing this you meet and recruit new members to your team as you uncover a shadowy conspiracy that threatens the entire world. It’s here that I really started loving these characters. The dynamic between you, Ryuji, Ann and Morgana is the best-written relationship in the game and subsequent members that are added to the team somewhat feel like also-rans, save for one late game team member who’s palace and subsequent back story is excellent.
Persona drip feeds the characters back story in a way that rewards paying close attention. Each story is engaging and some of them tackle some extremely difficult subjects in a considered and mature way. It manages to maintain a level of mystery surrounding the main character for over 70 hours which is something most games can't do for 6. It's the level of quality writing early in the game that got me so invested in Ann and Ryuji and made it difficult for me to focus on characters that are introduced later. If I could help it I never found myself swapping out any of my founding members from my team. I levelled our relationship to the highest possible stage with each of them and was genuinely enjoying getting to know them. At times it feels like you, Morgana, Ann and Ryuji are the main characters of the entire story and your other team members are just guest stars, there because their personas have elemental attacks that might help later.
Another issue I have with Persona is it’s pacing. Not throughout the whole game mind you specifically in its closing hours. There were multiple points where I was convinced that what I was fighting was the final antagonist, only for it to sprout an even bigger enemy it summoned from the plot contrivance-dimension for me to mercilessly bash at. The game’s story also feels slightly less interesting once the initial plot thread is resolved, leaving the moments hours before the ending feeling more significant than what actually preceded the credits. The game took me 119 hours to complete, it was hardly in need of extra padding. Also towards the very end of the game, I was slightly under-leveled for the last encounter causing me to smash my head up against it repeatedly before retreating and grinding some more. This would have been fine if it had not been for the previous 4 hours I spent in the penultimate dungeon which features so few safe rooms that I was often replaying 30-40 minute chunks of the level over and over, which put a bit of a damper on the closing hours.
In Persona you’ll split your time between a social life and relationship simulator and fantasy turn-based JRPG. When in the real world you’ll go to class, answer questions, take exams, talk to girls BUT NOT GUYS, because you see dear reader in Persona 5 you will literally fight 15ft tall phallus’ riding chariots, but having a relationship with anything other than a girl? That’s a step too far. It comes across as odd in a game that gives you such freedom as to how you spend your time that there is such a binary on relationships. Aside from that, I enjoyed the dating sim elements of the game, however, I wish it was a little more explicit as to how long things take. You see outside of class you have two time slots in which to perform social activities, and what changes the time seems utterly random. You can take a subway to any of the districts in the city and buy everything from every shop, but the second you want to play a video game or read a book it suddenly turns to evening at the speed of light.
Personas main palaces after fairly standard turn-based affairs wherein you and 3 teammates skulk around making your way from safe room to safe room until finally encountering the boss. The enemies you fight along the way can either be destroyed or weakened into submission at which point they’ll drop to their knees and beg you to add them to your PokeDex. This is a good system as it incentivises changing up your elemental types but around three quarters into the game I found a Persona that was resistant to physical, gun and curse damage and I barely used anything else from that moment forward. The various Personas are incredibly well designed though, so finding a new one to fight or collect is always interesting. Between trips to palaces' you can improve or fuse new Personas whose powers are enhanced based on relationships you forge in the real world, so even if you have no interested in courting your future waifu, there is at least a material advantage to spending hours giving Ann cakes.
Battles mostly consist of attempting to discover an enemy's weakness before they attack in order to pulverise them before your team takes any damage. This incentivises using multiple personas and towards the end, Persona achieves something few RPGs are able to; it makes status boosting attacks something I actively used. The strategy of maintaining a myriad of different elementals as well as strong healers on your team means you’ll spend time experimenting, but some characters will remain mostly mainstays.
Attacks will either use HP (hit points) or SP (skill points), HP can be recovered both in battle or outside battle, but still while inside the palace. Skill points, on the other hand, are much more difficult to recover. Leaving the palace and returning will refill them but at the cost of losing a day or potential progress. Later in the game, certain items help mitigate this but it was certainly annoying flying through dungeons without a care only to be told that it was time to go home for the night because my team of super-powered thieves couldn’t be bothered anymore.
Activities in the real world will award you stats in categories such as strength or knowledge, but the game keeps a tight lid on what those things do or how much each activity is actually contributing. Hiding the numbers like this is initially somewhat frustrating but it actually made me stop worrying about maxing out every level immediately and just play the game how I wanted to. This does become a problem later however when you struggle desperately to talk to a confidant only to be told that despite being the saviour of the world your kindness just isn’t really doing it for them.
It’s almost unfair to compare Persona to other games, not just because it’s spent so long in development that entire Presidents have come and gone in the time since 4, but because the game is so stylish there isn’t a single frame of it I don’t want to have blown up 500 times the size and use it to wallpaper my house. Every single menu, every end of a battle sequence is so cohesive and cool looking it retroactively ruins the UI of every game for the last quarter century, which by comparison look as if they’ve been whipped up in Microsoft Paint.
Some cutscenes are given the full anime treatment, but the lion's share of interaction are expressed through talking heads that appear that the bottom of the screen while the in-game character model gesticulates like they are not entirely sure what is going on. Not all of the dialogue is voice acted either. Most of the time you can tell whether or not you should pay attention based on whether or not the bothered voicing it. Occasionally the dialogue verges on excessive where it feels like the characters are just repeating their points to each other in a circle, but thankfully these are few and far between. What isn’t few and far between however is some translation issues that leave some exchanges feeling like they were between two text to speech generators. The voice acting is fine, but strangely, although the protagonist is mute for 99% of proceedings, occasionally he’ll speak at the most inconsequential times. It leaves me both confused and disappointed. Disappointed because there are moments in the game where it would have made a hell of a lot more sense for him to verbalise his feelings rather than just whenever he feels like it.
Persona has a low-fi jazz influenced soundtrack that will be stuck in your head for the rest of your natural life. You better pray that you are as in love with the battle theme as I am or it may be a struggle to get through over a hundred hours of essentially the same song. The final few environments introduce some new music that is exciting and infectious but just as swiftly as it’s introduced it’s gone and you’re back to the stock battle theme. However, I really can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the music in the game. So much so that I regret not buying the collector's edition when I had the chance just to get that CD.
I absolutely loved Persona 5. It grabbed me with both hands and took me on a near 120-hour jaunt through Tokyo, the metaverse but more importantly through life as an honest student. It crafts a world that I’m desperate to return to and features characters that are endearing, entertaining and memorable. Its visual presentation is at a level of style that most games wish to achieve even 1% of. It’s just brilliant. Sure, there are some problems towards the end and yes, if you aren't up for dedicating a significant amount of time to it then it might not be for you. However as someone who would never list Japanese RPG’s in my list of favourite genre’s I'm practically salivating at the thought of another game in this mould. It held me for 119 hours and honestly, if I could I’d happily talk to Ryuji, Ann and the rest of The Phantom Thieves for even longer. You know a game is special when it can brute force a genre that you didn’t care for into something you actively want to play more of. Persona 5 is very special. It raises the bar for JRPG’s and for RPG’s generally. We started on a cliche, so let’s end with one. 2007 should be worried, ‘cause a decade later 2017 is shaping up to take its crown as the best year for video games in history.
|+ Unmatched style.||– Pacing in the closing hours.|
|+ Engaging, memorable characters.||– Occasional translation issues.|
|+ Addictive, versatile gameplay.|
|+ Sprawling Tokyo.|