After years of waiting, and many delays per Atlus tradition (Catherine, anyone?) Persona 5 is finally within reach of western gamers. This author has been so impatient as to importing the Japanese version last year, and taking very small and careful steps through the game, getting to know all its ins and outs, trying hard not to finish it. I'd say I succeeded, with having clocked over 140 hours with the game. It goes without saying that there is a chance this review will contain minor spoilers for the start of the game, and with regards to mechanics. For those feint of heart that wishes to experience the game in its entirety, I suggest you refrain from reading further. For those that aren't and are interested in what they are in for (excluding any opinion on the English voice acting) I'm here to serve. Contrary to the disappointing Yakuza 6, as a fan of Persona, Persona 5 succeeds at stealing my heart away. In every sense of the word.
Persona 5 (PS3, PS4[reviewed])
Released: JP September 15, 2016 / WW April 4, 2017
Contrary to the norm set by the previous games in the series, Persona 5 starts things off in the heat of the action. You are playing as the Ringleader of The Phantom Thieves of Hearts, whom are in the middle of an ongoing infiltration of a big-shot gambling establishment like something out of Las Vegas. Much like Vegas the place is heavily guarded by a bunch of cosmic monstrosities, masquerading as tux-dressed security personnel. It is through this scenario, where the player will get accustomed to some ol' fashinoned Persona combat. It is meant to serve as an introductory tutorial to the game's future dungeon crawling aspect, and famillarizing the player with the new platform mechanics, and how they can serve as a necessary tactical advantage for getting the first strike in battle. And trust me, it does.
Sae is investigating the Thieves's case and wants the protagonist to regale her with his story and how the Thieves came to be up until this point in order to shed light on the truth. And this is where the game really begins. The story is generally told through a framed narrative, somewhat but not quite like their previous game Catherine but more in line with classic films like The Princess Bride or The Usual Suspects. Not many games have attempted this type of storytelling, the latest I can conjure would be either Dragon Age 2 or Tales from the Borderlands where one might say that only one of them generally succeeded with what it wanted.
Two paragraphs ago I mentioned how Persona 5 upheaves its narrative elements through gorgeous art that overlaps every scene, and compliments how the framed story is conveyed. Well, I did mean what I said. It doesn't feel intrusive, it knows when to cut back to present events, and not do it often enough to seep the player into the story, and to summarize what has been learned so far. It makes one of the most engaging stories I've had with a Persona game, packed with a cast of refreshingly different sort of characters all with their own struggles, both among the main cast as well as those you greet through Cooperations/Confidante events. For those players that aren't comfortable with the English voice acting will find a star-specked cast of excellent performances with the Japanese cast, such as renowned voice actress Ikue Otani (Chopper in One Piece). Persona 5 reins it home.
In my blog on Persona 3 I talked about how Time and Death are themes and tools that allow gameplay and story to seamlessly compliment each other. The way that large of the story is narrated through a framed view is also cleverly worked into the gameplay, should the protagonist fail to do certain dungeons within the established time frame, then Sae will attention to that fact being untrue. It's a small but very neat little detail. Persona 5 follows a similar procedure as previous games with its presentation of mature thematic elements such as sexual abuse, trauma, arranged marriages, politics, and most importantly freedom/the desire for emacipation from the predetermined standards that are set for the individual by society. Some people feel trapped by the trappings of their own lives, like they aren't living the way they want to but merely stringing along the set standards placed by their environment.
The Thieves realize that society forces people to wear masks to protect their inner vulnerabilities, and by literally ripping off their protective mask to unleash their Personas and confronting their inner selves do the heroes awaken their inner power, and using it to help those in need. They also take it upon themselves to use their abilities to rid society of corrupt adults in power, in order to set society free from the shackles of enslavement. A lot of these themes are integrated into the gameplay, with regards to Persona awakenings, Tokyo's citizens generally looking like faceless silhouettes that follow a strict routine like they are in chains, the colours, as well as the intricate dungeon design. Persona 5 is a marvel in its art department and how it plays with symbolism.
As I might have made off-handedly clear by now, Persona 5 takes us back to a location that is very familiar to any fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series. it's the metropoltian capital of Japan, Tokyo, also known for being the central setting for games like Nocturne, Devil Survivor and other MegaTen spin-offs. The protagonist is sent on parole to attend Syujin Academy for troublesome kids. Only having taking 1 step out of the gate, and he'll immediately finds himself the target of rumours, and degrading conversations behind his back that makes him out as an eyesore to anyone he greets, even his teachers. A drastically different take going from Person 4, where the protagonist was generally liked by all of his peers, the lead in 5 is suave and deceptive underneath his seemingly calm and quiet demeanor. You as the player have to work your way up from the bottom of the social hiearchy, which only makes it all the more satisfying once you get there.
The setting also brings back many iconic locales like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Akihabara etc from which you frequent, during less pleasant circumstances, in other MegaTen games. The decision to center the story in the big wide Tokyo seems to be a deliberate choice on account of the more darker story it wants to tell and Persona 5 wanting to recapture the beloved elements of the old games--It's a homecoming party for the series and thankfully Persona 5 doesn't falter in adapting the things that worked in previous games.
This leads us to talk of the gameplay. The protagonist's circumstances has him become a regular visitor of the Velvet Room, now shaped as a prison, and also treated as a prisoner where a very different sort of Igor (along with some new assistants) greets him as his Wardens and hosts. Despite the interior his role, as well as his new assistants Caroline and Justine, is still to help the protagonist through his journey with fusing Personas. The Velvet Room's functions has expanded quite a bit, with the added ability to imprison your Personaes to add a counter buff to their weaknesses, as well as sacrificing them by executing them in an electric chair to strengthen other Personas, or turn them into useful skill cards or weapons. Much like the other games you'll find yourself spending lots of time in this room to create a powerful arsenal of Personaes that can cover all bases. The nostalgic Poem For Everyone Souls, the eerie atmosphere of room's prison decour and the addicting Persona fusing is what makes it so enjoyable to come back to this room again and again.
The protagonist finds himself wrapped up in a shady plot alongside his newfound allies Ryuji Sakamoto, Anne Takamaki and the mysterious anthropomorphic cat Morgana, that involves them frequently visiting the world of the Shadows, as well as spending time together and grow as a team. Persona 5 retains the traditional calendar system, introduced with Persona 3, where you as the player have to balance the every-day school life of a high school student with battling the supernatural in the surrealistic other world known this time as The Palace. The Palaces are among the best new additions that Persona 5 comes packed with. Having taken cues from other Hashino directed games like Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne or Digitial Devil Saga, the dungeons of P5 is pre-defined layouts, with a considerably more elaborate designed interior. It ranges from medieval castles to art museums and other things, each packed with their own respective puzzles and heist scenarios that involves you stealing the hosts treasure (their heart) away to make them confess their suppressed corruption.
Navigating these mazes feels like actual dungeon crawling akin to Devil Saga, creative routing is a recurrent focal point whether you're platforming on top of chandeliers in a castle, to jumping through paintings in an art museum to stealthily avoid sensor-powered laser alarms. It blends the cool slick style of a heist film with the paranormal dark storytelling of MegaTen. Unlike the other games, stealth is key. Each palace is overseen by a Shadow host, where an detection monitor will rise every time a Shadow sees you before you can get the jump on it.
This is where the hiding from cover-to-cover and getting the first strike becomes adamant, as initiating them head-on tend to put you in an unfavourable position in combat while also risking in raising the detection awareness. Should you be so unlucky as to raise it to a 100 you'll be kicked out of the dungeon entirely, and the day ends. Standing idly in one place for too long will also make new enemy shadows spawn to violate you in every orifice. The Palaces do a good job of offering length, diversity, exploration, and constantly keeping you on your toes while traversing their dark hallways. Save rooms are also offered the farther you get in, and you will have the option to fast travel from safe room to safe room should you decide to quit exploring for the day. A neat way to catch up to the point you left off.
The combat will feel familiar to fans of Persona 3 & 4, as it builds on the many new mechanics introduced through respective releases/re-releases while also taking a lot of the things the worked from the first two games. Guns have returned from Persona 2, and serve as a seperate command for exploiting weaknesses and can be modified through a local gun-shop owner, as well as an additional "all-out-attack" ability unlocked through the Confidantes. They serve the role of piercing attacks, that were once present in Persona 3 as a unique physical move but its execution in the gameplay felt a bit wonky whereas in Persona 5 it feels at home. I'm a big fan of how each of the party members have their own unique gun, each of them with their own capabilities. Ryuji is armed with a shotgun, Anne sports a sub-machine gun and thus she can attack multiple enemies in one go, and Morgana has a slingshot! Plus, the Psy and Nuclear elements make a return as well along with some new abilities for Light and dark that aren't instant kills making said elements less useless against bosses.
The Negotiation system is also back, but it’s received a much needed overhaul making it faster and and more convenient than Persona 2’s indolent conversations that revolved around a demon’s ever-changing mood powered by RNG. This system allows you to extort Shadows for money and items, and also to get them to join you in classic SMT fashion. Unlike the old games, the new accessible design grants the Shadows a lot of character without feeling inconsistent as it isn't dictated by random numbers anymore.
Stepping out of the Palaces there are the Memento dungeons, which is a seperate world to that of the main dungeons that are mostly dedicated to side quests initiatied through Confidantes, and other means. These dungeons are randomly generated in align with Persona 3 & 4 though still with their own unique adornment. The requests you receive are unique, and generally help flesh out the game's world. Ultimately they are optional but worth doing.
Tokyo itself is huge, sporting tons of activities, shops, people to meet, and even mini-games to partake in. A lot of the Confidantes you'll meet are all very diverse, and interesting, they all seemingly fit into the main narrative somehow, in some way, instead of feeling disconnected like how it was with Persona 4. It feels like a game that has drawn a lot bit of inspiration from the Yakuza series with its ability to capture the density of its setting with its abstruse colours. The character models of its citizen fading in and out, the intermissive loading screens featuring faceless silhouettes when travelling by train, and constant chatter in the background really captures the busy-ness of the capital so well. A stark contrast to the empty and quiet town of Inaba, Tokyo feels alive.
Persona 5's presentation is nothing short but gloat worthy and it can't be emphasized enough, a lot of it is also helped by its amazing soundtrack that has set itself in my heart as my absolute favourite in the series. It's a mezmesiring ear-gasmisc compilation that mixes elements from acid-jazz, soft rock and lounge music accentuated through tracks like Sunset Bridge, Beneath the Mask, What's Going On?, Keeper of Lust, Wheels of Fate etc. It feels like an homage to Meguro's previous work on Devil Saga while boldly going forward with some chilling music that compliments the cool and confident roguish heroes.
If there is one negative thing to say about Persona 5 then it's probably that a certain major character might have needed more development, and people who love Persona 4 for its laidback attitude and focus on school events and outings will find Persona 5 to be quite different--Persona 5 is more align with Persona 3 and Persona 2 with a stronger emphasize on story. Depending on who you are this can be a good thing or a bad thing. But on that note, Persona 5 is still jam packed with content, but of the social variety, the school stuff that helps flesh out the characters as well as on the gameplay and dungeon crawling front. It might not reinvent the wheel for JRPGs, but it is however an amalgation of the series best features, both from spin-off and main line titles alike and sets itself on the top as one of my favorite games of all time.