“Man… you guys are the best,
stupidest group I could ask for.”
“The following is a contributor post by the Bizzaro Mage.“
Some interesting things happened for this Mage back in the 1990s.
I got to experience video games for the first time, thanks a Master System 2 and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog. Other legendary games followed, thanks to the Mega Drive. Mostly platformers, racing games or isometric helicopter shooters.
But then, in 1997, a friend of mine introduced to a new game on the PlayStation that was taking the world by storm, it was called Final Fantasy VII and was all about, so far as I could tell, some spiky haired bloke, a Mr. T lookalike and a lady in a vest fighting robots in a reactor. It blew my mind and set me down a new path, the JRPG path.
Fast forward 22 (what!?) years and many JRPGs later, and here we are. Recent Final Fantasy entries have left me cold and there aren’t really very many other good series out there, the gaming world seemed to have entered a bit of a dark age for the genre, at least for myself (because I know many people that love later Final Fantasy entries!). Resolved to my fate, I left the genre to die.
But then something happened. Sony held a sale and I picked up a copy of Atlus’s lauded Persona 5 for about £20, down from a frankly ludicrous £70. With a heady mix of hope and recklessness, I hit that “purchase” button and boom, Persona 5 was downloaded to this gamer’s hard drive.
Now, almost 100 hours later, I am nearing the end of this game, the first JRPG since Final Fantasy X to actually keep me playing for more than a couple of hours.
What did I think of the game?
How does it compare to the greats?
Would you like it?
Well, let’s find out!
Oh, but before we do: when this game was originally released, Atlus blocked players from taking screenshots and footage, in case of spoilers leaking onto the internet. So I shall be using the best of what Google has to offer for this review.
Also, I played this game with voices switched off for the most part, with the anime cutscenes in their native Japanese. The English voice actors are fine and all, but I always prefer what my imagination offers as an alternative and will always take a voice over-less JRPG over a voiced one.
Anyway, let us commence!
Persona 5 really starts off on the right foot, wasting no time in immersing one into a rich and vibrant looking world. Even the game’s introductory video, introducing the characters in black and white before a vivid red backdrop, showcases this game’s intense drive toward having uniquely stylish graphics that stand out against other titles in the genre.
The game world of Persona 5 boasts an impressive range of locations, each one very different and boasting its own colour palette, style and theme. These are the “Palaces”, sprawling dungeons manifested from their owner’s twisted desires. As well as serving as this game’s combat sections, the Palaces also visually reflect their owner’s minds. For instance, an early enemy is a teacher who enjoys dominating and harassing his students. His Palace is a huge medieval castle, resplendent with statues of the man himself, dungeons full of students and torture instruments aplenty. Another palace belongs to a gangster who has been using high schoolers to do his dirty work, his Palace taking the form of a giant, floating bank that hovers above the city he’s draining money from.
There are other palaces besides these, of course, and they all feature very different themes, enemies and bosses, all painting a rich tapestry of the nature and desires of the villains whose mind created them. But where do protagonist Joker and his ragtag gang of Phantom Thieves hang out between dungeon crawls? The answer to this is downtown Tokyo, which Atlus have done a great job of filling with a character and style of its very own. Before playing Persona 5 I knew very little about the capital of Japan, yet thanks to this game I now know about places such as Akihabara, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. Each area is, to some capacity, explorable and they have a unique look and feel to them, from the glitzy high street of Shibuya, with neon signs advertising arcades and shady back alleys filled with bicycles to the cosy warmth of Sojiro’s cafe, Leblanc, with coffee brewing at the bar and Joker’s basic but homely room up above it. All of these locations are filled with detail and really do a good job of bringing Tokyo to life through an anime filter.
Back to the Palaces for a second, though, for there is something I must add here. Previous entries in the series used an RNG system to create their dungeons, which resulted in them being different each time. However, this approach also made them come across as samey and basic, the same stretches of corridor and the same rooms being seen over and over again ad nauseum. This really turned me off from Persona 4 (which I played on the Vita for a while) and so I was made up to see that the majority of 5’s dungeons were built from the ground up, allowing for a much more detailed approach to visuals.
Let’s have a look at that first Palace again, for instance. One starts their journey through this stylized medieval castle in an appropriately unpleasant looking dungeon, replete with steel barred doors, drawbridges and grisly looking devices of torture. On your way to find the keeper of this castle, you will steer Joker and friends through great halls, libraries and, of course, a throne room, all built to purpose and fitting the bill nicely. There’s a clear cut entrance, midpoint, and treasure room to each Palace this time around, allowing Atlus to add plenty of little aesthetic touches and plenty of flavour over the jigsaw-like randomly generated environments of earlier games. Let’s look at an example, shall we?
This is Kamoshida’s Palace from Persona 5:
And this is one of the dungeons from Persona 4:
There is one dungeon in Persona 5, however, that sticks to the original RNG formula, and that is the sprawling, mysterious Mementos. This is a twisting, labyrinthine take on Tokyo’s underground system, with tracks spiraling in all directions, huge steel doors and strange hues of different colours that demarcate each multi-layered level.
Anyway, as I was saying earlier, the Palaces and Mementos only make up half of Persona 5’s game world, the rest taking place in modern-day Tokyo. There’s plenty of things to see and do there during your time with this game, introducing you many different places, from laundromats and a doctor’s office to the beach, a rip-off Disneyland and even a school trip to Hawaii. There is no reusing of the same room either, each location. However trivial, it’s original and full of visual depth.
A JRPG, however, is only as good as its cast, and Persona 5 is certainly not immune to this rule. Thankfully the Phantom Thieves look fantastic, designed by the expert hand of Shigenori Soejima. They are not only some of the best looking video game characters I’ve seen, but excellent anime-styled characters in their own regard. Though they’re mainly shown in promo art in their Metaverse attire, they also have a number of other costumes, all of which are individual and help to capture that particular character’s personality.
Joker, for example, rocks a long, black trenchcoat and white masquerade ball mask whilst in the Metaverse, but day to day he’ll be in his school uniform (both summer and winter variants) or just dossing around in casual attire such as shirt and jeans. Makoto may dress very primly usually, which makes it even more surprising when her Metaverse form turns out to be a biker punk, clad in leather and spikes and wearing an iron mask. Soejima has used clothing and costume in Persona 5 to give the player visual clues as to what each character is like, and how they fit into the story. The hyperactive, blustering Ryuji dresses very punk (I mean, he barely adheres to the Shujin Academy uniform policy for goodness sake), with loudly coloured tee shirts and plenty of tartan. Ann is a part-time model and dresses as stylishly as one would expect and Morgana (at least in the Metaverse) is a big-headed, anthropomorphic cat dressed like Zorro.
So we have established that Soejima has done a wonderful job of bringing the heroes of this tale to life, a highly detailed feast on the eyes that dress dynamically for weather, special occasions, and missions into the Metaverse as the masked Phantom Thieves. But what about the other characters? Those minor players that drive this story onward toward its conclusion? Well, they look pretty awesome too. Characters like Sojiro, the owner of Leblanc and Joker’s legal guardian, and Makoto’s overbearing detective sister Sia are just two amongst an ever-growing ocean of bit players that are all detailed, fleshed out and oh so very anime.
The same could be said for the bad guys. Whilst the ruler of each Palace looks pretty average in the real world (after all, they’re Average Joes like teachers, artists and company directors), they each represent themselves very differently in the Metaverse, fitting the dungeon’s theme. Kamoshida, ruler of his own medieval castle, looks like a king, resplendent with crown, velvet cloak and not much else apart from a pair of love heart emblazoned boxer shorts, a personification of the man’s secret lust toward his students. The greedy company director, whose Palace is a spaceport setting, resembles a knock-off Darth Vader, mirroring his longing to blast off into a whole new world, jumping from the company he’s exploiting to politics. I found myself eagerly awaiting the reveal of each target’s shadow variant, seeing what Atlus would do to visualize each bad guy’s vice, to paint a picture of their inner evil.
Joining these “Shadow” versions of the Phantom Thieves’ enemies are their henchmen, the inevitable JRPG enemies to be fought, the Shadows. Shadows take all forms, from baboons wearing hats and reading books to little pixies and giant, bipedal elephants with one giant eye. They’re all lifted straight from myths and legends from around the world and throughout history, so you get to face a truly eclectic horde of beasties on your way to setting the world to rights.
These monsters can be persuaded into becoming personas, protective spirits that gift their user with magical power, though only Joker can use them in this capacity. Each of the other Thieves get their own bespoke persona, which take a range of interesting forms. Morgana’s resembles a magician, Ryuji’s a pirate atop a floating galleon and Makoto’s persona resembles a silver-black phantom bike that Meatloaf himself would be proud of. They’re as visually varied as any Final Fantasy games’ summon roster and it was great fun waiting to see what each character’s persona would look like.
Even Persona 5’s menus are dripping with style. The main menu itself, from which one interacts with items, personas, equipment and the like, is a jumble of black, white and red shapes that looks like graffiti sprayed onto the screen and animates in a cartoon style which looks fluid and really brings the whole ensemble to life. Dialogue windows look like something from a comic book too, with character portraits animating slightly to capture their current mood and add yet another tiny little layer of immersion. Atlus, in the words of famous dinosaur theme park magnate John Hammond, spared no expense when it came to this games aesthetic.
Or did they? For there is one wrinkle in this otherwise perfect canvas: background NPCs, the extras if you will. There are many of them lurking around downtown Tokyo. You cannot interact with them and, upon closer inspection, some of them don’t even have faces. It’s like Atlus built the game, realized it looked a bit quiet in Japan’s gaudy capital, and decided to fill it with half baked, unfinished golems that scuttle around in the background, almost but not quite creating the illusion that the game world is a bustling and lively one.
Overall, despite some dodgy background NPCs, Atlus has done a fantastic job with this game graphically. Colourful, full of flourish and filled with beautifully designed characters, there are few modern JRPGs that can hold a candle up to it.
Persona 5 has a really interesting soundtrack to go along with those graphics. I would describe its beats as something a little jazzy, a little poppy and carry plenty of Japanese video game flair. Here are a few examples:
As I am sure you can appreciate for yourselves, composer Shoji Meguro has done a fantastic job in creating a huge range of varied, fun and moody tracks. The vocal work is great too, featuring Japanese singer Lyn Inaizumi and a range of other well-suited voices. Whilst the accents on show can make some of the vocals hard to hear (let’s just pass that nontroversy by, shall we?) they really do add to the soundtrack and make it pretty unique among the JRPG world. My only complaint with the score is that, after up to a hundred hours of game, these songs do start to get a little wearisome. In fact, my partner refuses to come into the room if she hears the battle music, having been driven insane by it whilst trying to play on Lemmings on her phone.
Whilst Meguro’s music is a real highlight of this game, the sound effects are a little less magnificent and a little more… serviceable. How can I best explain what I mean by this? Guns sound like guns, magic makes all of the requisite whoosh and bang noises and the sound of blades, hammers and knuckle dusters striking Shadows sounds like what it should too, they all just lack any… oomph. I suspect part of this is that they struggle to stand out against that jazzy soundtrack, though for the most part I just don’t think that Atlus put as much love into the sound effects as they did the graphics and music.
That said, the game does have some memorable sounds, be they the warping sound that signals entry into the Metaverse or, best of all, Morgana in camper van form marauding a gang of Shadows amidst a soundscape of revving engines and angry, histrionic meows.
Persona 5 has a killer soundtrack, dripping with jazzy and pop vibes, but misses out on a higher score due to a merely average range of sound effects, despite some stand out noises and effects.
Persona 5 follows the story of a Japanese high school student called Joker (his real name is whatever you choose it to be, but Joker reads better than “Winst0lf”). The game opens with our hero infiltrating a gaudy casino and, after a series of disasters, being surrounded by heavily armed police officers and arrested.
The story is then told in flashback, detailing how Joker was forced to move away from his hometown after he tried to save a woman from domestic violence, only to be charged for the crime himself and banished to Tokyo, to live with a salty cafe owner called Sojiro for a year and prove his worth to the legal system. As one must always be learning, Sojiro enrolls him into the Shujin Academy high school, where most of the kids are less than welcoming, apart from fiery track team dropout Ryuji, whom he instantly befriends. Together they are drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the school’s PE teacher, Mr. Kamoshida, who is grooming fellow student Ann and physically abusing several others.
It is at this point that things start to get a little weird, as Joker and Ryuji, using a mysterious app on Joker’s smartphone, are transported to the Metaverse, a strange alternate dimension where the sick, twisted desires of Kamoshida are made manifest in a huge, medieval castle standing inexplicably where the school usually is. They are captured whilst exploring by Shadow Kamoshida, an alternate version of the teacher who is king of this domain. They are saved from execution by the awakening of Joker’s persona, granting him magical powers and combat abilities, and the two make a bid for freedom, freeing a strange, anthropomorphic cat creature named Morgana along the way.
From here things escalate wildly, the trio making new friends and, with their help, discovering how to cast down the Metaverse “Palaces” and force the real people to whom they belong to admit to their sins by “stealing their heart”. The hearts in question are physical treasures at the centre of each Palace, which only appear when Joker and co. send the real-world person a calling card, causing them to panic and make the treasure materialize.
The gang, calling themselves the Phantom Thieves and backed up by a mysterious, inter-dimensional figure known as Igor, use this tactic to change the hearts of Tokyo’s worst villains and philanderers, all the while growing in popularity and trying to keep their real identities a secret as they balance metaphysical heists with everyday high school life. As they gain confidence and strength, however, they learn that they aren’t the only ones changing people’s hearts, that someone far more sinister is lurking around in the shadows and they have allies just as dangerous in the real world, certainly powerful enough to make life difficult for a gang of school kids.
The Thieves themselves are a very well written bunch. Whilst Joker himself is something of a blank slate, the others have their own looks, personalities, goals, and natures that all differ from one another. Yusuke is an eccentric, straight-talking artist, Futaba is a socially awkward super nerd and Ryuji is a fiery loudmouth who often acts way ahead of actually thinking about it. The best of the bunch is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the cat/cat-like creature Morgana. Despite his decidedly feline looks (especially in the real world, where he literally manifests as a cat) Morgana often claims that he is, in fact, a human. This was one of my favourite mysteries throughout the game, I couldn’t wait to find out just who (and indeed what) this character really was. His personality also carries a few idiosyncrasies that just add to the mystery, such as the way he loses control around valuable treasure and the fact that he can turn into an old Citroen camper van at will and is perfectly happy letting several strangely dressed school kids climb inside him and mess with his steering wheel and handbrake.
Whilst the mysterious events surrounding the rise of the Phantom Thieves are very much the main narrative of this game, there are also a few other stories interwoven throughout. Each party member has their own story, which typically plays out in short sequences that are activated once Joker has built up enough rapport with them through hanging out with them throughout the game. For instance, Ann harbours dreams of becoming a model but is constantly pushed back in favour of a more ruthless rival, Ryuji wishes to make amends to the track team that he was banished from for punching the leery Mr. Kamoshida and Futaba tries to overcome her crippling social anxieties with Joker’s help. All of these stories are well written and really made me feel for each character, reminding me that outside of the reality-bending Metaverse they are really just kids growing up in a dangerous, fast-moving city.
Secondary characters also get their own stories, with players such as Joker’s guardian Sojiro, a shady gun store owner called Iwai and a perma-drunk journalist called Ohya. Some of these characters start out as quite unpleasant but, by the end, I almost saw them as real people for whom I actually cared. There’s even a down on her luck teacher who moonlights as a French maid, which makes for some rather awkward scenes as she takes money from one of her students in exchange for cleaning his room. I do have a little more to say on awkwardness, but I shall save that for later.
Persona 5 has an excellently written, deeply enigmatic main story, rammed full of wonderful characters, deeply unpleasant enemies and some fantastic twists. Even the everyday dramas that happen in the background carry some serious weight and very effectively draw the player into this alternate version of Tokyo.
First and foremost, above all else, Persona 5 is an anime in video game format. With that come all of the style, visuals and thematic beats that are oft recognized with the genre. Those that find the subtly sexual fan service uncomfortable and cringey will most certainly struggle with some parts of this game, though it is a long established part of Japanese culture to explore these things and is prevalent in most examples of Manga and Anime, from Cowboy Bebop right the way through to Naruto.
To be fair, the majority of the game doesn’t really go into this too much. The characters dress more or less sensibly throughout, there’s very little gratuitous under-dressing going on in the characters everyday life and their Metaverse getup isn’t too ridiculous either. The only real exception of this, perhaps, is Ann Takamaki, who’s Metaverse garb is a full PVC bodysuit with a tail. I suspect some people may find this outfit a little uncomfortable to look at on what is supposed to be a sixteen-year-old and with good reason. It is, however, worth remembering that the Metaverse outfit matches up to the wearer’s inner nature and Ann, once she has stood up to Kamoshida’s denigration and belittlement, is able to manifest her inner self-confidence about her appearance. I guess what I am trying to say here is that, for the most part, the sketchier elements of fan service are at least explained.
Then there’s the issue of animated cutscene Ryuji. I’m pretty certain that whoever wrote for cutscene Ryuji never actually compared notes with whoever wrote rest of the game Ryuji. In-game, Ryuji is hot-headed, foul-mouthed and treats everybody with same twisted kind of respect. He looks after his mum and will happily stand up for the rights for any of his female friends.
Then we have Cutscene Ryuji. Every time one of the girls does something even slightly flirtatious or dares to wear a swimsuit, Cutscene Ryuji turns into what can only be described as a handsy pervert who is incapable of keeping his paws to himself. It’s not just the blonde haired punk boy who suffers this fate, either. Cutscene Yusuke and even Cutscene Joker aren’t much better either.
Considering that the game is otherwise very mature in telling its story, even tackling some very dark subjects like suicide, sexual harassment and depression, the weird change of tone in the animated cutscenes is just a bit of a fly in the ointment, undermining their own hard work in character development and tone setting for cheap, puerile comedy.
Thankfully, Persona 5 isn’t a game solely obsessed with Cutscene Ryuji’s wandering libido. The main premise of the game is the Phantom Thieves’ adventures into the Metaverse, changing the hearts of their real-world targets by stealing their treasure from Palaces built by their own twisted desires. The concept of multiverses is nothing new, it’s a concept toyed with throughout literature, movies, and video games, from the many, many multiverses of DC and Marvel (and now even the Marvel Cinematic Universe) via those Brian and Stewie-centric Family Guy episodes to games like Silent Hill and even Mortal Kombat.
What makes Persona 5’s parallel universe so interesting is that it is a physical manifestation of people’s dark desires, each Palace representing one of the seven deadly sins, all sat atop a collective lake of sin and misery which is dimensionally adjacent to the Tokyo underground rail system, Mementos. Morgana, the party’s cat-like Metaverse veteran, remembers little of his past, but knows that the truth about his origin lies at the very bottom of this colossal labyrinth of darkness, fueled by people’s Freudian desires.
Each character is held back by their own darkness and negativity, until facing their fear heads on awakens their Persona and unlocks their powers. Ryuji is consumed by anger and resentment, Ann by shame, Futaba by guilt and so on. Psychology plays a major role in the events of this game and really adds a level of mature storytelling to the proceedings. At one point in the story, when the Phantom Thieves first encounter Futaba, they learn that they are not the only ones able to access the Metaverse, and that somebody who came close to making it public wound up dying in a mysterious way. The daughter that she left behind has, in turn, become an antisocial recluse, haunted by visions of her dead mother and thinking that she was the reason for her death. It’s an impressively mature theme and its easy to forget that this colourful, busy world, with its offbeat humour and cartoon looks, that the world of Persona 5 is full of such subjects.
So, we’ve come to the conclusion by now that the Palaces of Persona 5 are full of dark humour, mature storytelling, and despicable characters. But what about the real world, as seen through the eyes of a Tokyo high school kid? Well, it can be just as dark and, ultimately, just as fun and rewarding too. Each member of the crew has their own struggles to sort between Palace runs, struggles which can be satisfactorily solved by Joker as he stands around and throws out pearls of wisdom (or else surely nonsense, good old multiple choice dialogue trees). Will you spend your time helping Yusuke capture his artistic vision, assist Makoto in shutting down some shady businesses in Tokyo’s red light district or perhaps keep Ann’s spirits up whilst she tries to fulfil her dream to be a model, and cheer her injured friend up in the process?
Sure, none of these sound as pulse-pounding as infiltrating a metaphysical labyrinth, murdering monsters as you go, but these stories are all well written and help to paint a picture of what living in a major Japanese city might be like for teenagers in the modern age.
Any good JRPG is a balance of story, combat and a deep item and skill management system, fusing joyously together into one beautiful whole. We already know that Persona 5 has an excellent story and top tier characters, so what about the other two, and what about the rigid system that the game runs on that makes this series so famous?
Well let’s begin with that system, shall we? Persona 5 is split into two distinct parts, as we have already covered, modern Tokyo and the Metaverse. The plot takes place over a year and events in the story advance across days at a time, which are divided into early morning, daytime, lunch, afternoon, after school and evening. Not every day is covered by all of these time slots, indeed most days consist of only two or three, dependant on what’s going on at the time. For example, one day in the week may consist of Joker reading on the metro during the “early morning” slot as he goes to school, followed by answering a question in class during the “afternoon” slot, then in the “after school” slot the player can typically choose what do, be it strengthening their friendship with the fellow Thieves or other friends, shopping, earning money by working or, if available, hitting a Palace. School is, in the Japanese way, Monday to Saturday, with Sunday left for lollygagging around with friends or sorting out some Shadows in the Metaverse. It’s not all work though, just like real life the gang get to enjoy school holidays, go on a field trip to Hawaii and even take exams, the lucky devils.
Many of the little events that Joker can do, from taking on giant burger challenges to relaxing in a nice, hot public bath, serve to increase a quintet of stats which make Joker’s day to day life easier and more rewarding. These are namely knowledge, kindness, charm, guts and proficiency. For example, answering questions correctly in class will earn you knowledge points and undergoing suspicious medical trials will earn you guts. It’s a mostly brilliant system, apart from, at times, it can completely block off entire storylines regarding Joker’s friends. As an example of this, Joker is given a suspicious package by an airsoft gun store owner early on, making him hide it from police officers when they raid his business. When I tried to talk to the man about this afterwards Joker refused to do it, stating that his “guts” weren’t high enough. It took me half the game to raise this stat, only to find out that the store owner was an important side character who had his own story arc and, through regular interaction, could aid one in unlocking all manner of bonuses.
Because that’s the other thing, folks,, regular interaction with key players in Joker’s life unlocks all manner of cool features, from new options in battle (including a useful as all heck party member swap order), stat boosts and even the chance of a party member taking a would-be fatal blow on the behalf of our intrepid hero. Building up one’s social status and constantly interacting with your friends and peers is essential not just for an absolute glut of story content that could be easily missed but for making the combat side of Persona 5 that much easier.
So, onto the other side of the game. Let’s talk about the Metaverse, shall we? At certain points in the game, the Phantom Thieves will discover a new target who’s heart’s treasure needs stealing and, after lining up their infiltration method, the gang uses their mysterious Metaverse Navigator app to enter the strange, twisted alter dimension in which people’s darkest desires come to life. Each Palace segment of Persona 5 is split into several stages: infiltration, calling card, stealing the treasure and having a good old fashioned boss battle or two along the way.
Palaces are huge, sprawling labyrinths, made up of several floors, many rooms and a good deal of puzzles and battles along the way. Your typical Palace infiltration tends to take place over a few days and, in my experience at least, each session battling through them is limited by nothing more than the party’s MP pool. Healing spells are readily available, especially if Morgana is a regular party member as he is the party’s designated healer (though Ann has some healing capability also, as does Joker himself should he be equipped with the right Persona). MP restoring items are, however, rare and expensive and there are no inns or tents in the Metaverse. Palaces can be abandoned at any time outside of combat via the map screen and, to facilitate the Phantom Thieves’ re-infiltration the next day, each Palace has several save rooms, in which the barrier between worlds is wavering and you can teleport to at any time (oh, and, you know, save your game).
Whilst most Palaces are found and destroyed over a few days, Mementos is there to be explored throughout the entire game, a sprawling, randomly generated labyrinth crawling with Shadows and full of treasures. In order to keep the player interested, Mementos is also home to some interesting side missions. These typically involve reaching a certain level of Mementos to search for the Shadow version of a bad person in the real world, beating them up in battle and forcing them to renounce their evil ways. For example, the crew has to stop a girl from stalking a frightened boy online or put an end to a spate of cat abuse cases happening around Shibuya. Completing these cases often rewards the party with items or yen, as well as some tasty experience points that are used to make the party stronger.
All of this is very useful as, unsurprisingly, each dungeon is crawling with Shadows, which typically take the shape of a thematically themed security grunt (a knight, a security guard, an R2D2 looking robot) and transforms into a gang of monsters once battle begins. Being thieves, the good guys are always given a chance to snap to cover and, as the enemy approaches, launch an ambush, guaranteeing Joker and company a pre-emptive strike. The enemy can do this too, however, and being caught in an ambush when low on MP can be a real game-changer for the worst. Also, every time the Thieves are caught sneaking around, the Palace’s security status goes up a few percent, raising the chances of running into tougher, more numerous enemies. Ambushing enemies lowers this number back down and staying constantly stealthy keeps it at a healthy 0%.
Enemies come in all shapes and sizes and are (for the most part) themed to each Palace. They also draw a lot of inspiration from mythology and folklore, for instance featuring demons and beasts from Hindu, European, Arabic and African culture, not just Japanese. This makes for a massive range of weird and wonderful baddies to whale on throughout the game and, in some of the more unusual cases, might actually cause you to hit pause and look up some of them online (I know I certainly did). The main boss at the end of each Palace, usually a twisted version of the villain whose mind it is built upon, is rarely a straightforward slug-fest, instead presenting opportunities for one party member to duck out of battle for a short period of time and inflict massive damage upon their return.
Most enemies in Persona 5 are weak to at least one element or attack type, discover what that weakness is for an enemy and you can score a critical hit, which deals extra damage and knocks the bad guy to the ground, allowing the attacker a secondary attack or allowing them to switch out for another character. This can give you a massive advantage in combat but. As is always the case, the bad guys can do this to you too. Each of the heroes has their own element, which they both attack with and gain extra protection against. For example, Ryuji has the element of electricity, Yusuke ice and Ann fire. Opposite to every element, however, is another element that it is weak against, in a rock, paper scissors kind of way. Fire, for example, will deal massive damage against ice, but will also be susceptible to wind magic. If an enemy hits one of your party with an element they’re weak against then they too will be knocked down for a couple of rounds and the enemy will get a bonus turn of its own to deal further mayhem and damage.
Combat in Persona 5 is, on the surface, a traditional turn-based affair, with the extra layer of elemental trade-offs adding a tactical edge to it. Alongside these spells you can also call upon traditional staples like melee attacks and usage of items, both healing and offensive, plus an added gun attack which has limited rounds but several enemies are weak against (and it always looks super cool to watch anime characters unloading clips worth of ammunition into an enemy’s face).
In order to use abilities in battle, the Phantom Thieves rely upon their Personas, which grant them additional power and, occasionally, new moves every time they level up. Abilities are doled out every few levels, including more powerful spells, passive buffs and spells that can buff the stats of other party members. As I mentioned earlier in this critique, each Thief has their own Persona which they stick with throughout the game, apart from Joker himself. Joker has the ability to recruit monsters to become Personas, gifting him the use of the moves that they previously deployed against him. The recruitment system is itself quite fun and involves downing all enemies in a battle, allowing the team to get into negotiation, or “hold up” mode. Once this has been achieved, Joker can then demand an item or money from them before they run away or, if you’d rather take their power for your own, recruit them. The Shadow won’t make the experience easy though, they will cajole, argue and confuse you with questions, some of which are downright bizarre, in an attempt to escape and run for the hills. If you’re able to navigate their tricks, however, the prize is yours. If money, items or Personas aren’t needed, however, you can end hold up mode with an all-out attack, a stylish animation that, if it kills the enemies in question, finishes the battle with a really stylish image of the victorious character posing epicly. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much here, but it’s really rewarding in practise to see someone from the gang having their comic book victory as you smash the forces of evil into oblivion.
Whilst using monsters you have recruited as your Personas is all good and well, the mysterious Igor can offer you even more Personas to use, provided one is willing to sacrifice some of your captured Shadows, that is. Whenever Joker visits the strange, hooked nosed being in his dark prison, Igor can use several tools of execution to merge captured Personas, resulting in the potential creation of some wildly powerful helpers. If you work hard to strengthen your social bonds in the real world of Tokyo then you will see the fruits of that labour paid off here, too. Each of Joker’s friends represents a Tarot card, a does each Persona in the game. The stronger Joker’s friendship is with the Tarot in question, the more experience points and abilities the corresponding Persona receives upon their creation. Using this system wisely, my Joker was massively powerful, able to deal the most damage by far in battle, all because he was good to his friends and spent some quality time browsing through all of the potential Personas that I could create throughout the game.
Persona 5 strikes a fantastic balance of traditional JRPG and social simulator very well, combining the mundane real world of modern Japan with a varied and deep combat and dungeon crawling experience, all whilst putting the story front and center. It really is a very impressive undertaking as it never feels like too much for the player to handle. My only complaint is that, sometimes, the day to day structure can feel like it is railroading the player in a very specific direction. Morgana, let Joker leave his room you gobby cat!
Challenge – 7/10
Some of the best JRPGs I have played (thinking of you, Final Fantasy VII) have their shares of both easy and controller-throwingly difficult battles. Materia Keeper, Emerald Weapon, Omega Weapon, General Beatrix, Evrae, the list goes on.
Persona 5 is no different, being the home of many easy or reasonably difficult foes and a good few absolute monsters. Several of the Palace heads can be really hard-hitting (Futaba’s being one that comes to mind) and even a good few regular enemies can be a cause for concern. This is before we even factor in some enemies that randomly occur that are supposed to be virtually impossible, such as the Reaper enemy that lurks around in Mementos. Enemies that use status ailment attacks, for instance, can quickly send your strategies into disarray, as can occasions when the player is ambushed and then has to face off against several inescapable waves of enemies to survive, all of which get to land a hit before the Phantoms are able to counter-attack.
Some of the large puzzles featured in the Palaces can also be a little obscure and annoying, I’m all for lateral thought puzzles but sometimes they can really slam the brakes on one’s momentum and spending half an hour working out a logic puzzle can really kill that buzz that all of the infiltrating and battling has helped to build up. Thankfully puzzles only become this irritating once or twice, however, for the most part, they don’t outstay their welcome.
Sometimes events outside of the Metaverse can be challenging too, though this is often not in a good way. Trying to answer the classroom questions without resorting to looking up answers online was, in my experience, incredibly difficult, especially as many of the questions relate to Japanese culture, or that of other East Asian countries. If you’re a wise Otaku it may not be an issue, but if you’re a layman like me then you might struggle.
Also providing a bit of an unrewarding struggle is the barriers preventing Joker from getting closer to some of his friends, for instance not having high enough Guts to speak with Ann early on or not enough Kindness to help Futaba to readjust to the world around her. Harvesting the requisite social points can take a long time and feels totally unrewarding and frustrating when you could just be enjoying these character’s stories and watching them develop. It seems a little arbitrary and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, wasn’t really needed in the first place as it slows some aspects of the story down to a snail’s pace.
Whilst the battles are mostly well balanced and the dungeon puzzles are fine for the most part, some of the challenges in the real world Tokyo half of the game seem arbitrary and more frustrating than fun.
Uniqueness – 9/10
Apart from a short-lived foray into Persona 4, this was my first experience with the Shin Megami Tensei franchise and, to a larger degree, Atlus games as a whole, it is fair to say that the whole experience has blown my mind.
Even though Persona 5 is definitely a JRPG in the mold of golden age Squaresoft, it also manages to have an identity of its own and stand apart from its peers. I can put this down to several reasons, the first of which being the game’s structure. I’ve never before played a game with such a strict day/night system. I mean, sure, you can walk around somewhere like Skyrim at any time of day, be it midday or midnight, but apart from the NPCs all going to bed, what really changes? Persona 5’s strict structure of bed, commute, school, free time, evening, bed allows the story to flow at its own pace and keeps Joker and co firmly grounded as school kids who have to adhere to a timetable. Add in nods to the time of year, like umbrellas going up in downpours and clothing changing with the seasons and it really gives the story a real sense of time passing.
The second pillar upon which Persona 5 rises above mediocrity is combat. Whilst Japanese RPGs have gone mental in the last decade or so with their combat systems, trying all ways to reinvent the wheel (I mean, what even was Final Fantasy XV up to?) Persona 5 manages to keep things fresh whilst also staying surprisingly old school. That turn-based feel is still there, but the knockdown and hold up systems add so much more nuance to battles than any Final Fantasy has managed since the tenth entry way back in 2000. Add in the depth of customisation that the Persona system brings to the table and this digital rough-housing system is miles ahead of any contemporary competition.
The final plus point for Persona’s uniqueness is, quite frankly, its excellent and all-encompassing story. How many video games are ballsy enough to tell a hundred hour, almost real-time tale about a gang of kooky high school kids that discover an alternate world in which they can change the hearts and wills of the rotten adults that run (and ruin) their everyday lives? Not many, that’s for sure. No evil empire, no airships, just a well-contained story that somehow avoids the usual JRPG pitfalls like “getting overly metaphysical” or “the main guy is Jesus now”.
And the final, final thing that I absolutely, categorically need to shout about for this game’s uniqueness: that style. Oh, that style! Persona 5’s palette of red, white and black is instantly recognizable wherever I see it now, be it on its menu screens, promotional art or marketing materials, it instantly makes me think of Joker and the gang. It also makes one think of, you know, The Well Red Mage too…
If you’ve played the rest of the Persona games, maybe this won’t be quite as unique for you but, as a first-time player, Persona 5 used its heady mix of daily structure, deep combat, beautiful colours and fascinating story to stand head and shoulders above the competition.
My Personal Grade – 9/10
When all is said and done, what does Persona 5 mean to me? How does it fare against other JRPGs I’ve played?
Well, it fares well, very well. Whilst I admit it took me a little while to get into it, the story of Joker and his ragtag group of friends grew on me so much that, by the end, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I’m even eyeing up a fully poseable action figure of Morgana for my desk at work, such is my affinity toward the story told by this wonderful game. Atlus have created a smart, adult story, featuring a rich canvas of characters and furnished with enough crazy twists and turns to make its 100-hour journey worth following. Below this is a well-structured game world, with well-paced and tricky dungeons, challenging and deep combat and one of the most vibrant, jazzy soundtracks I’ve ever experienced in a video game.
And bringing the whole package together are those rich, colourful anime visuals and an authentic Japanese flavour that really makes the Tokyo based tale all that more immersive.
There are issues, yes, for no game is perfect (and really, no game should have a cutscene pervert these days) but in this case, the pros far, far outweigh the cons.
If you like JRPGs or are a fan of mind-bending stories and Japanese culture, give this a shot, just be prepared to lose a significant chunk of your life to this video game epic.
Also, it has a talking cat in it. It turns into a Citroen van.
Aggregated Score: 8.4
Stepping from the shadows into the light, The Bizzaro Mage somehow functions as an average human being most of the time, just one with a fair few retro games cluttering up his tiny house. Check out his rambling attempts at sense over at winst0lfportal.wordpress.com.
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Categories: Game Review