For dedicated fans, Persona 5 has been a long time coming, so I probably don’t need to say much to sell you on the game. For newcomers, however, there has never been a better time to get on board with the series. Persona 5 is not only the definitive game of the series, it’s the most approachable to date. Despite being the most well-known product of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, not to mention insanely popular in Japan, Persona has still long been viewed as a somewhat niche JRPG series in Western markets. It wasn’t until the release of Persona 4: Golden on the PS Vita in 2012 – a marketplace that was starved for quality games at the time – that it finally started to garner attention from a much broader audience. To the uninitiated, Persona games can tricky to explain. They’re one part social-sim, another part turn-based dungeon crawler, and then fused together to form a JRPG with elements of Pokémon. This concept will probably sound incredible or ridiculous depending on your tastes; however, trust me, they are phenomenal games.
Taking on a much darker tone than its immediate predecessor, Persona 5 steps away from the casual vibes of rural Japan and into the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. You’re not just the new kid in town, though, out to make friends and solve a good old fashioned mystery. Having been prosecuted for a crime he didn’t commit, the unnamed protagonist of Persona 5 has been sent to stay with Sojiro Sakura, a business owner/family friend, and to attend Shujin Academy during his year-long probation period. From the get-go, it’s made abundantly clear that you’re an inconvenience. The students at school also don’t want to associate with you and constantly gossip behind your back. Persona 5 is also different to previous games in that it tells its story via a framed narrative. In the opening scenes, you’re introduced to the “Phantom Thieves of Hearts,” a vigilante group who change the hearts of wicked people. This is much later in the story, and it’s here our protagonist is betrayed, captured, drugged, and then forced to recount the events leading up.
Winding back the clock, players step into the shoes of the protagonist as he’s about to begin the school year. You’re warned almost immediately that if you step a single toe out of line that you’ll be sent packing, and as fate would have it, on your first day of school, you’re dragged into an alternate dimension alongside fellow student, Ryuji Sakamoto. It’s here you uncover the concept of “palaces,” which are basically a manifestation of a disillusioned individual’s negative and corrupt thoughts. Furthermore, there are “treasures” in each of these palaces that can be stolen in order to bring about a change of heart in the person to whom they belong – hence, the founding idea behind The Phantom Thieves. While in the “Metaverse” (as this dimension is referred) individuals can also awaken to their “Persona,” a manifestation of one’s inner self that can be harnessed to fight. This works much the same as in previous instalments, albeit with a different thematic touch based on the concept of the “masks” we as a society wear to protect our inner vulnerabilities.
A large portion of your time spent in Persona 5 will be living out your day-to-day life as a student – i.e. the “social-sim” component of the game. You’ll attend school 6 days per week (ouch!), hang out with friends, take on a part-time job, as well as a large variety of other activities. Persona 5 does an excellent job introducing new players to the game by drip-feeding systems and mechanics as you go. It’s a design choice that has the potential to mildly frustrate veteran players for the first 10 hours or so while waiting for all the basics to be covered, but beyond that point, it works well to ensure you’re always engaged by unlocking new activities and abilities right up until the endgame. The basic concept is that throughout the story critical plot points will arise where you’ll be given a time limit to infiltrate a target’s palace and steal their treasure. When this occurs, you will have the option to either infiltrate the palace with your team, invest your time in preparation, or engage is social activities. Just as long as you get to it before the deadline, you’ll be good.
One important thing to know about Persona is that while the social component is certainly a narrative device first and foremost, it’s also directly tied to your progression and ability to fight in the Metaverse. In the real world, your character has five primary social stats: knowledge, guts, proficiency, kindness and charm. By raising these stats, you can unlock new abilities to help you in your endeavours, as well as build relationships with a selection of key characters – referred to this time as “confidants.” Thematically based on tarot arcana, there are 22 Confidants in total you can interact with in the game. In previous entries, this system was used to unlock scaleable EXP boosts when fusing Persona (as each Persona is also tied to a tarot arcana), which is again the case. However, in Persona 5, each Confidant also serves as a means to unlock special abilities, many of which offer significant benefits both in the real world and in the Metaverse. As a result, time spent pursuing activities in the real world feels equally valuable to that of crawling through dungeons.
Dungeon crawling is the second-most prominent aspect in a Persona game and one which has continued to be highly rewarding due to the excellence of each instalment’s turn-based combat. However, it’s also always played host to the weakest component of the entire series: the dungeons. I can see the appeal of randomly generated assets, but I have yet to see the concept be fully realised in any game. The simple truth is it’s never added anything good to the series. The singular 265 floor “Tartarus” labyrinth in Persona 3 was just dreadful, and while this improved in Persona 4 with a series of smaller dungeons, each with a unique theme, exploration was still basic and mindless. Persona 5 is a huge leap forward in this regard, with every palace being intricately designed and built around a particular theme. Dungeon crawling is no longer as straightforward as simply wandering corridors and whacking shadows until you clear an area and climb some stairs. The way you progress through each palace varies, making it feel as if you’re actually on a heist.
What really brings Persona 5 into its own is how wholeheartedly it embraces the concept of “gentlemen thieves,” with obvious but endearing inspiration being taken from Lupin the Third. This isn’t just another gang of high school kids out to solve a mystery, but rather a vigilante movement that was created to rid the world of evildoers. The immaturity and novice tendencies of the cast themselves is still ever-present, given their age, but when they enter the Metaverse, it’s all guns blazing in the most stylish and irresistibly cool way possible. Each palace is a heist, so the idea is to infiltrate, stealthily take down enemies using cover, and make your way through to locate the target’s treasure. Encounters can be devastating if you fail to ambush an enemy, and if you get too reckless and are spotted too much, you’ll be thrown out of the dungeon, wasting a day of potential progress. There are also elements of puzzle-solving to deal with along the way, further adding to the unique and complex design of each palace, and in a way that makes sense contextually.
To say that Persona 5 has loads of style is like proclaiming the ocean is wet. I know this isn’t too surprising given the distinct presentation of each of its predecessors, but in this case, the dial’s been turned up to 11. From the PS2-era onward, each instalment has been themed around a colour: Persona 3 is blue, Persona 4 is yellow, so, naturally, Persona 5 is red. The vibrant use of this colour is both compelling and marvellous. Persona 5 not only wields an anime aesthetic to perfection, the various layers on top also create a sense of style that is both bold and unmatched by its contemporaries. I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a game before, but even the menus and UI look phenomenal. The fact Persona 5 achieves this while accurately depicting real-world locations is also really cool. Although, it’s not just the visual design; the soundtrack is equally as impressive with a huge variety of tracks that’d best be described as “acid jazz.” It’s not only tonally spot on, it easily rivals previous soundtracks for the total number of earworms present.
The Velvet Room and the ever-ominous Igor make a return in Persona 5, who this time appears as a prison warden alongside his new assistants, Caroline and Justine. You, on the other hand, are an inmate on a path to “rehabilitation.” Like in previous games, your character is unique in that they can wield multiple Persona at once, as well as fuse them together to create new Persona. Although, you’re not just limited to fusion this time around. With over 200 Persona, there is no shortage of room to play around. For example, you can place a Persona in lock up to develop new skills, convert them to items such as weapons or ability cards, sacrifice them to strengthen other Persona, and more. What is perhaps a bit unsettling is that when you do this, your Persona are executed in a variety of gruesome manners. It’s another play at shock value, kind of like the gun-to-the-head idea from Persona 3, but it fits in well with the theme and setting. Persona 5 doesn’t try to reinvent the series, but the systems overall do feel much more elaborate and intuitive.
Persona 5 actually implements a lot of subtle yet significant improvements over its predecessors. The combat system, in particular, feels more fluid than ever. For example, instead of trawling through endless menus, primary commands are mapped to a specific buttons, which greatly increases the flow of battle. Guns also make a return, having not been seen since Persona 2, as well as two new elemental affinities: nuclear and psychokinesis. What is perhaps the most interesting addition, however, is demon negotiation. Instead of collecting Persona by receiving random cards at the end of a battle, Persona 5 takes more of a Pokémon-esque capture approach, in that when you knock all enemies to the ground, you don’t just perform an all-out attack, but can instead opt to talk to them. Each enemy has a personality type, and by saying the right things, you can convince them to join you – that, or you can try to extort them for money and items. The answers are often pretty obscure, but it does add a much-needed layer of depth to Persona collecting.
My biggest problem with turn-based combat in some RPGs is that it grows tedious as soon as your physical strength becomes so powerful you don’t have to employ tactics any longer. It’s for this reason I have an affinity for the Persona games, as the combat is heavily based on elemental strengths and weaknesses. No matter how strong you get, you can’t just put the game into rush mode and stop thinking about it. You always have to be engaged, even when you’re going through the motions. The boss battles, in particular, are excellent, as a good strategy and Persona loadout will absolutely make all the difference. Persona 5 also introduces optional targets, which is an interesting idea. Basically, there is a sort of palace for the general populous called “Mementos” where the shadows of everyday crappy people reside. It’s essentially the Tartarus from Persona 3, in that it’s a randomly generated labyrinth, but it’s good place to go when you want to take time out for optional challenges or to grind, farm for items and experiment with Persona fusion.
Managing your time will almost certainly feel daunting at first as you often have a time limit to take down a target, but there are also so many other things you could be doing. It also doesn’t help that there are only two free time slots in each day, and certain activities like going to a palace or Mementos forces you to go to go to bed early. The game will also just randomly skip days at a time for narrative purposes, which can be a bit frustrating as it limits your time further. However, trust me when I say that you actually have plenty of time. You can realistically take down a palace within 2-3 days, so when you’re given 2-3 weeks, you don’t have to be frugal with social activities. Go hang out with friends, stay at home and make some curry, be a guinea pig for a shady doctor, enter into an inappropriate relationship with an adult, or stop off to play some shogi with that quiet girl at the church. As long as you’re not too careless, it’s fine. A big draw for Persona is how fun it is to live out a day-to-day life, so don’t feel bad for stopping to enjoy all the little things.
A compelling cast of characters is also essential for Persona to work, and what I like about this particular group is that no one is too likeable. For me, at least, they’re not the sort of personalities I’d gravitate to in real-life, and that’s what made getting to know them so rewarding. They don’t just spew their life story at you like many RPG characters. You slowly get to know them over a period of time, and this makes each relationship that much more endearing. There are a lot of dark, confronting themes in the story, and witnessing how these characters collectively face each challenge is an emotional journey that culminates with a highly satisfying narrative pay-off if you see it through. Strong voice acting also plays a big part in this success, with both the Japanese and English casts delivering outstanding performances. The localisation itself isn’t without a few hiccups – there are some odd choices, and the quizzes are near-impossible without Googling them if you’re not Japanese – but when you consider the size of the game, it’s still very good overall.
Persona 5 is literally the only time I’ve ever gone into a game with ridiculously high expectations and not walked away disappointed. I admit I wasn’t expecting Atlus to reinvent the wheel (nor did I want them to), but I never anticipated just how much further the Persona formula could be refined. Subjective components aside, basically everything about Persona 5 has been improved upon from its predecessor. Combat is more fluid, Persona collecting is more intricate, the social-sim components are more significant, and the hand-crafted dungeons are simply fantastic. That’s not even to say anything about just how much style it exudes. At the end of the day, though, you come to a Persona game for its story and characters, as well as its many heartfelt day-to-day moments, and Persona 5 delivers on all fronts. For a game as big as this, you can’t totally avoid pacing issues and localisation hiccups, but this hardly impedes anything. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer, Persona 5 is bound to steal your heart. It is an essential modern JRPG.