5 Mach 2017
Delay after delay after delay, Persona 5 finally arrives in English. The long awaited sequel to the Persona series, originally a spin-off from Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei series, is finally here. Persona has been around for more than 20 years and the latest addition, Persona 5, carries over the lineage that made them a mainstream success starting with Persona 3 and 4 while bringing back the darker tones and some gameplay elements that was seen in the first Persona and the Persona 2 duology.
That 20 years of lineage certainly pays off in a big way.
There’s just so much love and care being given to Persona 5 that even if the core gameplay (and story) feels like a retread of past titles at first glance, it adds and tweaks the formula just right to make it a gripping experience from start to finish.
Graphics & Sound
One thing Persona 5 has in spades is style. Ridiculous amount of style. The team at P Studio might have spent way much time with the presentation but it pays off so well. The UI is slick. The transition animations is ridicilous. Believe me, the small animations as you navigate through various menus will make your jaw drop at least once. Even the text box that you will see a lot in the game is animated nicely (with a good clicking noise each time it advances). The art for the characters- both their 3D renditions and 2D portraits- are distinct, not to mention consistent.
The art style is very similar to the team’s last game Catherine. For the most part it looks stylised in the right way. The game was designed as a late PS3 release and you can tell- the textures in the game can be muddy and pixelated. But another weakness of the graphics has been turned into an advantage. The crowd you’ll see around Tokyo are rendered as gray blobs at the far distance, only to go more detailed as you get close to them, which not only looks stylish, but makes it apparent that the crowd are just a backdrop piece.
Speaking of backdrops, the setting of Tokyo is nicely done. In the first hour of the game I was reading signs on the subway lines to find my way to school, and asking directions to find several locations. The sense of place is strong, with a mix of true-to-life locations (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara) and fictionalised ones (the neighbourhood of Yongen-Jaya is based of Sangen-Jaya).
The soundtrack remains one of the strongest features in a Persona game. Shoji Meguro’s work this time focuses on more jazz, noir and some hard-rocking sounds fitting with the thievery and rebellion themes of the game. The soundtrack complements the art style so strongly that evokes a really distinct and memorable presentation. I usually take my time in the Airsoft Shop just browsing some items while listening to the music theme played there because it’s that good.
The English localisation may have its criticisms but in general, I find it okay. You still get a feel that the people around you are Japanese and speak Japanese (even if what you read and hear is English). It is noted that they do use a lot of current lingo. Words like “prolly”, “thunk” and “totes” appear in conversation. And maybe too much use of “for real?!” and its various forms. Also, there is also a lot of short blurbs that is used to present social media responses, so words from the internet also make an appearance, for better or worse. I particular loved that the various movies and DVDs are puns of popular movies and TV series where you can hear some of the story unfolds.
As for the voice acting, the English cast did well enough. Most of the characters sound exactly like what I pictured them sounding like. Though if you are not a fan of them, fret not as Japanese audio is supported via a free DLC.
“Student by day, dungeon crawling by night” is an easy way to describe the gameplay of Persona 5. You live out a year of high-school as a transfer student in a new location where throughout the year, be entangled with a series of events with a group of friends that involves using the powers of Personas and going into some other world. Seems familiar enough if you played Persona 3 and 4, but just minutes in you’ll notice how different the tone this time.
The story starts in media res, and you somehow ended up in an interrogation room. This is a setup for a flashy intro sequence before the familiar first day of school intro unfolds. Instead of just investigating odd phenomenons in that other world, this time you and your group of friends- the Phantom Thieves of Hearts- are exploiting them. After awakening your Persona powers, you’ll travel into the cognition of people with distorted desires- Palaces as they call it- in an attempt to steal their Treasure which will in turn force these people a change of heart and confess their wrongdoings. “Take you heart” is not just a marketing tagline, that’s the premise here.
But doing thievery by infiltrating these Palaces is one part of the game- you are still a an ordinary high school by day, and that means going to classes, study, do fun stuff and hang out with friends- like most teens do. Persona 5 is essentially part JRPG, part visual novel. The game’s progression ties to the in-game dates, and in-between the long, linear story bits you have free reign to do what you like. Should you rush through the Palaces? Or maybe spend time more with friends? Maybe have time for yourself to go do part-time work or watch movies at the cinema? But the Palaces must be done before the deadline or it’s game over.
While the JRPG aspects may seem familiar to fans of the genre, Persona 5 made strides to make the turn-based combat even sleeker than ever. Instead of a scrolling menu, all your main actions (melee attack, items, skills) are mapped to the face buttons directly, making battles breeze by fast. Your skills and stats are tied to Personas and the core mechanics of battle is very traditional- exploiting weaknesses from various different elements, utilising the right buffs and debuffs as well as various status ailments.
Persona 5 added a lot more elements (Psychokinesis, Nuclear and Gun Damage) to the mix, as well more status ailments to juggle to keep the old fans on their toes. Another new addition to the formula is a feature missing from recent Persona games- demon negotiations. The Shin Megami Tensei series always had this function, and Persona 5 brought this back by making Shadows, the grunt enemies you’ll see a lot- as Personas. By carefully selecting the right responses, you can coax them into giving money, items or even joining your side.
The Palaces you will be visiting this time are all carefully constructed levels, each with their own little puzzles and gimmicks. This is nice step forward from the procedural-generated dungeons of the past two games. It isn’t just run around whacking enemies and opening chests- the Palaces have places where you need to traverse upwards, crawl in ventilation shafts, hide behind objects and solve simple puzzles. It’s a more active experience exploring these locations.
However, there is still a procedural-generated dungeon- called Mementos that for the most part serves as the location to finish side-quests and grind levels (you can’t revisit Palaces once you’ve completed them).
Only small complaint here is that the controls can a bit finicky- I find it easy to mess up an ambush when you are near an interactable or when the ambush trigger suddenly disappears as you just want to hit the enemies, but for the most part this is just nitpicking.
While each party member has one Persona, your character can wield multiples of them. With the reintroduction of negotiations you don’t gain them Personas randomly anymore. Either you recruit the ones you’ve found or fuse two or more Personas into a stronger one. The Persona fusions this time around has also been made slightly transparent. Now you can explicitly choose which skills a Persona can inherit, and you can now feed one Persona into the other or change them into an item- some of them can never be bought in shops. The fun of figuring out how to build the right composition of Personas that you have in hand- alongside the party composition you intend to run- is as fun as ever. Expect to spend a lot more in the Velvet Room figuring out what Personas to fuse.
To aid these Persona fusions, you need to form bonds with specific people. The S-Link system in Persona 3 and 4 is now called Confidants, and not only these confidants can indirectly help you with giving more bonuses when fusing Personas, you also get new abilities this time- even the confidants outside your party. So in the off-days of not infiltrating Palaces, you need to spend time to get to know various people- and responding to them correctly- in order to keep increasing their ranks quickly. And for some confidants, you may need to have the right level of the five social stats before you can proceed, which leads to spending time doing other stuff like doing part-time work, working out, read books and rent DVDs. This part of the game feels more akin to a visual novel- there’s tons of reading, and choices in the dialogue here matters.
This is basically the gist of the many, many systems that are all intricately weaved, but shackled to the in-game timeline. You can’t just take your time doing everything at your own pace- you’ll need to properly min-max everything you can if you want a complete playthrough. Not all activities benefit you the same way- and some require more time investment before it pays off. And figuring out what to do is part of the fun.
Content & Longevity
Persona 5 is packed-filled with content. There’s various confidant stories to pursue, mini-games like baseball batting and fishing to try out, places to visit and discover and a lot of small minor details. The game stretches out to a whopping 103 hours in my playthrough, finishing the game at level 74 on normal difficulty (proof of completion). There’s no denying that you will get a lot of bang for you buck- but for those strapped with time Persona 5 takes a large investment before all the many mechanics click together.
For the most part of the game, you will have a hard time deciding what to do as there’s so many things you could do. The open-ended sections having strict deadlines serve as a great contrast to the long linear bits in-between the next Palace that makes you rethink your approach whenever you revisit this game again. There is New Game+ with some progress carrying over.
The story is a slow burn- these long sequences are for the most part pressing X (and maybe pick a joke response in some dialog options) and go to bed to advance the next day. So for the most part you’re locked out of doing daily activities. While punchy at the start, the story begins to feel more jovial in tone by the middle before barrelling down a strong ending with all those darker and mature themes explored.
Honestly, the story is not something that will blow your mind, but the way the game tells it with great aplomb makes each of the unravelling moments lands nicely. If you were dodging spoilers (or find it hard to spot due to the game’s disabled share functions) going in blind will be a blast. While the main characters may seem to be based on familiar tropes of previous games (there’s the loud-mouth bro, the school council president, the mascot character that is unsure of his past, etc.) but they are all lovable with their own different quirks that make them stand out on their own.
Persona 5 is a single-player game, but there’s optional features that uses online functionality. You can call in the help of other players when an enemy is taking hostage of one of your party members or attempting to flee, do a totally random Persona fusion and most importantly- see how everyone spent their time and average level. Since there’s so many things to do, it’s handy to glance what everyone else is doing at particular points of the game to see if you’re on the right track or not.
One last note, the difficulty ramps up tremendously by the endgame. If you’ve been way past the average level and fusing the right Personas, however, this should be fine.
In short, Persona 5 is more Persona. It’s a winning formula of JRPG mechanics married with elements most seen in visual novels, delivered in such a stylish fashion it easily took my heart away. The soundtrack is amazing, the graphics are oozing in style despite technical limitations and there’s enough new wrinkles and quality of life changes that make it an entirely new experience even for longtime fans of the series. Not to mention the gripping telling of the story.
If you can play only one JRPG this year, play Persona 5.
Review is based on the PS4 version of the game running on a regular PS4. Review copy purchased by the reviewer.
Super stylish presentation
Streamlined some JRPG quirks while still adding depth to gameplay
Loveable cast of characters
Okay localisation that captures the authenticity of the setting
Muddy textures not suitable for 1080p
Some familiar storyline and tropes
A long time investment, with large stretches of mostly linear sequences