written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
After a long wait that ended up skipping an entire generation of consoles here in the West, the next Persona game has finally come stateside. Originally released late last year, Persona 5 marks the 20th anniversary of the JRPG franchise, spanning 6 core games and several spin off titles. While the series has been a favorite of mine since the PSOne era (first Persona game I played was Persona 2: Eternal Punishment) I feel that it wasn’t until Persona 3 and namely Persona 4 that the series firmly planted itself in the hearts and minds of Western gamers. Finding a foothold back to their roots, Persona 5 retains much of what made P3/P4 widely successful while incorporating elements from their PSOne era titles.
Once again, our narrative revolves around a group of high school students awakening to mysterious powers, aptly named personas. The player character is considered a wildcard and has the ability to house multiple personas within himself, a recurring theme and gameplay mechanic of Persona games. The setting is Tokyo in the not too distant future, our hero joins up with his fellow students and the mysterious talking cat Morgana to form the Phantom Thieves… persona users with the ability to change the hearts of wicked adults. The story starts out in media res near the end of the game, our hero is escaping but is subsequently captured by the police. The game’s narrative from here on follow our hero recounting the events that lead up to this moment.
For the uninitiated, Persona games have always felt like two separate games neatly tied up with a Persona shaped bow. The main story is told in a visual novel style gameplay, a game genre made popular in Japan. When it’s time to flex your combat prowess, fighting enemies and dungeon crawling switch to a turn based RPG. For a game that has the main characters jumping back and forth between the real world and the Metaverse (the realm all combat takes place) it has always made sense that each side of the game felt different.
The real world serves as the driving force for most of the story. Time is seriously money here with each day that comes and goes is a day that passes in the game’s narrative. Balancing activities in Persona 5 is something one shouldn’t take lightly. As you progress through the narrative you unlock various social links, called “confidants” in this game. Your confidants do more than just drive the story, ranking up unlocks various abilities that can help you throughout your entire run. In between spending time with your confidants, you also have five social stats that rank up based on what you do; charm, knowledge, guts, kindness, and proficiency are the building blocks for your character. The activities to raise these stats can range from working part-time jobs (which also earn you much needed funds) to spending time with one of your confidants. There is so much to do with so little time, it’s a wonder I find any time to actually fight shadows… but that’s all part of the time management that goes in to a Persona game.
Combat is entirely in the Metaverse, a realm removed from reality where mankind’s desires manifest themselves in supernatural fashion. There are two different types of places you’ll be doing battle in, Palaces and Mementos. Palaces are story driven dungeons, when the wicked ambitions of an individual grow so heavily distorted it manifests an area that acts like a trans-dimensional overlay to a real world location. Floor plans here are set which make for some of the best dungeon crawling in the series to date, as you progress through Palaces you’ll face not just stronger shadows but also puzzles that force you to figure out the solution before advancing. Mementos is the collective Palace for the populace, devoid of having one definitive ruler but instead housing the desires of individuals not far gone enough to manifest their own Palace. Resembling a subway station, it’s fitting that such a common theme be the home of multiple people. Here is where you can do the majority of your level grinding, but also as the story progresses you begin to get requests from the public to incite a change of heart in an individual, these requests can range from forcing a stalker to give up the whole stalking business to hunting down an assassin pretending to be a homeless man.
For those who played both P3 and P4, the combat side of the game will feel like being given the best of both games. Mementos reminded me instantly of P3’s Tartarus, the floor plans constantly change keeping exploration of Mementos fresh every time. P4’s worlds were all so unique and that same level of originality translated to the Palaces of P5. I had so much fun simply exploring every nook and cranny of Mementos and the Palaces, if it wasn’t for the strict timeline on my activities I would have spent an insane amount of time running around killing shadows. Where Persona 5 improves on level design is in the Palaces; instead of just forcing the playing to climb floor after floor, Palaces also have areas in the map you can climb as well. This diversified exploration to not just think about which way to go but also to figure out if you need to climb up or down.
Combat follows the tried and true mechanics that make the Persona series a JRPG household name. Your battle party is comprised of yourself and three of your fellow Phantom Thieves. Each of your party members has their very own persona while you as the main character have the ability to wield multiple. This gives you as the main character the responsibility to round out the party regardless of who is in it, if you pick a team that lacks a dedicated healer, you can ensure your survival by heading in to battle with a support persona in your arsenal. You can either let the AI control your party members with a fairly limited range of behavioral modifiers or actively control them yourself, personally I say always take full control of your party… I still remember the days of playing Persona 3 and hoping/praying that one of my AI controlled party members wouldn’t pull off a stupid ass move.
In battle, each turn gives you the option to do one of the following actions:
Attack - use your melee weapon to physically attack an enemy
Persona - call on the power of your Persona for either magical (consumes SP) or physical (consumes HP) attacks
Guard - take a defensive stance to limit damage received
Item - use a consumable in battle
Gun - draw your projectile weapon and take a shot
Order - miscellaneous actions from fleeing to changing party make-up
Combat is part and par for the course in Persona games with the biggest addition from P3/4 is the inclusion of a dedicated projectile weapon. For example, though Naoto in P4 used a handgun as a primary physical weapon, it was treated no different than one of your other party members using theirs. Here though, Persona 5 takes a page out of the book of a much earlier title (the first Persona game) by introducing guns as a separate type of physical damage from melee. Some enemies even have an inherent weakness to gun damage. While gunplay can be quite powerful at times, it does come with the caveat that if you run out of ammunition you can’t use your gun until the next time you enter the Metaverse. Later on in the game, you can craft an item that can refill ammo without leaving, but it’s still worthwhile to manage ammunition with a sense of frugality.
Managing enemy weaknesses returns with the game heavily emphasizing on using your foes weakness against them. New to the series is the ability to do technical damage on your enemies. Technical damage is like a guaranteed critical when you attack after meeting specific requirements, only difference is that while the damage output is higher… it doesn’t knock down your foe. Using a spell to put an enemy to sleep then using a physical attack on the enemy is one way… another way is to inflict a status ailment like brainwash or confuse then follow up with psychic magic. This adds a whole new layer to combat, something I feel the series needed since almost every battle in P3 and P4 always felt like a mad-dash to knock enemies down for an all-out attack.
Enemies are represented as shadows that patrol the area, if they see you they will give chase and in effect raise the security level if you are in a Palace. You can avoid this by being worthy of the Phantom Thieves name and employ a little stealth. Successfully ambushing an enemy from behind gives you a clear advantage in battle, your party gets to attack first and in many cases you can set it up to wipe out all your foes before they even have a chance to act. If an enemy sees you before you can ambush them, you have to strike the shadow first to start a standard encounter. The tricky bit is if you get caught, you end up giving the enemy the advantage of attacking first… you don’t want that. There were moments I was playing and admittedly got careless, I got ambushed by a group of enemies that all used an insta-kill move… I was done for after the second turn. Ambushing enemies isn’t hard, in fact based on previous titles I found that ambushing enemies in P5 was way easier than it was in P3 or P4. The ability to sneak around corners I feel is what made infiltrating that much easier. As a Phantom Thief, you can crouch down by a corner and wait for an enemy to walk within range. It does break the believability a bit when you are crouching by a corner and a shadow walks past you… turns around… can freaking see you and it still doesn’t react. What I learned is that as long as you are in cover you in effect turn invisible?
Unique shadow enemies have been staples to the series since Persona 3, and if you were one of the fans who jumped in during P3 you will be in for a little bit of a surprise. The masked shadows from P3 and P4 are gone, instead shadows are replaced with your persona compendium. A little background, the Persona series was born from the MegaTen (Megami Tensai) series and a gameplay staple of the MegaTen series was recruiting monsters to fight along side you. In P1 and P2 your main enemies were those monsters and either through fusion in the Velvet Room or via negotiation you can recruit these monsters to join your fight. To be honest, I started to miss the shadow types from P3 and P4. From that bird holding a lantern… the two monks speared together… even the Hulk Hogan looking one, I may have described them poorly. After a couple hours I got used to fighting the monsters who become my personas… as an added bonus it was easier to figure out their weaknesses, this comes from the hundreds of hours I’ve poured into the Persona series over the years.
As I stated in the previous paragraph, negotiations finally return to the Persona series. No longer do you need to get lucky to find new personas, now whether you explore a Palace or Mementos, every enemy turns into a possible ally. You initiate negotiations one of two ways:
- Attack the weakness of every enemy or get lucky with crits, when they are all downed and your MC isn’t inflicted with a status ailment you have the option of either executing an all-out attack or talking to the monster. Negotiations require you to talk to the monster and from here you can choose to negotiate with said monster about joining your persona arsenal… or if you already have said persona you can negotiate sparing the enemy for cash or an item.
- The other way to force negotiations is to push your enemy into a corner, say you face off against of mob of 3 enemies, take out two of them and whittle the remaining enemy down to critical health and sometimes the enemy will plead with you to spare it. When this happens you can easily negotiate them to join your cause without having to convince them.
Visually, Persona 5 is the best looking Persona game to date. Running on a different engine, Persona 5’s visuals are more reminiscent of the sorely underrated Catherine (another Atlas game) than P3 or P4. In conversation, the character portrait is still a detailed hand drawn sprite but what set P5 apart was how the in-game model actually looked like the character art. Forsaking the slightly deformed in-game character models from previous games makes immersion into P5’s narrative that much better. There are more anime cutscenes and the visual style is consistent across cutscene to in-game. Persona 5 is a highly stylized Persona game with its very own unique feel while still very much being a Persona title.
Despite looking great, the only gripe is that Persona 5 wasn’t totally built for the current generation of consoles. PS3 consoles are still very much in the swing of things in Japan; unlike the Western market where PS3 titles have faded away, many Japanese titles are still made with both the PS3 and PS4 audience in mind. While Persona 5 on PS4 still looks great, it never 100% utilizes what current gen hardware can do. Despite this, the game benefits greatly from its anime visuals. Going for a more cartoon look does help titles like this age better than many of its contemporaries.
Before getting to the verdict, it wouldn’t be a Persona title without Shoji Meguro. Meguro’s scores have been one of my most looked forward to elements of a Persona title and once again the man delivers. Persona 5’s soundtrack is full of high-tempo jazzy numbers from the main combat theme to the various themes that play during different story sequences. Meguro has been a Persona staple and it still impresses me how much he can add to a scene simply through music. Courtesy of DLC, you can play the game in either English or Japanese voices. I took my time playing my first run in Japanese and am now playing NewGame+ in English. Both voice casts are quite good and aside from a few weird pronunciations of Japanese names by the English voice case… overall there is quite a bit of polish in the performances. The only issue with playing in Japanese if you aren’t a native speaker, some scenes have quite a bit of background voices that are never translated… this wouldn’t be an issue if it was just background chatter, but when you have a character reacting to a news report that had zero subs… it can be a little disconnecting. Luckily, years of being an anime weeb and college level Japanese classes helped me get the gist of what they were saying… but if Japanese isn’t your native language you may want to play it in English so you don’t end up missing anything.
This is the JRPG I have been waiting for, challenging yet intuitive combat with a unique presentation is why I have been such a huge fan of the Persona series for the better part of almost two decades. My first playthrough, I logged over 110 hours and now jumping into NewGame+ I’m ready to do it all over again. While Persona 5 wasn’t totally perfect, it was damn near close to perfection. Persona 5 feels like the perfect Persona experience, it's like a love letter to everything that made this series so engrossing from the first installment to the previous; it's like Atlus took the past 20 years of Persona history and condensed it down to this one game.
Gripping narrative, interesting characters, fun combat system, Shoji Meguro soundtrack, and all the anime waifu bait you could ask for. It feels like we are in a JRPG renaissance this generation, with a title like Persona 5 there at the forefront… I’m ready for the JRPG genre to once again stand on top again.
+ engrossing gameplay
+ great cast of characters
+ that Shoji Meguro soundtrack
+ "you'll never see it coming"
- doesn't totally utilize current gen hardware
- inconsistent subtitles