April marked the release of the fifth installment of the heralded JRPG Persona series, Persona 5. Following up the wildly successful Persona 4 was going to be a tough feat for developer Atlus. After releasing in Japan last September, the game after a long wait finally made it to western audiences. Was it worth the wait? If you have any love for visual novels, JRPGs, shounen and/or slice of life anime then this game is a must buy.
Developed by: Atlus
Published by: Atlus
Release date: April 4th, 2017
Platforms: PS4, PS3 (Reviewed on PS4)
Price at time of review: 60 USD
Persona 5 Features
- Uncover the picaresque story of a young team of phantom thieves in this latest addition to the critically acclaimed Persona series.
- The bonds you form with the people you meet will grow into a great power to help you fulfill your destiny
- After school, use your Metaverse Navigator smartphone app to infiltrate Palaces–surreal worlds created from the hearts of corrupt adults–and slip away to your double life as a phantom thief
- Join your new friends in the fight to reform society with your own sense of justice!
Story and Setting
You are a kid in your late teens in modern Japan, wrongly convicted of a crime and put on probation. Just trying to get by without going to jail quickly turns into a crusade with other like minded victims to save Japan from itself by bringing all the corrupt and abusive people in power to justice, going after ever bigger and more corrupt targets. You do this by jumping into their minds and stealing their desires so they realize their wrongs, using the power of Persona (your “true” self) to do battles with the Shadows (the suppressed thoughts or aspects of ones personality) of both individual people and humanity as a whole on the way there.
No really, that’s the plot. The game explains it in more detail, but not until fairly late so I can’t go into further detail without major spoilers.
It starts very slow and the first 2/3rds are somewhat predictable but well executed once you’ve wrapped your mind around the basics concepts. That predictability isn’t a negative, it’s mostly on purpose seeing as the beginning of the story is being told from the perspective of the main character several months in the future, but it’s worth mentioning. The last 30 or so hours are when the main story takes the place of the “monster of the month” format used before that and the story really takes off and gets weirder. The writing is up to the usual high standards of Atlus throughout the story.
My only complaints are that, depending on when you start various relationships, some of the scenes in the “future” are oddly placed, and the first 5 or so hours are extremely slow, even by the standards of a game that’s 60% life simulator. It’s not revolutionary, though if you’re new to Atlus games or the Persona series it may feel that way, but it is excellent.
In simple terms, the game is essentially 50% dungeon crawler and 50% visual novel. Unless you struggle with combat, at which point the dungeon crawling will eat more of your time.
In the visual novel half, you spend your time as a normal, if unnaturally talented and likable, teenager. Going to school, studying for tests, increasing social stats like charm and intelligence, splitting the difference and advancing a stat somewhat less while also earning money via a part time job, and making friends, all within a time management system where every action that advances your character takes a slot, and you get 2 slots per day. The gameplay here consists of deciding which stat or character relationship of those available at that day and time that you want to advance and playing small minigames to increase stats or making dialogue choices to advance the relationships with the characters. This entire half of the game lives or dies on the strength of the character writing, which is extremely good. Even if you don’t like every character, and I don’t, they are all believable. relate able, and complex, so I find myself advancing relationships even with characters I don’t like because I can empathize with what they’re going through. All of these choices have wider gameplay implications. Social stats are necessary to start or advance certain relationships, money is necessary for gear and Persona management, and every relationship gives at least one if not several direct bonuses in combat or out of combat, at various “ranks”, of which there are 10, such as letting party members survive an otherwise fatal blow or getting someone to cleanse dirty items you find so you may use them without losing a timeslot to doing it yourself.
Speaking of combat, the magnitude of such bonuses in the game’s often brutal combat system cannot be overstated. Your Persona, which you may capture in battle, all have suits represented by tarot cards (Fool, Empress, Devil, ect.) In an unsubtle metaphor for how helping others also helps you, when you fuse 2 or more you already have to create a new one, they gain large experience bonuses based on the rank the associated relationship is at. For example, one of the first characters you meat is associated with the Chariot, so advancing his relationship ranks up the Chariot and all new Chariot Persona get extra experience and access to higher level abilities based on that rank. Persona (yours, your party members, and the enemies) are largely what determine your combat stats, and they all have strengths and/or weaknesses split among 10 elements. If a weakness is hit (be it an enemies or a party members) or if someone lands a critical hit with a physical attack, the target is knocked down, the one that did it gets an extra turn, and anything that’s knocked down takes extra damage. If all enemies are knocked down, you may extort money or items, attempt to persuade the enemy to join you, or unleash an all out attack for large amounts of extra damage. With the exception of some bosses and the rare enemy without a weakness, the ability to hit weaknesses and inflict large amounts of bonus damage combined with the generally low health pools of everybody involved means that both you and your enemies, can quickly and easily murder each-other, even with a 5 or 10 level disadvantage.
While it’s an interesting system it does have it’s quirks. The one most worth mentioning is that, just as you can finish most battles in 1 turn, if you or a party member get ambushed or if you simply aren’t aware the enemy can hit one of your weaknesses, they can and will kill you outright without you really being able to do anything to stop it, which can lead to some frustration and force either blind luck or going back to fuse strong Persona that don’t have that particular weakness.
As for the where combat takes place and how you get in it, there are 2 parts. Each month has a dungeon with a treasure at the end, both of which take their theme from the individual character’s view of the world. As an early game example, the dungeon of a gangster is a bank. all the enemies take the form of security until you enter battle and all the puzzles involve keycards or safe codes. The goal is to sneak through each dungeon using flashy and stylized but uncomplicated stealth mechanics and some puzzle solving to secure a rout to, and ultimately steal, the treasure within, hopefully ambushing enemies along the way. If you fail your attempts to sneak and enemies spot you, you raise the alarm, while defeating enemies without being spotted lower it, and if the alarm hits 100% you’re booted out for the day and have to try again at a later date. This is important to note because, as was implied earlier, you’re on a timer. You have 20-25 days to deal with each target, and exploring a dungeon takes a whole day so being booted out not only puts you closer to the time limit, but requires you to sacrifice another day to exploring instead of raising stats or advancing relationships. As someone who enjoys actual stealth games, I only know this because the tutorial informed me of the consequences. I never had a problem keeping the alarm down. The stealth mechanics are not intended to be the primary challenge, they’re thematic flavor and they work quite well in that role.
These dungeons are long. Multiple hours long. The last 2 both took me over 3 hours. You can either do as I did and crash through them all all at once which, I should add, I feel was only possible without a guide because I’ve played previous Persona games and so already knew exactly what I was doing, or go through over multiple days, using safe rooms inside the dungeon as both save points and fast travel points to return to when you go back. This isn’t to say the game doesn’t respect your time because you can save at basically any time outside a dungeon, you can simply restart boss battles if you die, and failure never sends you back farther than the last time you visited a safe room even if you didn’t save there. This, thanks to a number of shortcuts, is infrequently more than 10 minutes back but the game simply demands quite a lot of time, especially to make significant progress in dungeons.
The other combat takes place in a permanent, randomly generated, “optional” dungeon that opens up as the story progresses. It has slightly different mechanics, no stealth mechanics or alarm levels, and is where your group goes after those who do enough wrong to have desires to steal, but aren’t bad enough for their own personal dungeon. Optional is in quotes because advancing in it is actually necessary to advance many of the relationships, so it’s worth taking the time to finish it.
Atlus has managed to put the 2nd best turn based combat system and the best visual novel I’ve had the pleasure to play together into one game, and tied them together with a time management system in a way that feels natural despite the whole thing being super weird. The end result is a game that surpasses it’s competition in almost every way.
Visual and Audio
It’s overstated at this point, but Persona 5 is 100% style. Persona games have gone out of their way to be flashy for over a decade (I mean how much more flashy can you get than summoning demons to do battle with an alien/god by shooting yourself in the head?) but this one goes above and beyond. Attack animations, menus, facial expressions, everything is animated in exactly the same hyper stylized manner, and more impressively they do it without interrupting or slowing down gameplay to do it. Take 1 look at any random screenshot or watch the intro/trailer on Youtube and just extrapolate from there, because everything looks like that. It also goes out of the way to animate almost all of the smallest details, like the main character pulling a journal out of his pocket to save the game and disguising the loading at the end of combat with animated character poses. It is the best looking JRPG ever made, full stop, and it manages that despite the fact that nothing it does is technically demanding.
It’s not quite as perfect in terms of performance. There is a bit of screen tearing, but I only ever saw it in the transition to loading screens and even then not often, and 1 slight hitch when 1 specific character uses 1 specific late game spell (no idea why) but it’s nowhere near enough to bring down the overall quality.
There is far less to talk about in terms of sound. The music is mostly jazzy, but with the violin or keyboard where one would expect horns to be, because anybody who claims to know what acid jazz is, is a liar, with some rock tracks thrown in for bosses or especially tense moments story moments. It’s definitely not my favorite but I did enjoy it. I didn’t get sick of listening to the same few tracks for 100 hours, and it definitely fits the mood so it must have been doing something right. As for the rest, it sounds like an anime with a good dub. Just about every sound that’s not mundane or an explosion is of the high pitched anime sword fight variety. Almost all the voice acting is good in both languages, which is fairly rare even in modern JRPGs, though there are a couple awkward deliveries. It probably helps that most of the conversations are not voiced.
While certain other JRPG franchises chase trends, betray or fail to live up to what made their series great, and fill their games with 100 hours of pointless fetch quests, it’s extremely nice to see Atlus double down on making the best possible version of their particular brand of JRPG, and it’s even nicer to see them succeed in basically every way. In the interest of being extremely nitpicky, I will now list every complaint I have with the game excluding the 2 I already mentioned: There is 1 bit of fan-service that seems to be there just to be there and it’s not even used to set up a joke or something, the time management is extremely restrictive at times especially in the first 5 ish hours, of the 2 encounters with gay characters both are offensive stereotypes, specifically: flamboyant types who attempt to prey on minors, and Chie is still best girl. However, this is me actively looking for things to complain about, and if I’m looking for things to complain about in a 100 hour and 19 minute game and only manage to come up with 5 1/2 nitpicks, none of which impact the enjoyment of the game, it’s basically flawless.