Persona 5 (2016)
Atlus | Reviewed on PS4
Never Saw it Coming
I think I’ve stated a couple times before that I’m not a huge fan of the JRPG genre – a lot of times I feel their formulaic structure to be uninteresting, and the narratives are usually too cliched. Persona 5 was recommended to me by a friend (who also ended up gifting me the game, shout-outs to Nigel, the real MVP) and despite my reservations, I was excited to give it a try. I went into it almost completely blind, with only some general advice from my aforementioned friend, so my playthrough certainly wasn’t perfect (though I may pursue this platinum in future). As my first entry in the Persona series, it was a phenomenal experience. The endlessly stylish design, impressive character work, and fun gameplay definitely caused me to have a change of heart. Though it stumbles through a few acts of its performance, Persona 5 possesses a one-of-a-kind charm that absolutely captured my attention. Mild spoilers, but no major aspects of the story or ending are discussed.
On a quick technical note: none of the screenshots in this review are mine, as the game does not allow screenshots to be taken (lame). I’ll just be using images of the character’s finisher cards instead.
The combat in this game was my biggest concern, as I’m not a fan of turn-based battle, but it was easily one of the highlights of this title. Most of the enemies, called Shadows, have an elemental weakness which you can take advantage of to knock them down; once you’ve knocked down every enemy, you can initiate a Hold Up, which allows you to negotiate for items or money, or attempt to persuade the Shadow to lend you its power as a Persona (a sort-of manifestation of the user’s inner strength or rebellious spirit). Alternatively, from the Hold Up, you can do an All-Out Attack which involves all your party members attacking together, dealing a massive amount of damage, and (if all enemies are defeated) ending with a stylish title card for the party member that started the attack. I loved this system for all its options, but also for the strategic approach that it demands. Resource management is absolutely critical in Persona 5 – particularly when it comes to your SP, the gauge which allows you to use the magic of your Personas. Using SP sparingly is a crucial habit to get into, especially if you’re trying to push through Palaces in a single session (as I was) or a large area of Mementos. SP recovery items are fairly rare, and usually expensive, so relying on all of your team members to contribute, and utilizing physical attacks that have high critical hit ratios (like Miracle Punch from Morgana/Zorro) becomes a necessity.
This also means that you have to pay close attention to the Shadows you’re encountering, and balance your party accordingly. While Joker, the main character, can hold Personas with any element, other members are limited to one. Recognizing that you’re encountering a lot of enemies weak to Lightning and Nuclear damage for instance, means that Ryuji and Makoto are obvious choices for the front line, leaving Joker to cover the outliers. This means that Joker is able to conserve more SP, by having other members provide critical coverage. Gaining abilities later in the game that allow you to switch party members on the fly in the middle of combat makes this element a little more forgiving, but it’s something you, as the player, have to be aware of. The game forces you to learn to recognize the weaknesses of Shadows and use this to your advantage to conserve SP or hit points. Collecting Personas for later fusion (another strategic element for creating stronger Personas with greater capabilities) is also an incentive beyond simply destroying every Shadow you come across. Even trying to nab a much-needed healing item, or grabbing some money and ending the battle instantly is something you have to consider when approaching each encounter.
The Palaces will be your main stomping ground for combat encounters, and they are designed phenomenally well. Each Palace is based on the cognition of each of the main villains distorted desires. For those unfamiliar with the Persona universe, this essentially means that each Palace, borne from the warped desires of a human, is based on their view of others and their surroundings. For perverted ex-athlete-turned-gym-teacher Kamoshida, who views the high school as his castle, and the students as his slaves, this is how his Palace appears in the Metaverse (cognitive world). His Palace is decorated in egotistical statues and paintings of himself, as well as creepy statues and busts (pun-intended) of the female students that he’s creeping on. Because the Palaces are framed this way, it allows for an interesting level of symbolism to be used in each one. Rarely do games take full advantage of their visual medium to communicate their themes as well as Persona 5 does. While nothing is particularly subtle (especially with the characters constantly pointing things out, or over-explaining them) it does so to great effect. Kaneshiro’s bank-inspired Palace, with the walking ATM’s (how he viewed his victims) was especially poignant, as was Futaba’s pyramid/tomb. This allowed for the dungeon design of this game to work on both a gameplay, and story level, and it’s consistently impressive.
Though some of the later Palaces had areas that I wasn’t as smitten with (particularly in the casino Palace, with the dreary, grey corridors and endlessly boring, samey back halls) their designs are generally well-executed across the board. I found the bosses to be of a similar high quality, with mild puzzle elements unique to each one that required some strategy and a careful balance of offense and defense. Some proved to be a real challenge for me, as my personal strategy consists entirely of attackattackattack but I adjusted fairly easily. The only boss I truly struggled with was Okumura and his hordes of minions. After dying several times, I simply brought my boy Ryuji in to deal some massive physical damage, and the fight was mine. The entire dungeon-crawling experience is also underscored by a fantastically upbeat, jazzy soundtrack that is a real gem to listen to. The soundtrack adds so much personality to the game, both inside dungeons and without, that it is definitely one of the high points of the title. While the battle theme, “Last Surprise“ was enjoyable, it did get a little bit grating as I continued through the game, having listened to it in every encounter, in every Palace. Though Persona 5 all but tells you that clearing these dungeons in a single day is advantageous to your time management, the dungeons never made me dread playing through them, nor did I ever find my time spent in them to be unenjoyable.
Take your time
The main reason you’ll want to speed through these Palaces as quickly as possible is because of Persona 5’s calendar system, which makes time as precious a resource as SP. The game takes place over the course of about 6 months, where you’ll have (mostly) full control over how you spend your free time. Most of this free time is optimally spent increasing your skills (like Charm, and Kindness) or spending time with your confidants in order to increase your relationships, which are based on a ‘level’ system from 1 to 10. Having confidants at higher levels will unlock abilities that help you both in and out of combat. For example, you’ll want each of your battle party members to be at least level 2, in order to utilize their Baton Pass ability (to allow another member to follow up on a critical hit). Some other confidants, like teacher Kawakami, will allow you to ‘slack off’ in class and work on other things, like making infiltration tools, or reading a book. Each confidant has their own storyline, and benefits to raising your relationship with them; you’ll need to choose carefully who to prioritize, as it’s unlikely you’ll max them all out in a single playthrough – especially when playing for the first time. The only time this system becomes frustrating is when it feels unnecessarily limiting. There are sections of the game where the story will push you through days, or even a week of time, without allowing you any kind of agency. For instance, the game might tell you that you have a week off of school – you’re thinking, fantastic, time to catch up on some stuff I’ve been neglecting – when it actually just forces you through the entire week, allowing you to accomplish nothing. Even more frustrating are the infamous times when Morgana, your faithful companion and apparently a member of the sleep gestapo, forces you to go to bed and end the day when you’re wanting to get something done. Though these were fairly minor annoyances, it can feel restricting, like the game is tightening an arbitrary noose around your neck by limiting your (already limited) time.
My friends over you
I was surprised to find that, in a game I thought would be about dungeon crawling and strategic combat, hanging out with your confidants (i.e. the other characters) and getting to know them individually would be the most entertaining aspect of the whole experience. Each character’s story made me fall in love with them, and want to follow through to see how their tales wrapped up. My favourites were definitely Ryuji (I’m a fan of the punk-with-a-heart-of-gold characters, always) Makoto, Kawakami, Mishima, and Sojiro. Their stories were the most interesting, and they kept me completely invested. I did however, feel that some aspects of hanging out with your pals were a bit frustrating. Some confidants are either introduced way too late into the game to get to know them, or feel detached from the main narrative, and not interesting enough to spend time with. I largely ignored Ohya, the reporter, and Iwai, the gun shop owner, because I simply had no interest in their characters. A main member of your party, Haru, is introduced so late into the game that spending time with her feels like a crunch, rather than a storyline to sit back and enjoy watching unravel. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the arbitrary roadblocks that some had to advance their confidant level – for instance, in order to pursue Makoto’s storyline beyond a certain level, you’ll need to max out your Charm skill. It felt like the game railroading you into pursuing certain activities, rather than spending your time the way that you wanted to. It also makes a lot of the skill points you get in the late game completely pointless, since you’re obligated to max out certain skills much earlier anyway. On some level, I understand why they chose to gate certain interactions behind these requirements, as a progress-measure, but it was annoying nonetheless.
There were also some confidants that I felt had good stories that were undermined by the way they were written or presented. Namely, a lot of the female characters. Ann particularly was done a huge disservice – her character goes from apathetic and insecure, to hardworking and dedicated over the span of her confidant story. She’s endlessly loyal and supportive of her friends. Unfortunately, the narrative is more interested in presenting Ann as an object rather than focusing on her character attributes. There are countless scenes of the male characters discussing her body, suggesting she strip for various reasons, ogling her, and generally just being sexist. There is no issue with a female character being well-presented and sexy, but with Ann, the narrative just sexualizes her to the point that everything else falls by the wayside. I genuinely liked her character and the way that she evolved through the story, so seeing her done so dirty by the writers was frustrating as hell. It also made the male characters seem scummy, which was unfortunate. In a game that has a ‘waifu-choice-simulator’ aspect this isn’t necessarily surprising, but it definitely could have been handled in a way that didn’t objectify the female characters to the extent that it did.
While some, like Makoto, are handled really well, others, like Ann, are simply reduced to caricatures. It seems an odd choice when the game presents the majority of its antagonists as viewing females through the lens of “inherently inferior trash/existing for my pleasure” when our jolly band of heroes do exactly the same thing. It makes the writing feel hypocritical, and devalues some of the great protagonists. There are also a couple of gross stereotypes and questionable representation moments in this title – like the two gentleman that harass Ryuji at several points in the story. It’s not explicitly clear whether they’re gay, they’re just presented under a vaguely offensive umbrella that suggests it. They’re distinctly otherized, effeminate, and presented as predatory. There is another scene during a confidant link with Yusuke, where a couple insinuates that Yusuke and Joker are on a date, and its presented as this patronizing ‘comedic’ moment. The homophobic undertones present in the narrative were a little disturbing, and it honestly tarnished this otherwise stellar game.
Visual novel: the game
This leads me into another negative aspect of the game that drove me nuts: the exposition. Persona 5 is absolutely bloated with unnecessary dialogue. Literally 20-30% of the dialogue in this game could be cut without losing a single bit of necessary plot or character development. You’ll be focusing on a certain Palace, or the lead up to said Palace, and the characters will constantly reiterate the same information over and over again. In conversations, text exchanges, reminders from Morgana – Remember when I told you this ten minutes ago? Did we need to discuss our infiltration plans for the 15th time? Did you need a reminder that the owner of this Palace is a terrible person, and it’s our job to change their heart? It’s a constant barrage of paragraph after paragraph of repetitive, dull information. It does nothing to build upon the characters or story, and just serves to provide pointless filler dialogue for the times you’re in-between Palaces or important story beats. I’d love to see a word count for the script of this game, because it has to be akin to reading a 500-page novel. No, I’m not exaggerating. I enjoyed the story of this game, but at certain points, I genuinely had to fight the temptation to start skipping through conversations because I knew that no new information was going to be introduced. Especially when you factor in the dialogue choices, which have essentially no effect on the game at all (they are mostly flavour-oriented) it makes taking in the excess amount of discussion feel pointless. Even the constant commentary that Futaba provides during combat is overdone – if I have to hear “Bona fide, Monafied!” one more time, I’m going to dunk my head in a bucket of whelks. The overwrought dialogue simply dragged at the pacing of the game like a ball and chain.
I’m not going to devote a huge section to discussing the finer points of Persona 5’s narrative, because it’s hard to discuss certain elements without spoiling the story, which developer Atlus seems particularly concerned about (re: no screenshots). Generally, I found the story of Persona 5 to be somewhat inconsistent, but not necessarily to a negative effect. The first three-quarters of the game feels like an episodic anime, or serialized novels – each target feels separate and distinct. You’re introduced to individual villains (loosely based on the seven deadly sins), with seemingly no connection to each other, of varying degrees of corruption: like the abusive mentor, Madarame, and the earlier-mentioned pervert gym teacher, Kamoshida. Each antagonist is presented as a corrupt adult, who abuses their position of power for personal gain. As the Phantom Thieves, it’s your job to change their cognition via ‘defeating’ their Palaces and Shadow selves, in order to trigger a change of heart. This change will force them to confess their crimes and see the error of their ways. You have a limited time frame to do this, and it’s best to tackle the Palaces as quickly and efficiently as possible. The overarching narrative of the game doesn’t really come into play until about 10-20 hours before the game is over. This felt severely unbalanced, though it was satisfying to see all the plot threads come together to form a complete picture in the end. I must admit, I did take slight issue with the fact that they felt the need to tie everything up so neatly and connect every evil deed back to a single antagonist – it felt like a bit of a stretch. Instead of having a satisfying “Aha!” moment when pieces start to fall into place, I had more of a “What? Really? Okay, I guess” reaction. The game also attempts to introduce some discussion surrounding the ethics of what the Phantom Thieves do – toying with people’s subconscious, and forcing a personality change – but ultimately doesn’t dwell too much on the morally grey areas of our heroes exploits. These issues are presented in a fairly black/white dichotomy, but this is obviously an issue that has no easy answer, so I won’t fault Persona 5 too much. I’ll leave it there, but overall, I felt the story was well-presented and engaging enough to sustain intrigue throughout the roughly 100-hour run time.
The show’s over
Persona 5 manages to take the tried-and-true JRPG formula and turn it into something that felt truly unique. Though the story pacing felt a bit off, and some of the characters were treated poorly by the writers, this is easily one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played. The symbolic, cognition aspect which dictated the appearance of the dungeons, as well as the great group of protagonists that push the game along really make this something special in the genre. The internal consistency of the design, with its over-the-top, flashy menus, title screens, and musical score really bring the Phantom Thieves aesthetic to life. The superb combat that balances strategy and action was executed perfectly, along with the calendar system that provides an underlying sense of urgency throughout the game. I think what I appreciated most about the game however, is the unapologetic idealism it represents. Persona 5 is an anthem to youthful ambition and naivety, to reform society by broaching boundaries within the scope of a narrow worldview. It’s the epitome of teenage rebellion, and the spirit of adolescence. All its talk of “purifying the world” of corruption and greed (presented as adult qualities) absolutely screams youthful desire – to make a difference in a world that tells you you’re too young to understand, too ignorant to act, too small to make a difference. I can understand why this game resonates with so many people, and I think if I had played this game even 5 years ago, I would have easily overlooked some of its flaws because of this theme that I identify so heavily with. Nonetheless, Persona 5 was an immensely fun experience, and I’m looking forward to The Royal dropping in 2020. Maybe in the mean time I’ll be able to shake the nightmares about cats screaming at me to go to bed.