Persona 5 Strikers (2021)
Atlus | Reviewed on PS4
The Boys (and Girls) are Back in Town
This review is NOT spoiler free.
It’s been awhile (in Staind) since I’ve dabbled in the world of Persona. I finished up Royal nearly a year ago, and haven’t been back since. Thank god Persona 5 Strikers was released to give me an excuse to reunite with the Phantom Thieves, the characters I’ve grown to love so much. Strikers, however, is a spin-off of the main series and takes on an entirely different style; instead of the turn-based combat of the mainline games, Strikers adopts the Musuo-esque style of Dynasty Warriors, with mob-based encounters and more action-oriented gameplay. This title takes place a few months after the events of the original Persona 5, and wastes no time in getting the band back together: after meeting up with the squad in your old stomping grounds, your summer camping plans are quickly derailed when you discover that the Metaverse has made its triumphant return. A rash of brainwashing cases (not unlike the mental shutdowns of Persona 5) are popping up across Japan, and the Phantom Thieves are at the top of the suspect list. Of course this means you’ll have to clear your name to get the police off your back, but you’ll be able to have some fun with your friends along the way – that’s right, it’s roadtripping time!
Slice of life
Persona 5 Strikers is your typical JRPG when it comes to storytelling, in that quite-dense-and-slightly-nonsensical kind of way, but with the signature flair and capacity for depth that the Persona games consistently demonstrate. With the reappearance of the Metaverse, new dungeons known as Jails are springing up across Japan. While not quite the Palaces of the original game, they’re still lengthy dungeons designed around the cognition of a Monarch – the ruler of each Jail. The mystery behind the motivations of these Monarchs, and the reason for the existence of the Jails, seems to be tied to this world’s version of an A.I. companion – namely, EMMA. While you roadtrip across Japan with your BFF’s, stopping in some of Japan’s most popular cities, you’ll be putting the puzzling through the brainwashing cases, the Monarchs, their Jails, and the probably-sinister-but-oh-so-convenient EMMA. If anyone can connect the dots, and save the day, it’s the legendary Phantom Thieves! And people say teenagers are unmotivated.
As with the narrative of Persona 5, it’s really the characters that bring this story to life – and as far as the story goes, it’s a bit of a mixed bag in this title. The Persona series is capable of good writing (and handling some pretty heavy themes with a decent amount of care) but Strikers falls a little bit flat. One of the main reasons comes in the form of the Monarchs: because the Monarchs have nothing to do with our band of heroes (compared to the original Persona 5, where the villains were teachers, mentors, and occasionally friends) it’s hard to feel completely invested in their arcs. Though it’s interesting to see the Phantom Thieves in the position of guidance, in trying to lead the Monarchs from their ill-fated paths, it simply doesn’t have the same impact. However, I think that’s fine for this title – the summer roadtrip is more lighthearted, with a narrative tone to match. I am not, however, going to give Strikers a pass for some of the lazy tropes it falls into.
Let’s use the second Monarch, Ango Natsume, as a case study. Natsume has been plagiarizing other authors in order to create his best-selling novel, and as the Phantom Thieves quickly realize, his work is riddled with tired tropes and generic video game/anime plot points. He probably writes in the YA genre. Anyway, the group spends the entirely of the Sendai Jail making fun of his awful writing, pointing out his blatant use of clichés and the predictability of his story. Unfortunately, further down the line, Persona 5 Strikers decides to engage in this exact form of terrible writing itself. I won’t spoil the entire finale here, but the ending bears an uncanny similarity to the events of the original Persona 5. They even have the audacity to use the same setting. It’s unintentionally funny how the game, and the characters, seem to lack this self-awareness. It feels disingenuous to call out the very thing that your own narrative incorporates. Sure, it’s amusing to poke fun at narrative clichés, but at what point is bad writing just that? From a series that is capable of dealing with hard-hitting themes, it was quite disappointing to see the story wrap up in such an unimaginative fashion.
New kids on the block
Regardless of the quality of the narrative in and of itself, the characters were standouts, as expected. The Phantom Thieves are joined by a few newcomers for this particular jaunt around Japan. No Akechi or Kasumi for this adventure, but we do get introduced to Zenkichi and Sophia. Zenkichi is a Public Security agent (aka, a narc) who may or may not be looking to double-cross the Phantom Thieves. Spoiler alert: he’s not, and he’s actually quite a useful ally. When he joins the Phantom Thieves, and awakens to his Persona, Valjean (the legendary bread-stealer from Les Mis) he’s a strong combatant, and a welcome addition to the team. His role in the story is also executed fairly well, for someone who felt very much like the outsider. Sophia on the other hand, was less impressive for me. She’s an A.I. looking to become “humanity’s companion” – whatever that means. She’s got a convenient case of amnesia (go ahead and check that box on your Persona 5 bingo card now) and a fairly dull personality to go with it. With her cliché-riddled story, and a fighting style I didn’t gel with, Sophia was a miss for me personally. Her role in the group felt superfluous, as she has too much overlap with what Morgana and Futaba bring to the table, and I didn’t particularly enjoy her inclusion in the overall narrative. Her comedic potential isn’t capitalized upon nearly enough, and her character ends up feeling bland (and her Persona is ugly, don’t @ me).
I also found the main villains of this particular tale to be somewhat underwhelming – both Akira, Owada, and to some extent, Ichinose, lack the commanding presence of antagonists from Persona 5. I liked the nod to Akechi in Ichinose’s introduction, with her overhearing Morgana in the restaurant, and it’s fairly obvious from the get-go that she’s going to play a larger part in the story. However, her arc ends up being somewhat lackluster. And while Akira had an interesting backstory, he’s incorporated into the narrative on a very surface-level, as is Owada. They remain very much in the background for the majority of the game’s story, and as a result, they feel undercooked. Persona’s weird obsession with tying all ills of the world, and all the traumatic experiences of the characters to one singular villain also rears its ugly head in Strikers (go ahead and mark that bingo box as well). Owada, the corrupt politician, is also the man who ran over and killed Zenkichi’s wife (and Akane’s mother) because OF COURSE he is. I’m not sure why these games feel the need to tie all these dissonant threads together, but I don’t think it achieves the effect that they’re aiming for.
The Metaverse, 2.0
But let’s be honest, even if the story didn’t quite live up to my expectations, it’s all about the combat here. It took me quite a while to adjust to the hack and slash mechanics in Strikers, but once I got the hang of it, I really enjoyed the dynamic style. It’s a fun balance of button-mashing, and executing powerful combos using different sequences of square and triangle. The combat is accented by the use of Personas – each Shadow is weak to certain elements, which you can hit to knock them down. However, there is a Shield break mechanic as well – stronger Shadows, including bosses and mini-bosses, will require you to break their guard (by hitting their elemental weaknesses) in order to activate the “One More” bonus hit, and eventually, trigger an All-Out Attack.
You’ll often be fighting entire hee-hordes of enemies, so it becomes a challenging balance to strike between dodging and attacking. The Counterattack mechanic is an interesting concept, where a perfect dodge will net you an automatic counter, however, it was difficult to execute. There is often so much going on on-screen (in terms of visual effects, enemies, etc) that being able to see an attack coming, and dodge accordingly, feels more like luck than skill. Thankfully, unlike the mainline games, where you’re on a strict schedule and leaving a Palace means giving up the day, Strikers uses a checkpoint system. Using these checkpoints, you can move freely between the real world and the Jails, with no consequences. Leaving the Metaverse will completely recover your HP and SP, so it’s advantageous to travel back and forth as frequently as you need.
The star squad
One of my favourite elements of the combat is the ability to switch between characters in your party; though Joker is an obvious favourite for his utility, it was gratifying to be able to play as the other members of the Phantom Thieves. There are slight differences and nuances to each characters’ fighting style, and I found myself gravitating toward a few favourites. Haru’s triangle-hold special was a serial killer style, axe-smashing attack that I was absolutely obsessed with. I also really enjoyed playing as Makoto and Zenkichi. The only ones I didn’t spend too much time with were Ann and Sophia, simply because I didn’t gel with the style of their attacks. You are, however, incentivized to switch party members frequently during combat, via the Baton Pass mechanic, in order to build up your Showtime gauge more quickly; the Showtime moves are akin to the powerful All-Out Attacks, but with unique animations for each character. Unfortunately, this game does incorporate the archaic “your-benched-party-members-gain-zero-EXP” mechanic, so even if you want to stick to your favourites, it’s more beneficial to give all the Phantom Thieves some time to shine.
And shine they definitely do – the Phantom Thieves themselves are the real highlight of this title. I must admit, the tone and premise of Strikers really hit me differently because of the pandemic – the idea of getting to see a group of friends after a long time apart, and getting to roadtrip across the country with them (imagine!) felt very nostalgic and far away. It was with a strange combination of melancholy and longing that I followed the Phantom Thieves across Japan, and every tiny event, like breaking watermelons with Makoto, or eating ramen with Ryuji, felt a bit sad. This was exactly the brand of escapism I needed, over a year into lockdown, and as with the original Persona 5, it wasn’t the story or the combat that ultimately sold the game for me – it was the characters.
While the social elements of Strikers are certainly not as involved as the mainline Persona games, you will have time to interact with your fellow Phantom Thieves between Jails. Chatting with them in your downtime will occasionally get you a free item or, more importantly, a Request. The Request system will keep you busy with item collection, tough Shadow fights, and other assorted side quests. Cooking also functions as a large part of the “social” interaction of Strikers – collecting recipes and whipping them up for your friends is handy for both improving your Bond level (Bond points are used to purchase miscellaneous skills, useful for exploration and combat), and crafting more powerful HP/SP recovery items. Regardless of what reason the game gave me to hang out with this squad, I was happy to do so – the camaraderie and banter between them are consistently top tier. Though I do feel obligated to mention that Persona’s vaguely homophobic undertones (anyone get a bingo yet?) make an unwelcome return in this title. Fellas, is it gay to ride a Ferris wheel with your friends? Apparently.
The show’s over
Ultimately, Persona 5 Strikers incorporates all the cornerstones of the franchise through and through – the brilliant music, the visual flair, and the fun dungeon crawling. Newcomers to the Persona games might feel a bit out of their depth in this title, but fans of the franchise will be right at home with the reintroduction of core mechanics. The mob combat is a fun deviation from the typical turn-based style; though it takes some adjustment, it’s a fantastic system that incorporates familiar elements from the original games, like the Baton Pass, and still manages to feel unique at the same time. The Jails themselves still convey the powerful symbolism of Palaces, but with a slightly lighter tone. This tone carries over to the narrative, which doesn’t have the same punch as you might expect, largely due to its overreliance on tropes, and lack of depth. While I do have to commend the story for its willingness to call out shitty corporations and the ills of becoming overly dependent on convenience, it wasn’t enough to make the story feel especially compelling. As I’ve said (and will be happy to say again) the main pull of this game is the characters – the returning group, along with the new members, are what gives this game heart. Just getting to see the Phantom Thieves again was enough for me. Makoto is a badass, Futaba is hilarious, Yusuke is still a weirdo, and Ryuji continues to be a national treasure. I’d happily play another fifteen games set in this universe, with these characters, just to spend more time with them. Though Strikers is Persona “lite” in nearly every aspect, it was a satisfying enough experience, and one that I’m glad to have played.