My expectations for Persona 5 (before the Persona 5 review copy appeared) were through the roof as it approached release. A game that not only reaches but surpasses such a lofty bar deserves praise. Persona 5 is a genuine masterpiece from Atlus and, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the “traditional” Japanese role-playing game.
That said, if you’ve never enjoyed Persona before, it’s unlikely that Persona 5 will change your mind. It’s a perfect jumping in point, but it’ll definitely make it tough to return to older games given how it improves upon the gameplay so much whilst remaining in the same vein as previous iterations.
All the same, Persona 5 is stylish, well-written, runs smoothly and is an all-round joy to play. For more detailed thoughts, read the full review below. Suffice to say, I have loved my 187 hours with it.
Look and Feel
Stylish is a word that feels as if it were invented for use in describing Persona 5. It uses red, white and black as markers of its own identity (in the way that Persona 4 used yellow) and stamps it everywhere without seeming obnoxious. They recreate Tokyo in a way I can’t speak to personally, but the city very much feels alive.
It nails the anime aesthetic as Persona always has, but now the character models live up to the story-board like pop-ups. Not only that, but the way NPCs just pass through the busy streets, or students walking through school just pass you by. There are so many cool little touches that compliment the work or art that is this game’s look.
The transitions are masterful too. Though the loading screens can be cumbersome, they’re filled with things to do. Such as reading the Forum Posts by “Anons” that comment on the Phantom Thieves’ activities, or the speech bubbles that pop up, giving flavour text to current events in the story from citizens of Tokyo. They’ve found a way to deliver exposition using the loading times that isn’t daunting and engages the player.
Add to that the fantastic monster designs, mostly derived from the Tarot cards as always, incredible battle animations and dungeon design variety and you’ve got the makings of my favourite game this year. Perhaps ever.
You’ll Never See It Coming
Or perhaps you will. The heading is in reference to the game’s main battle theme “Last Surprise”. Persona 4 had great music, Golden continued the tradition and 5 carries its own torch. I instantly sought out a legal way to purchase the soundtrack in my country. Alas, I was met with only imports and digital content restrictions.
Persona 5’s soundtrack is simply incredible. That jazz/orchestral theme that pierces almost everything. From the lively “Wake up, Get Up, Get Out There” that serves as the game’s opening to the more laid-back “Beneath the Mask” that accompanies most of your free time.
It’s a shame such quality music is still sealed behind nonsense boundaries but hopefully SEGA, Atlus and/or anybody else involved can get it out on the UK store in due time. It shouldn’t be too difficult. The game made it after all, and most of the music (if not all) is the product of in-house Atlus composer Shoji Meguro with vocals by Lyn.
Invisible digital content walls aside, Persona 5’s soundtrack is masterful in a way that’s different to Persona 4. It defines it as much as the aforementioned red, white and black theme of the game. I’d gladly listen to most of the 110 tracks in full all over again.
After an incident involving the police, our protagonist is sent to live with a family friend in the big city of Tokyo. There, amidst his studies at Shujin Academy and attempts to keep his nose clean, he is plunged in to a world shaped by the distorted desires of ego-maniacal individuals. This is the story of the Phantom Thieves, primed and ready to “Take Your Heart”.
That’s Persona 5 in a non-spoiler nutshell. What new players may not realise is that Persona games deal with fairly mature themes. In contrast to their anime “cutesy” art style, Persona 5 in particular gets dark pretty quickly. Granted, Persona 4 starts off with some murders so…. take that with a pinch of salt. It balances that aspect out, as these games always do, but I feel Persona 5 goes fairly deep in ways that Persona 4 didn’t do. There’s a much more sinister air that looms over this entry.
The story took me one hundred and eighty-seven hours to finish. Mainly because the clock doesn’t stop in pause menus (personal gripe!) so I’d discount about fifty-seven hours from that for when I’d leave the game on and deal with other responsibilities. Nevertheless, it’s a meaty campaign equipped with a New Game+ if you want to go back and do what you failed to in your allotted time during the first run.
When it comes to “framing devices”, Persona 5 does a great job of creating a vehicle to dispense information whilst creating a “goal” to strive for. You begin the game having been caught by the police during a major heist for the Phantom Thieves. A young woman interviews our protagonist, grilling him about how it came to this moment and who his accomplices are. As you form bonds with people in the game, the interview will interrupt that moment and the Prosecutor will ask you about said-person, describing how they might have aided you. I quite enjoyed Sae’s interjections myself, but some might find it jarring.
When it comes to gameplay, Persona 5 can be broken up in to two main categories: everyday life and the Metaverse dungeon crawling. A huge part of Persona is forming building up your social stats, forming and advancing bonds with people and paying attention to lessons in class for upcoming tests. These everyday tasks, which are enjoyable in their own right, often benefit you in the dungeon crawling you’ll also partake in quite often.
Another major factor in Persona 5 is your time limit. As is tradition, the protagonist is supposed to spend a year in their location. Persona 5 is no different. The intention is that you’re supposed to return and your journey comes to an end. Whether or not that happens, well, you should discover that for yourself. Either way, you live day-by-day deciding what’d be best to do with your afternoon and evening.
There are times when the story will take one giant leap for man-kind and require you to finish a “Palace”, the main dungeons, within a set amount of time. If you fail to do so, the game ends. It’s over. That said, there’s no need to rush, nor is there a need to worry if you do. Whether you finish the Palace in two days or ten doesn’t matter. You’ll still have access to the remaining days if you finish early and there’s no penalty if you choose to focus on other things before diving in. In fact, I’d recommend doing what the loading icon says: “Take Your Time”. Build the strength of your bonds and experiment with Persona fusing before rushing Palaces. You’ll benefit from that extra care.
Battle System: The Pinnacle of Traditional JRPG Mechanics
Traditonal Japanese RPGs are dated. Turn-based strategy is often dull, by the numbers and nobody can be bothered to reinvent it. Unless your company is named “Atlus”. Whilst companies such as Square Enix have chosen to go in different directions, Atlus takes an approach similar to the Tales Of studio by improving upon their usual formula each time. In contrast to the Tales, that has mixed results, each new iteration of Persona is decidedly better than the last.
Persona 5 makes use of the turn-based battle system but, as always, by attacking enemy weaknesses you gain an extra turn. This time, provided you’ve unlocked the low-level ability with a team-mate, you have the option to “Baton Pass”. Though the option to knock down all the enemies and hit them with a joint “All Out Attack” still exists, Baton Pass powers up the character it’s passed to and can be done any number of times per weakness hit. In essence, if every party member can hit an enemy weakness, the Baton Pass can continue for however many enemies haven’t been hit with an attack that exploits it.
Battle System: Joker’s Trickster Abilities
The rest of the party has a set Persona with set ability types and weaknesses. They will gain new moves and grow through the leveling process, but ultimately they are Pokemon-like in their weaknesses and strength. Joker, the protagonist, is not confined to this fate. As the Trickster, he has the ability to hold multiple Personas inside of him. They can be recruited through battle or fused in the Velvet Room. As the game progresses, more Personas can be held at once.
Recruiting Personas is a result of attacking their weaknesses and using the “Talk” option during a “Hold Up”. If successful, the Persona will be recruited. If it’s a failure, they may retreat after dropping an item or launch a surprise attack. There are plenty of late-game social links that make this process easier.
The Velvet Room, where series regular Igor resides, is key to your success. In there, you can recruit previously held Personas, update their registry with their stronger versions and fuse new Personas. There are more features in this prison-themed Velvet Room that I’ll describe later. For now, just understand that it’s the most useful tool at your disposal when it comes to combat.
Battle System: New to Persona 5
As I’ve mentioned, the “Hold Up” mechanics and “Baton Pass” features are new to Persona 5. Hold Up allows you to extort a Persona for money, items or their personal service in the “sea of your soul” – basically, in battle through Joker. In doing so, you still gain a portion of the experience you would have for finishing them off but sometimes it’s better to get something else out of the enemies. The talking mechanic is a staple of “Shin Megami Tensei” games: the original series of Atlus games, of which Persona was initially an off-shoot.
Though not for the first time, Persona 5 re-introduces ranged weapons as a damage type. Each party member has a ranged weapon, mostly in the form of a gun. The carrying and usage of which is explained in the game. That alongside the new “Force” and “Psy” damage types adds a host of new moves and weakness/strength combinations. Also, for the first time to my knowledge, Bless and Curse skills have abilities that aren’t insta-kill, so their usage isn’t just left up to chance any-more. Though the Hamoan and Mudoon abilities do still exist in their insta-kill forms.
Every-Day Life: Building Social Stats
After the lengthy introduction period, the player will be allowed to do what they want in the afternoon/after-school and the evening. Two moments in the day that can be spent however you wish with the options currently available. More activities and people will appear of the course of the story, but the fact remains that you’ll mostly have two chances to engage with them per day. Some only come out at night. Others on certain days. Some activities are more beneficial in certain weather conditions. There are many aspects that the game wants you to discover. Or look up in the myriad of online guides currently available to you.
Social stats are separate from battle-related stats. Divided in to five categories, social stats determine many things. Whether it’s completing the “Big Bang Burger Challenge” or getting a perfect score on a test; these stats are important to build up. Knowledge, Courage, Guts, Proficiency and Kindness. Some trophies are tied to these stats as well, for those interested. More importantly, many of the high level social links are walled behind at least one of these stats. If you want the best abilities from advancing your bonds, you’ll need to study at the diner (on a rainy day for an extra boost) and much more. Time management is hugely important to Persona games.
That said, the game can be completed with minimal social interaction. Where’s the fun in that though? Persona is just as much about living a “normal” life as it is about battling fantastical enemies in the Metaverse. Still, if trying to get cosy with Ann isn’t for you, you’ll merely lose out on their various gameplay benefits.
Every-Day Life: Social Links and Arcana
Each social link formed (a bond with a person) is connected to a Persona family. For instance, Pixie belongs to the Lovers Arcana. Lovers is represented by Ann; party member and potential love-interest/friend. The higher the social link (out of ten) is with Ann, the more beneficial Ann will be in battle AND the better the result of fusing Persona of the Love Arcana in the Velvet Room (I’ll explain later).
Party members will gain the same abilities at certain intervals, such as “Endure” wherein they can survive a lethal attack with 1HP remaining. It comes in very handy. Atop that, they’re all individuals with skill-sets, so they’ll gain useful abilities unique to them either in or out of battle. Yusuke, for example, can duplicate chosen skill-cards to gift your Personas a new move without fear of running out of said card. Makoto’s ability to analyse enemies gets better the higher you go in her social link too. Basically, your party members are well worth the investment.
That said, don’t slouch on the non-party member social links. They provide significant benefits for investing in them. Some more than others, mind you. Take Sojiro, your gruff guardian figure, for example. His social link will allow you to make SP recovering coffee (like MP in other RPGs – magic power). The higher you climb, the better the quality of goods you can make and their SP-recovering benefits. On normal difficulty or above, SP is a valuable commodity that is easily used up in long dungeon runs. Getting closer to Sojiro is hugely beneficial to your experience. There are many others, but their reveals are important so I’d rather not spoil them.
When the characters have to take down a target, they use a smart-phone app to reach the Metaverse. There, they explore a large distortion known as a “Palace”: the physical form of the target’s twisted perception of their world.
Palaces are multi-layered dungeons filled with themed enemies. The player character can cling the corners of walls and large objects to hide from enemies and ambush them for an advantage in battle (a round of turns before the enemy can act). Each target’s palace has a theme of its own with a set of puzzles at certain points. None of which are too difficult, but they provide a bit of a distraction from the similar “defeat enemies, explore, progress” pattern. Enough of one to keep things from getting stale, at least. I love the way you rip the masks off of enemies to reveal their persona forms. The idea that everybody wears a mask to hide their true feelings isn’t a new perspective, but it’s dealt with in a great way within Persona 5.
Once the Palace has been infiltrated and the “treasure” has been located, the team must leave and send a “Calling Card” to cause the “treasure” to materialise and, once stolen, triggers a change of heart in the person’s distorted mind. Safe Rooms are scattered generously around the game’s Palaces. They allow for quick exits and returns, meaning you don’t have to complete a palace in a single run. It’s time efficient to do so, but there’s no requirement. Being able to fast travel out of the Metaverse when out of SP and recovery items is a useful tool, even if it costs another day in the future. Sometimes retreat on higher difficulties is the wisest choice.
The mysterious cat party member Morgana makes a request of the new-found team: explore Mementos. Those familiar with the Persona 3 dungeons will find Mementos to be an evolution of that idea: a seemingly endless stream of stages on randomly-generated maps with treasure and plenty of enemies to be found.
Mementos is cleverly tied to the story, but it mostly serves as the grounds to undertake level grinding and sets the stage for side-quests. There are minor changes of heart requested by the public on the “Phan-Site” that you can go in and accomplish via Mementos. Shout out to Cat-Car for being the real highlight of that experience.
Best New Feature: Cell-Phone Access to Social Links
Previously in Persona, finding your social links could be a chore. As well as whether or not they’re even available. Now, they often contact you directly when they’re available or want to hang out. Not only that, on the regional map, the game indicates whether or a social link is ready and/or able to level up with an obvious visual cue. The phone can be used to fast travel directly to that particular social link. Navigating the world is much easier with the multiple fast travel locations too. Just push R1 and choose the desired area, then a sub-area. Instant transmission, as it were. Japanese public transport has come a long way it seems.
As you can tell, I could talk all day about Persona 5. It’s an incredible game by any standard. My measure of a game’s quality is how well it does what it intends, and I feel Persona 5 succeeds in everything it intends to do. Its music, style, gameplay and story all feel complete. Everything there is to do is worth doing, yet any and every day could be different for you and I based on what we decided to do with our time. At the same time, our main story experience won’t change and that results in a whole, fulfilling narrative that I felt paid off incredibly well.
Its gameplay will make it difficult to return to previous games. It’s such a remarkable upgrade. Then again, it has been nine years since Persona 4. It absolutely should be what is is, and what it is happens to be amazing.
Again, with games that get a “ten” it’s not that it’s flawless. It’s that whatever flaws it may have aren’t large enough to detract from what is so great about the game.
Play Persona 5. That’s what I’m trying to say. Oh, and did I mention you should play Persona 5? Yeah. That too. When you’re done with that, you should play Persona 5. Again. I know I’m about to.
About This Persona 5 Review:
Game Name: Persona 5, Digital Download provided by Publisher
Review Format: PS4