Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS3
In my review of The Last Guardian, I said that no game with a 10-year development cycle could satisfy the desires of its fanbase. It turns out I was wrong, because the nearly 10-year wait for Persona 5 was well worth it. I don’t know what the design team did during the five separate delays that pushed Persona 5 back from an early 2015 release date to April 2017, but whatever it was, it worked.
Persona 5 is a masterpiece, a work of art, an excellently crafted experience that knows how to keep you playing for hours at a time. It wraps you up in an exquisite feedback loop of task and reward supported by fantastic graphics and near perfect design. It is the game that JRPG fans have been waiting for, a modernized take on the traditional JRPG formula without relying on gimmicks or abandoning genre traditions. It is, simply put, the best RPG I have played in years.
Rebel Against Society
In Persona 5, you take on the role of a newly transferred second-year at Tokyo’s Shujin Academy. One night, in your hometown, you stumbled upon a man forcing himself on a helpless woman. After you step in to stop the sexual assault, the man uses his money and political power to sue you for attacking him. The courts were lenient on you, and instead of sending you to juvie, you were sent here to serve your year-long prison sentence on monitored probation.
This theme of criminals, prisoners, and freedom frames the rest of the game. You quickly find out that Tokyo is home to even more corrupt and powerful adults whose lust for monetary gain and sexual pleasure wrecks the lives of those around them, sometimes driving them to suicide. As a student on probation, you have no power to stop these twisted individuals. You are a prisoner of the social hierarchy, even if you are not a prisoner in juvie.
That’s where Persona 5’s supernatural elements come in. One day, you find a strange app on your phone that for some reason cannot be deleted. Opening up the app allows you to travel to the “meta-verse” a realm made of the thoughts, feelings, and desires of the human race. Here, corrupt individuals live in “palaces,” labyrinthine complexes as twisted as their hearts made to guard treasures which symbolize their dark desires made manifest. By stealing these treasures and otherwise making changes to the meta-verse, you can force these corrupt individuals to have a change of heart and confess to all their wrongdoings or, in the case of someone who simply will not reform, cause them to mentally shut-down and die.
Unfortunately, the meta-verse is inhabited by demons formed by the collective human subconscious, and these demons have been forced to serve the rulers of these palaces. To fight them, you and your friends awaken your own Personas, demons made by your truest personality. You form the Phantom Thieves, a group of Persona users who vow to strike back against the darkness of society, all while studying for exams.
Follow Your Schedule
Anyone who has played Persona 3 or 4 knows what to expect from Persona 5, since the core formula hasn’t changed that much. Every in-game month or so you’ll find a new target whose palace you have to infiltrate before a deadline passes, or it’s game over. The catch is your power in the meta-verse isn’t only tied to experience and equipment, but also the bonds you make with your friends and acquaintances in the real world. This pushes you to spend as little time in the meta-verse as possible, filling your days with hangouts and dates.
Going on these outings requires money, kindness, guts, and several other prerequisites. Before you raise your social links, you need to raise your social stats. That means you have to find time to go to the gym, study, and work part time jobs, all while having an active social life and rebelling against the corruption in society.
It’s the way all these elements tie together that really makes Persona 5 a treat to play. Nearly everything you do opens up some sort of new activity. Working at a part-time job might give you access to a new social link by way of introducing you to customers. Raising a social link might raise one of your social stats as you learn to be more kind or gutsy on your outings, or it might open up new shops or grant you new abilities to use when exploring the meta-verse. Completing a meta-verse dungeon might have an effect in the real world, opening up new places for you to explore in your daily life.
Everything is connected in deep and intricate ways, tangling with each other and snowballing into a cascade of money, equipment, and stat-ups that always make you feel like you have taken the correct path, even if you find yourself desperately short on time.
Infiltrate the Palace
The dungeons of Persona 5 have changed quite a bit from Personas 3 and 4. Instead of pushing you through randomly generated dungeons, Persona 5’s palaces are all designed to be unique, complex puzzles. There is always an obvious path through a palace, but this path is usually littered with guards, traps, and barriers. This forces you to find other ways to traverse the dungeon, such as sneaking through vents, climbing up towers, and generally performing the stealthy moves that a super-thief is known for.
Each palace has a different theme to it. You’ll traverse through a medieval castle, a bank, a museum, a casino and other locations fit for cinematic heists. The puzzles you’ll encounter will all fit the dungeons theme, giving each a sense of identity. You’ll disable laser security grids and hop into paintings in the museum, while you’ll dodge swinging axes in the castle and uncover vault codes in the bank.
Traversing these dungeons makes you feel like a skilled thief. Each dungeon has an alertness meter which increases the difficulty of enemies as it fills, and boots you out of the dungeon if it fills to 100%. So to safely get around unseen, you need to slink in the shadows, hopping from cover to cover and ambushing enemies on the map.
The game uses a snap-to-cover system, allowing you to essentially teleport from one shadowy location to the next. As long as you are in cover you cannot be seen, even if the enemy is right next to you. This makes every leg of your dungeon-crawling journey a mini-puzzle of “How do I best ambush the next enemy?” You’ll find yourself climbing into the rafters and jumping down as guards pass, just to get a pre-emptive strike and keep the alertness meter low.
I’m sure there’s some of you out there that are upset that the dungeons aren’t random anymore, but don’t worry, Persona 5 has you covered. Between main dungeons you can dive into Mementos, a multi-layer randomized dungeon where you can complete numerous side-missions. Once you defeat a palace dungeon it will disappear from the meta-verse, so Mementos will be your main method of grinding. It feels delightfully nostalgic, a great place to stop by and re-live the gameplay of Persona 3 and 4. Completing side-quests unlocks rewards and even push you further on some social links, feeding back into the whole complex web of responsibilities, social life, and dungeon crawling that makes this game so much fun.
Summon Your Persona
Persona 5’s battle system is a delightful innovation on classic turn-based battles. Every turn you can choose to attack, defend, use a special Persona ability, or use your guns. All of this should sound familiar, except for guns, which are a bit of a nostalgic throwback to Persona 1. Guns have limited ammo and can’t be refilled unless you decide to leave the dungeon you are currently in (which isn’t a great use of your time). They also have unique firing patterns to contend with. A handgun can target a single enemy, while a machine gun just spreads bullets all over the place.
All of this might make guns sound like more trouble than they are worth, but you’ll find yourself repeatedly taking out your firearms for numerous reasons. First of all, they are more powerful than physical attacks. While not quite as powerful as the spells and abilities of a Persona, SP, the resource that fuels these spells, is similarly hard to come by, especially in the early game. Thus, guns are a great way to do a lot of damage in a pinch.
Second, guns count as their own unique elemental damage type. Certain enemies must be shot in order to knock them down, and knocking down enemies is the core of Persona 5’s battle system.
You can knock an enemy down by hitting it with an elemental weakness, scoring a critical hit, or scoring “technical hits.” Whenever an enemy is knocked down you get to take another turn, and with the right mix of abilities you can knock down every enemy on the field. Pulling this off allows you to put the enemy into a “hold up.” Here, you can either perform an all-out attack or attempt to negotiate. The all-out attack is exactly what it was in previous Persona titles, a massive non-elemental strike to everything on the board which scores you bonus gold and XP (along with a sweet end battle cutscene) if you finish the enemy off.
Negotiating is yet another throwback to older Personas and Shin Megami Tensei games. Here you play a short social mini-game to extort your enemy for money, items, or to get them to join your party as a Persona. Failing to negotiate, however, allows the enemy to stand up and start fighting with renewed vigor, and usually puts your party into a bad situation. So, to reduce the chances of this happening, you have to raise your social links and get better with talking with other people, and once again we find ourselves in the game’s central feedback loop.
The abilities that social links grant you in battle feel awesome. They range from the core “baton pass” ability, which lets you pass your turn to another party member that can better attack an enemy’s weakness, to things like free recoveries, the ability to withstand lethal damage, and even the ability to insta-kill low-level enemies, Earthbound style.
And you’ll need all these abilities at your disposal because Persona 5 is hard. I mean classically hard. NES hard. Hard in the way that a single pre-emptive attack might completely wipe out your party. Persona 5 is out for blood and it wants you to know it. On normal difficulty you’ll want to map out every day, every yen spent, and every Persona created, just to avoid party wipes. Of course the game also has an easy difficulty for people who want a more casual experience and a “safe” difficulty, which literally removes the threat of death for people who just want to experience the story. It also includes hard and challenge difficulty levels, for people who can’t get enough of dying.
Enjoy the Sights and Sounds
This all might seem a bit too complex to handle, but Persona 5 manages to stay accessible through a number of quality of life improvements that vastly simplify the way the game is played. For example, you can set any number of party members to fight via A.I. control, the way they did in Persona 3. You can press R1 during your turn in battle to automatically figure out if any action you could take will target an enemy’s weakness, provided you already found that weakness manually earlier in the game. You can fast travel instantly to any location in Tokyo you’ve been to before, or any “safe house” you have found in a palace. Your map always shows you exactly what activities you can take and social links you can pursue, making it easy to schedule your time. At no point do you find yourself fighting against the games own mechanics. Instead, the game does everything it can to aid you, making the game’s actual difficulty the only challenge you have to face.
Another qualify of life improvement is Persona 5’s near perfect presentation. While its graphics are a generation behind (this is a PS3 game ported to the PS4 after all), Persona 5 stands as proof that high resolution and extreme framerates are nowhere near as important as a coherent graphical aesthetic.
The game's most notable trick is its frequent transitions between 3D models and 2D hand-drawn images. This happens everywhere, in-battle, during out-of-battle cutscenes, and even in the menu. There’s no loading time between these graphical switches, and they blend together seamlessly to make Persona 5 feel like a sort of moving manga.
Everything in this game is animated: the window borders, menu options, even your characters while scrolling through the menu in battle. There is no instance where everything is kept still or static. Everything feels alive, keeping the player’s eyes glued to the screen as they bounce along to the amazing acid-jazz soundtrack.
And yes, even the audio of the game is fantastic. The English voice track is top notch, and purists will be happy to know they can download the Japanese voice track free of charge. The music is so good you’ll find yourself listening to it even when you aren’t playing the game. The sound-effects are satisfying and mesh perfectly with menu and battle animations. It’s clear that Atlus put a lot of thought into every single detail of Persona 5’s aesthetic.
As close to flawless as games get
Try as I might, I cannot find any major flaws with Persona 5. Heck, I have a hard time finding even nit-picky minor flaws. Everything the game has to give you, from story, to gameplay, to graphics, is top notch. It lasts 80+ hours and you never get tired of it. While reviewing, I frequently found myself waking up in the morning, starting to play, and only shutting it off when I was ready to go to bed at night.
Heck, you’ll go numerous days without seeing a single battle and you won’t care! The simple social simulator part of Persona 5 is addictive enough on its own. The stories of your social links are heart wrenching, and you’ll have no problem watching and rewatching them as you try to select all the correct answers and perfect your schedule.
It all works because of this core feedback loop that keeps the game moving. Any action you take has rippling effects on the rest of the game’s systems. If you begin to get tired of any single action then you simply move on to the next one and bask in the cool powers you have achieved along the way. This gives you a feeling of forward progress no matter what you do, and that’s what keeps you playing.
Persona 5 is the best game I have played this year and one of the best RPGs I have played in the last decade. It’s filled with incredible combat, addicting side-quests, fantastic characters, and a dark and compelling meta-plot. It has raised the bar for JRPG excellence and will be the new standard of perfection I compare most RPGs to. If you are even the slightest bit of a JRPG fan, you owe it to yourself to play (and replay) Persona 5. You won’t be disappointed.