Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch
If you have been playing the numerous “Warriors” spin-offs, like Hyrule Warriors, Fire Emblem Warriors, One Piece Pirate Warriors, and so on, then you probably think you know what Persona 5 Strikers, the Persona 5 branded Warriors spin-off will play like right?
Wrong. Forget everything you know about the Warriors musou formula. Forget capturing bases, assaulting locations with an army, micro missions in a menu, in fact, forget EVERYTHING except for the general action gameplay, and even then forget about half of it. Persona 5 Strikers is not like any musou action game you have ever played before.
The DNA of the Persona series is so deeply woven into this title that you will forget that this was supposed to be a musou game pretty quickly. It feels far more like a Persona styled RPG than anything the Warriors series has ever done. Depending on whether you are a Persona fan or a Warriors fan, that could be a good or a bad thing, but for me, it made the game surprisingly enjoyable, far more than any other musou spinoff of the last couple of years.
Meet cell phone waifu
Persona 5 Strikers directly continues the story of Persona 5. After doing your time as the leader of the Phantom Thieves, you move back to your hometown, leaving the sights and sounds of Tokyo behind. A year passes and as soon as school is out, you decide to head back to the big city to reconnect with your Phantom Thief friends. How nice.
Unfortunately, things have changed. Everyone has started downloading a mysteriously intelligent A.I. assistant to their cell-phones which has the ability to suck people into metaverse style cognitive dimensions called “jails.” The rulers of these jails are harvesting the desires of their captives for nefarious purposes. It’s up to the Phantom Thieves to travel into this new metaverse and do what they do best, change the hearts of the evil people of the world.
Along the way you pick up Sophie, an A.I. that can manifest herself in the metaverse, and who hangs out on your phone during your normal life. Sophie, who takes the Aigis/Labrys/Metis style traditional robot party member slot, has a whole other plot running alongside the if you’ll excuse the pun, metaplot. Her goal is to assist humanity and she feels like she cannot do that unless she figures out what it means to be human. Thus, she follows you around, watching you save the day, in order to truly understand the human heart.
Your travel will take you outside of Tokyo this time around. The general theme of the game is “summer road trip.” You’ll be able to pick through several different notable locations in Japan, each of them with its own “jail” with a unique theme that contorts and distorts reality. It’s actually really neat to see a Persona game go on the road, instead of being played all in a single town or city.
The story is pretty good. It feels like a natural continuation of the Persona 5 story. Sure, the reasons for the metaverse coming back are a little forced, but the antagonists feel like they naturally belong in this plot, the characters act exactly as they did from their game of origin, and the general theme of people in positions of power abusing them for personal gain carries over into this spin-off. There is a lot of story here, far more than any other musou game. You’ll be sitting through hour-long fully voiced cutscenes, just like you did in the original Persona 5.
There are only two problems. First, the game assumes you have played Persona 5 before. It makes very little attempt to explain what the heck is going on and it certainly doesn’t introduce the characters in any meaningful way. If you are new to the franchise, at the very least read a summary before starting this game.
Second, it doesn’t connect to Persona 5 Royal at all. None of the new characters from Royal show up. Akechi, sadly, is absent and replaced with a new detective character who is cool in his own right and is deeply connected with the story… yet still feels like a dime-store substitute. It’s actually more jarring to play Strikers after playing Royal since the slight differences in Royal make some parts of Strikers make less sense.
If you are at the extremes of total newbie or hardcore fan then you will have to overlook some things that may not make a whole lot of sense, but if you are a casual fan (which luckily accounts for most of the Persona 5 fanbase) then you’ll get into the plot easily and be hooked right up until the end.
Mash those buttons… with strategy!
Like I said before, forget much of what you know about musou style games when coming into Persona 5 Strikers. These aren’t grand army battles at all. These are stealthy Phantom Thief infiltrations.
Jails are huge, much bigger than your standard musou map. They are basically as big as Palaces from the original Persona 5.
Each jail is gated off into sections, usually with some sort of intricate puzzle lock. You’ll have to make your way through the map, solve the puzzles, defeat a few bosses, collect keys to open up new areas, lather, rinse, repeat until you eventually get to the big bad at the end.
In standard musou games, there are enemies scattered all around the map. Not so in Strikers. There are only very few enemy shadows wandering around and you can, if you want, avoid them all through stealth and acrobatics, much like you did in the original Persona 5. Combat only starts if an enemy shadow notices you or if you ambush them and rip off their mask, at which point they split into a horde of enemies, barriers appear confining you into a small space, and battle proper starts.
When you are in battle, you control like a fairly standard action game. One face button is for light attacks, one is for heavy special attacks which vary depending on your character, and once again that’s about where the musou comparisons end. Instead of the big screen destroying musou button, you have a third button that either executes context-sensitive attacks off the environment or triggers all-out attacks if you manage to knock enemies down by exploiting their weaknesses. You do have a “showtime” attack which acts a bit like the musou attacks from other Warriors titles but is actually quite hard to build and doesn’t do all that much damage. It’s much better if you play this Persona style, which is to say, smart and strategic.
All the elements from Persona 5 are here, and all enemies have the same weaknesses that they had in Persona 5. At any time you can press a shoulder button to stop time and spend SP on one of your persona’s skills. Normal enemies get knocked down by exploiting their weaknesses while bosses get their “shield” gauge reduced, which needs to hit zero to do any real damage or to put them into hit-stun.
And how do you make sure you have the right skills for the right job? Persona fusion! Yep, the fusion system returns, although there are fewer personas available to make this time, you can customize stats and abilities just like you would in a standard Persona RPG, by inheriting them from component personas.
There are lots of other ways to customize your party as well. Using characters in battle teaches them unique character-specific skills, usually some form of alteration to their basic attack combos. There is a “bond” system that takes place of social links, which allows you to spend points to upgrade all the phantom thieves at once. There’s lots of gear to equip and items to use and even special skills that allow you to synergize with your teammates. This is by far the deepest musou game I have ever played and it’s worthy of the Persona name.
The missing pieces
The biggest issue in Persona 5 Strikers is that its odd position between the Persona game and the Warriors game means that it omits some pretty hefty aspects of both.
For example, there aren’t a whole lot of characters to play as. You get the Phantom Thieves and a few guests and that’s about it, and most of them are playable from the game’s start. There’s no secret characters to unlock, no playing as the enemy bosses, nothing. What you see is what you get.
There’s no weapon forging system either, although I suppose you can say that persona fusion stands in for it. There are no time trials or mini-missions though there are sidequests in the form of “requests” that can unlock new personas or special bond upgrades.
Speaking of bond upgrades, they are a pale shadow of the fully fleshed out social link system. There’s no time management puzzle, no meaningful way to make choices in the story. Heck, the only reason to spend any time whatsoever outside of jails is to find sidequests, which really only amounts to finding and talking to the right person.
It’s nice that this is releasing on PC on day one but, it bears mentioning that the PC port is buggy as all hell. It had a nasty habit of crashing whenever I entered the velvet room. It crashed so often that I spent most of my time playing on the PS4 version.
Getting the crew back together
When all is said and done, I felt the same way the main character did when playing Persona 5 Strikers. I was just happy to be back with my friends. Spending time with this cast of characters is what made me so happy to play Persona 5, not once, but twice, in playthroughs that easily broke 100 hours. That’s what Strikers really is, a chance to spend more time in this world, with these characters; a chance to be a Phantom Thief once more.
And that kind of superseded any other concerns. The system was great, the graphics were fantastic, the music is phenomenal, but all of them could have been subpar and I still would have enjoyed revisiting the world of Persona 5 again. Atlus knows it has a golden goose here, and we will scramble for its eggs until Persona 6 comes out.
So, yes, if you were a fan of the original Persona 5 then you will love Strikers even if its style of action gameplay isn’t your cup of tea. If you are a musou fan, then you will probably like it too. It’s a departure from the standard musou system but it’s a fun, great looking, good sounding, highly responsive, action game with a deep plot and new dungeon puzzle gimmicks that run at a smooth 60FPS. There’s a little bit of something here for everyone.