Is the Noid really the villain this time? Or is he the true hero we all need?
Persona 4 is one of my all-time favorite games. It’s iconic; a rare example of a game that managed to break out from a typically-niche genre and become a true crossover hit. Thanks to likable characters, an engaging story, and a robust yet entirely accessible spin on many tropes and mechanics that typically lock other JRPGs into comparative obscurity, Persona 4 stood above its contemporaries. It’s also, in my mind, the best Japanese RPG ever made. So, with the long-awaited sequel finally hitting shelves in Japan after years of delays, I knew I had to dip my toes in to get just a taste of what was in store for Western audiences come Valentine’s Day.
Now before I go any further, a few caveats. First, I’ve only played roughly 15 hours of the game at this point. My intention isn’t for this to function as an early review, but rather an impressions piece. A review will go live on the site, but not until I’ve beaten the English release in February. Second, my Japanese is, admittedly, quite limited. I can understand what’s going on fairly well, especially during the voiced dialogue, but I only know about four hundred kanji, so I’m admittedly hamstrung when it comes to reading the language. So believe me, I know, it’s entirely likely that, as a result, I’ve missed bits and pieces of nuance here and there. Okay, we good? Good.
The first thing that jumped out to me was the jaw-droppingly slick aesthetic on show. Even playing the PS3 version, I was blown away by how stylish this game is. Every facet of presentation is stellar: from anime sequences much, much better looking than any previous Atlus productions, to the menu designs, even to loading screens and dialogue transitions, just about everything in Persona 5 looks amazing. Atlus has always had a strong sense of artistic cohesion in their work, and this game’s no different, feeling like the logical lovechild of Catherine and Persona 4. The color scheme of red, black, white and yellow feels wonderfully vibrant, and a lot of the core design pops off the screen really nicely. Even if you’d never heard of Persona before, it’s got the kind of presentation that draws eyes, and for that, Atlus should be applauded
From a gameplay perspective, Persona 5 builds off of 4 in a fairly standard way, refining some of the more annoying aspects of combat and streamlining things accordingly. Probably the biggest change for those unfamiliar with the older games in the Persona series (and Shin Megami Tensei as a whole), is the concept of negotiating with demons to join your side as Personas. It works simply enough: fell a demon to set up an all-out attack, Persona 4 style. From here, you’ll be given the option to negotiate with the demon to join you on your quest… or just to finish it off. It’s a nice way to introduce elements from the more hardcore SMT games back into Persona, while still managing to condense the combat system in a way that makes sense. Again, for this, Atlus deserves a lot of praise.
But it’s here that things start to get a little less certain for me, making me worry for many Persona 4 fans who are less familiar with SMT as a whole. If what you liked about Persona 4 was its tone – the bright colours, the upbeat soundtrack, the immediate likeability and light-heartedness of its cast, I’m not sure Persona 5 is going to give you exactly what you want from a sequel. Don’t get me wrong, Persona 4 was not without darkness (it centered around a serial killer for god’s sake), nor is Persona 5 completely devoid of moments of levity. However, it feels much closer in tone to Persona 3 than 4. There’s some really dark stuff in here, and there are times in those first few hours where the game pulls you back to earth with a jolt just as you think things are about to lighten up. It does happen to some degree, eventually, but if you were expecting a game as outwardly jovial as Persona 4 often was, you might be disappointed.
Similarly, Persona 5 has unfortunately retained two of its predecessors’ most glaring weaknesses – it’s about as subtle as a car crash, and about as quick out of the gate as Garfield on a Monday. Persona 4 had some really obvious, really dumb stuff in it, especially with how it handled subjects like Kanji’s sexuality and Naoto’s gender identity, and Persona 5 is just as heavy-handed. I’m being careful not to throw out any spoilers here, but it doesn’t seem like Atlus has learned an awful lot about subtlety in the past decade, with the first real antagonist and the latest iteration of the Velvet Room both being incredibly awful.
While I love the framing device used for the story, if you found previous entries impenetrable thanks to a plodding start, Persona 5 probably won’t grab you either. You actually get to do some playing right off, but the game quickly falls back into familiar trappings. If you’re like me and don’t mind the world-building, then this won’t be a huge issue; but players looking to get straight down to business won’t be won over here.
At the end of the day, I don’t recommend importing Persona 5, unless you speak fluent Japanese. It certainly hits the its marks for style and mechanics, but I can’t help feeling like the real appeal for Western audiences is going to live or die by the quality of Atlus’ localization. There’s plenty of reason to believe that’ll be every bit as good as it needs to be – Atlus has earned that trust with some really solid work in the past – but it may also be necessary, if Persona 5 is going to reach the heights of its forerunner.