It still doesn’t feel real, but after years of waiting, Persona 5 has finally hit Western shores. Despite enduring setback after setback, the fifth installment in the series arrival, carrying expectations and hype the likes of which is foreign to just about every game in the greater Shin Megami Tensei series. With that, comes quite an amount of pressure. Persona 5’s been out in Japan for about six months already, and following my cautiously optimistic look at the game upon it’s Eastern release, I’m glad to say that, for the most part, my fears were unfounded.
There’s a lot to like about Persona 5, whether you’re a longtime fan of the series or a total newcomer swept up in the hype surrounding Atlus’ biggest release in years. While the most hardcore of Atlus fans may argue differently, it’s hard to deny that in terms of mainstream appeal, Persona 5 is very much the company’s flagship product – and this is immediately apparent in every facet of the game’s design. From the moment you boot up Persona 5, your senses are immediately and powerfully overwhelmed by its bold visual aesthetic, smooth jazzy soundtrack, and a cast of characters who, with a couple of notable exceptions aside, are among the most human and well-rounded any JRPG has ever produced.
Of course, this is a Persona game we’re talking about here; so those familiar with the series can probably guess the setup. By some convoluted twist of fate, your main character has had to up sticks, move away from his parents, and settle down for a year in a new environment, with little in terms of an actual support network around him. From here, you enroll in school, make friends with local misfits, and somehow find yourself capable of travelling to a strange parallel universe populated by demons which holds all the answers to whatever major event is happening in the world. It’s not a particularly novel set-up for the series’ fifth installment, as you move into the attic of a café owned by a friend of a friend of your parents, but it’s the way that Persona 5 twists the usual formula that makes it endearing.
It’d be extremely easy for Persona 5 to fall back into the same tropes that both Persona 3 and 4 did – and indeed, early on it looks like this is going to be the case. At first glance the group dynamic seems all too familiar; the delinquent best friend and local “it” girl archetypes being telegraphed as your best friends from miles away, but before long, the game presents these two characters, Ryuji and Ann, completely differently to any of the previous games’ sidekicks. This is especially refreshing in Ryuji’s case – where Yosuke and Junpei were easily the worst characters in previous iterations of the series, Ryuji is immediately likable as your well-meaning but knuckleheaded partner, although he does, at times, venture dangerously close to crossing the line from loveable to Yosuke.
The rest of your crew is suitably diverse and interesting too. There’s painter Yusuke, shut-in Futaba, student body president Makoto and upperclassman Haru, all of whom immediately subvert the roles they seem pre-destined to fulfill, and it’s remarkably refreshing. Even mascot character Morgana breaks free of the trappings that doomed Teddie so pitifully in the previous game. The supporting cast is also largely wonderful – with back-alley doctor Tae Takemi maybe being my single favourite Persona character ever.
It’s not all rosy on the character front, though, with two characters, one a party member (Akechi, the boy wonder detective and complete narc) and the other a supporting cast-member (Mishima, who hangs onto your gang like a lovesick puppy) are so mind-numbingly unlikable that even seeing them on the screen drove me insane. The game also has absolutely horrendous LGBT representation; with two predatory gay characters showing up periodically to essentially force themselves on the main character and Ryuji. It’s profoundly disappointing that Atlus still haven’t learned anything after the bungles previous games in the series, as well as Catherine, have made when dealing with marginalized people, and it’s a major stain on the game’s writing.
On the whole, though, Persona 5 is written extremely well, although the early parts of the game would have you think anything but. It’s strange, given that you’d think such a long game (you’ll clock anywhere from 90-120 hours, depending how much time you devote to dungeon crawling) would wish to put its best foot forward first. The localization in the early parts of the game is absolutely atrocious. Characters seemingly have completely different conversations when talking to one another, with one particularly egregious example seeing a cop inform a prosecutor that a call has come in for her. She then proceeds to take her cellphone from her own pocket and answer the call. It’s completely immersion breaking, and while the awkward, stilted dialogue does pop-up throughout the game in fits and starts, it’s largely unnoticeable after the first ten hours or so.
It’s those first ten hours that’ll likely determine whether Persona 5 is worth investing any further time into for the player, it’s a slow start, with little in the way of player freedom. If you’re like me, you come to Persona not for the dungeon-crawling or the combat, but for the story, character elements, and the freedom to just hang out with characters you like and see what makes ‘em tick. The first dozen hours or so give you very little room to maneuver, and at times, it’s not uncommon to have over a week where you have absolutely no freedom whatsoever to even study at night. While I found this frustrating at first, it’s possible to get up to three week blocks of time to do whatever the heck you like later on in the game, so it balances out somewhat. How you spend your time is important; the game feels like it’s very much designed to be min/maxed, so it’s close to impossible to maximise all your Confidant links in a single playthrough without following a very specific set guide. It’s a shame too, because as I said, the majority of the characters are genuinely really interesting, with even your dirtbag landlord coming to be a charming, human character by the end of proceedings. It’s not fun to have to stress out about the best part of Persona 5, nor having to concentrate on one particular Confidant to unlock the ability to not lose time when you enter dungeons, and it feels like a misstep.
Aesthetically, Persona 5 oozes style from every pore on its body, and boasts some of the slickest, most beautiful menu and UI design I’ve ever seen. The Persona series has always been well ahead of the curve when it comes to presentation, and this latest game is no exception. It’s an aesthetic that meets somewhere in the middle between Persona 4 and Catherine, it’s got all the life and vibrancy of Charlie Tunoku’s Inaba Adevnture™, with all the stylish, mature and sophisticated pizzaz of Catherine. Vincent Brooks Meets a Succubus™’ influence is apparent everywhere you turn, not just in the visuals, but also in the game’s absolutely phenomenal soundtrack. The sweet ‘n’ smooth jazz tones contrast with more intense, higher-energy sounds at climactic moments, and it all adds beautifully to the ambiance and atmosphere that P5 is slingin’ on the café table like a hot plate o’curry. Listen closely and you might even hear a remixed version of the Junes theme from Persona 4, and if you’re like me, it’ll no doubt leave you smiling, even if it’s not accompanied by Nanako’s singing.
Of course, as stylish as Persona 5 is, it can’t help being hamstrung just a little bit by it’s clear PS3 lineage. As artistically coherent and cool as P5 is, it’s not an amazing looking game from a technical standpoint; there’s tone of less than spectacular textures, and plenty of jagged edges, weirdly flat looking skyboxes and pasted-on doors. It’s still a real pretty game despite all this, in sort of a sum-greater-than-the-parts kinda way, but it’d have been nice to see it get a little bump visually from the PS3, which is what I played the Japanese release on. And hey, it runs at an incredibly smooth frame rate with no screen-tearing or hitching at any point.
Back when I wrote my hands-on impressions of the Japanese release, I mentioned the darker, more mature tone of the game, and while Persona 5 certainly isn’t as upbeat at it’s predecessor, it’s also (thankfully) nowhere as bleak and emo as Persona 3. It’s certainly a much more mature tone being struck here, one very reminiscent of Catherine, but it plays into the visual styling and the individual characters quite well, even if Persona is still about as subtle as a car accident. Atlus have never been particularly good at hiding the underlying themes of their games, and this is certainly the case once again, with the developers clearly having quite a cynical view of Japanese society and the pressure it puts on its people to be subservient and orderly. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Persona 5 is so upfront about its politics, but it’s strange to see a game that takes such a stand against conformity while championing individuality also take so many shots at the gay and trans communities. It’s a little bit muddled and a little bit sloppy, and it paints a weird contrast to the game’s own views.
Of course, as with all games in the greater SMT family, Persona 5 is full of dungeon-crawling too. You’ll divide your time up between infiltrating “Palaces”, story-based dungeons whose themes correspond to the current target, and Mementos, a huge randomly-generated dungeon in which you’ll do side quests and grind for more experience and personas. Fans of the genre will know what to expect here, fairly run of the mill turn-based battles that won’t set the world ablaze, but are solid enough to keep you entertained. Longtime SMT fans will also be happy to see the return of the negotiation system for acquiring new personas where you basically hit an enemy with it’s weakness and offer to spare its life in exchange for being granted its power. It’s been simplified down a fair bit from the hardcore SMT franchises, but it’s a nice nod to the series’ roots.
The Palaces are where this dungeon-crawling and exploration mostly shines. While Mementos is fairly uninteresting and regularly feels like a chore to investigate (and you will have to if you want to max out a Confidant), the custom-designed Palaces are each suitably grandiose and filled with their share of unique (if simple) puzzles and traps. I found all but one (the fifth, if you’re wondering) to be really well designed and imaginative, even if there were one or two parts that frustrated me along the way. It’s just a shame that it takes so long to get through them, it’ll probably take you two days minimum to reach the end of a dungeon, and then it’ll take another two days to finish it due to the narrative devices the game uses. Whether or not this is a problem for you may depend on what you come to Persona for, but if you’re like me, it may be a small source of irritation.
At it’s best, Persona 5 is absolutely sensational, with a likeable cast, gorgeous soundtrack and wonderful visual design (even if the game’s PS3 roots do shine through at times thanks to some muddy textures) leading the charge toward stealing your heart. While the quality never drops below the high bar Persona 4 set, there are a bunch of small problems, be them with regard to representation, localization or pacing that may turn some people away, and I couldn’t blame anyone for that. When it’s all said and done, though, Persona 5 may not be a real Shin Megoomi Tensay game, but it is the best.
Hit the bricks, Chie. Takemi for life.
Doctor Takemi, Please
Impeccable stylish and effortlessly charming, Persona 5 is a more mature yet still tremendously fun game that'll appeal to everyone from casual players to hardcore JRPG aficionados.