REVIEW – One of the bitter experiences of growing up is realizing that not everyone is good. You spend your whole childhood being told by your parents that adults have your back. Your teachers, the community leaders, the politicians,– they’re all supposed to be looking out and care for you – for your good. When that turns out not to be the case, it can be a harsh reality check.
Of course, teenagers saving the world is a truly an overused cliché of JRPGs, but the Persona series has always put a unique twist on it by mixing fantastical dungeon crawling with mundane real-world obligations. The task of the teens of Persona is not only to battle demons, but they also have to do homework, work part-time jobs, and they have to get to bed not too late.
In Persona 5, the latest title in the never-ending Shin Megami Tensei spinoff series, you’ll control a group of teenagers dealing part time with this coming of age ritual, part time tasking the player with weeding out corruption and evil in Tokyo through otherworldly battles and personal relationships. It’s not a huge departure from the themes and gameplay of the last two Persona games, but there are enough successful tweaks to the formula that Persona 5 feels both familiar and wonderfully new.
A New “Joker”
Persona 5 puts players in control of Joker, who’s nothing like the other Joker from Batman fame: he’s a quiet second-year high school student with a not-so-stellar reputation. He’s obliged to move to Tokyo for a year on probation to evade the fallout of a dubious criminal charge. Joker is hated immediately by his teachers, parental guardian, and fellow students without a second thought for the unfair rumors which follow him.
Joker’s isolation is gradually faded as he gets befriended with several other social outcasts – an unruly ex-high school track star with an aggressive past, a foreign teenage model, bullied for her looks, an orphan suffering emotional blackmail – who all have been similar victims of cruel and often sickening adult figures.
Inner and real demons
Not unlike the other main-series Persona role-playing games before it, you’ll clash with literal and figurative demons using their supernatural abilities: summoning Personas, which are manifestations of each person’s hidden psyches. The mostly silent protagonist further can switch between Personas at will and even fuse new ones.
Balancing the day-to-day struggles and commitments of teenage life with ridding Japan of evil makes for a busy schedule, and that time management is part of what makes Persona 5 so interesting.
Persona 5 effectively shake-ups the slow but steady formula of its predecessors with its rag-tag band of masked outlaws, and wastes no time in diving into sensitive topics such as bullying, sexual assault and domestic violence in the backdrop of a conservative Japanese high-school setting. The dark narrative themes explored aren’t exactly new territory, but the game’s numerous characters are a far cry from the more friendly and welcoming bunch inhabiting the quaint little town of Inaba in Persona 4. The somber atmosphere permeating the overall story is incredibly engaging, however, and there still is plenty of upbeat stories, characters, and Japanese video game tropes to look forward to throughout the game.
Phantomas would like them
These disenfranchised teenagers create the game’s engaging main cast collectively known as the ‘Phantom Thieves,’ a group of masked fighters who learn how to summon powerful inner manifestations of themselves called Personas by entering the shadow world of the Metaverse.
Refreshingly, Joker and his friends embrace their supernatural abilities and aim to go about ‘stealing’ treasure from the inner minds of particularly evil or distorted individuals, forcing them to have a change of heart in the real world. Think Inception mixed with your beloved anime series, with clever subtext about young Millennials sick of waiting for the older generations to make a change – and taking things into their hands instead, despite being scorned and judged for it.
Too cool for school?
In the role of Joker, the core gameplay of Persona 5 involves navigating all of these deep societal problems between two distinct worlds: High-school and the Metaverse. For novices of the series, think social 22simulation mechanics mixed with satisfying Japanese turn-based role-playing combat, and you get something real addictive, real fast.
The first – real – world is the abovementioned social simulation part of the game – you engage in all of the daily activities teenage high school life entails over the course of a single year. That means studying, commuting, working part-time jobs, attending after-school catch-ups, acing exams and more. All this is all organized via a dedicated calendar and complimented by a full day-night cycle and weather system.
In-between scripted main story events you are gradually let loose to explore and interact with Tokyo and all of its inhabitants and choose which activities to dedicate time to as you see fit. Everything you will have to do in the real world is to improve your stats and capability as a Phantom Thief. Studying improves your knowledge, performing bold tasks improve your guts and improving your relationship with friends (called ‘Confidants’) grants you special bonuses to help you fight the Shadows in the Metaverse, and making use of your limited free time to reap the most rewards is crazy fun.
Are-you “self-confidant” enough?
The Confidant system (called social links in previous Persona games) is incredibly rewarding, both mechanically and story-wise. Many of the game’s extra side-stories are unlocked only if you put the time into hanging out with your friends and allies while saying the right things. Romantic relationships with most of the female Confidants are entirely possible as well, with some entertaining scenes if you opt to play the role of sleazy casanova.
The social system and the substantial payoff from the stories told is all incredibly immersive and is still clearly developer Atlus’s main strength – they really do put you in the shoes of a Japanese high school student trying to juggle saving the world and getting girls (hint – it’s often hilarious and infinitely charming). Subjectively, I did find a few of the side characters and their stories a little less fun to interact with than my favorites from Persona 3 and 4, but with more people to speak to in 5 you’re bound to connect with at least one of the very eccentric main or supporting cast.
The second world you’ll be navigating throughout Persona 5 is the Metaverse, where the Phantom Thieves visit to steal the next big bad adult’s, inner corrupted heart. Main storyline bosses inhabit massive ‘Palaces’ (basically dungeons) which are fully hand-crafted environments full of stealth sections, puzzles and combat encounters themed around the particular corruptions and desires in the mind of the antagonist of the week.
This is probably the latest game’s biggest improvement from past titles, but if you miss the randomised dungeons of yore, you will still find it in Mementos, another labyrinth of the Metaverse where smaller procedural side-quests get sorted and where you can grind for additional experience points or resources to get ready for the tougher story-critical Palaces.
I know kung-fu
The combat you’ll get to be used here is turn-based and pleasantly complex, giving you plenty of ways to bash your opponents to bits. In addition to your hand weapons, you can summon personas (think demonic Pokemon) to fight for you. Though your companions can only control their persona, you can carry a whole posse in your pocket, switching between them at will to best suit the confrontation at hand.
Joker’s trump card is he can use more than one Persona, capture defeated Personas (and ask them for money or items) and fused them into more powerful Persona – think a dash of Pokemon monster collecting mixed with Shin Megami Tensei’s negotiation system. The higher your Confidant ranks, the more powerful your fused Persona will be. The paper-rock-scissors system in the form of exploiting elemental weaknesses to consecutive chain attacks is simple yet addictive and makes battles fast and fun rather than slow and grindy.
All of my enjoyment with the battle systems was aided greatly by Persona 5’s ridiculously stylish user interface, soundtrack, and overall aesthetic. Everything – from navigating in-game menus to pulling off special attacks to the victory screen at the end of a battle is accompanied by slick comic-book esque visuals and a funky Jazz soundtrack. While the battle chatter and victory dialogue can get repetitive, the very strong English localization and voice actors add endless charm and character to all aspects of Persona 5, and all you purists out there can even download and use the original Japanese VA with English dub should the American voice talent irritate your ears.
This game has a strong Persona
Persona 5 is one of best video title released in 2017 so far, and stands out even in a year flooded with other particularly strong releases. There were a few minor issues – the character of Morgana and his purpose as a ‘guide’ for Joker feels all-too restrictive at times, acting as the annoyingly vocal wall preventing the player from engaging in the game’s activities during main story events. Another minor annoyance is the English localization and voice-work, which – despite its overall quality – often felt stilted and flowed much less naturally in the early game compared to its predecessors.
Persona 5’s theme of rebellion as a necessity to spark long overdue social change is outspoken, thought-provoking and intensely stylish, and its addictive long-form anime format combined with the franchise’s fast and frantic turn-based role-playing gameplay and social simulation systems results in a unique video game experience. This is a definite buy, especially after a nearly ten-year wait between entries!
If you loved Persona 3 and 4, Persona 5 this game isn’t just more of the same – it’s, in fact, a giant leap forward, and its absolute quality proves Atlus clearly can still pull off their special formula which has endeared their series to so many players around the world while catapulting their JRPG darling further into the mainstream fame it deserves.
+ Suave and stylish, really taking the theme to heart
+ Overall plot is full of clever twists and turns, great characterisation
+ Creative boss battles that think outside of the box
– Morgana is annoying
– The English voice could have been better
– If you are not into “school things
Publisher: Deep Silver, ATLUS
Release date: April 4, 2017