The Persona series is held in high regard by a plethora of gamers. Essentially, if you’ve given your time to the series, you’re highly likely to become an avid fan. Since Persona 3 where the series really started to gain an identity and momentum of its own, there has been no stopping its alluring power. Persona 4 was a game that many, including myself, heralded as one of the best games of all time. Now, nearly a full decade later, Atlus’ magnum opus receives a sequel in the form of Persona 5. Expectations were high for this stylish looking title and even more so considering its genre-defining predecessors. What Persona 5 managed, in the end, was to not only crush those expectations in a gracefully stylish display, but cement itself as one of the most unmissable experiences of gaming’s history.
Bold words, for sure, but I have all the evidence to back up such a claim which I’ve made my duty to share with you, the reader. The hope being that if you’ve been on the fence, I’ll kick you right onto the other side. Persona 5 is something that you cannot afford to miss out on, even if its inherent strangeness can possibly be a deterrent. Persona 5 promises to steal your heart, and that is exactly what it did, and then some. Let’s jump right into the reasons why.
The Trickster and his Posse
Continuing series tradition, you’re thrust into the shoes of a (mostly) silent protagonist with a name of your choice. You have been wrongly accused of a crime and are now forced to live under probation at a new high school in the middle of Tokyo. Cause any trouble and it’s off to juvie with you, but unfortunately (or fortunately) trouble has a way of finding you. Rumours start spreading of an abusive gym teacher in your school and by some unknown and mysterious power, you and an innocent bystander named Ryuji get thrown into a physical manifestation of the gym teacher’s twisted desires. You then awaken to your inner self, a Persona, which is capable of extraordinary powers along with a completely overhauled and suitably stylish appearance.
You then run into a strange looking cat creature called Morgana who has a rather odd request: steal the heart of the twisted gym teacher. He informs you that this physical manifestation is called a Palace and it’s the home of a person’s distorted desires. The only way to destroy a Palace would be to steal the target’s Treasure and subsequently trigger a change of heart within them. Before long, you also gain allies and ultimately you decide to become the Phantom Thieves of Hearts: a group that stands for justice above all else and achieves that by stealing the hearts of the corrupt.
Crescendo after crescendo that makes the game’s story sing in a sweet symphony until you finally reach the satisfying and well-fought end.
Persona 5‘s story unfolds in distinct increments. What starts off innocent enough takes some serious turns and snowballs to a grandiose expression and commentary on life as we know it. Revealing anything would be spoiling the experience, which is probably the last thing I want to do to this game. However, I can say that what Persona 5 tries to tell, it tells extraordinarily well. The central theme of the game revolves around distorted desires, the hubris of man and the extent of human selfishness. It’s not afraid to delve into the ugly, the twisted and the nauseating. It has so many layers to it that it can do nothing else but astound you and leave you dumbstruck and speechless.
What Persona 5 also manages with its narrative is to keep the level of amazement consistent throughout. Each central moment of its story carries significant weight and you’ll be excused to think of a lot of them as the climax of the game. But it just keeps on hitting you, time and again. Crescendo after crescendo that makes the game’s story sing in a sweet symphony until you finally reach the satisfying and well-fought end. Looking back at the first hours of the game to the conclusion 120 hours later, it feels like I’ve gone through a transcendental journey. A path of discovery and of self-actualisation. Not a lot of gaming narratives manage to touch your heart and mind with the same ferocity as Persona 5. This is something that will stick with me as I go through my own life. Games that manage such an amazing feat do not come by often.
Persona 5 is divided into two distinct sections: social simulation and combat. While you’re a stylish trickster capable of insane feats, you’re still a high schooler just making your way through life as best as you can. Persona 5 is consistent with how previous games in the series operated with regards to its social aspects. Along with your teammates, you meet colourful characters and they become what is called Confidants. In any given day, if there aren’t any special events happening, you may choose to go hang out with these characters and get to know them and their situation better. Each of them has a unique story to tell and your presence and interactions are often pivotal in how they will move forward. All of these characters are worthwhile to talk to. Some may not resonate with you because of their personality, but each of their core stories are worth going through. Interacting with them isn’t fruitless either since they provide tangible gameplay benefits to you if you interact with them enough.
You also have social skills that you need to improve by doing things within the world. Knowledge, Proficiency, Charm, Kindness and Guts all need to be improved and some things are locked off to you if you don’t have the necessary skill level. In order to improve these skills you need to do things such as reading, watching movies, interacting with some of your Confidants and all manner of miscellaneous activities. These activities aren’t without their own charm as well and each instance carries some payoff. For instance, you can play some retro games that have little stories within them or go fishing for big catches at a local fishing spot. It’s all up to you what you do, but you need to be mindful of what you do with your time.
Time management is a very important facet of the Persona 5 experience. Each in-game day has a daytime and a nighttime that you can use however you choose for whichever activity you want that will pass time. However, proper time management is crucial and you need to be particular with how you do things. Don’t worry, it’s not as critical as it sounds and you’ll find yourself naturally falling into a rhythm you’re comfortable with. The most important thing to remember is that you can do whatever you like and thankfully the game doesn’t punish you if you don’t use your time optimally. There are a finite number of days so you still need to be mindful, but it provides you with the freedom to do as you choose. It’s exciting to explore the world, find new Confidants, more activities that will provide better skill boosts and the odd curiosities that you can stumble upon.
All of this takes place within the city of Tokyo, which was realised quite well. The world is divided into sections that represent important landmarks, shopping districts and residential areas. The intractable world itself isn’t massive, but that’s not the point since what matters is what you do in it. Thankfully the game has a fast travel system that can get you to where you need to be in a jiffy and navigating Tokyo will soon become second nature to you. There’s a sense of familiarity to it once you get far enough in, but you’ll still find new things all the time as you go through the game.
Overall, the social simulation aspects of Persona 5 are wonderful and I sometimes preferred it over the often more exciting combat. It’s a relaxing experience and you get to talk to some colourful and wonderfully fleshed out characters along the way. The dichotomy it has with the flashy combat and heavy narrative themes serve to strike a delicate but amazing balance to the experience.
Style and Grace
The game’s combat sequences mostly revolve around the infiltration of Palaces. To put it into simpler terms, a Palace is a dungeon that you need to get through. That means exploring and fighting enemies along the way to your goal. Enemies, called Shadows, roam around these Palaces and you need to be careful with how you engage them. You can take them head-on just fine, but you can also sneak up behind them for an ambush that gives you a significant advantage. Shadows can also ambush you which can put you in very tight spot and my party has been wiped enough times like that for me to know that. You can also use the environment to get the jump on the shadows by hiding behind things or jumping on them from above.
Combat within Persona 5 still follows the traditional methods of its predecessors. It’s turn-based, you need to exploit weakspots of enemies using certain elemental moves and you need to have a keen eye for strategising on the fly. Persona fans will feel right at home and new players will surely get to grips with it quickly because of its intuitive design. What sets Persona 5‘s combat apart from its predecessors is that it’s immensely stylish. Your characters all take on different appearances within a Palace with elaborate, beautiful costumes and unique masquerade masks. It’s most definitely a far cry from predecessors where heroes fought giant monsters in jeans and a t-shirt. Each character brandishes a unique melee weapon as well as a firearm that has its own special moves. Firearms are a new mechanic where you get a set amount of ammo per infiltration with character-dependent effects, like single-shot, spray, wide explosion etc. These are powerful hence the limitation of ammo and they are welcome as a method to turn the tides of battle.
It’s absolutely key to exploit the weaknesses of your enemies. You won’t know the weakness of a Shadow when you first fight it and a lot will come down to trial-and-error, but that’s part of the strategy layer of the combat. When the Shadows are all down from carefully chosen attacks that hit their weaknesses, you get to initiate a Hold-Up. Here you can issue a devastating All-Out attack or you can negotiate with the Shadows in order to gain their power (more on that soon), or you can simply pressure them to give you money or items and have them retreat. You can also utilise buffs in order to gain an advantage and against tougher enemies in the later parts of the game, this becomes essential. It’s all about using the resources available to you in order to get the best possible results.
The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve experienced in a game, with a smooth acid-jazz influence and powerful vocals.
Each party member has their own Persona with their own unique elemental affinity. However, you the protagonist have access to any Persona you wish as part of your unique power. In order to gain more Personas, you need to convince them to join you. Every enemy, barring bosses, are Personas and if you know anything about the intricate designs of these Personas, they can be quite elaborate, giving the enemy models some stunning variation. In order to persuade a Shadow to become your Persona, you need to talk to it and appeal to it. Each Shadow has a unique personality that you need to pick up on. Some are joyful, some are bashful, some are just plain rude. You’re given conversation options and if you pick the responses that they like, they’ll join your cause. In order to gain more powerful Personas, you need to fuse them together using some macabre rituals. These fusions allow you to transfer and cater abilities as well as increase their power using the Confidants you’ve managed to gain.
The combat in Persona 5 always remains exciting. New strategies to explore, better powers that you can use by levelling up and different team configurations that you can use. There’s always something new to do and it’s all wrapped up in a beautiful package with flashy moves, stylish vignettes and powerful displays. Enemies have huge variation since they are also Personas and even the negotiating aspect is a unique flavour of gameplay in itself.
Throughout the review, the word “stylish” has been mentioned a lot and this wasn’t done on a whim. The visual design of Persona 5 is striking and a marvel to witness. Even its menus and UI elements are some of the most visually impressive I’ve ever seen in a game. The actual character models and environments look a little spartan with a cell-shaded approach, but it more than makes up for it in artistic direction. There’s a stark red and black motif to almost everything with individual words and elements painfully and carefully crafted to give them life. From the combat menu to the super flashy finishing moves, everything is visually impressive to behold. There are animated cutscenes that are decidedly anime-inspired that are a joy to watch. Each Palace has a unique identity of its own with its own decor and style for you to marvel at.
The soundtrack is, and I’m not saying this lightly, one of the best I’ve experienced in a game. It has a smooth acid-jazz influence with powerful vocals and you cannot help but sometimes get caught up in it a little too much and start swinging and humming along. Even after 120 hours, the soundtrack still made me jive and tap my foot. Everything fit perfectly with what was happening on the screen, from the high octane fights to the sombre moments of confession. A beautiful blend of sounds that all adhered to a central theme and feeling, creating an amazing backdrop to an already amazing experience.
A Tricky and Triumphant Victory
What struck me most about Persona 5 was its balance and its pace. Just when you think you’re getting tired of the social aspects, they throw you into a Palace with tons of combat. When you just start to get tired of the combat, it ends and you get to enjoy the social aspects again. As mentioned, the story keeps the beat rolling with climax after climax hitting you one after the other. Each day you play holds something exciting and there’s always something exciting on the horizon. Before you know it, you’re addicted to it. I’ve put in 14-hour sessions like they were nothing and I didn’t even notice the time going by. If my body didn’t go “whoa dude, we’re not young anymore” I would have happily played more. This is the type of game that has the power to make you fail exams or go to work on 2 hours of sleep.
One act from this game can put other AAA games to shame and there are a lot of acts packaged into this beautiful monster.
You’ve seen the 120-hour number throughout the review and yes, that is the time required to do one full playthrough. This was going at a relatively fast pace as well. Make no mistake, this game is momentous. It’s not filled with fluff or tired backtracking either, every hour you play has meaning. You’ll probably be compelled to binge it, but even going at a relaxed pace will wield great satisfaction. If that’s not value for money, then I don’t know what is. One act from this game can put other AAA games to shame and there are a lot of acts packaged into this beautiful monster.
The one and only issue I found with the entire game was some shaky localisation and translation at times. Some Japanese aspects didn’t translate well into a Western environment and some of the dialogue may sound strange because of its translation from Japanese. It was always funny to hear English characters say that they “can’t speak English” or being completely dumbfounded when there’s a class quiz about Japanese kanji that you have no clue about unless you watched a ton of Naruto. However, these instances were few and far between and can easily be brushed off when you look at the scale of this game.
It almost pains me that I decided to keep this review as spoiler light as I could. I want to talk about this game’s central themes some more, the huge surprises that it gives you and the important moments that I lived through. However, that would be hugely damaging to what I can only say is something that you need to experience for yourself. Go into it blind and experience all it has to offer and I promise you, if you stick with it and get by some of the initial JRPG weirdness, you will find something incredible.
What Persona 5 managed to do to me, personally, was nothing short of astounding. Its story touched me on an intellectual and spiritual level, the characters I regarded as close friends even if they were fiction and it enthralled me from start to finish of its massive runtime. When all was said and done, I felt a familiar satisfaction that I’ve felt but a few times before. I know this feeling well, because it’s the same feeling I had when I finished the games that I regard as my favourite games of all time. I look back at singular moments of the game with vivid recollection, still mulling over the things it tried to tell me. Every memory that I have of it is a fond one and I feel this deep happiness inside my very soul after I experienced all it had to offer. I’m just being honest with you here, dear reader. I know that rating I gave the game is bold, I know that some people might not enjoy the game as much as I did.
But I don’t care.
Persona 5 is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. There is nothing more I can say.