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First Look: Persona 5

by Dave Riley,

It's hard to believe we're just shy of ten years since Persona 4's release, filled as those years have been with Dancing and Fighting game spin-offs, portable Director's Cuts, and a number of Megami Tensei mainline games, and their spin-offs, too. So while this lull between sequels is rare in the world of video games, it's also true that hardly a year has gone by without some 60+ hour Shin Megami Tensei Something to sink our teeth into. With the absence of a numbered sequel and a deluge of Dancing All Nights and Arena Ultimaxes, Persona has been simultaneously distant and ever present for the better part of a decade.

Compared to Persona 3's largely apolitical supernatural thriller or Persona 4's sometimes Scooby Doo-ish small town whodunnit, Persona 5's intro is palpably dark, with themes of sexual and physical abuse openly discussed and confronted far more directly than in previous games, or the RPG genre as a whole. Though the protagonist is the usual generic, largely voiceless nobody, his circumstances offer his characterization: jammed up by a bogus assault charge, society has branded him a juvenile delinquent and shipped him away from his hometown as part of his probation. Injustice is everywhere in the opening act, even in its allegory; The Velvet Room, Persona's metaphysical training ground, current incarnation manifests as a prison--a small-scale panopticon overseen by tsundere child wardens who beat the bars and speak menacingly of "rehabilitation."

Then you party up with a squeaky cartoon animal. It's still Persona.

Yet Persona 5 also brings back several mainline Megami Tensei hallmarks that've been otherwise absent since Persona 3. Instead of abstract shadow creatures, enemies are recognizable (and acquirable) creatures such as Pixie and Jack Frost. Instead of gaining new personas through post-battle roulettes, you persuade them to join your party or offer up items or cash in a lightweight version of Megami Tensei's Demon Negotiation--short dialog battles where you suss out what a weakened Tengu labeled as "Irritable," wants to hear when it asks "What was the cause of my defeat…?"

From character animation to soundtrack to special effects and even the menus, Persona 5's energetic, hyper-busy style radiates confidence in its cool. Graffiti'd pop-up text plasters over most corners of the screen, and every minimap is stylistic kitchen sink of icons for bakeries, rental shops, and subway transfers. In battle, hitting an enemy's elemental weakness in combat gives you a bonus turn as usual but you can now lend those extra actions to your teammates via a Baton Pass. Switching off with one another, the characters high-five and strike an exaggerated pose, taking a moment to vogue for the camera while a burst of neon energy swirls around them and a status pop-in trumpets out "Attack Up!" This snappy, exuberant tone is perfectly inline with its main cast: a group of teenage bandits who've styled themselves supernatural heroes of justice; they're having a blast, and so should you. Taken in light of the many dour, straightforward RPGs that have come and gone since Persona 4 (some of them Megami Tensei games themselves), it's a thrill to play something so unabashedly excited about itself. Persona 5 wants you to enjoy playing it. It may touch against darker themes, but it never wallows.

There's a kind of kinesthesis to the combat that RPGs rarely attempt. Instead of tabbing through a menu in battle, baseline actions are mapped to individual face buttons. In some cases, there's a nice verisimilitude to it (up on the d-pad draws your gun), but the primary benefit is having the whole palette of basic abilities available at a single button press. So, in a way, these explosively stylized menus are also invisible. Gone are the sluggish cursor movement and slight lag of Persona 4; attack animations burst forth with rapidity and zeal, combat turns segue into each other without pause, and seemingly the only limiter on how quickly you fight is your manual dexterity. When swapping through your personas, icons denote the elemental affinities of their attacks, so early-game battles aren't held back by the usual strain of remembering whether "Magaru" is wind or ice.

That's the major ethos behind these changes: to get out of your way as much as they possibly can. Persona 5 wants you to play it as confidently and cooly as it presents itself to you, and part of that is giving you a toolset to decide which parts of the game are fun and which are busywork. It offers light stealth to ambush or avoid enemy patrols when you're low on resources or worn out on fighting, and the day's available social links show up on your subway map so you don't have to spend five minutes walking around town before you commit to your chosen activity, but it's still up to you to remember which food stands sell the resurrective melon pan or stat-increasing smoothies and on which days. As systems pile on top of systems, both in the dungeon and while navigating your daily life as a high school student, these streamlining and quality of life improvements become something you can't imagine how you ever lived without--or how you managed to endure the other 100+ hour games in this series without, anyway.

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