Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Persona 5

Even though it's five hours before the game slips the tutorial reins and lets you loose in a full-on dungeon, Persona 5's opening grips you immediately and doesn't let go. In contrast to the milquetoast player-inserts of games past, this player-character's (bad) reputation precedes him. Shipped away after a bogus assault conviction, he begins his probation in a new town at a new school, where all anyone knows of him is that he's “that juvenile delinquent.” Everyone—his foster guardian, his classmates, and his teachers—treats him with suspicion and contempt. The few social outcasts he manages to befriend hardly have it better. When they stumble into real violence by authority figures on school grounds, who's going to believe them? No one.

That's what the “Metaverse” is for.

In this world, the outsized ids of the truly vile grow into tangible fact: metaphysical "palaces" that represent their violent psyches—an abusive teacher's castle of pain, a prideful artist's gilded gallery. These palaces of their desires made manifest are also where they are most vulnerable. At the heart of them lies a treasure that, when stolen, will bring down the full moral weight of their actions upon them and force them into painful atonement. So, with no one else to turn to, our band of misfit kids awaken to the power of persona by rejecting the injustice or social oppression confronting them. Dubbing themselves the Phantom Thieves, they set out to steal the treasures of the evil, and they always send a calling card so the crook has time to sweat their downfall. After all, what good is dishing out justice if you can't look cool doing it?

And in the Metaverse, thankfully, rejecting society affords not just power, but a stellar makeover. It's impossible to overstate how successfully Persona 5 weaves a whole out of its interconnected layers of aesthetics and systems, tone and mechanics. As in most Megami Tensei games, battle tactics revolve around exploiting an enemy's elemental weaknesses. Hitting an ice monster with fire knocks them down and grants an extra turn (a “One More!”), culminating in a climactic beat down once all enemies are stunned. But there's always been a stumbling block: groups with mixed elemental affinities. If you've already downed the two enemies weak to wind, but there's still a fire demon on the board, what do you do until your ice attacker's turn comes up? In earlier games, you'd throw a couple neutral spells around, or just wait it out by Defending.

Persona 5's answer to this pacing lull is the Baton Pass, which allows you to pass your One More to any other party member, creating cascading combos of critical hits that end any random encounter in a fluid extremely satisfying chain. The Baton Pass is as much aesthetic as it is mechanic; not just mutely ceding control to the next in line, party members high-five, fluff each other up with compliments, and strike exaggerated runway poses. Well-executed fights end in an all-out attack, where the character who brought it home offers a smarmy quote and a cocky wink to the camera as the background bursts into their personal, gleefully-stylized victory screen.

This game is a bombshell, and it knows it.

This synergy of aesthetic and mechanic lends Persona 5 an unbelievable amount of texture. It's a remarkably well-integrated world. Persona is known for its vibrant, effervescent style, but this is an aesthetic masterwork. With its every corner exploding with layers of art and text in different, conflicting styles what's most surprising is how intelligible it is—these lively, clashing menus are built to be as intuitive as they are stylish. Post-battle summaries pop out in scrawls of living graffiti and even the load screens clamor for your attention, with a ticker scrolling by 2chan-style messages expressing support or disdain for the antics of the Phantom Thieves. The peppy soundtrack drives the pace in a way unlike other Personas. Though most of its songs orbit a jazz or funk sound, and the rap battle themes and peppy Jpop numbers of Persona 3 and 4 are absent, this OST is the most expansive in the series. Boisterous jazz numbers accompany your fight scenes and energetic slap bass your after-school explorations of bustling Shibuya and Shinjuku, fading into mellow moods as night falls. Returning to Leblanc, your foster home/local coffee shop, after dark, a smoky lounge singer croons her melancholy melody along with the gentle jingle of the shop bell, and you check your phone for chat messages from your team. As leisurely as the daytime music is hyper, that nightly tune imbues the evening activities with an unhurried calm. It's easy to set the controller down, leave the TV on, and just let the speakers lullaby your cares away. At the climax of each chapter, where the bandits begin their final infiltration of an enemy's palace, the music soars—a sort of battle-punk soul reminiscent of groups like the Bellrays, perfectly suited to spike your adrenaline, and never faltering: fights and cut scenes transition with that brazen chorus still blaring in the background, churning your blood and driving you forward.

The UI improvements aren't just for show, they markedly improve the flow of combat. Instead of a static menu, button prompts halo your character in a explosive burst—square to attack, triangle for persona, and, in the game's tiniest bit of panache: up on the d-pad to quickdraw your pistol or submachine gun. Whether you want to attack or defend, pinpoint an enemy weaknesses or run away, whatever you're looking for is rarely more than a button or two away. Turn-based combat here moves almost as fast the Active Time battles of Final Fantasy 13 and 15, yet will be completely natural to anyone who's played RPGs as recently as the Super Nintendo.

With the return of mainline Shin Megami Tensei's demon negotiation system—albeit a simplified version of it—the demons you fight against become the personas you fight with… after you butter them up a little with words and presents. So every new dungeon is its own grimoire-worth of daemonic pokemon to befriend, level-up, and fuse into even stronger beasts. And, in one of the biggest geological shifts, dungeons are no longer generic, randomly-generated mazes with plot checkpoints every five floors. Their construction is now as essential to the narrative as their cutscenes.

Like Persona 4, dungeon environments vary according to their owner. With stealth and grace, you infiltrate each enemy palace as thieves on a mission. Running down hallways or sidling through air vents, you evade and engage shadowy humanoid creatures costumed as medieval guards or private security. Light stealth mechanics invest you in the dramatic role of a thief on an infiltration mission and follow through on that by skewing the power dynamic wildly in favor of whichever side initiates combat. When you're the aggressor, battles are often over before the enemy can take a turn, but when a patrol blindsides you with a surprise attack they surround you, cutting off escape and doing drastically more damage. As the game goes on you'll gain items and abilities that mitigate these disadvantages, but you'll stick to the shadows regardless; waiting for the perfect moment to strike is what thieves do, after all, and this is far less Metal Gear Solid than Arkham Asylum. You may be vulnerable to a frontal assault, but you aren't hiding from the monsters. You're stalking them.

Each palace is an actual building with defined layouts and traps, rather than the randomly generated levels of Personas 3 and 4 that you could essentially navigate via mini-map, like a Pac-Man board. The platforming and stealth suggest the designers sought inspiration far outside the JRPG comfort zone. This subtle fusion of genres keeps you invested in and aware of your surroundings even though about a dozen hiding spots populate every room or corridor, so keeping hidden is never particularly difficult (provided the camera cooperates). Which is good, because the punishment for failure is dire. Get spotted too many times and you're summarily ejected from the dungeon. This is largely a theoretical threat, you'd have to be one inept burglar to be caught that many times in one run, but it's enough to keep you checking around every corner because it carries such a substantive cost: a loss of time.

Time is always Persona's primary currency. With about a year to crack the case, subdivided into individual missions every month or so as new villains rise and fall, it's tough to fit everything in. As much a life sim as a dungeon crawler, you spend your time in the real world working part-time jobs and spending your paycheck on hamburger eating contests, second-hand retro games, or rental DVDs (be mindful of late fees). Most of these activities feed into the personality stats like guts and charm required to level up your Social Links, the twenty-odd anime B plots about friendship and finding your place in the world.

As usual, hanging out with your teammates unlocks supplemental battle techniques like stealing items or enduring a fatal blow, but now your civilian “confidants” offer new abilities too. A cafe owner teaches you his restorative coffee recipe, a politician's rhetorical tricks let you renegotiate terms with particularly stubborn demons, and so on. While this extraction of value speaks to an extremely mercenary view of friendship, such has always been the way of Social Links—at least now you get a Chow Yun-Fat gun flip out of the deal. Persona 5 feels slightly more generous with time than Persona 4, which was in turn significantly more generous than Persona 3, and I was able to max all my relationships on my first run—though it required rigorous attention to schedules and significant save scumming.

And though so much of the plot has an unmistakably “mainstream anime” sensibility, its subject matter, at least in the opening chapters, is anything but. Especially forward by JRPG standards, it's still astonishing to see any game with this kind of budget behind it address subjects of physical and sexual abuse so directly. Tales, Final Fantasy, and other big-ticket RPG series certainly spend their time staring into the abyss, but their proper-noun worldbuilding and high-fantasy archetypes function in abstract, and as metaphor. The first chapter of Persona 5 is not just dark, but intensely relatable—this isn't a princeling collecting the power of the spirits to defeat an evil empire, this is a group of helpless kids caught under the thumb of a powerful, abusive adult. At times, it feels almost too dark, for this sort of genre and this sort of game. Of course, there are plenty of hijinks and pratfalls scattered throughout—just as Persona 4 broke up its initial salvo of serial murders by rolling Yosuke down a hill in a trash barrel—but, for a surprising chunk of its opening act, Persona 5 refuses to pump the breaks. But of course, eventually, it does. As the stakes get higher, a cartoonish inflation overtakes subsequent villains. Their power-hungry schemes begin to suit a more recognizable fictional mold, and the wrenching impact of the opening act's excruciating personal conflict recedes in the rearview.

It's unlikely that the plot could've sustained the dire, personal nature of its first villain across the whole of its 80+ hours (and they've gotta squeeze a school trip's-worth of exasperatingly whacky mix-ups in there somewhere), but at the same time, the early game seemed to be reaching for something more than the rest delivered. Railing against the abject and needless suffering caused by corruption, greed, and an uncaring justice system, these arguments are certainly of this era, but they lack substance. There's hardly anything to them but “this is bad!" Juxtaposed with this month's Nier: Automata, Persona 5's thematic heft seems slight by comparison.

There's a temptation to align this plot directly with today's political landscape—and pulpy as this story is, much of what it's saying maps to present American experience a little too easily, given it's basically a superhero cartoon about magical mind powers. Experiencing this story external to the culture that produced it, it's hard to feel completely justified in applying this kind of judgment. Convicted criminals in Japan suffer deep social stigma and thus, casting the main character as a juvenile delinquent—even one wrongly accused—speaks to a certain boldness that may not play the same way to American audiences, despite the facially similar problems of our own repressive justice system.

Either way, with politicians and oligarchs run amok in our modern world, perhaps Persona 5 needs no nuance. Why burden our heroes with self-doubt when our real-life villains are so unequivocally evil it beggars belief? These heroes have limited inner turmoil, they're way more pissed off about a world that's done them wrong. But in a world that does everyone but the richest wrong, it's hard to argue when these categorically oppressed kids transmogrify their resentment into rebellion. In a way, the absence of inner turmoil is its own statement. Persona 4's cast awoke to their true selves by reconciling society's needs with their own, but Persona 5's never asks why they should assimilate in the first place; they've already seen the lie, and they know this world would never do right by them, no matter what they did.

Over the years, there's been a backlash in some circles over Persona 4's conservative resolutions of its social themes. For a game about the teens exploding under societal pressure and forging their true selves, it was surprising how many of those “true selves” ended up being in lock step with the status quo. It was especially disheartening watching Persona 4's handful of queer-coded characters writing off their queerness with full-hearted acceptance of society's repressive expectations. So Persona 5 plays things safer, setting its sights on irredeemable targets: rapists, greedy thugs, corrupt politicians. With antagonists showing an utter lack of complexity in their evil, and with the story's surprising disinterest in interrogating the validity of the Phantom Thieves' vigilante justice, it feels as if the baby has been thrown out of the bathwater. Whatever promise of nuanced social interrogation Persona 4 held but did not deliver, Persona 5 by and large doesn't even aspire to. It's a straight-forward crime drama, where the bads are very bad and everyone else toils beneath them.

By placing the conflict on the national scale, what has been lost? That Persona 4 is still talked about to this day surely has to do with how naturally, and how deeply, it built a sense of intimacy with its cast. This game isn't coasting; these characters aren't archetypes—the pretty-girl model is not Rise, the adorable cat mascot is not a re-skinned Teddy, and the best friend is not Yosuke (thank god). Often, however, Persona 5 subordinates its vibrant, vivacious crew of ne'er-do-wells to the greater plot, much more in line with how Persona 3's colossal, apocalyptic narrative played out. As a result, you have to wonder if Ann, Ryuji, Yusuke and the rest will stick in peoples heads for as long as Yukiko, Kanji, Chie, et al. have.

Admittedly, the P5 stars have yet to receive a decade of spin-offs to keep them in the forefront of people's minds.

These worries or compunctions may be unfair, or misaligned—as one of the few big-budget games that's even tried to address these themes at all, much less done so with any proficiency, Persona 5 is forced to bear the burdens of all those others who haven't even bothered to try. By most standards, this game is not only the best of its series, but among the best of its genre. In subtler ways, it hides a retread of Persona 4's central, niggling doubt: the spark of a masterwork at the center of this casts shadows on its imperfections. Even as it soars, Persona 5 creates a yearning for something greater.

Overall : A+
Graphics : A+
Sound/Music : A+
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A+

+ The best and most integrated mechanics of the series.
Story is straightforward, which may be a slight letdown to those more interested in the characters than the mystery

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