REVIEW / Persona 5 (PS4)

 

Almost three weeks have passed since Persona 5 hit store shelves, plenty of time for the internet to be flooded with reviews, desperate forum posts, and countless guides on how to max out your social links and extort your enemies for money and items. For those who are new to the Persona series, here’s the general gist: you typically control a second-year Japanese high schooler who has just transferred to a new school and new city. You and your new friends soon awaken to the ability to use Personas, manifestations of the darker, more powerful parts of your personalities. You’re the only one to have the “wild card” power, allowing you to fuse and use multiple Personas.. This is thanks to making acquaintances with the residents of the Velvet Room, a place where Persona fusion and abstract exposition happens. The 20+ year strong Persona series is the only JRPG series I’m aware of that give you real downtime between dungeon crawling, as you have to spend time improving yourself, your relationships with others and generally doing life sim things like going to school and working part-time jobs.

 

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Persona 5 follows the player-named male protagonist who moves to the fictional Yongen-Jaya area of Tokyo after being accused of a crime he didn’t commit in his hometown. The main character has an extremely tenuous link with the owner of Leblanc (a coffee and curry shop in Yongen), Sojiro Sakura, who takes him in for his one year probationary period. The evening he arrives, the protagonist discovers a weird navigational app has been installed on his phone. Thinking nothing of it, he deletes it, but it shows up multiple times, refusing to be deleted.

On his first day at his new school, the main character meets up with his first friend and party member, Ryuji Sakamato, who has some choice words to say about a teacher from their school. Unbeknownst to the two students, the navigational app reacts and they are transported to an alternate version of their school – a castle. Inside, they meet a strange cat-like creature named Morgana who explains that they have entered the teacher’s “Palace,” a manifestation of his distorted desires. By stealing his “Treasure,” a heavily guarded manifestation of those same desires, they would be able to change the teacher’s actions and feelings. However, stealing the Treasure comes with a risk of causing “mental shutdown,” which essentially renders the victim brain dead and unable to function. Persona 5 follows this general premise throughout most of the game, where more disillusioned and abused teenagers awaken to their Personas and join the fight to change the desires of adults who have lost their way.

 

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GAMEPLAY

Newcomers and veterans of the series will adore the slick gameplay in Persona 5. Veterans in particular will note how all of the staples of Persona games have been given a fresh coat of paint. While the battle system is still turn-based, the interface has been updated to be as fast and smooth as possible. Rather than scrolling down a short list of battle options (Persona, Skill, Item, etc.), each option has been allocated a button. In addition, there’s no longer any need to wait for the prompt for an all-out attack. If you know you want to press triangle to attack, then you can very quickly skip over the small animation and get straight to business. Persona 5 basically wants you to feel as badass as possible, and by being able to just push a quick series of buttons to get exactly what you want (especially if you have cursor and Persona memory enabled), battles fly by and you both feel awesome and have a lot more fun while grinding. While the “Rush” command is still there, I don’t think I used it more than a handful of times, since standard battling was just as efficient in almost all cases.

Relevant to all-out attacks, a much-loved feature of Persona 2 and many, many Shin Megami Tensei games: demon negotiation. Simply figure out its weakness, knock it down (along with the rest of its comrades) and rather than selecting the all-out attack option, talk to it. Players are now given three options: ask the demon to join your cause, ask the demon for an item, or ask the demon for money. The demon will ask two questions (at first) which you can respond to via three multiple choice answers. The answer will result in either a happy, neutral or angry reaction from the demon.

 

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Depending on the combination of reactions, you may have the demon ask to join your party. Alternatively, they may give you an item and tell you to get lost (thus ending the battle) or they’ll go back to attacking you if you annoy them enough. Regardless of whether you’ve found the demon’s weakness (you can just knock them down via critical to initiate an all-out attack), once they are in your possession, all future instances of that enemy in battle will have their full range of resistances revealed on the analysis screen. One of the major updates to demon negotiation in Persona 5, compared to its predecessors, is that the demon personality types actually mean something with regard to how they react to your responses. Likewise, the responses are consistent. A Cerberus, for example, will always respond the same way to the same answer, no matter how many times you encounter it. In previous games, demon negotiation was a constant game of trial and error that really, really wore thin.

Additionally, accumulating money in Persona 5 is extremely simple once you upgrade your demon negotiation abilities. You can extort money out of demons over and over again until they get fed up and decide to attack you or retreat. If you find yourself low on money in Persona 5, you need to work on your extortion abilities, because I’m rolling in disposable income over here. On a personal note, I find that the reintroduction of Personas/demons as the battle enemies in Persona 5 is a welcome change from the less-than-interesting shadow designs in Persona 3 and 4. Obviously demon negotiation wouldn’t have been possible without this change, but I’ve always enjoyed the ability to talk directly with my summons before mercilessly cramming them in their Pokeball welcoming them to the team.

 

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Regarding the dungeons, Persona 3 and Persona 4 have been completely blown out of the water. Gone are the days of procedurally-generated, samey dungeons that go up or down 10 floors with little to no variety. Each Palace in Persona 5 has a very different look and feel, and each floor or section has its own unique challenges and puzzles. The puzzles in Persona 5 aren’t earth-shatteringly hard, or else I wouldn’t be reviewing this game post-completion; still, they conjure up a lovely, rewarding feeling of pride once you’ve bested the puzzle du jour and pushed forward in the dungeon. In addition, the newly-added Phantom Thief sneaking, hiding and ambushing options make the dungeons feel like more of a big deal. Ambushing is vital for turning the tide of battle, and the security systems in the Palaces pose a true threat if you screw up a lot, and can lead to you being thrown out of the Palace. Plus, as always, it makes you feel like a badass.

However, if you were a fan of Persona 3’s all-business take on dungeon-crawling in Tartarus, there’s a place for you! A completely separate dungeon area called Mementos is procedurally generated, looks almost exactly the same no matter which section you’re in, and has a lovely, quick-loop monotonous background score for when you want to complete quests and pick up missed demons from past dungeons with absolutely no frills. Obviously there’s a little more to Mementos than that, but you’ll have to play the game to find out more.

 

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Moving on from battle and dungeon gameplay, let’s talk about  the Velvet Room, where Persona Fusion happens. The Velvet Room residents in this entry are ever-present Igor, as well as two new assistants, twin girls Caroline and Justine. Due to your arrest and subsequent probation, the Velvet Room appears as a prison and the twin girls as your “wardens”. Persona fusion is also similarly themed, where Personas fused together are executed via guillotine. They can also be hung and electrocuted in order to be sacrificed as EXP for better Personas or made into useful items. ATLUS took all of Persona 4 Golden’s quality of life changes (e.g. being able to directly select which inherited skills you want), as well as including features like being able to view fusions by result, and implemented them in Persona 5. The Persona Compendium also has the starting level of every single Persona listed, even if you don’t have them yet. You can also view their skills and silhouette, but not their name. Knowing exactly what you’re missing is insanely helpful when it comes to Compendium completion.

Returning to the life sim elements of the game, players can expect an extremely wide variety of activities to boost your personality traits, including baseball batting cages, visiting a nearby bathhouse and patronizing maid cafes. There are also more opportunities to boost stats in certain ways, like being able to access books on the train of a morning on your way to school, or sneaking time in class to work on infiltration tools. Boosting social links – known as “Confidants” in this entry – is mostly the same. Bringing a Persona to events whose Arcana matches your Confidant will boost your relationship and the positive effects of your answers to their questions.

 

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One enormous change to the game, regarding social links, is the plethora of benefits you get from each Confidant if you rank them up. The benefits of ranking up non-party member social links are now no longer limited to boosting your fusion capabilities in the Velvet Room. Almost every single Confidant provides damn near vital perks for maximising your time and money in and out of battle. For example, the aforementioned ability to slack off in class and make infiltration tools only comes as the result of ranking up a particular Confidant. As a result, your relationships with these people actually mean something in a tangible sense, rather than just how much you happen to like their story. I cannot praise this change enough, it has absolutely revolutionized the way that social links/Confidants work in the Persona series and I sincerely hope that these unbelievable benefits carry over into any entries that follow Persona 5.

Finally, one of the smaller, yet greatly appreciated, quality of life improvements comes in the form of your in-game smartphone. Not only does it allow you to quick-travel all across the map at a moment’s notice, but it also shows a tarot card wherever a social link is available in an area. By highlighting the area and pressing another button, it also shows you the name of the Confidant and whether they’re going to rank up upon your next encounter. Again, this is vital information for time management in the game.

 

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PLOT AND CHARACTERS

Despite all the rambling about gameplay, we all know that Persona games are, first and foremost, all about the plot and character interactions. Well, the character interactions specifically – this is precisely why the New Game+ option, with all its carried-over perks such as social stats, is so popular. You (hopefully) want to find out what happens at the conclusion of each Confidant’s story, and perhaps even want the chance to romance one of the many girls with whom you create bonds. However, in Persona 5, one of the most impressive and interesting characters in my mind was the main character. This time he isn’t just a mute blank slate with an unchanging expression whom you foist a personality onto. While you obviously still get to name the guy and choose responses for him in social situations, he actually has character this time.

You need only watch the opening cinematic for the game to see him smirk more than once. He’s a smug bastard with a lot of character. His idle animation in battle is a smirking “come get it” gesture, and when your party is gathered in their hideout waiting for you to make a menu selection, he can be seen expertly spinning his phone on his fingertips (similarly, when studying he spins his pen between his fingers like an absolute champ). The main character also has strong physical reactions to things he wasn’t expecting like having a ridiculous responsibility pushed onto him, and a lot of his responses to Confidant dialogue are downright hilarious. While the blank slate model for a mostly-or-totally-mute protagonist in the past may have allowed players to roleplay a certain kind of hero, I have enjoyed Persona 5’s approach much, much more and feel very happy controlling the main character, even if it’s just to watch him spin his pen one more time. Seriously, how does he do that?

 

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Ignore the motorcycle, she’s not a Mitsuru clone.

 

Regarding your actual party members, I can’t think of a single one that I didn’t enjoy using or interacting with. Unlike …well, multiple characters in Persona 3, and a certain mascot bear in Persona 4, none of the characters in Persona 5 really grate on me and make me wish I could mute them at every opportunity. They interact wonderfully together with just the right amount of friendly bickering and actually feel like real people. I was pleased that Morgana didn’t turn out to be a terrible mascot character and that Makoto didn’t turn out to be a Mitsuru Kirijo clone. Persona 5 has done a lot to circumvent my expectations of certain character types, and I hope that this continues in future entries in the series.

The Persona series typically does a good job of giving your social links fairly realistic struggles to overcome. Despite the anime-esque appearance of the game, most of the conversations can be described as fairly true-to-life (within reason, obviously, it is still a JRPG). Persona 5 hosts a wide range of very believable characters with real feelings and problems. Their Confidant storylines flow at a good pace and they are able to resolve their issues the way a normal person would in real life. That said, as always, some links have much more tenuous links to your involvement in their lives and current issues than others. Sometimes it did feel like they were merely speaking at you, and that you would maybe make a quip now and then before they figured out their problem on their own.

 

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Speaking of tenuous links, there is a particular framing device used throughout the game where you are interrogated whenever you make a significant step forward in the plot or forge a bond with a new Confidant. During this framing, that Confidant’s link to your Phantom Thief operations is questioned, and while some Confidants (e.g. your party members) could be very easily linked to your operations, some are…pretty far-fetched. I still appreciate the way they used the interrogation to make that bond appear absolutely vital to your Phantom Thievery, but it did appear a little contrived at times.

Regarding the actual plot, and without revealing too many specifics, the game has good pacing, and more than one interesting reveal and twist, as I had come to expect from the Persona series. Towards the end of the game, the plot and general aesthetics take a turn for the Shin Megami Tensei, and having just played the old PS2 game Raidou Kuzunoha 2, I was delighted by this change. While I won’t say anything more, I will encourage players to seek out the true ending – it’s not as hard to get as Persona 4’s true ending, that’s for sure.

 

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MUSIC/VOICE ACTING

There is a wealth of musical talent in Japan, particularly in the video game industry. Certain composers have a very distinct style, such as Tenpei Sato of Disgaea fame. Shoji Meguro, the composer for basically every Persona and SMT game I can think of, is another. When trailers hinted at an acid jazz soundtrack, I was absolutely over the moon. Pair that with an occasional vocal track laden with fantastic Engrish-y lyrics one comes to expect from Persona titles and you have one very happy reviewer.

Persona 5’s soundtrack, while clearly the work of Shoji Meguro, is very distinct from the previous two titles in the series. Walking through the streets of Tokyo with some slow jazz beats in the background, with plenty of instrumental and weather-specific versions of the same track playing throughout the game, is a truly enjoyable experience. As for the battle theme and opening theme, both vocal tracks, the music and singing is so smooth you could spread it on toast. All of the music fits perfectly with the general look and feel of the game, and a few tracks are clearly designed to make you feel like an absolute badass, particularly the song that plays when you infiltrate a Palace specifically to steal the Treasure, and a particular boss battle theme which is currently my earworm.
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Regarding voice acting, various news outlets claimed that Persona 5’s English release was delayed due to the voice acting being praised so heavily in the Japanese release that they wanted to make sure it was absolutely perfect in this version as well. Using Morgana as an example again, I was blown away by how palatable all of the voice acting was. With anime-style JRPGs, one always runs the risk of being confronted with a horrendous array of high-pitched, squeaky, unnatural voices, especially if a mascot character is involved. When I first saw promotional material for Morgana, I was dreading the reveal of his English voice, because I knew it was going to be bad, just like Teddie’s was in Persona 4. To my absolute surprise, Morgana’s voice actor did a fantastic job and apart from a few stray weird noises that can only come as a result of voicing a weird cat creature, the voice acting was spot on.

A small addition to the voice acting that really made me smile was what I’ll term as “reactive voice acting”. In particular, when you’re scrolling through menus in the Velvet Room, the twins will comment on what you’re doing. If you cut them off midway through their voice clip, they’ll react to it with comments like “Such rudeness” and “Don’t interrupt Justine!”. That’s a small part of voice acting that isn’t totally necessary, but absolutely appreciated and really added something extra to the game, considering the volatile personalities of the twins. Weirdly, as a small side note, there appear to be a few mistranslations and weird phrasing in some of the written dialogue. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not (i.e. renaming a long-time Persona named Mithra to Mitra), but it was a weird thing to notice happening on occasion. Thankfully it wasn’t frequent enough that it was detrimental to the game; there was nothing on “This guy are sick” level.

 

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AESTHETICS/DESIGN/INTERFACE

The first thing I thought when I had free reign to walk around in Persona 5 was “Holy crap, this interface is busy. How am I supposed to keep track of all of this?” The way the interface buzzes with the constant (visual) chatter of NPCs and is filled with the bodies of the shuffling masses is very appropriate for a game set in central Tokyo. Persona 5’s interface and general design simply oozes style. Red is the main colour for most menus, with black and white as highlights – even the school uniform follows this colour scheme. Each section of the menu is different and shows a different static Joker/protagonist animation depending on which part of the menu you access. The menus really feel alive, and everything is begging to be pressed and touched.

All of the 3D character models are very similar in stature and movement to the characters in Catherine, whereas the 2D character portraits are infinitely cleaner and prettier than anything seen in Persona 4. All of the character designs are wildly different, and the artwork is very clean and bright. As for the Phantom Thief clothing designs…can someone please bring me a Joker outfit? The Phantom Thief outfits more or less match the characters they’re designed for, barring a few that are clearly there for fanservice (see Ann’s Panther outfit).  Also, as per usual, the actual anime cutscenes tend to fall short in quality. I’m sure every Persona fan has seen screenshots from paused cutscenes in Persona 4 – the animation is simply not high quality. However, they’re not trying to base an entire show around it (yet), and the rest of their 3D modelling is top notch, so I’ll let it slide as a minor issue at worst.

ATLUS made very good use of the bustling, faceless masses in Tokyo, as it makes the game appear much more full, vibrant and alive compared to Persona 3, which was also situated in a fairly populous area. Also, having been to and checked photos online for some of the locations visited in Persona 5, I can say with confidence that the game versions of these locations are close to identical to the real life article. It was refreshing to see ATLUS take on a real-life location for a game and make it their own, still managing to inject plenty of vibrancy and whimsy all the same.

 

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TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?

It should come as no surprise from the tone of this review that I was blown away by Persona 5. I have no idea of the specific changes that caused the initial release delay earlier this year, but the finished product was almost certainly worth the wait. In my personal opinion, this is the best entry into the Persona series to date, and probably the best JRPG in general that I’ve played in a long time. A few miniscule flaws aside, Persona 5 is the perfect blend of life sim and turn-based JRPG. Readers will note that this review comes out almost exactly after the English release on the 4th of April, and that’s because I dumped 130+ hours into the game, not counting the times I died. I seriously couldn’t stop playing this game, and as a testament to that statement, I’m now maybe an hour into my New Game+. I recommend Persona 5 to absolutely everyone.

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