A dark yet stylish RPG that offers much more than a fun time
gameplay 99 / story 99 / graphics 97 / sound 99
Do you remember what high school was like? Making new friends, studying for difficult tests, fighting off hordes of demons while dismantling the influence of evil adults? Wait, that last one doesn’t apply to most people. Instead, it applies to Persona 5: the fifth main title in the popular Atlus series. It’s a shame the series never took off like it could have before. Hopefully with this one, it does. Persona 5 is one of the best turn-based RPGs around. What’s not to love? It has fantastic art, amazing characters, deep combat, and a mature story that tackles intense themes without being juvenile. It also provides social commentary on the current state of Japan that also applies to the USA. Yeah, that might turn some off due to “social justice” being considered a dirty word, but it works here.
Let’s start the show. You play as…well, you. Even though the main character has his own backstory and look, he’s basically a player avatar. After stopping a politician from forcing himself on a woman, he finds himself arrested and exiled from his town. While on probation, he lives with a coffee shop owner named Sojiro Sakura. While on probation, he must be on his best behavior, or else he’ll go to prison. On his way to his new high school, however, he and another kid end up in a parallel universe due to a mysterious phone app that installed itself in his smart phone. They discover that their school in this universe is called a Palace: a place where the distorted desires of its ruler change the look of a real world location into their own private sanctuary of sin. In order to change the ruler’s perception of this place, he and and his friends must gather the strength to fight against them, steal the treasure from their palace, and change their heart so that the ruler’s distorted desires stop influencing the real world.
Put simply, they do this by unleashing their personas. In this title, personas are the manifestations of rebellion. Each of the characters in the party unlocks theirs because someone in their world has wronged them in some way. The pain, frustration, and anger from their suffering transforms into a powerful fighting spirit within the bounds of the alternate universe known as the Metaverse. The main character, however, being a blank slate, has the ability to use multiple personas, as dictated by the beings inside the Velvet Room: a mysterious area within the protagonists mind presided over by Igor and his assistants Justine and Caroline. By strengthening the bonds he shares with his friends and confidants, the main character, known as Joker, gathers the strength he needs to reform society and rehabilitate himself by creating The Phantom Thieves.
It’s honestly a lot to take in at first glance. I left out so many tiny details, characters, and concepts in order to make this review succinct. To explain any further would honestly spoil the story in significant ways. The most important thing to note here is that this game earns its M rating for good reasons. Themes of sexual assault, corruption, child exploitation, and other unpleasant realities of the real world are all tackled here. They hold nothing back, either. They deal with these themes in a manner that can make some really uncomfortable. However, they tackle it with care and grace, treating each subject matter with the gravity they deserve. Helping is the fact that each character is well-written, acted, and designed to make you care about them. From the hardheaded and lovable goof Ryuji to the stoic and sensitive Makoto, every person you make friends with is someone you can relate to.
All of this is presented in a uniquely designed world that is quite simply one of the greatest achievements in terms of art style. The design is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese anime style. However, what makes it unique is a flashy comic book aesthetic that evokes a sort of edgy punk rock feel. It fits the theme of rebellion perfectly, and they use it everywhere from text boxes to vendor menus to even the main pause screen. The consistency of the UI is beyond impressive, and keeps you immersed in this world wherever you happen to be. The aesthetic also applies to both character and dungeon designs, the latter of which are easily the best in the series. Gone are the days of bland themed corridors that held back previous entries. The dungeons are full on creations, ranging from grim castles, Orwellian factories, and even lavish museums. The game just looks absolutely beautiful. The soundtrack also helps, which abandons J-pop style music in favor of a jazz-punk rock fusion that further adds to the atmosphere of subterfuge and deception. You’ll be humming these tracks to yourself for days, they’re composed so well.
But enough about the story and graphics, so let’s move onto gameplay. There are three main features to how you play. There’s the high school simulator, the RPG combat, and the persona creation system. For everything here, you move around the world as normal while interacting with characters, items, and shop vendors. While not an open-world, there are multiple interconnected districts throughout the city of Tokyo, each with their own identity. You live above Sojiro’s coffee shop, which is where you sleep, customize your room, and create thieving tools. You go to school during the week, and take days off every Sunday and designated Japanese holiday. Your character has a set of stats that increase depending on your actions. During school, you sometimes have to answer questions related to a variety of topics from history to math. Get them right, and you increase your knowledge stat. Going to the movies, reading certain books, or doing certain activities increases either your kindness, charm, or courage, which can help you unlock certain dialogue options. You build relationships using the confidant system, which allows you to not only be the most popular kid in school, but grants you access to various combat abilities for the dungeon encounters.
As for the dungeons, this is where the game shines. Aside from each one being unique, the gameplay mechanics make you feel like you’re a thief looking for treasure. You jump across chasms, climb towards the ceilings, crawl through vents, and sneak past guards by using cover. Each dungeon has multiple floors, and your goal is to secure a path to the treasure so you can steal it. You start by finding an alternate entrance, find safe zones at checkpoints, and finish by finding the final room. There are small treasure chests within each palace as well, which you can open normally or use lockpicks on. These can contain treasure for sale, items, armor, weapons, and even new skills to give to your less powerful personas if need be. As far as the guards are concerned, you can hit them from behind for a preemptive strike, or they can detect and surround you. If detected, you will raise the current palace’s alarm system, leading to more powerful shadows patrolling the area. If it hits maximum alert, you get kicked out and have to go back after a cooldown period. More often than not, you can just simply walk past them if you’re clever enough.
However, the guards won’t always let you through so easily, and that’s where combat comes into play. You and three other party members are your team. They can either act on their own with a tactics list, or you can tell them what to do directly. They can attack directly with either their weapon or gun, guard, and use special abilities via their persona. While you never know the turn order, the fight only progresses when you decide on an action to take. What’s fascinating is that they mapped each command to a specific button on the controller, meaning you have fewer menus to scroll through and more control over what you do. Some unique mechanics to the Persona series make a comeback, such as gaining an extra turn when hitting an enemy’s weakness, and unleashing an “all-out attack” when all enemies get knocked down. Bear in mind, however, that enemies can knock you down as well, though mercifully will never attack you all at once. However, a feature from Persona 2 comes back to the fray, and that’s negotiations. Instead of an all-out attack, you can coerce the downed foe to give you either money, an item, or their own power for the main character to use as his own. You do this with a simplistic dialogue system where you can either succeed, or fail by either forcing them to fight back or run away. It makes fights more unique than any other RPG out there.
Due to you using multiple personas, it might seem a hassle to constantly shift through them all. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your inventory while maximizing your power. Whenever you enter a dungeon, you’re also able to access to the Velvet Room. Here, you can use Igor and his assistants to unlock the full power of your persona control. You do this through fusion, where you can take two or more personas and fuse them together for a stronger fighter. As each persona is related to a specific type, such as fool, lovers, and other arcane card types, the bond you share with your friends and confidants influences how much power they gain from any of the fusions you create. Another feature is the ability to strengthen your favorites by sacrificing one persona and giving the new owner a share of the power. Each persona you create has a random move set, and should you create one that you really like, you can register it in the persona compendium for later purchase, or to unlock more unique summons. It allows a level of customization that’s quite uncommon for most other games.
There are also many side quests to find and complete. These typically come in the form of minor villains being targeted for a change of heart, specialized confidant storylines, or simple dungeon crawling through a procedural dungeon known as Mementos: the palace of the collective unconscious. In the latter, you comb through the depths of this admittedly creepy dungeon to fight side quest shadows, as well as hunt for unique loot to use for the main dungeon that you happen to be tackling at the time. Each time you enter offers a completely new path, so going through never feels exactly the same. In a way, it’s like an homage to the Tartarus tower in Persona 3, only with better aesthetics.
I’ve been singing this games praises so much that I sometimes thing it’s flawless. However, every diamond has its flaw, and this one has a few. For instance, the movement controls can feel a bit stiff, likely due to this being Atlus’s first time making the characters this mobile. Also, the detection AI is hit or miss. While the alarm system is there, I never once got it to the highest alert level because getting behind shadows for the preemptive strike is jarringly easy regardless of how far you are. This doesn’t make some fights any easier, mind you, but it does give you a hell of an advantage in most cases. Also, the voice acting, while exceptional, does have a few spots where the lines could have gone with a better take or a better line of dialogue. Honestly, these are nitpicks, but it’s understandable if they get under some player’s skins.
The most I can say about Persona 5 – and the whole series in general – is that it’s the ultimate “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” game. Yes, it’s colorful, fun, and lighthearted on the outside. But inside it there are many layers. The story is brilliant at taking rough subjects and delivering them with maturity. The combat is interactive, deep, and engaging. The characters are all relatable. This is a game that pushes boundaries in terms of what games can accomplish. I poured over 100 hours into this masterpiece, and I aim to do another playthrough soon. Just try not to get overwhelmed by how brutal it can get, and appreciate it for what it accomplishes. So make your justice ring out, my fellow Phantom Thieves, and let this game steal your heart as it did mine.
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