Persona is a rare example of the spinoff that eclipses the main series that spawned it. This was largely thanks to the PS2 classic Persona 3, with a winning formula that blended fantastic settings with day-to-day school life and excellent RPG mechanics. Persona 4 is often regarded as one of the best RPGs of the past decade, but in my honest opinion, Persona 5 surpasses them all.
From the moment the game starts, Persona 5 exudes a suave and debonaire aura, yet it takes a while for the game to really show its true nature. Despite good intentions in preventing a sexual assault, the main character is found guilty of assaulting the man he tried to stop.
Sent to live in Tokyo with a guardian, it’s quite striking to see how everyone reacts to this new transfer student with a criminal record. Rumours fly around the school, teachers treat him with scorn, and the atmosphere is nigh-on miserable. It’s an introduction that is quite jarring, as he deals with rejection from his peers and eventually having to resort to drastic measures when a teacher threatens to expel him and fellow student Ryuji for “knowing too much”.
The rest of the game follows a familiar formula, in a way. Find out who the antagonist of the day is, explore his corrupted cognition or “Palace”, send a calling card, before finally taking the “treasure” they hold so dear, resulting in a change of heart.
Palace designs are certainly as striking, if not more so, than the worlds found within the TV in Persona 4, but the key difference is that they reflect the antagonist’s personality more. As fans of Batman know, the antagonist’s backstory is much more enticing, so seeing their desires manifest in such as way is a very nice touch.
One other detail I felt was very well thought out from the start was the theme of the gentleman thief. As Phantom Thieves, it’s fitting that the Personas used are based on famous fictional rogues such as Arséne Lupin, Captain Kidd, or Zorro. Each mask from the party members is designed to take a leaf from those characters, so Ryuji’s Skull mask represents Captain Kidd, while Morgana’s design resembles Zorro’s bandana mask. Little details such as this are like winks for those in the know and show just how much care has gone into the design.
Persona 5 has many twists and turns that kept me enticed throughout, but the one detail that annoyed me was how dialogue is used. It’s not that it’s poorly crafted, but the fact that cutscenes sometimes play out, only for the phone to bleep and display texts from party members that tend to repeat what was just said is mildly irksome at best. The game does have a journal, which would have been better suited to summarise details more often, rather than pad the game out further than needed.
Much like the other recent Persona games, you must balance your day-to-day life with masquerading as a gentleman thief and stealing the hearts from nefarious villains. Social Links, now called Confidants, have received significant changes. In addition to learning skills that activate automatically during battles, party members can also have an effect on item production, negotiations, and more.
NPC Confidants can do a myriad of things. One might allow you to have better options while negotiating in battle, another can make it possible to make coffee or curry, and another can copy Skill Cards obtained as items by using Blank Cards. Needless to say, some Confidants are more useful than others, but all are worth investing time in developing a relationship with.
On top of stealing hearts, maximising your Confidant ranks, and increasing your five core stats, you’ll also have to contend with Mementos – a randomly generated dungeon crawl through the collective consciousness of Tokyo, manifest as a grimy subway. This acts much like Tartarus did in Persona 3, while each of the Palaces use set layouts.
Mementos is also home to the quests given by one of your Confidants that takes in requests from people in Tokyo. They’re essentially little side missions that reap their own rewards in items, but occasionally you’ll also be able to maximise a Confidant rank by helping them directly. It is definitely a good way to ensure that you explore Mementos, though this does make time management a vital thing to get right.
One thing that didn’t really change between Persona 3 and Persona 4 was the combat system and how you gain Persona for your main character. Persona 5 flips this on its head by introducing new attacks for both Bless and Curse elements outside of the instant kill magic, while also debuting the Psi and Nuclear elements that shake the formula up a bit further. What’s more, certain elements deal more damage if the opponent has a status condition, such as Wind attacks on burnt enemies or Psi attacks on enemies with psychological ailments.
By far the most critical change though is with the returning mechanics from Persona 1 and both versions of Persona 2. When enemies are all downed by critical attacks or attacked by their weakness, you have the choice to either perform an All-Out attack, demand money or an item from the enemy, or attempt to persuade them to join you. Enemies have their own personalities, so the idea is to give the right response.
If you choose wisely, they’ll become a new mask for the protagonist to use, but you could scare them and cause them to flee or anger them into attacking you. The risk-reward mechanic is somewhat intimidating at first, but there are Confidants that make this easier as time goes on. It’s a welcome throwback to the older games while at the same time feeling like a seamless fit.
Then there are the boss battles. Some are traditional tests of perseverance, but others have gimmicks that may require you to send a party member off to distract the enemy or defeat certain enemies first. A few times, I was thrown for a loop while trying to figure out what I was meant to do, often dying as a result, but the fights become significantly more manageable once you recognise the trick.
I mentioned towards the start of the review that Persona 5’s style is incredibly suave. By using a more comic-book style, character designs pop out nicely, while the little cut-ins showing expressions break up the monotony of the dialogue a little bit. Stylistic choices also make their way into the soundtrack. Rock is still ever present, but Persona 5 also borrows the style of Lupin III, while at the same time injecting its own original charisma. This is a distinct RPG that shows just how incorporating a theme well can make a stand-out game.
As for the game’s length, it largely depends on what difficulty setting you put it at. On Normal difficulty, you can expect to easily break the 80 hour mark as you reach the final days. Multiple endings are littered throughout as well, not to mention the now obligatory New Game+ to ease you back in once you’ve completed it. As far as Normal mode goes, it’s well balanced and doesn’t feature any particularly obnoxious difficulty spikes.
Persona 5 stole my heart. It was impossible to believe that the best game of the already venerated series was still to come, and yet somehow everything works wonderfully. I’d rather the dialogue didn’t pad things out as much as it did, but I was captivated from beginning to end, while it successfully brought back mechanics long thought out-dated, and introduced smart changes for the better. An essential RPG for 2017 that you should not miss out on.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4