Persona 5 (2016)

I struggle to explain Persona 5 in a way that gives the game justice. While being incredibly stylish, engaging, and addictive, Persona 5 can easily be perceived as boring through simple explanations. The core of the game is that you are a high-schooler in Tokyo, doing normal teenager things, while also secretly reforming society. By magically entering people’s consciences, you and your band of misfits change the hearts of criminals. But ultimately, that is just one aspect of the game, the real genius of Persona 5 is how every component is woven together.

Persona 5 is part life-simulator and part turn-based RPG. The structure of the game is simple, you attend school, hangout with friends, explore the city, interspersed with moments of taking down a ring of dangerous criminals. The game is split into individual days, each with an afternoon and evening period to devote to different activities. You are given deadlines to take down any target, but any extra time is free time to explore Tokyo. The incredible breadth of the player’s options is staggering. You can study, visit cafes, go fishing, do batting practice, go to a sauna, work a job, go shopping, watch a movie, work out, hangout with friends, and much more. All of these options provide some sort of benefit to the player. Some of these activities involve a mini-game, but many of them are just a resource to spend your free time on.

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The life-sim aspect Persona 5 is incredibly addicting. Since every activity provides some sort of benefit, I was inclined to constantly check new locations to see what they would do for me. Things like working a job gives you money, which you can use to buy items for combat purposes. Spending time to work out increases your health for battles. Most activities increased one of your social stats: knowledge, guts, charm, proficiency, and kindness. These stats are crucial to meeting new people and deepening your relationship with them.

Most of my free time in Persona 5 was spent with the different characters, which the game calls confidants. As you spend time with confidants, you will learn more about their personality and backstory, while simultaneous improving your relationship with them. As you spend more time with them, they reward you with unique bonuses. Some of these boons are combat related, for example: giving you a chance to brush off any status ailment, survive a lethal blow, or instantly kill an enemy. Many of the confidant bonuses are helpful in the life-sim aspect of the game. Each one is tailored toward its character, the teacher lets you skip class, the doctor provides a discount on healing items, and the politician gives a bonus during negotiations.

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The confidant conversations can be quite entertaining and are a reward in and of themselves. As you get closer to each character, you learn more about their life and personality. You are given a few dialogue options during the conversations, and deducing the correct responses is critical to maximizing the confidant relationships. You also can go to special locations or give gifts to boost your relationships, so paying attention to what the characters enjoy is of great importance. Many of the characters require high social stats to even interact with, for example: the black-market gun dealer requires a high guts stat.

The life-sim aspect of Persona 5 may sound fairly dull and mundane, but trust me, it is addicting. It scratches that itch of strategically maximizing your resources. Free time is limited, so you must pick and choose what you want to do on any given day. Balancing your social stats and various confidant relationships is a fun time management problem. Additionally, the sheer variety of things kept me from getting bored. I always wanted to learn more about the characters and find out what bonuses they would provide. Free time is sprinkled throughout the different sections of the game. Between story-heavy sections and the dungeon-crawling RPG aspect, I always was excited to get some time to explore Tokyo.

1

The core structure of Persona 5 is that you infiltrate the hearts of wrongdoers and reform their behavior. You lead a band of miscreants known as the Phantom Thieves into the cognitive worlds of criminals. The mind of each target forms a “palace” which is essentially a themed dungeon. Each felon has been corrupted by some cardinal sin, and the Phantom Thieves must search each palace for the source of the deadly desire to steal away their distorted hearts. As thieves, you stealthily navigate through corridors and hallways, taking cover to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. Sneaking up behind enemies and ambushing them gives the player the opportunity to unleash a flurry of attacks before the enemy can even respond, so stealth is always in your best interest. Every palace is a fairly long endeavor and will require multiple treks to make it to the treasure. Making it as far as possible in each attempt will prove crucial to opening up more free time to be used elsewhere.

The actual combat of the game is a straightforward turn-based RPG, but with some interesting twists. Unsurprisingly, the main character recruits a few allies battle alongside him in a 4v4 format, which is similar to every other RPG in existence. What is interesting is the use of “personas”. Each character has a persona within them that can unleash magical abilities. The main character can capture and store personas, switching between them at will. This gave me the vibe of a grown-up version of Pokémon. As you journey through palaces, you will encounter demonic enemies which you can either stealthily avoid or engage head-on. When confronting the demons, some circumstances will lead you to be able to negotiate with them, and if you choose the correct dialogue options, recruit them to your pool of personas.

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Every persona has strengths and weaknesses, and with a plethora of elemental abilities, choosing the right persona for the right circumstances is critical. This is mostly because utilizing super-effective elements are extremely powerful. Hitting an enemy with an attack that they are weak to will do bonus damage, give you an additional move, and knockdown the foe. If all enemies are knocked down, you can either preform an all-out-attack, which does massive damage, or you can enter negotiation. Collecting new and powerful personas is a core aspect of the game, which I quite like. In Pokémon, once you decide on your core party, you stick with them until the end of the game. In persona, you are forced to constantly test new and powerful personas. There is an additional layer of experimentation since you can fuse personas together to create new ones. I absolutely loved the variety and experimentation aspect of Persona 5, and it is the highlight of the combat.

On the more negative side, I felt like the combat lacked tactical depth in the vast majority of encounters. Most battles played something like this: ambush enemy, hit them with a super-effective ability to knock them down, perform an all-out-attack to finish the fight. The only deviation to this formula was in boss fights or when fighting opponents that I did not know the weakness of. In the latter case, I was essentially required to just guess what would be effective until I guessed correctly. Bosses were by far the most interesting implementation of combat in the game. With giant health pools, no weaknesses, and special status effects, each boss required a different approach that wasn’t all out aggression. Utilizing party buffs and healing skills is more interesting than just picking the correct elemental attack.

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While I felt like most battles were straightforward, there is something to be said for the resource management aspect. Since I wanted to make it through the palaces in as few attempts as possible to conserve free time, I wanted to minimize the resources used in each battle. Magic abilities use SP, a resource which is not easily regenerated. As such, getting through each battle without wasting unnecessary SP became an interesting challenge.

Stylistically, Persona 5 is unbelievably crisp. Sleek menu design, fluid animations, vibrant character design, phenomenal music, and distinguishable aesthetics make Persona 5 and absolute masterclass in presentation. The graphic-novel style makes visuals pop, especially since each placard is detailed and distinct. Many of the personas and monsters are amalgamations of mythological beasts, but plenty seem to be new creations entirely. The jazzy soundtrack is simultaneously great background music as well as tunes that you could listen to outside of the game. As you continue through the game, some of the prevailing tracks will “evolve”, adding more lyrics as you progress. Seriously, every developer should take notes on the style and presentation of Persona 5.

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Outside of game mechanics and style, Persona 5 does falter a bit. The overall narrative of Persona 5 is decent, but is paced poorly. There were parts of the story where I was completely engrossed, but there were instances where I just wanted to move onto the next bit. In essence, the beginning and end of the game I found to be excellent as the villains had a direct impact on the main character. The middle chunk of the game however was filled with villains who just didn’t have the requisite gravitas to make me care about them. The story is essentially carried by its memorable cast of characters. Outside of a few interesting twists in the main story, I was far more engaged with the episodic stories of each confidant.

One of the biggest issues I had with the story was its over dependence on its central theme. Look, central ideas and motifs are great, but they don’t need to be bashed over the player’s head. God of War for instance leaned on the core theme of familial strife, nearly every character, quest, and storyline tied back to that issue. But the game was bit more subtle with its presentation of these ideas. Persona 5 on the other hand will relentlessly remind the player of its motif. The central theme of Persona 5 is that people in positions of power will take advantage of those below them. Every single side-quest, main story beat, confidant, and conversation will allude to this theme. It gets obnoxious after the 100th time that the protagonists tell the villains “Stop abusing people who can’t fight back”.

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By far the biggest problem with Persona 5 is its length. While I enjoyed the game, it is a nearly 100-hour experience. This is a massive undertaking, especially since so much of the game feels superfluous. Conversations in particular are constantly repeated, and it feels like the game does not trust the player to remember any information. If an event happens in game you can count on the fact that you are going to have that event recapped to you in 10 different conversations: through cutscenes, dialogue with confidants, and through text messages. Additionally, palaces could probably be shortened a bit without losing anything. Side-quests are particularly egregious, as they force you to delve into Mementos, a randomly generated dungeon which holds monsters that you have previously fought. This is a ridiculous waste of time and provides nothing new. Mementos needs to exist for story reasons and to let players capture personas that they have otherwise missed, but it could have been significantly shortened.

Most of the game’s issues stem from its length. The overused theme wouldn’t be so obnoxious if the game was shorter. The story would be more interesting if it was sped up. The repetitive battles wouldn’t grow annoying if there weren’t so many of them. Even some of the games strong points started to wane after 80 hours. I love the animations, but after watching them thousands of times I just wanted to move on. The music is great, but there are so few tracks in general. Truthfully, a game has to do something very special to reach 100 hours without growing stale. While Persona 5 is great, I think it could’ve easily been cut down to 60-70 hours without losing anything of value.

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Overall, Persona 5 is a masterful display of aesthetics, style, and presentation. There is an addictive life-sim component that I could just chill and let time fly by as I explored Tokyo. It’s the perfect game for just relaxing for a few hours and to take your time to take in everything the game has to offer. The dungeon crawling and battle system was serviceable, and its encouragement to experiment made it incredibly enjoyable. It’s unfortunate that the game drags on for too long, as even the best components lost their luster after dozens of hours. It is for these reasons I give Persona 5 a 9/10. Even if you aren’t a fan of traditional JRPGs, give Persona 5 a shot. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy these kinds of games, it made me into convert.

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