Hearts on fire
WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SOME STORY SPOILERS FOR THE OPENING HOURS OF PERSONA 5 AS WELL AS SOME VISUAL SPOILERS OF DIFFERENT PARTY MEMBERS. IF YOU WANT MY IMPRESSIONS IN SHORT SO YOU CAN GO INTO THE GAME SPOILER-FREE: GAME’S GOOD. GO PLAY IT. IT’S GOT SOME FLAWS, BUT THE PARTS THAT WORK OUTSHINE THE ONES THAT DON’T.
Everyone else, enjoy the review!
You’re in trouble.You thought it couldn’t see you. You were right out of its line of sight. You were this close-this freaking close-to making it to the door. Unfortunately, your finger slipped on the joystick. You flip so that you’re directly in front of the guard-and your back is turned to it.
Suddenly, half your party is knocked down, a Jack Frost just got a One More off you because you just HAD to have Orobas equipped (elemental weaknesses are evil, you swear), and your SP stocks are seriously low. You’ve got one shot at this-otherwise it’s back to the safe room and you’re not going through all that again. It’s time to get serious.
Three consecutive uses of Agi and an All-Out Attack later, you’re 2000 yen richer and you just leveled up. You dart towards the safe room, save, and set the controller down.
You feel phan-tastic.
Persona 5 is an amazing game. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The fifth title in the popular life sim-meets-dungeon crawler franchise by game developer Atlus, P5 was recently released in Western territories less than a year after its Japanese release and three years after its initial announcement. The game was fraught with delays and setbacks from the start, first slated for the PS3 before being moved over to the PS4 (while keeping its PS3 port, luckily enough). That didn’t stop it from taking the JRPG scene by storm, quickly becoming one of the hottest selling titles of the past year-and it’s got damn good reason to.
Most of the Persona games (at least since Persona 3) follow a familiar formula:
- A Teenager travels by train to live with a distant relative far away from home and transfers into the local school for the next year. He experiences an out of body experience in a strange, Velvet Room as he sleeps on one of his first nights in town.
- Teenager meets his quirky-yet-surprisingly-deep classmates as he tries to get adjusted to his new life.
- Teenager and his new friends somehow wind up being attacked by monsters in a strange, otherworldly setting, and he gets a Stand a Persona, a physical manifestation of his inner psyche, in the process.
- Teenager and co. defeat the boss of a dungeon, and he gets to relax, meet people, and train for the inevitable next boss.
Persona 5 doesn’t break the mold especially heavily, but it spices the routine up every now and again. This is clear from the start, as it opens with a thrilling action setpiece. A group of phantom thieves case a casino in the middle of the night, their leader Joker fighting his way through guards and monsters to escape. He is captured, however, in a police ambush after someone on his team sells him out. Beaten to a pulp and made to sign a confession for his crimes, all seems lost for Joker until prosecutor Sae Nijima enters, asking him to tell her the tale of how the mysterious Phantom Thieves of Hearts came to be. What follows is a dark tale of rebellion toward authority and resentment toward society, and maybe even a conspiracy…oh, and a talking cat.
This opening is a lot of fun, as offering a quick “figure it out yourself” set of obstacles gives players a good chance to feel how the game will play without bogging them down with needless tutorial menus. Yeah, we get tutorials later, and they can be a bit grating if you already know what to do, but this opener is a good taste of what’s to come.
Not too long after this opening, P5 throws you right into the first dungeon to teach you the ropes. Each“Palace” you explore offers the same set of tools to use as you attempt to steal the arc villain’s “treasure”: a few stealth mechanics, safe rooms, an ascending/descending set of goalposts, and a whole lot of monsters to fight and recruit. You can take on these Palaces in a variety of ways, but you have to beat it before a specific deadline in order to move the story along. When you’re not in a Palace, you explore the city of Shibuya, Tokyo, where you can make friends and get the ability to make stronger Personas, grow as a person by way of ranking up stats like “Charm” and “Kindness”, and plan your heists with your classmates (with your party gaining new members at a rate of every few hours or so). What helps sell the story, beyond all else, is that Persona 5’s characters feel extremely human; they don’t fall into your typical JRPG stereotypes despite having every opportunity to do so. While they start off using basic tropes and archetypes (the volatile jock, the haughty artist, the mysterious doctor, etc.), their storylines take on some pretty unique spins. The main cast especially plays off each other well, particularly the core quartet of Joker, Ryuji Sakamoto, Ann Takamaki, and Morgana. Their camaraderie feels natural, with conversations that read like actual people shooting the breeze instead of a scripted event. This is aided by an all-star cast in both English and Japanese, with Super Smash Bros. alumni Xander Mobus and anime legend Jun Fukuyama taking center stage as Joker, among other fun voice choices.
On top of that, the supporting cast, which are named Confidants in contrast to the previous titles’ Social Links, all have a solid level of depth to their personalities and story arcs. You can start a Confidant link with someone and think “Psh, I know exactly how this will go and exactly what to say,” and you can be 100% wrong. This unpredictability makes every interaction feel fresh-how will this character react if I do this? Should I have done that? Where’s it all going? You’ll be asking these pretty much every time you start a conversation with one of these links, and it makes seeing what happens even more fun. This applies to the villains of each story arc as well, as we get to see them for a brief time before they actually antagonize our heroes. The stark contrast between the real and Shadow versions of these characters make for some interesting storytelling opportunities, so it helps to get to know them beforehand.The level of polish that went into creating the game’s world and overall design is astounding. The controls are snappy with very little lag to be found, and the in-game menus are easily navigable and each has a good level of style to it as opposed to being bland boxes all the way down. The characters feel like they’re popping out of the pages of a comic book with their thick outlines and sharp colors, and the graphics themselves are crisp and pleasant to look at even on a lower-resolution PS3 copy. The Personas themselves are stunning to look at, with designs ranging from a top-hatted demon to a skull-faced pirate and beyond. Sound design plays a big role in this too, with a sound effect for every action you can think of. Shoji Meguro’s rocking score aids in immersing you in the game’s world, taking a bit of a pop-punk direction that will have you tapping your feet in no time.
On top of that, the attention to detail in recreating Shibuya makes for a varied and entertaining overworld to explore. I spent a solid half-hour just exploring the city and train station just to see what I could find. There’s something new hidden in nearly every nook and cranny. The game’s dungeons are even more varied, each having their own unique feel to them. While some are a lot more detailed than others (there’s only so many times you can pass the same-looking staircase in the introductory Palace without wanting some variety), you can tell that the developers had a blast with each new theme they had to work with.This game feels like it has more action than previous titles in the series. When you’re whipping around corners, trying to hide in the shadows as you sneak attack…well, Shadows, it feels like an actual infiltration with goalposts and successes rather than an arbitrary maze with accidental monster encounters. When you mess up, you know you messed up on your own rather than the game causing it…for the most part, anyway. I did find myself accidentally zipping around corners too fast and disorienting myself, leaving me wide open for an enemy attack, but those moments diminish over time as you get used to the control scheme.
The battle system is mostly unchanged from the previous titles, outside of the addition of the “Gun” option to attack enemies with and some cosmetic changes. You still use your Persona to attack with various “skills,” you can still attack and change/fix your stats with items, and you can still physically beat the hell out of your enemy. However, the game takes inspiration from its source franchise, Shin Megami Tensei, in its new Persona-recruiting option. You can choose to try to make a given Shadow your Persona via a conversation with them, make it give you money or an item, or you can just perform a team attack to wipe it out. This makes gathering new Persona feel fresh, as rather than getting them by luck at the end of a battle you feel like you’ve actually made a difference. It can get a bit tedious when you start to grind, but the difficulty scales pretty smoothly with where you would normally be at level-wise at any given point in the game. It strikes a nice balance all in all.All of this gushing aside, the game isn’t without its pitfalls. Most of these come from the story, as the controls and aesthetic are mostly issue-free (previous comments aside). While it’s a lot of fun and has some solid characters, it’s hard to deny that P5 has a bit of a problem with dictating its themes rather than letting them flow out naturally. It reiterates key phrases over and over, like an episode of Sesame Street about psychology and thievery. You could make a drinking game out of how many times the characters say the phrases “shitty adults,” “steal their hearts,” and “just like real phantom thieves” within the first few hours alone.
There are also a lot of unnecessary fan service elements that stick out and feel like they’re just there because the previous games had some, putting the game’s female characters in scandalous situations for increasingly strained reasons. There’s nothing wrong with making characters attractive or putting them in attractive clothing if that’s your prerogative, but that doesn’t mean you need to objectify them (which you’d think they’d understand given the first arc’s storyline, but that’s the business nowadays).
It doesn’t help that as dark as the story can get, it can reach a point of excess with just how increasingly vile the villains become. Don’t get me wrong, it mostly works; it shows the stakes at play and the horror of what the villains have done, and it’s especially good at making you want to kick them to the curb. Even so, things still lean more toward campy than gritty at times, which is a hit-or-miss kind of situation. Non-major characters also tend to follow the “overacting is better than underacting” mindset when it comes to their voices, with mixed results. Luckily, these elements start to gel more easily as the game goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I love campy and goofy stuff-but when the darker elements are done so well, it can feel jarring at times to see it go to the opposite extreme.
Persona 5 is nothing short of a blast. While a bit formulaic and definitely not perfect, the story keeps you coming back just to see what twists and turns it will take its cast on. The graphics are crisp, with a solid aesthetic and a firm grasp on its design elements. The music has weight behind it, with its mix of slow-paced melodies and bombastic anthems, and the world is just so freaking fun to explore. While it has a few cracks in its foundation and some issues that could’ve been solved if they had been caught earlier on, that doesn’t keep the game from being a sheer delight. Persona 5 stole my heart. Why not let it steal your’s, too?