Well, this sure took a long while! Persona 5 is an absolutely gargantuan game, and it took me dozens upon dozens of hours to fully form my opinion on it, especially since it’s my first Persona game. This game is available on both the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. For this review, I played through the PS4 version.
Ah, high school. Remember that? The drama between teachers and students, trying to cram studying somewhere in between your daily activities, gossiping about the popular kids and… An epic struggle against the dark recesses of the human psyche? Welcome to Persona.
Persona 5 is the long overdue next entry in Atlus’s Persona series, released around 8 years after the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 on Sony’s PlayStation 2 system. As my first taste of the Persona sub-series of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, my best way of describing Persona 5 is as a genre-bending JPRG that mixes in aspects of a visual novel, social sim and Pokémon style monster collecting (Although it’s worth noting that Shin Megami Tensei did it first, before Pokémon became a worldwide phenomenon).
Light to mild spoilers will follow in this review.
In Persona 5, you play as a high schooler. After an unfortunate run in with the law, you are falsely convicted of assault and shipped off to Tokyo to live with a family friend. You go through all the normal struggles of a new kid at school–there are ridiculous rumors about you, and you can only make one friend: the school’s troublemaker, Ryuji. You quickly stumble upon the fact that you have the mysterious power to enter peoples’ “palaces”–the manifestation of someone’s distorted desires. Naturally, you decide to exploit this power to exact justice on evil people who are doing some seriously messed up stuff.
Put Your Mind to It
Persona 5‘s story is fantastic, telling a dark tale that does an elegant job of touching on many social issues, while never coming off as insincere. It’s got a touch of Death Note in that your cast of well-intentioned misfits are making somewhat morally dubious decisions while pursuing their twisted brand of “justice.” The story also has a touch of Inception in the way you explore palaces, and how messing with a palace can affect the real world and vice versa.
Now, the protagonists can be very trope-y at first. Ryuji is the by-the-book archetype of a bonehead, and hell, you even have a talking cat sidekick in Morgana. However, the game does a decent job of giving ample backstory and depth to these characters. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of the game’s series of antagonists, whom you really get to explore on a very deep and intimate level. The game does a great job of communicating the implications of messing around in someone’s brain, while at the same time making you feel completely justified in doing so.
While the story is told in a linear fashion, you have total control over how your relationships develop with the other protagonists. Your text choices give you enough freedom to develop your protagonist’s personality, something that is not really fed to you in the game. You could choose to play as a responsible scholar who focuses on studying, a rebellious troublemaker, and everything in between. Developing relationships with other characters gives you both tangible in-game rewards as well as new story opportunities. Some relationships can even blossom into romance!
Take Your Time
To truly explain what sets this game apart from any other JRPG, I have to take a deep dive into the backbone of this game: time. Every story detail, every palace, every interaction takes place in the context of this unique day-by-day system. Essentially, you you live out your protagonist’s daily life, from the extraordinary (Battling demons inside palaces) to the mundane (Studying for exams and working as a barista). Save for important story moments, what you do in a single day is totally up to you. Each day is typically split into a few sections.
In the mornings, you attend school, where you have the choice of focusing to increase your knowledge or slacking off to improve something else. After school, you can explore Tokyo, where you have a myriad of activities to choose from. What you pick is of high importance. For example, you could choose to spend time with Ryuji to increase your bond, go on a date with a girl, study at the library or watch a movie. All of these activities improve your stats and relationships in different ways, which becomes highly important as you progress in the game. Alternatively, you can also tackle the latest palace. Palaces are labyrinthine dungeons in which you are tasked to find and steal someone’s “heart”–the physical manifestation of their true desires. Palaces are so huge that they typically take several trips spanning multiple days to complete.
This system shines when the game throws in its main twist: time limits. As your heroes get deeper and deeper into the complex politics of their world, they will often run into story situations that suddenly require your urgency. This is not a game that you can often take at a relaxed pace and spend all of your days eating burgers–you will often have a time limit by which your MUST complete a palace, or risk losing a LOT of game progress. With this urgency, the game’s calendar system becomes this wonderful dance of time management–you have to balance increasing your relationships and stats with going into palaces, I loved this system, and I really enjoyed the challenge, which is unlike many other RPGs that simply let you do whatever you want (Looking at you, Breath of the Wild)
I Am Thou, Thou Art I
Interestingly, this time system takes a lot of attention away from what is typically one of the main draws of a JRPG: the combat. in Persona 5, the turn-based battle system can feel pretty familiar. You have a party of four characters and you take turns performing actions such as using spells or attacking an enemy. There are a couple of significant twists though. Each one of your characters is assigned a “Persona,” a mystical being that you use for fighting. Personas have elemental attributes that have specific strengths and weaknesses (Think Pokémon). If you hit an enemy’s weakness, the enemy becomes stunned, and you gain an extra turn. This encourages you to always try to find and exploit an enemy’s weakness, as opposed to simply button mashing attacks. Targeting enemy weaknesses can make a difficult fight much, much easier.
By targeting enemy weaknesses, you can initiate a “Hold Up” by stunning all enemies. In these sequences, you can unleash a special attack, or negotiate with the enemy. When negotiating, you initiate dialogues with enemy monsters to try to convince them to give you items, or to get them to join your team. Each monster has its own personality and dialogue options, which makes negotiation both challenging and fun. By saying the right things, you can convince monsters to give you their power, or it could just as easily backfire and cause them to counterattack. Just like with the combat, you have to pick and prod at an enemy’s personality to figure out the right things to say.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can collect Personas in a Pokémon–esque fashion. This addictive stuff, and I found that I was driven to look for new types of enemies to collect, and to try to get them to join me as opposed to simply defeating them. Leveling up Personas is what gives you access to newer and more powerful spells, so the incentive to collect them is there thanks to another feature: Execution. By executing personas, you can combine multiple personas into newer and more powerful beings. This system gives you control and agency over what personas you end up with, and I even ended up getting somewhat attached to some of my creations.
Thieving with Style
If it isn’t obvious from any screenshot of this game, this is a visual masterpiece. Persona 5‘s graphics are magnificent, and impressively, the game doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the PlayStation 4, having a similar looking PlayStation 3 version of the title out as well. Everything from the models, the environments and the menus have bold colors, awash in a heavy cel-shaded style. The game truly looks like an interactive anime, and pulls off this style better than any other game I’ve ever seen. I particularly liked the style of the palaces, which are otherworldly and have particularly good use of bold colors.
As a story-heavy game, Persona 5 relies on a ton of text to deliver its story, but voice acting is included in most important story moments, which makes it much easier to follow. Certain moments even reward you with excellent anime cutscenes. The music is less spectacular. The funky themes can be nice, like the battle theme (“Last Surprise”) and some of the overworld themes. However, the majority of the music feels pretty cookie cutter in nature, and isn’t memorable at all. At worst, the music can be kind of obnoxious, like that theme that plays every time that you leave school. To amplify this problem, the soundtrack is actually rather limited for such a huge game. Expect to hear a lot of the same songs ad-nauseum over the course of dozens upon dozens of hours.
This brings me to another issue I have with this game: its length. Or rather particularly, how it gets its 90-100 hour play time. As great as they are visually, most of the palaces overstay their welcome in one form or another, feeling more like a test of your patience rather than a test of your skills in the game. in addition to this, the game feels way too eager to waste your time in little ways. For example, you will be sitting through nearly identical scenes over and over and over as you travel to school or sit in class. You will have to walk from the door of Cafe Leblanc to your bed repeatedly after a palace or an important story moment, even though there’s nothing else you can do but to go to bed, since Morgana won’t let you do anything. These little things don’t feel like they contribute to the overall game and really just feel like padding.
You’ll Never See It Coming
All in all, Persona 5 is one of the most refreshingly unique and fun RPGs I’ve played in a long, long time. Not only does it reach perfection with its visual presentation, the gameplay is a blast, and it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever played. The story is refreshingly heavy in its dark tone, and the developers courageously delve into sensitive issues and horrible situations that help to flesh out their characters and world.
In a time when the RPG genre is moving away from the linear, story-driven games of the past and moving closer to open sandbox-style adventures, it’s nice to have a reminder that this kind of game can still exist and be amazing at the same time as a game like Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn. This is one of the must-have games of the year, and I highly recommend it for anyone (Like myself) who needs to fill that JRPG-sized hole in their lives.
- This game is a visual masterpiece, from the true-to-life rendition of Tokyo, to the flashy and colorful palaces. Even the menus of the game just exude personality and style.
- The game’s story and characters are wonderful, and tackle some serious situations while still remaining very self-aware and not taking itself too seriously.
- The time management system that controls everything in the game is a blast, and unlike anything else I’ve ever played. Time constraints and limits somehow don’t feel like an annoyance, but like a wonderful challenge that adds tension to the game.
- The game’s visual novel aspects shine, and you truly feel like you have the room to build your hero’s personality and relationships the way you want it.
- The battle system is a wonderful and unique, blending Pokémon-style monster collection with a typical party-based battle system.
- Palaces, the game’s main dungeons, are visually spectacular and a joy to traverse.
- I loved the game’s Thieve’s Guild Network feature, which lets you compare your daily activities to other players.
- The voice acting is overall very good, particularly with the game’s protagonists.
- While some of the tracks are good, some are annoying, and the music in the game can become repetitive. At some points, I preferred playing the game without sound.
- The palaces almost always overstay their welcome, and fatigue and frustration inevitably sets in with all of them.
- Some of the game’s aspects lack polish, and there’s small annoyances left and right, such as the endless filler cutscenes showing your character’s daily life.