Let me just get this out of the way as soon as possible: Persona 5 was one of my most-anticipated games of all time from the moment I finished playing Persona 4 Golden, even though it wasn’t even officially announced yet. I love this series. As such a big fan, I had a ridiculously high level of hopes and expectations for this new game as I eagerly waited for its reveal and then eventual release.
Persona 5 did not disappoint me in any way, shape, or form.
There is a lot to talk about and digest when it comes to this game, so I’m actually going to start off with a TL;DR-style summary: this game is not to be missed by anyone who enjoys RPGs, especially of the Japanese, turn-based, character/story-heavy variety. If you played and enjoyed Persona 3 or 4, then all the better – you especially will notice the improvements and refinements that the team at Atlus have implemented in this game – but since there aren’t any story ties to the previous games anyone can jump in here and enjoy.
It is, in my personal opinion, a true masterpiece of the genre. Why do I feel this strongly? Read on, dear viewer, to find out. Starting with arguably the most important aspect of this game…
The Characters and Story
No matter how solid the gameplay mechanics are, you’re not going to stick around to play with them if the characters and story aren’t engrossing or enjoyable. Persona 5 is an absolute blast in this regard. And taking the center stage here are the myriad characters that you interact with, both inside and out of your team.
Note – I will do my best to avoid spoilers here, and clearly define where there will be potential spoilers.
Many of the characters are easily among the best-written in the series with believable personal struggles and personalities. This is despite – or perhaps even at least partially due to – the way that the characters fall into their tropes and archetypes to highlight their personal growth. There are some familiar and expected story beats here, of course, but they’re generally so well-written and performed that you will still be cheering or jeering at the right times. Characters, both good and evil, are allowed to grow and improve.
That’s not to say that they’re flawless or not at all irritating. Ryuji in particular is a numbskull (pun intended) who seemingly loves to shout out to nobody in particular that he’s part of the Phantom Thieves, and I would probably go blind from rolling my eyes too hard if I heard him yammer on about “shitty adults” yet another time. Fortunately these annoyances are pretty few and far between. Not to mention that the better characters completely made up for this aggravation. Futaba in particular was very relatable and enjoyable for both my wife and I, despite how extreme her story arc is. Even Morgana, despite appearing like the prototypical mascot character, generally does not have an annoying personality; thankfully he is not a Teddie 2.0.
It’s worth mentioning here that oppression and depression are familiar and recurring themes with the characters and story here, especially dealing with the aftermath of various types of abuse. Needless to say, this game has some very dark tones because of this. Suicide in particular has a very important role in a couple of the major story beats, almost to the point that I would consider adding a trigger warning of my own to anyone reading my review. It’s never glorified or presented positively – quite the opposite, in fact – but it is still displayed and talked about to the point that it could affect someone struggling with depressive or suicidal thoughts.
(Please, if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts I urge you to get assistance. You can conquer these feelings, and it is truly worth it.)
The Main Story
As far as the overarching story goes, my personal distaste for “in medias res” aside, this is easily one of the best and most consistent JRPG stories that I’ve played in recent years. To summarize – you are forced to move to Tokyo after being wrongly accused of assaulting someone. Shortly after your move you awaken to the power to enter peoples’ Palaces – manifestations of their desires and ambitions – and even change their hearts Inception-style to remove wicked or distorted desires. It takes no time to decide that you will use this power for good… and a bit of anonymous fame along the way.
*Story spoilers ahead*
Notably, Persona 5 excels in one of few the areas where Persona 4 truly stumbled. Where previously the world-in-peril twist seemed to come out of nowhere, it fully fits in with the story mechanics and is logical this time around. You actually are watching the events leading up to this and can see it developing, rather than suddenly being thrust into “Oh, so that’s what that fog was doing all along while I was trying to solve this murder mystery.”
Unfortunately, while the execution varies it also largely copies one of the major character/plot twists from Persona 4. I will be vague to avoid fully spoiling it, but if you’ve played Persona 4 then you will likely guess who one of the major villains is early on. Rather than being rewarding, it felt almost disappointing to find that I was right all along.
Another returning annoyance is the wasted free time, though it at least felt toned down compared to previous entries. Be prepared to lose a couple of months where you can’t “do” anything toward the end of the game’s story. While it makes sense contextually, it’s still disappointing to not get to enjoy your full year. Maybe with the next entry we’ll finally get to use our full year.
*End spoiler section*
The story and characters are well worth picking up this game to experience, but that is only half of the equation.
The Gameplay Mechanics
As you likely know by now, the gameplay mechanics of the recent Persona games are split into two sections – daily life and dungeon crawling. Working on the 5th entry in this series – and the 3rd one with this particular style – the developers have clearly had opportunity to polish and refine their approach. And, dare I say it, they have executed their style flawlessly this time around.
Daily life plays out much like you would expect. You’re a high school student so you spend a lot of your time in school (complete with quarterly exams), but you also have free reign over how to spend your time when you aren’t in classes. Herein lies a nearly overwhelming slew of choices. Do you go to work part time? Spend an evening with a friend? Study? Go to the arcade? Go to a Palace? The choice is all yours, and you only have one in-game year to do everything you want.
These aren’t empty choices either; the pressure of limited time adds weight to your decisions and each of them can have different benefits. For example, improving your “Confidant” relationships gives you additional abilities for battle and access to the strongest Personas in the game. To actually maximize these relationships you will need to spend time increasing your character’s social stats so that others will actually want to spend time with you, or in some cases you will only have access to some side quests or Confidants by taking on a part time job. You also have a time limit on when you can complete each Palace, so it’s important to make sure you don’t get sidetracked.
The stress and pressure of making the “right” choices could be overwhelming if you let it be. For those who are new to the series – and even some series vets like myself – it’s best to just accept that you won’t get to see and do everything in one playthrough without using a step-by-step guide (which in my opinion isn’t nearly as fun as playing freeform) and just do what you’d really like to do.
Dungeon Crawling – Battles
The dungeon crawling half of the gameplay equation is pure JRPG bliss; wonderfully deep, yet still approachable for most people who might play.
For starters; there are physical attacks, gun attacks, and 8 magical elements – 2 of which are new to the series – totaling 10 types of attacks which you and your enemies are possibly either weak or resistant towards. Attacking an enemy’s weak point will give you a bonus attack, and if all enemies are knocked down then you are given additional options to progress through the battle. (More on this in a bit.) On the flip side, if your character’s weak point is hit then they will be knocked down and are more susceptible to attacks. Additionally, with the exception of bosses, nearly everyone is susceptible to being wiped out in just a couple of attacks. This balance leads to highly aggressive, fast-paced battles that are all about pinpointing your enemies’ weaknesses before they can attack you. Lots and lots of fun.
That’s not all though. You will find your genre-standard buffs and debuffs to work with here. There are also a variety of status ailments to keep track of, which can help you to achieve powerful “Technical” moves by following up on a status infliction with an appropriate attack type. (Attacking a brainwashed enemy with a Psy attack or a burned enemy with a Wind attack for additional damage, for example.)
Back to knocking down your enemies, once everyone is on the ground you are given a few options. In many cases you’ll simply want to perform an All-Out Attack – a powerful team-strike that will deal massive damage to all enemies. Most standard battles can be wrapped up in a single turn with this strategy. Additionally, this game brings back the Shin Megami Tensei series staple of negotiating with your enemies. If you choose to talk to the Shadows you are fighting you can try to recruit them to fight for you or simply shake them down for extra cash. This is especially important because the only way to keep your own stash of Personas powerful enough to match your enemies is to fuse them together; they typically require far more experience to level up than the player character does.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that this is quite likely the most streamlined that turn-based battles have ever been. Each main combat option has its own designated button, which helps to keep each random encounter going as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s a much-appreciated design choice that will surely be missed in other turn-based RPGs like this.
Dungeon Crawling – the Dungeons
Dungeons via Palaces have seen a bit of a change this time around, favoring fully developed levels rather than the procedural generation of the previous games. This also allowed the development team to add some light stealth mechanics to dungeon traversal, which helps break up some of the monotony generally associated with dungeon crawling. Stealth gives you a way to start most battles with an advantage since you can see your enemies in the field; no random battles here. In practice, while it is an improvement in many regards, there’s still not a huge amount of variety in the Palaces; you’ll still be going through innumerable hallways, corridors, staircases, and other straightforward segments.
That’s not to say that procedural generation is completely gone as there’s also Mementos, the “Palace of the general public.” This is where you’ll get your random layout fix, as well as take care of the various side quests you’re given. I personally would have preferred that each floor be a little larger, but as exploring each floor is not the main focus of this game I can understand its smaller scale. This is no Tartarus, after all.
Lastly the boss battles have finally seen some improvement. Rather than the simple “buff, debuff, attack, heal; repeat for 15-20 minutes” boss battles of yesteryear, there are actually mid-battle events that help to break up the flow of battle and add an extra, albeit slight, level of strategy and thought. Just because the battles aren’t all prolonged fights with damage sponges doesn’t mean they aren’t tough – some bosses will quickly wipe the floor with you if you aren’t paying attention. All in all, this is one of the series’ weak points that has finally been addressed.
The balance that the daily life and dungeon crawling segments intertwine and support each other leads to a truly intoxicating gameplay loop. Each portion is so well-refined and enjoyable that you won’t resent needing to spend time with either one.
But Wait, There’s More!
The story and gameplay mechanics may be the bulk of what make this game great, but what helps it to truly shine are the additional details and refinements that are added in.
Most noticeable is that the game absolutely oozes with style . The visuals are consistent throughout the game, and even the menus and battle results screens are fun to watch. High-quality cel shading animation looks great (even though it is “just” a PS3 game at heart) and the animated sections that are spread throughout are consistently well made. Voice acting is also a solid point in this game’s favor; everyone’s voice just “fits,” and the actors do a fantastic job with their characters. This also extends into the game’s animated cutscenes, which have fantastic animation quality. (The stills I used don’t really do these scenes justice.)
The controls are also highly refined and approachable, especially during battles. Rather than navigating page after page of menus simply to attack, each button is assigned a role. This helps to streamline battles since most of your actions are rarely more than just one or two button presses away. It cannot be overstated how good this extra refinement feels in practice.
Not to mention the music. It wouldn’t be a Persona game without a phenomenal soundtrack arranged by composer-extraordinaire Shoji Meguro, and Persona 5 does not disappoint. While some of the songs may start to wear a little thin after 100+ hours of gameplay depending on your preferences, they are by and large solid pieces that you will enjoy. I even listened to the soundtrack on loop as I wrote this review, despite hearing it so much while playing the game.
You likely noticed by now that there are very few screenshots in my review, which is due to the restrictions that Atlus has placed on this game. For the most part the screenshot and streaming functions built into the PS4 are disabled. I personally couldn’t care less about this restriction, though I suppose it’s still worth mentioning for those that do care.
The Bottom Line
All things considered, this is a shining example of the genre and is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in this genre. I could go on far longer than is reasonable about this game, so if you have any additional questions – or just a general comment – sound off in the comments below.
For what it’s worth to you, dear reader, I spent my own hard-earned cash to buy this game for myself – this is not a paid review and I did not receive a free review copy. I played for about 120 hours taking my time to go through the story once, and I am eagerly looking forward to my subsequent playthroughs.
Note – Images used in this review were sourced from the PSN Store page for Persona 5, Atlus.com, and the game’s Wikipedia page.