Persona 5 will steal your beating heart
Atlus’ Persona series has exploded over the past few console generations. What was once a rather unassuming, niche RPG centered around creepy occult events unfolding in modern-day Japan has gone on to become one of the most popular RPG franchises of all time, even rivaling Square’s Final Fantasy series. Now, nine years since the release of its hugely popular predecessor, Persona 5 is here. But can it possibly live up to the massive hype?
In short, yes, it absolutely does. While the game isn’t very far removed from the past two entries in the series, Persona 5 still manages to be a great evolution for Atlus’ flagship JRPG franchise. Randomly generated dungeons have gotten the ax in favor of Palaces, which are traditionally designed labyrinths that’re a blast to explore. Guns and demon negotiations, two features that haven’t been seen since Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, have returned to add an extra layer of depth to the combat. And the story moves at a much faster pace, throwing players into the action right out the gate.
Sure, this is the Persona you know and love. But it’s been refined and polished to a shine so brilliant that you’ll easily spend over a hundred hours uncovering everything it has to offer.
Back to school
Much like its predecessors, Persona 5 begins with the player transferring to a new high school. After landing himself on probation over a scuffle with a drunken big shot, the protagonist is forced to spend one year in a rehabilitation program. After settling into his new digs in a loft above a Tokyo coffee shop, he quickly befriends a colorful cast of characters. Of course, it doesn’t take long before things get weird. The scrappy band of kids soon discover a way to travel to the Metaverse, an alternate world where Palaces manifest from those with twisted desires. Before long, the plucky youths for the Phantom Thieves, a vigilante group tasked with entering these Palaces and stealing the hearts of their masters to make them repent for their crimes.
Sure, it’s a weird as you’d expect from a Persona game. However, this time around things move at a much faster pace. The action begins with you dashing through a bustling Tokyo casino as you’re chased by goons in black suits. New features, like simple platforming and the ability to stealthily dispatch your foes, are introduced at a breakneck pace. That’s not to say you won’t have time to soak up the sights in Tokyo. But the narrative definitely moves along in a way that leaves the past few games in the series in the dust. And honestly, it’s all the better for it.
The gang’s all here
The cast of characters is also one of the best yet. Early on you’ll join up with Ryuji – a punk rock former track star who serves as the butt of most of the game’s jokes; and Anna, a beautiful model who, despite her looks, struggles to fit in. They soon join forces with a cat named Morgana, who just happens to have the ability to turn into a car; along with a handful of other characters, each with their own reasons for joining the Phantom Thieves. The only weak link in the bunch proves to be Morgana, whose grumbling demeanor and constant rebuffs when you want to perform certain tasks make him quickly grate on your nerves. He’s basically the anti-Teddie, and you will probably hate him.
Of course, half of the fun of any Persona game’s characters are their Personas themselves. And I’m happy to report that series character artist Shigenori Soejima has really outdone himself this time around. From the vibrant characters themselves to the over-the-top alternate selves that manifest from them, these designs are second to none. Ryuji’s Persona, Captain Kidd, is a skeletal swashbuckler who surfs atop a pirate ship painted like an A-10 Warthog; While a Persona-user you find later in the game can conjure a UFO that looks lifted straight from the celluloid of classic sci-fi movies.
And those are some of the more tame Personas you’ll meet. Just wait until you see some of the bosses that dwell in the palaces you’ll explore. They’ll leave your jaw planted firmly on the floor with their gloriously eccentric designs.
Perfecting a classic formula
Time management is more important than ever in Persona 5. While juggling schoolwork and plundering palaces, you’ll also have to worry about your hygiene, crafting tools, and those ever-important social links. Should you try devouring a burger the size of a small television to work up your guts so that you can talk to the shady Airsoft shop owner about a strange package he gave you? Ah, but it’s raining. Maybe I should go to the bathhouse and reap a bonus to my charm attribute? Touch decisions like this will bear on you almost every day in Persona 5, and only make it all the more addicting.
As for the social links themselves, they’re known as Confidants this time around. And forging your bonds with them is just as important as ever if you want to strengthen your Personas to the max. As you’d expect, these characters are certainly intriguing ones. Each one brings to the table a compelling backstory that will make you want to complete their storyline. From No-Good Tora, a Dietman fallen from grace to Tae Takemi, a punk rock practitioner infamously dubbed Dr. Death, you’ll find yourself dying to dig into their personal conflicts and resolve their problems.
This time around things less passive than simply spending time with them. You’ll occasionally need to explore Mementos, an underground labyrinth similar to Shin Megami Tensei III’s Nocturne, to track down Shadows and change their hearts to help move the relationship along. It’s a cool mechanic, and it makes building growing these relationships feel more hands-on, and as such, more rewarding as well.
It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
When not milling about Tokyo, you’ll spend plenty of time battling Shadows and exploring Palaces to steal their treasures. As for the combat itself, Atlus has made a few tweaks to the formula to the formula that really improve the experience. Guns return for the first time since 2000’s Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and they add yet another layer of depth to the turn-based combat, and are especially handy for downing flying enemies.
Baton Passes are another fresh tweak to the combat system that spices things up. After hitting an enemy with a weakness, you can use this feature to switch to a new character – permitting you’ve built up their Confidant level – to deliver an extra-powerful attack. Some boss fights will even require you to choose a character to send away from the front-lines to perform a specific task, like distracting the boss or manning a gun emplacement to blast them out of the sky.
Perhaps my favorite addition, however, is the return of Demon Negotiations. First introduced in the original Persona, initiating contact with a demon will allow you to talk your way out a conflict. Successfully negotiating with a Persona can allow you to form a contract with them, net you extra money, or even a rare item. Sure, this is a feature that other Shin Megami Tensei games have seen in recent years, but it’s great to see it return to the series that started it all.
Storming the Palace
As I mentioned before, Palaces have replaced the randomly-generated dungeons of past games this time around. And frankly, this could be Persona 5‘s biggest improvement over its predecessors. These sprawling dungeons are filled with puzzles to solve, bosses to battle, and various objectives to complete before you can claim their treasure and change the owner’s heart. Each of these lairs must be completed by a certain deadline. And given their impressive size, it’ll take you several hours to conquer each one.
After you explore a dungeon and its treasure has been discovered, you’ll have to return to the real world to leaving a calling card for your target. Its only then that you can make your final push to tackle the Palace’s boss and advance in the story.
Dungeons are an absolute joy to explore. The new cover system will make you carefully choose how you progress through each area. Crawling through vents, zapping between cover points, and ambushing baddies feels fantastic. Honestly, it’s remarkable just how much these refinements add to the overall experience. The carefully-crafted dungeons end up stealing the show. They turn what was occasionally a monotonous slog into something much more meaningful and satisfying.
It’s been nearly a decade since the last game in the Persona series floored fans. And since then, few titles have managed to generate the kind of hype this sequel has. That said, I’m happy to report that Persona 5 doesn’t disappoint whatsoever. In fact, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece, and will probably be remembered as one of the best RPGs of our lifetime. Atlus has done an unbelievable job of refining and expanding on the successful formula they created. The end result is an unforgettable adventure that no fan of the genre should miss out on. Make no mistake about it, this is one game that will steal your heart from your chest. If this is the future of Persona, I can’t wait to see where Atlus takes us next.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) PlayStation 3 ; Publisher: Atlus ; Developer: Atlus ; Players: 1 ; Released: April 4, 2017 ; MSRP: $59.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Persona 5 given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.