The Persona series has always held a special place in my heart. The first three entries released over the course of my adolescence; a tumultuous period during which my time was divided between parents who lived on opposite ends of an ocean. No matter where I was, I chased after unattainable acceptance as I grappled with teenage awkwardness, existential angst, and my own sexuality. Things were messy. When I immersed myself in “Lunarvale” or Sumaru, I took part in narratives that seemingly understood just how messy these years could be. It was as if the overarching theme of these titles was “There’s no magic fix to your problems, but it’s OK to be you.”
I was an adult by the time Persona 3 & 4 set the world ablaze. Both games were excellent: tightly-paced marriages of dating sims/visual novels with compelling RPG systems. Navigation, combat, and fusion were all at their most speedy and accessible, while individual characters had endearing personalities and lengthy story arcs over which to flourish. While I enjoyed both Persona 3 & 4, I couldn’t help but feel that something had been lost. These protagonists were the most important people in their respective worlds; popular and charming saviors who served as all things to all people. They were too perfect. The aspects that resonated so loudly to me had been replaced with a recontextualisation of adolescence as fun and flirty escapism into an idyllic unreality.
Now, a full eight years after Persona 4, Persona 5 has arrived to tell the story of a delinquent student’s year under probation. Would this entry bring a little nuance back to this series? The answer is, no, not quite — though that doesn’t mean Persona 5 isn’t a great time.
First, let’s get something out of the way: You’ve played Persona 5 before. In fact, you’ve probably played it twice before. Mild mannered transfer student comes to town and discovers a supernatural parallel world. After meeting a mysterious long-nosed man, he gains the ability to wield mythological figures as Personas. He makes friends with a ragtag group of students with the same ability, as well as a mysterious and adorable mascot. Over the course of the next year, they attend school by day, fight evil by night, and hang out on their days off. There’s a bikini beach trip. Actually, there are two this time.
Even after a decade and an entire console generation, Persona 5 plays it extremely faithful to the groundwork laid by its PlayStation 2 predecessors. The main gameplay loop of school/socializing/dungeoneering is as pleasurable as it’s ever been, yet it’s where Persona 5 deviates from the template that it shines its brightest.
The parallel world of the Metaverse favors the psychological over the supernatural. Taking cues from Maki’s World from the very first Persona, the Metaverse is a realm in which mankind’s delusions are made corporeal. A particularly deluded individual has the power to create a Palace: a pocket dimension where they rule with an iron fist. These Palaces serve as a reflection of their masters’ hearts. An egotistical gym coach sees the school as a castle to reign over, while a yakuza extortionist sees Shibuya as his own personal bank. At the core of each Palace sits a Treasure: a personalised manifestation of its master’s twisted heart.
Obviously, Palaces are bad news, so who better to steal their Treasures than a group of Phantom Thieves? That’s where our heroes come in. Led by the protagonist, The Phantom Thieves are a group of stealthy, Persona-wielding rascals with their collective heart set on the reform of corrupt society. Their Personas are a reflection of their ideals, borrowing legendary historical rogues or picaresque heroes from public domain classics. The protagonist calls forth Leblanc’s gentleman thief Arsène (Lupin), while his cohorts wield similar good-hearted ne’er-do-wells like Zorro, Captain Kidd, or Ishikawa Goemon. Not every party member sticks to the theme, however — Pope Joan might vaguely pass as a trickster if you squint, but the Necronomicon left me scratching my head.
Removing a Treasure causes a change of heart, forcing its owner to atone for their mistakes, and each month-and-a-half (or so) introduces a new villain du jour to foist penance upon. This makes for a vast improvement over Persona 4, an 80+ hour RPG that lacked the presence of a true antagonist for much of its duration. As Persona 5’s vague conspiracy slowly takes shape, the plot’s parade of episodic bad guys keeps the pace nicely, while allowing the Big Bad to plot in the shadows. The villains are a well-realized and memorable lot, too. Lecherous gym coach Kamoshida is a real stand out love-to-hate presence, while certain other nemeses are refreshingly conflicted.
The Palaces are the definite high point of Persona 5, and undoubtedly the strongest dungeons across the entire franchise. Whereas the previous two entries saw players delve into samey collections of procedurally-generated corridors, each Palace is a meticulously crafted space to stalk through. The Phantom Thieves infiltrate castles, art galleries, and even pyramids in their noble acts of breaking and entering. It’s almost an RPG take on Bonanza Bros.: you hide behind corners, leap from chandeliers, sabotage security systems and solve puzzles as you make your way to the treasure room.
And you look damn good doing so. Persona 5 is a nonstop feast for the eyes. Characters and environments are beautifully cel-shaded, and make slick use of contrast to really give the impression of stalking through the panes of a living manga. Whether it’s party member Ann peeking from behind a corner, or protagonist Joker adjusting his gloves as he runs, there’s dozens of little flourishes in character movement that bring your party to life.
The fantastical Palaces are a joy to explore, and so too are the streets of Tokyo. Whereas genre contemporaries such as Tokyo Mirage Sessions or Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth tend to portray Japan’s capital as a glowing wonderland, Persona 5 deviates from the norm to render the city in a more mundane light. This is not a shining beacon, just a busy metropolis: A gray sky looms above the gray concrete of the Shibuya crossing, where salarymen idly smoke their break away. Even Akihabara, a setting frequently rendered in lavish electric light, is muted and subdued. Office workers file in and out of subway cars like mindless automata. The background pedestrians really make the heroes stick out, but their intentionally drab style is a sight to behold when taken on its own. I only wish I could turn off parts of the large UI to immerse myself better in these environments, but no such luck.
Persona 5 always gives you something to look at, and special mention must be made of its dynamic menus. Each menu comes with its own unique animation, which changes as options are toggled. Individual party members’ status screens take the form of Wanted posters, their experience points portrayed as a capture reward. The game’s shops boast similarly styled menus; a leggy doctor puts her heels up on the counter in pin-up silhouette, while a hard-assed weapons merchant reveals the cigarette in his mouth is actually a lollipop. There’s an undeniable sassiness in the visuals, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the playfulness of One Piece, combined with the ultra-cool attitude of Cowboy Bebop. Menu designer Masayoshi Suto has gone above and beyond and deserves all the praise for his expert work here. Even the loading screens look great, appropriately reflective of your current environment. A transition within a Palace will see Joker leaping in and out of the inky blackness, while the daily commute simulates a congested public transport system.
The music is absolutely luscious, too. Shoji Meguro’s acid jazz-influenced soundtrack exercises a surprising amount of subtlety and restraint. Vocal tracks return, though they’re fewer in number and their lyrics don’t feel quite as intrusive and obvious as they did in previous entries. Although some of the incidental music can be a little plain, the bulk of the soundtrack is smooth and funky from start to finish.
Naturally, this sense of style extends to the battle system. Persona 5 ditches the traditional menu system, instead assigning a function to each of the face buttons. It feels satisfying to hit one button to fire off a spell, or to bust out a gun and fire off multiple rounds. Much like previous entries, success in battle is primarily based around hitting foes’ weaknesses to gain extra turns. Persona 5 smartly evolves this system by introducing Baton Pass; an ability that allows you to tag in another party member with a boost to their stats. You can Baton Pass across the entire party, and each boost stacks. It’s a great way to knock down a group of diverse foes while spreading the SP cost across multiple allies, and its high-five animation makes it feel good, too.
For all its smart twists on the battle system, one thing that’s terribly outdated is the penalty for failure. Like the PS2 entries, it’s game over if the protagonist is knocked out. Dying against a boss allows you to retry, but death via scrub means a trip back to the last saved game. As Palaces can be lengthy and save points far between, one ambush can mean hours of lost progress to the unlucky. It’s strange that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is more lenient than Persona 5, but so be it.
Your party gracefully dances a violent ballet against their foes — who, for the first time since Persona 2, are made up of Shin Megami Tensei’s demonic pantheon. This is a welcome move, as Kazuma Kaneko’s iconic designs took a backseat for the past few entries, only appearing when a Persona was called upon in battle. The move to HD allows the linework on the demons to really pop, giving some of the traditional Japanese deities a sumi-e look about them. They’ve also been touched up by Shigenori Soejima, resulting in a softer, anime-esque aesthetic than their previous incarnations. All the demons look great, but there’s bittersweet twinge to see Kaneko’s distinct faces well and truly gone.
With the return of demons comes the return of negotiation. Hitting all foes’ weaknesses puts them in the Hold Up position, from which they can be interrogated to possibly join as new Personas, or give you cash or items. The system is incredibly simplified here: there are only four personality types, and each type responds to the player’s answers in the same way. Demons ask two questions maximum and never ask for a bribe. Those frustrated by the more random negotiations of other Shin Megami Tensei titles will likely come to grips with this system much quicker. While negotiation is key to filling out your Persona compendium, the Hold Up position also allows for the series’ trademark All-Out Attacks, which hit all foes for massive damage. The best bit about Persona 5’s All-Outs is that they’re personalized depending on who triggered them. Expect sexy and colorful splash images of aloof poses, ladies sipping tea, or cats smoking cigars. Finishing moves have never looked so divine.
Palaces collapse when completed, so Persona 5 also has its own procedurally-generated dungeon that can be accessed at any time. Mementos is a Kabbalah-themed labyrinth that exists beneath the city’s subway system. It’s “The People’s Palace,” where negative emotions that aren’t strong enough to generate a Palace fester. Mementos allows you to negotiate with demons you may have missed in an earlier area, and also comes with a range of side quests to fulfill. Mementos is basically there for grinding purposes, and its micro-goals are a fine way to disguise this.
When you’re not trawling Palaces or Mementos, you’re free to build up your social stats or build relationships with your friends, called “confidants” in this entry. In true Persona style, this eventually becomes overwhelming as just under two dozen people compete for your time. All of the confidant stories are entertaining to watch unfold. Many are even poignant, but if I never see the trope of “skinny girl who eats all the cakes” again, it’ll be too soon. The wealth of side activities, though appreciated, end up making the pacing kind of a mess. Each Palace’s deadline is separated by several weeks — this gives ample time to partake in confidant links and personal development, but the plot slows to an agonizing crawl when this happens. There are also nondescript segments in which an entire week can play out with zero interactivity. I lost track of the number of times I wanted the game to just get on with it.
Persona 5’s story has a tendency to tackle heavier subjects, and that also happens to be its biggest flaw: delicate matters are treated with inappropriate levels of gravitas. Early on, one of the protagonist’s classmates, Shiho, is beaten and raped by a faculty member. A cutscene shows her leap from the roof as students gawk and panic. She barely survives and is taken to the hospital, and that’s it. She’s never seen in the main plot again, and once her brutalizer is brought to justice, eventually the characters stop talking about her completely. Persona 5 makes no attempt to allow Shiho to be anything more than a victim to drive the plot forward; the latest in a long line of women in refrigerators. Later still, a sidequest introduced me to a nameless woman too afraid to leave her abusive boyfriend. I dove into Mementos to change his heart through force, and doing so saw him reward me with, presumably, the length of pipe he’d been beating her with. It was a weapon for Ryuji. I felt sick.
To be brutally honest, a great deal of Persona 5’s narrative feels tone-deaf at best, or alarmingly backwards at its very worst. A common thread throughout the plot is the main characters’ (and villains’) shared absence of strong father figures in their lives. A party of coincidentally dad-less kids is almost as contrived as Final Fantasy VIII’s infamous orphanage plot beat, though Persona 5 feels more sinister than contrived. Hinting that society’s ills are caused by a lack of strong patriarchy comes across as an uncomfortable reverence for the Ie system of pre-World War II Japan, a notoriously repressive society. Not so rebellious after all?
Furthermore, for a title that owes such a debt of gratitude to camp, Persona 5 has, bar none, some of the worst attitudes towards LGBT across the entire Shin Megami Tensei franchise. A pair of aging gay men exist as a running gag, literally chasing the male heroes through numerous locales under comedic threat of sexual assault. It’s a tired stereotype seen in dozens of Japanese games, and it feels especially tired here. On the flipside, there’s also the loveable Lala Escargot, a plus-sized drag bar proprietress who steals every scene she’s in. Although you can work at her bar, she’s sadly not a confidant. I guess Atlus feels it’s more acceptable for a minor to work in a bar than it is to befriend a LGBT person. That’s a shame, to put it mildly.
And yet, some aspects of the story are spot on. One confidant is forced into the role of shogi idol by her overzealous mother, which results in a biting critique of what it means to be a young person in the entertainment industry in a way that Tokyo Mirage Sessions previously obscured. A mid-game arc in which the Phantom Thieves deal with fame exercises incredible self-awareness, seemingly a response to the endless commercialisation of successful intellectual properties. A later Palace uses a rigged casino as a metaphor for the Japanese criminal justice system, in a stroke of absolute genius.
Despite its numerous foibles, I had a great time with Persona 5. It achieves what it sets out to do very well, though it’s probably the last time it can rely on the same format before it becomes tired. It also could’ve been 10-15 hours shorter without a noticeable dip in quality. The game ends with a disappointingly rote JRPG final dungeon that stands in sharp contrast to the incredible creativity that came before it. Still, the Palaces themselves are a definite step in the right direction, and proof that this console generation could be a very good thing for future installments. In short, Persona 5 is a celebration; not simply an iterative entry, but one that effectively calls upon its 20 year history to create something of a capstone to the series.
Plus, you can punch Mara in the junk in glorious HD.