Persona 5 lets you change the hearts of others. In doing so, it’ll steal yours.
Persona has, and will always be, one of the quirkiest franchises on the market. Talking teddy bears, meat-loving tomboys, gun-toting puppy dogs; you name it, and Atlus has probably put it in the series. Despite the “immature” aspects, Persona has consistently managed to push the boundaries for Japanese role-playing games. The series has taken large strides to modernize and popularize the genre, mainly by giving it an urban setting and story. After nine long years, the prodigal turn-based series returns with Persona 5 which, quite frankly, blows all previous JRPGs out of the water.
For the uninitiated, the Persona series throws you into the shoes of a Japanese high-schooler arriving in a new town. Each entry is separate from the last, yet carries thematic similarities and Easter eggs that hearken back to its predecessors. You’ll play through almost every single day for a whole in-game year. This creates a sort of “social simulator” in which you grow closer to your school friends or level up various stats like “charm,” “guts,” and “proficiency.”
Persona 5 takes a hearty dive into dark issues that hit much too close to home.
The tale of Persona 5 begins simply enough, as the protagonist moves to a new school in Tokyo. The reason for the move, however, is much darker: he’s got a criminal record and was kicked from his last school, thanks to a recent “assault charge” he erroneously received while trying to stop a rape. This is the perfect setup for the game’s overarching theme: adults don’t always know best, despite their ego. Kids can be infinitely more competent, when needed.
Suspense quickly builds as you befriend fellow troublemakers, find a talking cat, and unearth horrible crimes being committed in your community. While Persona 3 tackled secrets and misinformation, and Persona 4 dealt with murder and truth, Persona 5 takes a hearty dive into darker issues that hit much closer to home. Each new, terrible adult has a horrifying secret. What’s a kid to do?
That’s where you come in. Soon after moving, the protagonist stumbles upon “the Metaverse,” a distorted world formed from the wretched wants of corrupt individuals and housing their deepest desires. It’s now your job to masquerade alongside your school friends as “the Phantom Thieves of Hearts” and sneak through these monolithic Palaces to steal the hearts of the manipulative adults around you. Doing so should cause them to confess their sins, or so you hope.
Since these Palaces are formed by the subconscious, they are also guarded by the subconscious. Each dungeon asks you to stealthily navigate its halls and take down troves of patrolling psyche-based monsters in order to progress. Ambushing an enemy from behind will give you the upper-hand in battle, but being spotted puts you at a disadvantage. Stealth is an important trait for a Phantom Thief, turns out. Thankfully, the stealth system is built so that a simple press of X moves you between cover spots. It’s quick and intuitive to sneak up on guards, rip off their masks, and start a fight.
Here, Persona 5 truly shines. Every member of your party is equipped with their own Persona, or inner-self. These manifest as various creatures and humanoids, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. Bad-boy Ryuji is able to strike enemies with lighting and pack a punch with physical attacks, while the bandit cat Morgana can heal your party and devastate foes with wind magic. As the protagonist, however, you can switch your Personas at will, by changing the mask you wear.
Persona 5 favors those who look for patterns and weaknesses, and chastises those who strike blindly.
Every fight requires a decent array of strategies and tactics. Hitting an enemy’s weakness will make them collapse, and grant the attacker an extra turn–no matter if they’re friend or foe. This means most fights will consist of team experimentation and move-testing until you find that sweet spot, all while covering your own frailties. These extra turns can be passed to other team mates via a “Baton Pass,” ensuring that you can combo hits on certain elemental weaknesses.
Things get interesting, as more often than not, your personal arsenal of Personas may not able to bash all enemy weaknesses, while your teammates’ can. In such a case, you can switch to your appropriate demon, let your elemental magic loose, and Baton Pass your free turn to another Phantom Thief who can pick up your slack. Once every enemy monster is down on the ground, they’re held at gunpoint, and the Phantom Thieves are provided a few options: attack the monster, ask for an item or money, or negotiate with them.
Attacking them normally does a fair amount of damage and can quickly turn a battle in your favor. However, the time comes when that extra dough or restorative can really come in handy. Taking either option, though, forces you to miss out on the real treat: negotiation. These enemies can be persuaded to join your team! After some quick conversational navigation, the creature may suddenly decide to join you in the form of a new Persona.
Your personal progression and stats are pushed forth by the collection of stronger Personas. However, these inner-selves can also be combined in a mysterious consciousness known as the Velvet Room. Here, two adorable prison wardens can sentence multiple of your devilish allies to death, only to be reborn as a tougher Persona. This fusion allows you to choose the best moves and skills from your original Personas, and carry them over to a new one with better attacks and less weaknesses.
That’s a lot to take in, but thankfully Persona 5 somewhat guides you in the opening hours (almost too much). Surprisingly, each and every mechanic is important to the overall experience, and overlaps with each other in surprising ways. Hanging out with your new Tokyo contacts (aptly titled Confidants) will give you new skills and abilities in dungeons. Carrying certain Personas can also help you grow closer to specific allies.
The game is entirely built upon bite-sized actions like quick fights, short study sessions, and minute-long conversations…
This all combines to form a very strategic time-management system. The game doesn’t happen in real-time, but performing specific actions will automatically advance time a few hours forward. For example, after school you may have the option to chill with the lovely Ann, train at a gym to raise your HP, work part-time for money and a possible stat increase, or explore the latest Palace. Once you pick your agenda, it’s suddenly night time, which provides a different array of options. It’s a gratifying risk/reward system, as players are tasked with choosing the activities closest to their hearts, and are never urged to chase the ones that disinterest them.
If these descriptions make you feel that Persona 5 has a heavy emphasis on text and menus, that’s because it does. The experience is most certainly defined by listening to high-school heart thieves banter back and forth, and by optimizing a perfect fighting style. However, Persona 5 touts a high level of quality and panache regarding its UI. Every menu is designed to look like a ransom note, or the inner mind of a misunderstood teen. It’s a refreshing change of heart compared to the uninspired menus of most AAA titles. Each button and prompt is responsive and fast: the battle menu can technically be navigated before the graphic even unfolds on your screen.
These menus are a handsomely clever way to keep the genre fast and fresh. Whereas grinding and fighting in older Final Fantasy games can feel tedious, battles in Persona 5 feel quick and exciting. They provide a visual spectacle and a short brain teaser, then they’re over. The game is entirely built upon bite-sized actions like quick fights, short study sessions, and minute-long conversations with friends. Yet in this simplicity, Persona draws you in: before you know it, you’ve played for 25 hours.
The experience is most certainly defined by listening to high-school heart thieves banter back and forth, and by optimizing a perfect fighting style.
That’s not to say Persona doesn’t provide a challenge, because it most certainly does. Each Palace is topped off with a grand heist to steal an adult’s heart, leading to a confrontation with that individual’s “Shadow.” These boss fights normally introduce some new trick or fighting style that you must adapt to on the fly, lest you die. Persona 5 favors those who look for patterns and weaknesses, and chastises those who strike blindly.
After all the hard work the Phantom Thieves put in, it’s gratifying to see their targets fess up to their crimes. Persona 5 creates a harrowing world of adults with unquenchable thirsts for power, willing to step on the heads of those around them in the climb to the top. It’s many shades darker than any game I’ve played in the past few years. This tale is one that you can hear essentially any time you turn on an actual TV. Yet Persona also provides a ray of hope and an uplifting narrative. The JRPG proclaims that even children can rise above the murk and do great things to counteract corruption. It preaches change and personal revolution, and asks players to break the chains of society to grasp happiness.
If you’re not a fan of lengthy intros, menu-heavy games, turn-based battles, or Japanese titles, Persona definitely won’t change your mind. However, you’d be sorely remiss to pass on it. Simply put, Persona 5 is arguably even more revolutionary than its predecessors. The charming, stylish behemoth finds new ways to reincarnate “boring” mechanics into ones that are enticing, modern, and bold. It fixes many complaints the general populace has with turn-based games and lengthy RPGs, yet provides next to no flaws in return. Persona 5 is an exquisitely fashionable treat, and will surely steal your heart.