It has been nearly 10 years since the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, which was originally a PlayStation 2 game before getting enhanced with the awesome Persona 4 Golden on PlayStation Vita. Nearly an entire console generation has come and gone without a main entry in the series releasing, though there were plenty of worthwhile spin-offs along the way that made the wait more bearable. After many years and several delays we finally have Persona 5, and Atlus has made sure that the wait was more than worth it.
Persona 5 gets right into the action much faster compared to the previous installments, beginning with a flashy casino chase leading to our silent protagonist being captured by the police. We soon learn that these events are actually taken from a point deeper into the storyline, and the rest of the game unfolds as the protagonist is being interrogated. It adds a nice touch of mystery to the game’s early proceedings, with the want for answers regarding how the protagonist in current time ended up in the situation he’s in months later being strong. The narrative of course goes to some dark and twisted areas as it moves along, but the writing always manages to throw in plenty of laughs to even it all out.
The protagonist gets in big trouble for helping a woman that was being assaulted by a man, with the man getting injured in the process and suing the protagonist. This leads to the protagonist getting a criminal record and being expelled from his school, with his parents deciding to ship him to a new place with the only school that would take him. He gets put in the care of a perpetually-grouchy restaurant owner that lets him sleep in the restaurant’s dusty and crowded attic, warning him that if he steps out of line he’ll be thrown out in the streets. Whereas Persona 4’s protagonist seemed to instantly be welcomed and get along with everyone he met, Persona 5’s protagonist has the opposite effect at first.
The game has an immense sense of style with its vibrant visuals, stylish anime sequences and slick cast, which it backs up with an equal amount of substance. The game’s world is set within a richly-detailed Tokyo, and the game offers you countless hours of both vital and trivial activities to get wrapped up in through the main hubs of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara . You’re once again a high school student that needs to attend school most days, but you’ll also be exploring the the different areas, listening in on conversations of townsfolk, and meeting up with your friends. The game’s visuals aren’t quite up to par with other games that are releasing on PlayStation 4 these days (developing for PlayStation 3 holds it back some), but everything from the slick black and red UI to the splashes of color that appear when moving your character do a decent job of masking that fact.
Persona 5’s immense style is matched with deep mechanics
It’s nighttime when the meat of the game takes place, with you and your friends being part of a group called the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. The group essentially makes it their mission to infiltrate a parallel reality known as the Metaverse, where the corrupted hearts of adults manifest as palaces. These slimy adults aren’t beyond saving, however, and the Thieves’ goal is to navigate through these palaces to find their treasure and fix the person and the issues they cause in the real world. It’s as loopy as anything you would expect from a Persona game, and its executed confidently with both heart and humor.
Fans of Persona 4 Golden will be happy to know that Persona 5 keeps in line with that game’s combat system, offering a turn-based affair with rock-paper-scissors mechanics. You have the ability to pull off melee attacks or skills with the help of your Persona, which will either consume HP or SP. Depending on your Persona’s affinity (fire, water, wind, etc.) and the weakness of your enemies, you have the ability to use a skill they are weak against to cause them to fall down. This then allows you to take another attack against the same enemy or a different one, allowing for a string of unanswered attacks. If you knock them all down then you’re treated to the returning and immensely satisfying All-Out Attack (or you can negotiate with them in a hilarious Q&A fashion), which has all your teammates rushing the enemies and slicing them up for big damage.
While it’s a system that is dated at this point considering how long its been since the last game, Atlus has made some quality of life improvements to make it more streamlined. Identifying enemy weaknesses allows you to tap a button to locate the ideal move to use rather than menu surfing for it each time, and the new Baton Pass move allows you to give up your turn to an ally that is strong against a particular enemy. This results in dungeon crawling or even level grinding moving at a much more brisk pace, as players who know what they’re doing will be able to wipe out an entire enemy squad without being touched provided they aren’t under-leveled.
The dungeons that Persona 5 offer are also a big step up from previous installments, with the game including both campaign-related and side dungeons for you to tackle. Rather than each dungeon being endless narrow hallways as they were previously, here we have dungeons that are much more open and offer more interesting navigation elements. There will be puzzles for you to solve, light platforming elements with gap jumping and ledge climbing, level traps and other obstacles that make these dungeons feel much more substantial. They also take place in interesting settings like a medieval castle, a spaceship and a giant safe, with each one bringing their own unique hazards and puzzles that need to be accounted for.
These areas will of course be littered with shadows for the player to take out, but even how you go about dealing with them has been switched up for this go around. While you can once again attack them from behind to get a preemptive strike in battle, you can avoid them entirely more easily thanks to the game’s new stealth system. Each area has plenty of opportunities for the player to take cover, which you can then quickly bounce to the next nearest cover point with the press of a button when the enemy isn’t looking. It’s not the deepest stealth system you’ll see and the camera can occasionally work against you, but it’s nice to have more options at your disposal when it comes to maneuvering around the game’s enemies.
For those who miss the procedurally-generated dungeons from Persona 4, you’ll be happy to know that the game offers just that with Mementos. This area serves as the game’s main spot for level grinding, while containing its own side quests for you to take on along the way. Whereas the main games offer villains that are so evil that they get their own palaces, the enemies featured in Mementos are essentially mini-bosses due to them being more redeemable. Completing these quests offers a nice change of pace from the main game, with the objectives taking much less time to complete compared to the epic palaces.
Whether dungeon crawling or hanging with friends, Persona 5 is endlessly addictive
Just as was the case with Persona 3 and 4, time-management is an integral part of Persona 5. You only have a limited amount of time each day that passes when completing activities like hanging out with friends, part-time jobs, fishing and so on, and there’s once again a deadline to complete your main objectives by that will get you a game over screen if you fail to meet them. Some activities that you can take part in will increase your various character attributes like Knowledge and Guts, which go towards forming stronger bonds with your allies via the Confidant system (essentially P3 and P4’s Social Links). It’s just as addicting to get caught up in the daily mundane activities as it is to progress through palaces, providing a gameplay loop that is endlessly addictive. The network features brought to the series with Persona 4 Golden also make a return here, allowing you to see how other players spend each day for tips and also get help with test questions at school.
It wouldn’t be a worthy Persona game if the characters weren’t compelling, and thankfully Atlus came up with another fantastic cast for the latest installment in the series. From the renowned detective Goro to the eccentric art student Yusuke, there are plenty of zany characters that you’ll grow to love almost immediately. Also, just as in the previous installments, as you get closer to them you’ll slowly unravel some of their darker secrets that sometimes give a very different understanding of the character than you had originally. The talking cat named Morgana is an easy and early standout, with his upbeat personality and struggle to remember his past drawing clear parallels to Persona 4’s Teddie. The English voice cast also did a terrific job bringing these characters to life, with no one phoning in their lines or causing a headache. Getting closer with your comrades and improving the aforementioned Confidant ranks has great gameplay perks, as well, granting your allies with new skills and stronger Personas while also resulting in them protecting you more in battle.
Persona 5 expands upon many of the elements that the series has featured in the past, while also streamlining certain aspects to make it an even smoother ride. It’s a spectacular RPG experience that is truly in a league of its own, and fans of the series and the genre in general owe it to themselves to check it out.