Persona 5 is an RPG that mixes old and new formulas to create one of the greatest RPGs ever made.
With Persona 5, Atlus made loyal fans of the series wait with baited breath for 10 years after it was delayed from its originally scheduled autumn 2014 release date. You can tell that time was well spent whether you spend 10 hours with the game or over 100 because this is a game that was crafted with both the love and the attention to detail that makes the series so popular both in Japan and in the west.
Set in modern day Tokyo you play as a high school kid, Akira Kurusu (his manga canon name), who has been put on probation and sent to live with a family friend named Sojiro Sakura, who is as equally displeased with you being lumped on him as is the Headmaster of the school you will be attending. Apart from the initial section (which is quite a different origin story for the protagonist from Persona 4), Persona 5 does fall into the rather formulaic style of the previous games wherein you will start school and meet an interesting cast of people who fall under various anime character tropes such as Ryuji, the typically clumsy and loud best friend.
In some ways Persona 5 feels like Atlus were playing it safe – in fact, the first few hours feel like one extended tutorial where it is holding you by the hand through all situations as you are told exactly how the game is to be played going forward. For older players, this may seem a little monotonous, but with the amount of mechanics in the game this was understandably needed.
As in previous games, you are tasked with not only living a normal life as a teenager in Tokyo i.e. attending school, socializing or even finding a job but also by night you are a Phantom Thief who steals the hearts of your victims…Sounds tough, right?
It definitely is. After the initial section and introduction of your first palace you are let loose to largely decide on the activities you will do in your day such as going to the Big Bang Burger to increase your guts or simply studying to get that extra intelligence perk, but always with a ticking clock counting down to the ominous deadline of your goal.
But where and how do you achieve this daunting task before you? This is where the palaces come in (Persona 5’s version of dungeons). Inside there you will sneak around and battle various enemies in the tried and tested Persona battle system but with a few minor changes. One example sees the introduction of the negotiation system wherein if you find an enemy’s weakness or get a critical hit you will knock the enemy down, and when all enemies are down you can hold them up as thieves would.
You then choose to either all-out attack or try and talk to the persona to ask them to join you – or even ask for some extra money if that’s what you need. This adds just enough variety to the turn-based RPG formula that it feels fresh every time you encounter a new enemy. Each palace has unique mechanics associated with it as well such as climbing into paintings in a gallery or evading tripwires which makes every palace seem like a unique game in itself.
Once you complete a palace before the deadline that mini story arc will end just like a TV series, and then a new one will inevitably begin. This is the basic structure of the entire game but with an ever-foreboding overarching story that is mostly in the background the entire time but escalates steadily to quite a marvelous finale.
Within all of this, there are also mementos where you are required to complete side missions or requests. This is a randomly generated dungeon which feels almost unending, akin to Let It Die or other similar roguelikes. You will spend quite a large amount of time here and although fun at first the environments are all very similar and can become repetitive compared to the show-stopping main palaces.
The miniature story arcs and palaces are where the most breath-taking storytelling happens. Atlus depicts very brave subject matter in a way no other developer has really done in the past. You will begin to treat the characters not just as elements of the game but as real friends. You won’t see a gameplay mechanic as just a tool to move the story forward, but as a way to deepen your immersion to the world. And this is where Persona 5 shines brightest – when you feel so much for a character that you want to shed a tear alongside them.
While playing it feels as though Atlus threw everything they could into the game and hoped it would work and for some this may be overwhelming to play at first, but as you look deeper you can see the reasoning for every single activity or conversation you have. Each handcrafted palace feels like you are venturing into an unknown area that has been created solely to challenge and entertain the player.
Persona 5 is nothing short of a masterpiece in a world of somewhat middling JRPGs that try to bolt on open worlds or dumb down mechanics to make the game easier to handle. The only things holding it back are some pacing issues towards the end and slightly repetitive gameplay in the mementos. I strongly advise you listen to the in-game loading screen when it tells you to “take your time” because your time is truly well spent in one of the best role-playing games ever made.
Publisher: Atlus USA (North America), Deep Silver (PAL)
Genre: JRPG, Social Simulator
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3