The Rebirth of Cool
Publisher: Atlus USA
Release Date: April 4, 2017
Platforms: PS3, PS4*
Everything about Persona 5 oozes cool. It is stylish to the nth degree, down to even the smallest minutiae. Everything from the pause menus, to the battle screens, to the worlds you inhabit are truly incredible to behold. Not a single detail was overlooked, even the unnecessary ones – like the transitions between menu screens – are beautifully put together, and even the acid-jazz-inspired soundtrack is tuned to perfection, adapted perfectly in every scenario to complement the full spectrum of moods and emotions Persona 5 elicits. However, to only talk about its visual and auditory aesthetics, though stunning, would do a disservice to a game that has raised the bar for all future JRPGs to a near-unreachable level.
Persona 5 – helmed by Katsura Hoshino and artistically realized by Masayoshi Suto and Shigenori Soejima – is the most recent entry in the Persona series, and is the first new main-line Persona title from legendary Japanese studio, Atlus, in nearly a decade. By day, Persona 5 follows the protagonist and his newly-made friends, the self-labeled “Phantom Thieves”, as they navigate their lives in a Tokyo high-school (you take the train to school in the morning, answer questions in class, etc.), while at night, focus shifts to the supernatural exploits they’ve undertaken to change the hearts of corrupt adults.
The most concise way that I can sum up Persona 5 is that it, paradoxically, is both a long game (a very long one in fact) and a game that requires you to manage your limited amount of in-game time wisely. In that way, Persona 5 is both a robust turn-based JRPG (think Pokémon) while you’re in the supernatural Metaverse as you go about your business as Phantom Thieves, as well as an immersive time-management, high-school simulation game when you’re in the Tokyo over-world. It nails both to near perfection with gameplay mechanics and a turn-based battle system that are both richly complex, yet still manageable even to players, like myself, who are new to the series.
As all traditional epic stories do, Persona 5 opens in media res, as the protagonist is captured after his failed attempt to escape the police in a gorgeously animated Tokyo casino. The next scene is a brutal interrogation, which eventually sends the game back to the beginning of the story as the protagonist “relates” to his interrogator every detail that led up to his capture. To avoid spoiling any of the details, including those of even the first few hours, the protagonist quickly befriends an irascible firebrand named Ryuji, and before long gains two more teammates as well. Your group of teammates and confidants (Persona 5’s choice word to describe those close to you) only continues to expand from there.
The credits rolled for me at just past the 99-hour mark, and if you bundled in times that I died, it easily eclipsed 100 for my full play-through. Don’t let that timestamp dissuade you though, because a large portion of that 100 hours (at least 30+ of those hours) is spent in storytelling. In classic JRPG style, your thumb will get a workout clicking through all the dialogue boxes, and there are a generous number of gorgeous, fully animated cutscenes sprinkled in along the way.
Even though Persona 5 contains a strong plot, it wasn’t until after 25-30 hours into the game that I found myself returning to it each day because I wanted to progress the overarching story. Instead, in those early hours (well, early for Persona 5 I suppose), it was the characters, their backstories, and your interactions with them that kept me up late into the night and coming back for more each day. Simply put, from start to finish, the characters are the true stars of Persona 5. There was never a moment in my 100+ hours – especially so in those early ones when the story is slightly less compelling – where I didn’t want to spend more time and build stronger relationships with the expansive number of confidants in the game. Fortunately, Persona 5 knows this as well, and building these relationships is one of those key gameplay mechanics mentioned earlier. As you build stronger relationships with both your teammates and your other confidants, you gain skills and bonuses that you can use to better your chances at surviving and thriving in the Metaverse.
However, you won’t have time to get to know all of your confidants or do everything you’d like to do in Persona 5, and that’s because you’re always having to make trade-offs with how to spend your limited amount of daily time. If you choose to spend time hanging out with one of your friends – whether it be to explore that character’s story arc or merely to gain the associated skill benefits – that is time that you can’t spend doing other things, like working out to increase your health and energy levels, making money working a job, raising your social stats through various activities, spending time grinding to level up your characters in the cognitive world, or (and maybe most importantly) exploring a boss’s cognitive palace to progress the story.
And though they may seem like a nuisance when you want to spend more time with your friends, these cognitive palaces (Persona 5’s equivalent of dungeons) are also incredibly compelling in and of themselves. Each of the handful of palaces are unique, and all have their own specific designs. Ranging aesthetically from an ancient-Egyptian pyramid to a futuristic space port, each palace is lovingly and carefully crafted with its own original puzzle designs and thematically consistent enemies. Whereas a medieval castle palace had fully armored knights and a library puzzle where the correct books must be placed on a shelf to unlock a door, a bank palace contained in-uniform security guards and safes that required you to decode their passwords to obtain key items necessary to progress further into the palace. These masterful designs prevented me from ever feeling bored as I worked my way through each palace’s considerable length, and they always culminated with a cleverly designed boss fight that required a specific strategy that was far more complex than a mashup of your party’s best attacks. Not only were these boss fights puzzles themselves, each heavyweight contest immersed me further into the battle system mechanics, and taught me something that I didn’t already fully understand or made me appreciate the value of using an item or a technique that I previously hadn’t thought was useful. In an effort not to spoil the fun of any of these bosses, suffice it to say that each boss battle was a fitting end to its respective palace, and always delivered with it a satisfying conclusion to that specific picaresque story arc.
Though I could praise Persona 5 almost endlessly, I still have two minor complaints. First, I was surprised by how dated and heteronormative romantic relationships were in what I viewed as an otherwise quite socially and politically progressive game. For some reason you can only start romantic relationships with female confidants, and it seems like that would have been so easy to include male confidants as romantic options as well. Second, though most of Persona 5’s roughly 100-hour runtime is more than worthwhile, the game clocks in at about 5 hours longer than it should. In its final act, the plot reaches somewhat beyond its means in my opinion, as it barrels toward the game’s finale, asking me as a player to wrap my head around a plot twist and an expansion of scale that I didn’t fully understand. Things ultimately come together quite nicely in the end, and the game succeeds in spite of its final segment, concluding in a way that was wholly satisfying and immensely rewarding for the triple-digit hours I sunk into the game’s universe.
As the final scene faded to black, I was left with feelings of acute longing akin to those I remember having after turning the final page in Harry Potter. The bottom line is that the 100ish hours you will spend in Persona 5’s Tokyo are not wasted. You will grow close to a cast of characters who will slowly become like a second family whom you will not want to leave when the time comes. Luckily, NewGame+ is a viable option, with ample rewards and incentives to jump right back into the colorful and memorable world.
When all was said and done, the unique sense of accomplishment that Persona 5 gave me was something that I hadn’t necessarily felt before in a video game. Though other games have given me senses of accomplishment before, Persona 5’s was different. Whereas I have felt immense accomplishment in games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne whose bosses require either a great deal of skill or an immense amount of luck, those games derive their sense of accomplishment primarily from solitude. Persona 5’s is the opposite, building a sense of accomplishment based on the relationships you cultivate in the game and the victories you orchestrate as a result of them. In a world where people often criticize video games for promoting antisocial behaviors, Persona 5 pushes the player to be prosocial at nearly every turn, exemplifying how building strong, meaningful relationships with people can propel you through the toughest of challenges.
You can add Persona 5 to the growing list of exclusive titles that make up one of the primary reasons that the PS4 has dominated the most recent generation of consoles. If you have a PS4 (or PS3 for that matter) and are looking for one incredible game to keep you engaged for weeks or even months, this is the one.