It’s been nine years but finally a new Persona game is here! I’ve been a fan of the series since a friend introduced me to Persona 3 and I prefer this offshoot series over the Shin Megemi Tensei games it came from. Whereas SMT games are often bleak and usually involved the aftermath of an apocalypse, the Persona series (the ones I’ve played at) are about a group of teenagers coming together to fight monsters in between hanging out at the mall, doing homework, and taking class exams.
Previous Persona adventures were largely jaunty and entertaining affairs. They reflect a time that when high school kids were allowed to be easy going until graduation, adulthood, and financial responsibilities reared their ugly heads and spoiled the fun. Though there were moments where the story got serious (such as Persona 3‘s depressing third act), the buzz was difficult to harsh because of the game’s charm and sense of anime-style humor.
Persona 5 is different. From the very beginning, its attitude aggressive. The player character is sent to live in Shibuya following the aftermath of a trial in which he stopped a rich politician from harassing a woman. Proving that “He who has the gold makes the rules,” the politician arranges for the player character to be sent away for a year on probation, where he is cared for by a gruff family friend. The reputation precedes the player character and as a result, everyone seems to automatically hate him. It’s kind of off putting to have nearly every character you meet think so badly of you. The family friend hates you. Your class’s homeroom teacher hates you. The volleyball coach hates you. The Principal hates you. The Student Council President hates you. Dude, all I want to do is stick it out for a year and try to get my life back on track! Eventually, the protagonist is introduced to Igor, the master of the Velvet Room (which takes the form of a prison), who guides him on a most peculiar journey.
Instead of jumping into a television to stop a murderer or preventing a dark god from destroying humanity, the protagonist and his friends become Phantom Thieves who have the unique power to steal away the dark desires that live in a person’s heart. Such desires manifest themselves through the Metaverse, a parallel world home to Palaces, elaborate mazes created and shaped by a person’s twisted inner nature. In the case of Mr. Kamoshida, the high school’s volleyball coach and first target of the Phantom Thieves, his ego and high social standing made him believe that he rules the roost, which gives his Palace the form of an opulent castle. To change their hearts, the Phantom Thieves infiltrate each Palace and steal a precious treasure.. Only by doing so will the person go back to “normal” and confess their sins.
Standing in your way of the treasure is the Shadow version of the target and their minions. Battling these creatures plays out in classic Shin Megami Tensei style. By striking at a target’s elemental weaknesses, you gain extra turns to inflict considerable damage.. This system goes both ways as enemies can also take advantage of your party’s inherent weakness. I still cry when I think about fighting the Matador in Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne, who would take out my entire party before the battle had a chance to start. The plan for happiness in Persona 5 is to ambush enemy mobs (by hitting them from behind) and playing to their weaknesses to knock them down. At that point, you can either negotiate for their power, money, and items or launch a devastating all out attack. Fighting bosses plays out the same way except they are much stronger and more resilient to the party’s abilities. One aspect of boss battles that I really like is the opportunity to deliver a crushing blow by sending a party member to perform a multi-turn sneak attack. It’s a big risk/reward mechanic–do you risk losing a team member for several turns?–that has a great payoff.
Sneaking into mind palaces to steal treasure and change a person’s heart is a great, feel good balm to the viciousness of the adult’s behavior. As of this writing, I’ve completed the game’s first two bosses and neither of them were good people. In fact, when you confront their Shadow self, their monologues often reveal them to be even more awful than initially believed. I won’t spoil anything (lest Atlus stop by and block my content) I’ve found it difficult to express any sympathy even after they’ve denounced their wicked ways.
Just because the adults really, really suck doesn’t mean Persona 5 isn’t fun. Everything I love about the series, from its social interactions to the dearth of character building activities, waits to be explored. It’s a bummer that the game holds you back, putting you through numerous tutorials and scripted events before letting you do whatever you want. It’s been awhile since I’ve played Persona 4 (and Persona 3 for that matter) and I feel that this game is far more restrictive in its opening hours. Scripted events and tutorials pull you out of the action so often that I grew frustrated. C’mon, Atlus! I know this stuff! Just let me plaaaay! The game does eventually loosen its grip after the first boss which is around the same many of the diversions and character interactions really open up.
Although there is plenty more to see and do, Persona 5 is shaping up to be my favorite game of series. The gameplay is great and comes with a good set of tweaks but a significant amount of my love is dedicated to how gorgeous it looks and sounds. To be superficial, this is the sexiest and grooviest Persona yet. You can easily spot the influence Catherine had on the game’s design because character models look like they just stepped out of that world. The Cafe Leblanc, the protagonist’s home, feels comfortably similar to Catherine‘s Stray Sheep. I also love how good the monsters/personas appear in the game. The higher res textures makes these icons from various world religions look less polygonal and more like animated characters. The stylish battle interface and the colorful dungeon design kick things up several notches. I’ll admit that the battle UI is a bit busy at first but I’ve since gotten used to it once I figured out that menu options are bound to the controller’s face buttons as opposed to the menus from previous games.
The Persona 5‘s soundtrack is also amazing, because its packed with great jazz-inspired tracks befitting a squad of master thieves. The battle music, especially when characters learn to accept their personas, never ceases to be rousing and awesome. I get more pumped up to fight with Persona 5‘s battle music more than I did with Persona 4 and I thought nothing could be better than “seeking to seize on the whole moment, yeah!” The voice work is the only misstep. Some of the speaking parts have weird interpretations of character names. Far worse is the change in voice actors for the character of Igor. I know the original Japanese voice actor died, which sucks, but that doesn’t explain why they changed it for the Western release. The change was so jarring. It’d be like waking up one day to find that the voice of Lisa Simpson was replaced with Larry the Cable Guy.
I’m not done with the game yet–there’s still plenty left to see and do–but it’s captured my attention to the point where I can’t stop thinking about it on a daily basis. Though the first few hours of the game are a drag, Persona 5 kicks into high gear after Atlus takes off the leash and becomes the socializing dungeon crawler I know and love.