Persona 5: Breaking Up Is (Not So) Hard To Do

It’s not me, it’s you. Or it might be both of us. I’m not wholly sure I want to take most of the blame right now. 

The more time I put into Persona 5, the more its sheen begins to dull. As of this writing, I’ve spent close to 60 hours guiding the Phantom Thieves to change the hearts of corrupt individuals. The honeymoon phase of the game lasted a long time but now the relationship feels somewhat strained. Despite the feelings that will be expressed in this essay, there are a lot of things about Persona 5 I do like. The soundtrack is the best of the past three games, the jazz/funk fusion is catchy as all hell and handily beats out the soundtrack to Persona 4, which was (and really, still is) one of my favorite video game albums. I also love how good and detailed the individual Personas look in-game. A far cry from their polygonal brethren on the PlayStation 2. I’ve reached a point, however, where those gleams of gold no longer hold my attention or, at the very least, distract me from the things I’ve grown to not particularly like.

The area I struggle with the most is Persona 5’s story–or the immediate lack thereof. At 60 hours, the Phantom Thieves have acquired a new member, one that potentially bears a connection to the overall plot. Why did it take so long to get to this point? The game has a somewhat serious problem with pacing and even though I’m only familiar with the third and fourth Persona games, it feels like Persona 5 takes forever to get where it’s going. In comparison, Persona 4 opens with a murder that permeates the entire game and creates a clear cut goal from the very beginning. I liked the idea of the Phantom Thieves changing the hearts of comically horrible people but to me, the “let’s change people’s hearts!” motivation didn’t quite cut it. The second Palace alludes to something greater going behind the scenes, which caught my interest but the characters don’t really do much with the revelation. They instead aimlessly bounce from Palace to Palace changing the hearts of truly horrible people. I can’t rightfully compare Persona 4 with Persona 5 because it’s been a few years since my last playthrough, but the former game didn’t feel so bogged down. This is all based on my first time playing the game. The story could get way better at hour 61 but I feel like I’ve given it so much of my time already. If I feel burned out after playing this long, what good could another two, five, or ten hours do?

Another umbrage I have is with the characters. I feel like they don’t experience the same level of personal trauma like the Persona 4 cast. Ryuji and the gang are united by a common cause (fight the power!) but strip away their abilities as Phantom Thieves and I feel like there isn’t much there to make them stick around. At least the Player Character in the fourth game forms bonds by working with his friends to defeat their personal demons. The new crew has some connection to Personas though it’s not as meaningful this time around. Persona 4’s bad ending does a great job of showing how important it is for the PC to have social links. Without them, the world literally falls into chaos. In Persona 5, being a Phantom Thief is merely a power fantasy–admittedly one that gives them the means to battle their oppressors. Their Personas didn’t have the same gripping, emotional impact as before.

I think the overall tone of the game might have contributed to my feelings as well. For the most part, Persona 5 is a dark and bleak game because of how vicious certain adults are portrayed. The adults whose Palaces you’ll infiltrate are some of the most rotten pieces of garbage in fiction. Again, I feel the game is trying to make a point about the conflict between Japan’s older and younger generations but good grief these people are completely irredeemable. The heavier tone also affects the main cast. Outside of comic relief, I never felt like the kids had an opportunity to just be kids. The gang goes to the beach during summer vacation but the whole affair plays out like almost every anime’s summertime episode. The running gag in Persona 5 is that every attempt to celebrate their victory over an adult is comically cut short. In Persona 4, we got to take part in a disastrous school camping trip, a cross-dressing fashion show, and weekend at a hot spring. Even though things got really crazy you could tell that these outings brought them all together. I never felt like the Persona 5 kids were allowed to have the fun they deserve because they’re too busy being kicked around by adults.

Persona 5 has more niggling annoyances that grew to be nearly unbearable.

One of them is the IM conversations. This game, and many anime I’ve watched over the years has a problem with talking in circles or restating something that was explained not five minutes prior. It seems like the characters have the same exact type of conversation every time they infiltrate a Palace, espousing on “Will we change their heart?” every single time despite having done it before. Almost every conversation that they have as a group gets repeated and reiterated so much that I just skip it. Now I understand why your available responses seem so detached and uninterested.

The Palaces, in theory, are a cool idea: dungeons that take on the appearance and mannerisms of the host. Some dungeons are pretty great while others, not so much. Futaba’s Palace was the breaking point because of all the backtracking. It reminded me of the later half of Final Fantasy XV’s infamous Chapter 13 dungeon that had you go one way to hit a switch then run all the way back to advance through a door. Another factor of what made the dungeons boring was how easy it was to perform an ambush. The challenge of identifying weaknesses is still fun but the practice gets less so over time because of how easy it is to dominate in combat. The ability to hide around corners or behind objects makes it easy to fall into a predictable pattern that sounds great on paper though, in practice, I almost welcomed being caught by enemy shadows. I will give a shout out to Persona 5’s bosses which are the most fun to play. I love their designs and clever tricks, such as assigning a character to bow out of the fight to set up a special, nearly crippling attack.

What really grinds my gears is renting DVDs. Now, fair warning this is going to be overly nitpicky. From the beginning, the clerk hammers home the idea that you have the DVD for a limited time. No problem there, it’s just another piece of time management the game imposes on you. However, between developing social links, running Palaces and Mementos, or trying to help a shut-in get used to people, there’s not a whole lot of time to watch the movie (which gives boosts to your character traits) without running late. On three separate occasions, I went to the DVD rental place and got chided for being late and given a fine. But then I’m put through a rigmarole in which the clerk claims “she’s busy” and waves the fine, letting me off with a stern warning. Having gone through this ineffectual song and dance multiple times, I almost wish the damned clerk took the money and stopped bitching at me about it.

I’ve been told that the game gets better after picking up Futaba. Honestly, I don’t have the energy or the inkling to keep trudging up the hill I started 60 hours ago. Perhaps some time apart will help me break through the idle monotony I found myself in. On a positive note, the freedom from Persona 5 gives me a chance to tackle my backlog.

Everything has a silver lining.

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