Persona 5 Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PlayStation 3
Determined to remind you exactly why it’s considered the pinnacle of JRPG franchises, the fifth instalment of the Persona series bursts onto your television screen with a kinetic crackle, and refuses to slow down. Every stylised pop-punk menu is delivered with such style, swagger and speed that it makes the likes of Final Fantasy and Tales look like sickly children in comparison. Reds, blacks and whites swish across the digital canvas, and comic-book style close-ups are smashed onto centre stage.
Without a sturdy backbone, the aesthetic would be a showy but forgettable piece of art. Thankfully, Persona 5 front-loads a heap of mechanics cribbed from different instalments in its history, and marries them with new additions and a typically dark story which will easily take you over a hundred hours to get through. New players to the Persona world may feel overwhelmed, but like many JRPGs it does a great job of introducing each new element and letting you incorporate it into your gameplay.
The set-up will be familiar to previous players, though there’s no need to play the other games since this is a brand new instalment. A group of high school students confront the worst of humanity via an astral plane by using elements of their own psyche to take on those of their rivals. It may seem trippy, but it’s explained in a commonplace fashion by your guide - a talking cat, naturally - and before long you’ll have formed a group known as The Phantom Thieves. In true vigilante style, you’ll work alongside fellow students Ryuji and Ann, as well as Morgana the cat (with more allies joining later) to bring down bullies, abusive teachers, plagiarising artists, and other societal menaces. By infiltrating their “mind palaces” - the game’s version of dungeons - solving puzzles, and generally grinding through enemies, you’ll ultimately face the manifestation of your target’s evil.
There’s a lot going on here, not least within the story. Your character, Joker, relays the events in flashback to a detective after a bungled raid, which serves as an excellent hook to pull you through to the finale. Joker is himself an outsider, wrongly given a criminal record for protecting a girl from an assault, and transferred to Tokyo under the watch of a perpetually grumpy cafe owner. The students he befriends are as isolated as him, each with their own neuroses. Though the enemies they tackle between school lessons are in desperate need of psychological reform, the Thieves themselves have issues too, making for some interesting back-and-forth between both parties.
The procedural generation of the dungeons from Persona 4 has given way to fixed areas here, and it’s to the game’s benefit. Puzzles for opening locked doors or evading traps can be solved with diligent searching, which simply wouldn’t have been possible with a dynamic map, and it offers a wealth of creativity as well as multiple chests guarded by tougher enemies that may prove tough to resist. Enemy AI is also improved from the rather dumb routines their predecessors took, and they will attack when they spot you. A number of hiding spots allow you to stealthily make your way past them, or ambush them when they get close for a free attack. If you’re spotted, the alert level of the palace increases, and if it hits 100% you’ll be kicked out until the next day, wasting your valuable in-game time.
Procedural generation isn’t completely discarded though. A dungeon hub named Mementos is where you can take on optional quests to help defeat smaller foes in parallel storylines, and almost all of them are worth doing. Mementos offers a cavernous route of corridors and rooms, filled with all manner of beasties, and is the perfect way to grind your stats while helping the locals solve their issues. It also acts as a perfect place to collect personas you may have missed along the way, in a puzzle-free environment.
Battles are turn-based, but prove to be as frenetic, flashy and fun as the rest of the game. The array of possible options for taking on foes is astounding, allowing for melee, ranged and special persona-based elemental attacks. As you level up, you’ll be able to tag in your friends with a Baton Pass move after exploiting an enemy’s weakness for a more powerful hit, or launch an all-out attack once you’ve dazed all opponents. Ranged attacks from guns are new and provide another avenue for enemies weak against them, but ammunition isn’t replenished until you rejoin the real world.
Another cool feature brought back from the second game allows you to chat to your opponents once you’ve hit all their weak spots. Depending on how well you can manipulate the conversation, you may end up with money, items or even convince them to grant you their persona power. This is the weakest mechanic of an otherwise impeccable set, purely because the dialogue choices provided are haphazard and even if you think you’re choosing the response most suited to your enemy’s ego, that may not be the case.
Each persona is unique and wields at least two different elemental abilities which Joker can switch between in combat - but only once per turn - to gain advantage once you know the resistance and weak points of your enemies. When you find a weakness, it will be remembered by Morgana who will point it out to you when you analyse each enemy. This brings significant tactical depth to an already generous combat system, and the personas you collect can be “executed” to fuse them into more powerful allies, often taking some of the skills from the merging pair with them. Your skill level determines which personas you can fuse and offers an incentive to grind, though the combat and its catchy music is so much fun, it won’t feel like hard work.
That’s not to say the game isn’t tough when it needs to be. Careful management of items, health and SP for using persona skills is key, and if Joker is knocked out you’ll be taken back to the last safe room you saved in. Fortunately, there are plenty dotted around the palaces in an intelligent manner, so you’ll rarely need to travel too far to get back to your last battle.
Like most of us in the real world, the students need to fit in their vigilantism around the mundanity of day-to-day life. Here, Atlus has excelled again, crafting a series of social hubs to explore, activities to undertake, and opportunities to bolster your skills. As the new kid, you need to form bonds not only with party members, but other confidants around the city. The closer you become to each person, the more skills you unlock and the more experience you gain when you fuse personas matching their individual psyche type. Bonding may involve hanging out with them, going to a restaurant, exercising, or learning how to make coffee.
Rarely does any activity feel extraneous, as it will usually unlock avenues that were previously closed. Answering questions in class will improve the students’ perception of you, while studying or hitting the bathing rooms or batting cages will also bump up specific stats. Alternatively you could spend time in your room crafting lockpicks or other items for use in palaces, taking on a part-time job, or wandering around the multitude of shops, bakeries and knick-knack stores in the city. If you want to know what other players decided to do, hitting the touchpad will bring up a breakdown of their choices - a real-world meta embodiment of the social aspect within the game itself, which is neat.
All of this is tempered by a constantly ticking clock that forces you to carefully manage your days. Bigger enemies in the real world will set specific dates by which you need to have beaten them, which lends an air of urgency to your gaming and makes you value the time you have to improve your abilities ahead of the next fight.
The amount of choice open to you, especially after the first boss is defeated, will make your head spin - and at that point, Persona 5 is only really starting to warm up. It’s the little touches you notice the more you play - the way that All Out Attacks lead to different end screens dependent on who launched them, the variety of bizarre enemies you fight, or the overall polish that each and every mechanic has been smothered in. The visuals are unlike anything you’ll have seen before and the soundtrack is similarly wonderful, flitting from jazz to electronica, via funk and fully voiced songs. If you don’t end up humming the battle music after an eight-hour straight session with Persona 5, it’s likely that you have an iron will. What isn't so great is Atlus disabling all sharing of the game, preventing any PS4 screenshots or video to be taken outside of third-party capture devices in the interests of preserving the plot. Given the nature of the internet, this is a particularly bizarre move, and while spoilers are obviously frustrating, they can easily be avoided without resorting to draconic measures which will be quickly countered thanks to the Streisand Effect.
The voice acting is typical JRPG fare with only Morgana really grating at times, and while translations are generally good, some of them stray into word salad territory where a little more care would have really honed the story. But then the game throws in something else to distract you - like full-blown anime cutscenes - and you can forgive the occasional badly worded phrasing as you try and comprehend how much content has been packed onto a single disc. The themes the game brings to the table are dark: abuse, assault, suicide and perversity are all tackled through the eyes of determined teenagers, and are dealt with in satisfying ways.
The Persona series may not have had the recognition over the years that it deserved, at least in the west. This fifth entry deserves to change that, as it’s not only the best game in the series, but - and Square Enix should take note - it’s also one of the best JRPGs ever made.