You may recall upon the list of games us at Bagogames were looking forward to in 2017, I talked about Persona 5 being the only game of 2017 I was likely to pre-order. Persona 4: Golden was the first JRPG I had ever had the patience to complete, and it was unlikely to be a one-off hit. This is especially when considering how solid the characterisation was, not only humanising its cast but also making interesting commentary. Persona 5 cranks up the style but leaves its writing as oddly-disappointingly good.
Persona 5, rather than part of a naming nomenclature for personalities in someone with dissociative identity disorder, is a JRPG by Atlus as part of a spin-off series of Shin Megami Tensei. You play as a teenager who must balance school life while also leaping into an alternative realm to whack demons down with your own demons that represent personas within yourself. So if you must say one thing, say Persona 5 knows its warm comfort zone and at this point has made a quaint little farm and cottage for itself.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh. You stumble upon the other realm accidentally only to find people are being harmed by their subconscious self that represents their deeper insecurities, neurosis, and discord. This, in turn, leads to a threat that could bring ruin to the world. So, like Persona 4. I guess what I’m driving at (in a bit of a cheeky way) is Persona 5 can’t help but invoke comparisons to past fames. This is something that I think is going to keep peeking its head up time and time again, as a comparison to predecessors seem apt.
Since I’ve begun stabbing it lightly, let’s jump into the narrative first. After being arrested while stealing a briefcase from a casino, you’re asked if you can recall what lead up to this point. You then lead the prosecutor through tales involving uncorrupting the hearts of psychotic individuals one-by-one by tackling their palaces (aka “dungeons”).
Flow wise, it goes like a smooth river. You always know the immediate stakes, as you tackle each dungeon in a limited time or you’ll hit a game over as the excrement hits the propeller. Yet, I find myself bugged by the big picture, as in it doesn’t really have one. Persona 3 had a tower, Persona 4 a murder mystery, but 5? An event snakes around in the background, seemingly as a vague “this is probably bad”, but only hits relevancy by the midway or ¾ point.
A point where finally the traitor/antagonist (which is hinted in the opening cutscene) unveils itself with a theatrical “AHA! I BETCHA NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED IT!”, a grin dancing on their showmanship lips. I felt embarrassed honestly. I had seen this hour-70 revelation coming since about hour-20. I wanted to give them a cup of tea and a hug as I felt I had let them down in some way.
This was especially as I’d go as far as to say it was a lot better than Persona 4 and Persona 3‘s traitor/antagonist. Not only in voice acting but in terms of its characterisation and how the protagonists reacted humanized in a way I recall deeply hunting for in 4’s ending.
In contrast to a multi-dimensional flawed antagonist that considers their background (yes, it is hard to not spoil the moment while discussing it, thanks for asking), the rest of the characters are… Good?
Usually the protagonist, his buddies and the other NPCs would be the type of inoffensive good that I wouldn’t mention. Yet this is where comparisons with Persona 3 and 4 are unkind. Persona 4 especially turned each major character into a study of their weaknesses, their strengths and their personal philosophies. They even often bounced off these characters to make societal, philosophical and psychological commentary. These were aspects that you’d explore not only in the core game but also by hanging out with them on the side in social activities.
Comparatively, except perhaps Futaba (aka hacker girl), Persona 5‘s writing stays rather shallow as you just help people deal with a general problem during social links. I believe this writing feels particularly hollow as the general plot just lacks the commentary-prowess Persona 4 wielded.
The narrative and characterisation is good, I don’t want to shirk away from it, but it is the type of good that is roughly enjoyable with a colourful cast but never goes beyond it into meaningfulness. I had a fun time with the personal journey but Persona 5 just unfortunately never provided food for thought like prior titles managed to achieve.
Naturally, this grumbling about characterisation raises an important point: If they’re simply a fun group to hang out with, why bother with these social links? Well, first because they’re fun misery guts. However, there is another point of persuasion and this is where we begin to dig deep into the mechanics.
When you’re not stumbling through the wild wild lands of the dungeons, you’ll be able to spend afternoons and evenings with various social links. These vary from your core team, to bothering the local gunshop owner to hanging out with a fortune teller to mess with her fatalistic approach to fate.
Yet these aren’t just about burning time between story moments. Your core team get little perks every so often (akin to Persona 4‘s approach), but now so do the random NPCs. Although these vary from the potently powerful (e.g. being able to swap in-and-out teammates mid-combat Final Fantasy 10 style), to the situational (e.g. being able to spend extra money to buff your firearm) all the way to the humorously weak (e.g. “So in exchange of burning time with you, you’ll decrease the dungeon-alert system that is already a non-issue? Yeeeah, no.”). It is still worth harvesting as many social links as possible as these have the potential to even turn the tide of battle, which makes for a lovely improvement from predecessors.
Yet the heart of the mechanics lie when you have to break into the dungeons. Even a cursory glance will indicate a lot of time and love has been spent polishing the dungeon mechanics to a level that you can see your own face in the reflection.
For a start, did you always have a hard time working out if you prefer Persona 4‘s “invade a specific dungeon and complete it by a date” or Persona 3‘s “floors of a tower will be unlocked as you progress deeper”? What about having both? You have dungeons you need to complete by a particular date, but you also have Mementos, a dungeon whose tiers get unlocked with every heart you change in the story. This is important as sometimes you’ll be tasked to take down a particular boss on a particular tier as part of a side-quest, plus it offers you the chance to do some XP, money and persona grinding.
They’ve also greatly improved how the personal dungeons function flow-wise. It is no longer about just busting open doors until you find the stars. Often you’ll have to do environmental trickery. Maybe climb ledges, leap across chandeliers or crawl through the vents like the phantom thief you are. You’ll still be expected to duck-n-weave around beasties, beating them over the back of the head for an ambush-round. Yet it is no longer an awkward affair that was bound to leave you headbutted at the last moment, as they’ve decided to finally put in a stealth mechanic: Cover. You can now leap from cover-to-cover, ambushing enemies in a button press who get too close. While fantastic, it does seem to render the newly-introduced alert system (that crawls up if you keep being seen and goes down if you ambush) a little impotent due to the cover system’s ease of use.
So you’ve found yourself in the turn-based combat. To those who are familiar with the series, you’ll already have a leg up but there are are some new tweaks going on here too.
For starters is the addition of two more elements: Psychic and Nuclear. Each one able to play upon particular status effects (ones that can now also be inflicted by electricity, fire and ice attacks) as well as have their own solid damage output. You also have Light and Darkness coming back, but no longer just as expensive chance-kill-spells. There are also damage versions if you just want to provoke a weakness effect and get the “one more” train arollin’ (one where you keep taking extra turns every time you bring an enemy to their knees with a crit or deal damage via their weakness).
Which once that train starts, if you’ve levelled up your comrade’s social links, you can start passing that baton around to do even more damage as their potency rises with each pass. Get all the enemies onto the floor and you have the Persona-famed option to do an all-out attack, one that’ll rip your foe to shreds depending on how many non-afflicted party members you have.
Alternatively, instead of doing an all-out attack you can chat in a style akin to Persona 2 (we’re goin’ back some years now). Answer the questions correctly and you can bag the persona (assuming your level is the same or higher than theirs), get extra money instead of XP or get an item. Similarly to Persona 2‘s chat-up system, while there are right-or-wrong answers, non-savvy individuals will likely find it tricky to butter enemies up enough to win them over. So just be a little wary.
Speaking of wary, they’ve also added a new type of physical attack: Gunfire. Like other affinities some enemies can be weak to them. They also come with the boon that overall you can do more physical damage with gunfire than with melee, especially if you utilise how different guns act differently (e.g. the protagonist’s straight pistol gunfire vs one of your allies’s splash-damage inducing grenade launcher). “So why not keep the bullets flyin’?”. Weell, because bullets are very finite. This is not only with regards to the round-specific magazine size but also the total capacity, even with the social link upgrade, with the total only being recharged once you leave the dungeon and come back. That said, it is still incredibly satisfying, enjoyable and useful to use, so you’ll be counting each bullet.
In total, the mechanics not only leap off what made Persona 4 a fantastic title to bite into but contains its own identity with its own improvements that lend greater flow and style.
Something that brings me to just how absolutely stylistic Persona 5 is. I confess I originally wasn’t sold on the idea of Persona 5 being unable to come to Vita, as I prefer to play my RPGs on the go and graphical prowess usually doesn’t sell me on the usefulness of additional hardware power. In practice though, well, it has about as much style as David Bowie did in the 70s/80s. It struts its stuff with its aesthetic, UI and character design. They also play with a narrative idea about being “heart thieves” who steal distorted desires with a heavy dose of coolness to it. So even though you’ll be 5 to 10 hours deep in a dungeon, getting’ your grind on, it’s still charming enough to not feel like work.
That said, before we get into the conclusion, a word has to be shared about the anime sections. Which the word is “naff”. I recall the days of PS1 and PS2 games where you’d leap to an animated cutscene showing with vibrant colour and sleek flow what you’ve been doing gameplay wise back when the polygon count was so low all the characters were paper dolls. Oddly, now the anime cutscenes look washed out and awkward compared to the in-game animation. Perhaps it is a statement for how well done the in-game aesthetic style is, but the anime cutscenes just looks cheap in comparison.
The final score for Persona 5 is a 8.5 out of 10. It’s a strange situation when I finish a review and the most negative thing I can say is “the far and few anime sequences look tacky”. Then again, the anime sequences are more like hair in a soup. The part that sticks out the most is just how behind the style the narrative is “merely good”. Again, another strange situation, but the style is just so engrossing and eye-catching and the series known for punchy writing that I confess I did expect a little more out of it. The antagonist is really well done, in total better than Persona 4‘s, but the cast just aren’t as interesting as prior titles.
That said, Persona 5 is still deserving of the high 8.5 score and offers itself up as an easy recommendation to pretty much anyone happy to potentially spend the 100 hours required to complete it. It is accessible, not only easy for those wanting to give RPGs a go but potentially crushing too for veterans. It is stylistic and still overall enjoyable, just not sure if the substance will stick with me years later like Persona 4 did.
Note: Apologies to the quality of the screenshots. Usually we at Bagogames work with either our own screenshots, press kits by publishers or sometimes even screenshots by others via Steam Community. However, Atlus’s block on in-game screenshot has rendered the share button useless and we’ve been unable to find a press kit with 1920×1080 images that we feel would best reflect the game’s quality (especially important as aesthetics is an important angle of this game). We’ve tried to contact Atlus concerning this and heard nothing. So we’ve had to make do with Google Images, which does include the Japanese release (hence the Japanese characters in some screenshots), which naturally has wavering quality depending on various factors. Again, we’re really sorry but there is little we can do.