The wait for Persona 5 has felt like an eternity. Ever since Persona 4 was released in 2008, fans across the world have been eagerly awaiting the next installment into the beloved franchise. While Atlus has released its fair share of spin-offs, from an Etrian Odyssey dungeon crawler to a rhythm game, they have been mere distractions from the main course. The Japanese release was over six months ago, leaving those in the west sitting idly by as Atlus USA continued their efforts to bring the best English translation possible. After spending over a hundred and fifty hours with the game, there’s a reason why the localization team has been taking their sweet time. This is a game of immense proportions and reminiscent of the golden age of role-playing games. It contains an incredible amount of content while not sacrificing any inch of the quality in the process. After so many years of anticipation and various delays, Persona 5 is finally upon us and it’s well worth the wait.
The story of Persona 5 takes place in a modern interpretation of Tokyo, Japan where our unfortunate protagonist is relocated after a run-in with the law. This is a great setup to the plot as everyone in the school – students and teachers – will have their own concerns about the main character, some looking down on him while others are too afraid to approach. I do wish Atlus would have used this more to their advantage, though, as it never really progresses past rumors. It does factor into the main story, but the protagonist’s history feels like an afterthought once the first dungeon is complete, as he’s just considered the trouble child and it never really changes. There’s a little more to it, but the main character’s involvement in school feels far more toned down than it should have been considering his past. Regardless, this “crime” element actually ties into the main plot regarding The Phantom Thieves fairly well, as it’s about going into someone’s world and stealing something to change their ways. This might be a gangster who’s scamming kids or a fraudulent man who’s benefiting off other’s hard work.
It’s the plot and the character interactions that are the best part of Persona 5. The Shin Megami Tensei series, be it mainline or their spin-offs such as this, have never really shied away from more dreary subjects, and Persona 5 is no different. There’s heavy themes, with encounters of murder, suicide, assault, sexual assault, and blackmail, just to name a few. It really says something that combining two Persona, which is depicted as beheadings via guillotine, is far tamer than what actually happens in the story. There’s a staggering amount of content stuffed into Persona 5, as it took us a little over one hundred and thirty hours to see the credits on our first playthrough. Even then, we weren’t able to properly manage our schedules and missed out on a couple of side stories. The amount of dialogue, both voiced and unvoiced, is overwhelming, with each event better establishing the various characters and their motivations. The writing is generally extraordinarily well done, and this might have to do with vibrant cast of characters who are drastically different from one another, ensuring for a mashup of flair in every scene. The only time things ever slowdown is in-between crucial deadlines, with the story itself moving at a breakneck pace, while still keeping various mysteries hidden in the background. Even then, there are a ton of activities and people to interact with in the world to keep players from feeling bored. When the credits begin to roll, there’s an immense sense of satisfaction, more so than any Persona game in the past, as things wrap up in just the perfect way.
While you’re hearing a lot of praise regarding the story, there’s one critical point needs to be brought up: Persona 5 plays things a little too by the book when it comes to the characters and their involvement in the story. For example, there’s an animal creature who’s trying to find himself, a father figure who has taken the protagonist in, a junior detective who’s investigating The Phantom Thieves, a teammate who works as a model and is even mopey when you first meet her, and your first friend in the new city is a goofball. These are just a few examples of the ideas Atlus has reused from their last game. It would have been great to mix things up a bit and go outside the boundaries of the standard plot, but what we’re left with are a number of characters who lack originality. With that said, this doesn’t mean the majority of the cast isn’t unique in their own right as plenty of party members and Confidants feel more fleshed than anyone has in the past. This might have to do with things breaking away from the school environment. If you look at the social links of past games, quite a large portion are kids attending the protagonist’s high school. Instead, Persona 5 deals with a wider array of personalities all around Tokyo. That’s not to say the school environment isn’t important, as it’s still the setting where most of the Phantom Thieves attends, but Atlus has expanded its horizon by bring players fewer stereotypical characters.
Most of the fascinating characters you get to meet aren’t necessarily crucial to the main plot, but rather individuals spread across the vast city. These are the Confidants, formerly known as Social Links, which help establish a larger world than the protagonist’s grandeur adventure, while helping him in various means. This could be the down in the dumps teacher who moonlights as a maid on the weekends, a fortuneteller who has somehow unintentionally been caught up in a devious scheme, or a journalist who’s still actively looking for her missing partner. Each story is incredibly well told, with almost every one exceeding early expectations. You begin to care for these characters as you get to know them, and in turn, they benefit the protagonist in his quest to help those in need. For example, the Fortune Confidant will grant additional cash from battles, while the Hermit can literally flip the table on enemies if you run into an ambush. The Confidant system is really the core of Persona 5, making up the vast majority of the game. You can avoid it completely, but not only will that hinder your experience, but it will speed through the main campaign without tasting the juicy meat of the content. It’s about the bonds you share with these individuals that will have you coming back for more. Unfortunately, as much as these are appealing stories and compelling characters, it can sometimes feel like busy work having to manage so many different relationships in the midst of saving the world. It almost feels like you need to put together a calendar just to ensure you’re making everyone happy. Regardless, it’s a task that’s more than rewarding in the end.
While other Japanese RPGs are moving towards fast-paced, real time action, Persona 5 stays true to its roots, at least to a degree. Exploring dungeons and getting in and out of battle has never been quicker or more stylish, but the combat is still strategic, turn-based action. This is very much a Persona game in this regard as you’ll enter a battle, quite seamlessly I might add, and be able to take as much time as you want to perform an action, hopefully landing a critical blow or hit an opponent’s weakness. Not a whole lot has changed in section outside of a handful of features, though. For starters, Nuclear, Psychic and Gun damage have made their long awaited return, each being a key trait for the various teammates. Each party member is also given a gun that, while doesn’t do a whole lot of damage and has limited ammunition, can quickly bring down certain shadows. There’s even gun customization options tied to a specific Confidant that will unlock certain weapon powers, such as putting enemies to sleep. Speaking of which, afflictions play a significantly larger role than they have in the past, with most bosses capitalizing on them. This includes despair, which can literally kill anyone on a team if not treated, brainwash, which turns those inflicted on each other, confuse, which will waste money and items, and various others. There’s a little more to just finding an enemy’s weakness and rushing in for the kill, as a single, lax mistake can turn bad in an instant.
New to the series is Baton Pass, a feature that allows players to… well, pass the baton to another character if they’ve struck an enemy’s weakness, boosting their teammate’s attack power. There are certain attacks that will take advantage of this, although Persona 5 still has the Pokémon effect of Persona having limited ability slots. Each Persona is given only eight skills to be held at a time, and while that seems like a lot, the various passive abilities will begin to eat up space quickly. Finally, bosses are some of the best in any Persona game, not only requiring a specific strategy to complete, but there are some unique ways to go about fighting. This usually requires sending one of your party members out of battle for a set number of turns as he or she tries to get the jump on the enemy. Depending who’s sent and if you’re able to distract the boss appropriately, they will catch the enemy off guard, giving you a chance to deliver some well-deserved punishment. While most of it is familiar, thanks to these additions and refinements, combat is still somehow able to feel fresh and highly engaging, making it arguably the best in the business.
Lastly, dungeons are a little different from what Atlus has been doing over the past decade. The main story dungeons are no longer randomized and instead uniquely designed. There are eight of these over the course of nine in-game months, each crafted with incredible variety, both artistically and mechanically. Because of this, Atlus has been able to develop various puzzles to overcome, from decrypting codes to earning coins through mini-games. Sometimes these can be straightforward, while other times they can be a challenge. When we have JRPGs such as Tales of Berseria and Final Fantasy XV that fail to come up intricate dungeon designs (maybe outside of Pitioss Ruins), Persona 5 feels like a refreshing approach. It’s a pretty good track record when the majority of the dungeons will leave you impressed, with only one, set in a scorching desert, that doesn’t quite live up to the rest. It’s still an enjoyable section of the campaign, but it’s far less memorable, and the visuals are somewhat void of the artistic style the rest of the game expresses.
Persona 5 is a once in a generation game. It contains a highly-addicting gameplay formula mixed together with a compelling storyline that even after 100 hours will leave you wanting more. The decision to move away from the randomly-generated labyrinths was also one of the smartest moves Atlus could have made, creating elegantly designed dungeons that aren’t just a palette swap. They were even able to make stealth captivating, as even though the button commands can be a bit sensitive at times, jumping in and out of combat is a seamlessly stylish process. This mixed together with gradually more challenging puzzle mechanics creates one of the most engrossing JRPGs in a long time. More than anything, though, Persona 5 is more about the story than it is about the gameplay. While it has the Pokémon “Gotta catch ‘em all” appeal, the individual stories and relationships are the highlights of the experience. Not everything is perfect; many of the characters and their roles too closely parallel Persona 4 and managing so many relationships at once can occasionally feel like busy work. Regardless, these are minor hindrances in the grand scheme of things as this is an enthralling experience from start to finish. When traditional JRPG franchises are losing steam, Persona 5 is able to not only overtake its predecessor, but also become the pinnacle of the genre.