Scoring/ranking games is a funny ole’ subject matter, ain’t it? Is there really any objective rule that governs how something should be rated…and why? We’ll never know and perhaps for good reason; the answer is infinitely contestable and what one may consider one point/star/grade worth of a deduction, someone else might constitute as less/more in the grander scheme. It’s one I’ve even discussed with fellow critics off-record on certain games and found immediate intrigue in how our reviewing mechanisms — let alone our actual experience of said reviewed game — differ. There were a lot of games last year that I would consider to have areas of critique that were considerable enough had I went about being the one to review them — and in some cases, I was — that I would have had to subtract a slither or two from off our delectable, five-slice, Hardcore-flavored scoring pie/cake.
The latest in Atlus’ long-running Persona series is one of these said games and it’s perhaps where my duty (as much my own choice) lies in clearly reiterating this piece as but of personal opinion, yet one I think could speak to a larger volume of individuals far and wide. Persona 5 is not a perfect game and undoubtedly has a number of gripes, criticisms and flaws I myself consider sufficient enough to highlight. And yet despite all this, I do indeed agree — both with our own collective view and the wider-afield belief, that it unquestionably is one of the best games of 2017. A game that stands as one of the best JRPGs of the past ten-maybe-fifteen years; a game with an immediately-attractive visual appeal/aesthetic and sense of confidence in flaunting it; a game that isn’t afraid to tackle more difficult/existential/socio-political subject matter that, you could argue, resonate far more with what’s going on right now in our own world right at this very moment. But more importantly, a game that is just fun to play.
Persona 5 is one of the few games released as of late that has garnered a bit of an odd hallmark and sense of accolade that sounds preposterous at first and shouldn’t exist in theory. Yet it does: for all its faults, for all the ways 5 still lingers in Persona 4’s shadow, no pun intended (which for me still stands as the pinnacle of the sub-series, even if the mechanics of the 2008 release might be starting to show their age, nearly ten years later), even in a year such as 2017, it’s one of the best if not the best. But for a game to have as many faults (minor or otherwise) as I believe it holds and still come out on top, speaks to both the generally well-executed presentation of the game as a whole, but also of the unique circumstance Atlus’ series of dungeon-crawling JRPGs wield.
For all the instances the game locks you into story-led progression or introduces main-party characters that could be replaced with faceless mannequins and still lose nothing in the process or even when the main battle theme (good as it is) begins to grow stale after the hundredth time of listening, Persona 5 still manages to provide an experience that is entertaining, engaging and immersive enough to warrant that trudging through its low-lights. After all, this is a series that has miraculously turned one of the most boring premises in the history of video games (high-school/life simulator) into something that not only makes sense, but in itself has a degree of appeal and intrigue that both its gameplay and its narrative feed back into.
Even when it’s at its “worst,” when the solution to a dungeon puzzle is so blatantly obvious but still talked-down to the player as if we’re idiots; when it introduces a character that is a neon-lit “I’M ONE OF THE FINAL BOSSES OF THIS GAME!!!” sign short of painstakingly-obvious or when the game sadly devolves into an unnecessary slog around two-thirds of the way through the story where shock-events and would-be plot-twists are anything but (seriously Atlus, deliberately hiding away cutscenes and character interactions does not constitute a good plot-twist), such is the caliber of worthwhile moments and interesting characters — for the most part — it’s just as easy to forget about the negatives as it is to then subsequently remember them and begin the cycle all over again.
I’m a sucker for those “you know it’s coming…” type moments that often rely on a pre-established formula and I’d be lying if I said reaching that one-two delivery of the tracks Awakening/Will Power that signaled a character’s acquiring their power didn’t instill a relative joy in seeing it unfold. Or even something as simple as figuring out which Major Arcana corresponded to a given character. It’s a common trope in video games and one that can still be effective, if executed right, which Persona once again pulls off surprisingly well. And for all the issues that I have with elements of the story — be they event-orientated or character-orientated in regards to an individual’s importance/influence — Persona 5 maintains that Netflix-like, moreish necessity that I liked about its predecessor. For all the times I was adamant I would end my play-session at a particular moment, I would find myself still going, still playing, still wanting to know what happened next, because the game always found a way to pique my interest in its closing acts. OK, I’d confess, one more in-game day/week and that’s it. What would be nine-o-clock in the evening would quickly become 2am much to my horror, just as I’m about to begin the next dungeon or complete the next step in a character’s confidant arc.
But that’s perhaps the beauty of a game like Persona 5: there’s so much, or at least enough, to keep players fixated. Admittedly I don’t consider the story or indeed the entire cast of characters to hold up as well, collectively, as it did in Persona 4. Then again, few games really do that for me anymore. Which leads me back into my previous point: such is the wonderful position Persona/Atlus is in right now; Persona 5 doesn’t even have to be the best iteration of its own respected series to still come out on top against its nearest rivals/competitors because the formula…as Todd Howard would say…“it just works.” Unlike a lot of big-budget, AAA creations as of late, Atlus understand that rather than attempting to earn brownie points by forcing token gestures in our face, whether we want them or not, without much narrative/expositional reasoning, they instead provide us with characters that, while some are easily forgettable-come-frustrating, others meanwhile are endearing to the point where one is invested enough in their back-story or motives. And not because they’re of a particular gender/ethnicity/orientation…aaaaaaand that’s it. Yes, the series has introduced instances like this, but at least it’s had the will to contextualize and develop these stigmas so that they’re but a secondary to a character’s more primary but defining attributes.
It’s one of the reasons that had me jump back into the game for a second run-through on NG+ and I mean that literally. Post-credits I was straight back into that hundred-hour beast, attempting not just to complete my collection of demons and mythological beings alike, not just to one hundred percent my play-through this time, but to go back and see as much as these characters as the game would allow. The results were of course mixed — characters I liked mid-campaign had a fairly lack-luster confidant arc; by contrast, those who I found to offer little by way of intrigue during the campaign, ended up having an interesting tale to tell when alone. Few RPGs resonate as well as they do when it comes to characters alone — even going as far as to be heralded as one of its main appeals — outside of something like Xenoblade Chronicles, but Persona 5, for all its shortcomings and unfortunate delving back into stock-template personalities, still managed to uphold a cast-list and general narrative that, at its best, made me laugh in parts. Again, a rare feat for any video game, intentional or not.
The Phantom Thieves may not have convinced me on the basis of them being genuine friends (instead just this rag-tag group of comrades with somewhat-similar levels of injustices thrown upon them) as P4’s Investigation Team did. Further to that, Persona 5’s stand-alone themes of justice and morality — or even its grander/psychological themes of societal groupthink and personal self-worth — never really got more than a tepid response from myself. “Why yes Persona 5 you’re quite right,” I would begin again. “There are plenty of cruddy adults in the world…your point is?” before a scene would fizzle out, seldom going beyond surface-level observation. Perhaps it’s the picaresque nature of its early parts or the way it turns, sadly, pantomime-esque in its “good guys are likeable; bad guys not so much” delivery that signals the game’s story to feel more cartoonish rather than something akin to Persona 4 whose themes and antagonists/villains I could definitely see some justification and reason behind. That and I empathize with the unfortunate state of having been born/having lived in a nowhere-town for a considerable portion of my life.
To claim Persona 5 remains one of my favorite releases of last year — despite all this — really does say something about the heights of its achievements (gameplay, music, visuals, presentation) but also the high-flying status that, only now, the Persona series has entered into on a commercial basis, let alone a critical one. It’s almost news-worthy when you see Persona 5 actually managed to be one of the top hundred-selling games in my home country the UK (no seriously, that means something) but we’ve known for sometime that one of Atlus’ (if not the) most popular series of games has often been a consistently-rewarding set of releases that has rarely let us down. And with a dancing spin-off, an anime rendition of its story plus a Persona Q spin-off forthcoming, it looks like Persona 5 will still be filling some of the space no doubt will persist until P6 comes about…in around 2026 if recent history is any indication. But it’s deserved of such attention; for all its faults, it’s still a bloody marvelous game in a year chock full of ’em.