I’m gonna try to be reasonable about how I feel about Persona 5. It is gonna be hard but bear with me. If it gets too flowery or lives in too much reverence, I apologize ahead of time.
The game begins as your protagonist decked out in a mask and neato black trench coat appears to be in a surreal casino finishing up what looks like a heist. Once authorities are informed of your location and after a short chase, he is apprehended and placed in an integration room where he is questioned by Sae Niijima about how, he and his cohorts, ended up where they are. From here the story flashes back to fill in the blanks of what happened up until that point. I really like this story telling structure, it takes you back and forth to highlight different areas of your character’s development and the turns it took to get you to where you are.
Persona 5 takes place in an all-new high school and with a brand-new group of students. You play a falsely accused student sent to Shujin Academy under probation. Once you arrive you are placed in a halfway house under the care of Sojiro Sakura, where you live in the upstairs of a coffee shop lending help to the owner and slowly building trust.
Once you arrive at your new school you find that you are a bit of an outcast. The teachers don’t want you in the school and place a careful eye on you, other students are just as wary and do what they can to stay away from you.
It isn’t long before a mysterious app appears on your phone. Your protagonist deletes it but it keeps coming back. Eventually it leads to him being transported to another realm and your first “Palace.” A palace is a visual representation of an adult who has distorted desires. For example, the first palace you come in contact with belongs to your school’s coach. Since the coach is such an asshole and thinks he is above everything in the real world, his palace looks like a medieval castle where he is the king. Once you discover that the coach is physically abusive to his students and has even gone as far as sexual assault with some of the females, you and a couple of other students able to travel into the other realm decide to do something about it.
On one of your visits to the palace you find a cat named Morgana, who has been imprisoned. Morgana acts as the advisor for you and your group. He gives you the ins and outs of using your persona and its special powers. More importantly he tells you how to “steal the hearts” from a palace filled with distorted desires. This includes finding a way to the central treasure and stealing it. If this is done correctly it causes the target to have a change of heart and in some cases to confess to their crimes.
Once they discover they have the ability to make the world a better place they form a group called The Shadow Thieves and begin to seek out people doing harm to others.
When you aren’t dungeon crawling in palaces, the game is placed on a day and night cycle, where you must balance school attendance, manage a social life and take parts of activates around the city. Each activity you take part in raises certain attributes. For example, going to study at a diner filled with people raises both knowledge and courage, while watching a horror film raises bravery.
Your palace exploration is the centralized dungeon crawling aspect of the game. Here you ambush and battle shadow creatures who have a bunch of persona looking forward to battling you. Exploring palaces carefully, leads to more battles and more loot to be acquired. For a you dungeon crawlers out there this is the real meat of the game. Here you can grind till your heart and your XP is content. If you are able to subdue an enemy, you can enter a dialogue option that gives the lil guy a chance to bargain with you or die. Deal can be made that give you, loot, items or in some cases will convince the creature to join you as one of your persona.
Each heart you decide to steal comes with a new teammate that is added to your team. Each teammate comes with their own unique persona abilities and strengths. Since your party is limited to four members, you have to carefully decide which members you will take with you into battle. Despite the fact that you leave some members behind on certain outings, I was happy to see that they are still being leveled up and becoming stronger despite them not actively fighting.
In early Persona titles, in order to unleash your persona, your character would pull out a gun and shoot himself in the head. That isn’t the case anymore. Here you rip a mask out of your flesh to unveil the persona underneath. I kinda miss the old way but I suppose change is good after three titles all doing the same thing.
The key becomes managing your day to fit in as many activates as possible. If you are able to read a book on your way to school, get some answers right in class, spend some time as a drug guinea pig for a fringe doctor and still have time to water your plant before bed, you did a good thing. The amount of time you spend with your peers also strengthens bonds that assist when you are in combat.
As you progress through the game the palaces you visit become higher profile targets and incrementally increase the stakes. All this while trying to keep a low profile in the real world and attempting to remain a productive member of society.
The combat is of the turn-based variety and will have you alternating between melee, firearms and persona attacks. Your teammates are limited to using only a single persona where you are able to collect different persona and use them however you see fit in combat. Each persona can be leveled up and gain a variety of abilities. You can also visit The Blue Room, where Igor will help you to combine different persona’s in order to create stronger ones.
The art design of the game is slick and cool. Color palettes are brightly candy colored with brilliant anime direction. The soundtrack is equally amazing, offering Japanese pop riffs and driven fight songs broken up by some beautiful dramatic interludes.
I have been a Persona fan since the beginning and they all hold a special place with me, but with Persona 5, the series outdoes itself in every way possible. Not only by being the best Persona title yet but by being the best JRPG I have ever played. The subject matter is at times seriously disturbing and real. It deals with big issues like sexual assault, stalking, rape and a number of other things. In that way, the story remains grounded in our all too real and confusing world. The central story mechanics are aligned with a retro fit Inception, where instead of placing an idea, The Phantom Thieves are taking one. Despite some things that get lost in translation from Japanese to English, the dialogue acting is a high mark and the story soars in both the adventure aspects and what should be the mundane day to day activities.
Persona is a 100+ hour experience that manages to stay exciting despite a few repetitive cycles. If a game can make me care about batting cages, bath houses, and burger eating challenges it has succeeded on a level that I don’t think I can quite articulate, past saying this is a special title that is most likely not going to be able to be replicated or outdone until the next title in the Persona series.