*This review originally appeared at afterstorygaming.com*
A “bona fide, Monafied” masterpiece
While my thoughts on the Shin-Megami subseries may emit a questionable sense of bias, piercing through any form of clouded judgment was surprisingly trivial as Persona 5 is an absolute delight, regardless of my attachment to the series. As I’ve mentioned profusely, Persona 4 Golden is my favourite video game of all-time, and my biased standpoint stems from the sheer fact that this experience saved my life. With that rather audacious statement declared, expectations for its sequel were undoubtedly and unfairly monumental; Persona 4 was an enlightening experience that impeccably resonated with every beat of my contemporary life at that point in time. Persona 5 is not nearly as masterful as its predecessor, but one must understand that it was never going to be nor does it need to be. Persona 5 is an intricately designed experience that exudes an unparalleled aura of stylistic charm, with its immaculate presentation placed in a profound echelon of its own. While its pivotal narrative lacks the grave and brutal nature of its predecessor, it still manages to weave elements of moral intensity, corruption, unity and friendship, throwing in plenty of twists and turns that construct a sound and compelling narrative that is arguable the best in the series. While dozens of returning elements foster the core structure that we’ve come to expect, welcome new additions are added into the mix to create the most streamlined, accessible, and smooth Persona experience to date. Character development and gameplay are seamlessly entwined with each element inherently affecting the other, the simplistically complex battle-system is a refined work of art that bears an untouched stylistic aesthetic, and the excellent new Mementos system provides a refreshing approach to longevity and level grinding, justifying its questionable existence. While Persona 5’s characters aren’t nearly as endearing as the exquisite cast of Persona 4 and the typical sense of dread and impending doom is questionably absent for most of the journey, Persona 5 is undoubtedly the most polished entry in the series as its intricately designed gameplay systems and captivating narrative points are stellar examples of this genre’s iconic framework and impressive capability. It might not be the life-changing experience that its older brother delivered, but Persona 5 is an excellent standalone experience that is extraordinarily gratifying for all who wish to partake in this exquisite journey – it is a bona fide masterpiece.
Unlike the fictional cities of the past iterations, Persona 5 solely takes place in the illustrious Tokyo, incorporating a tangible sense of realism normally absent from the core series. While its narrative follows the tried and true staples the series has fostered over the many years – embodying the role of high schoolers by day, and acting as extracurricular masked vigilantes by night – it still manages to weave some new elements and surprises to construct an invigorating aura for veterans of the series, while never overloading the nuanced palettes of newcomers. Persona 5’s narrative opens in medias res, an excellent method of exposition that further strengthens the overarching mystery and pacing, filling in narrative pieces in this immense over-arching puzzle. After its bombastic opening and mysterious set-up, the story begins to slow down considerably – which is a common element of not only the Persona series, but JRPG’s as a whole. Do not fret, as these tedious elements are immediately rectified once the narrative regains its propelling momentum. At its core, Persona 5 is a compelling story centered on unity, friendship, and belonging, topped off with obligatory elements of corruption, rebellion, and the resistance of oppression. The second half of the narrative is exceptionally well-done, ripe with an extremely clever plot-twist that brilliantly unfolds once the narrative reaches full circle. This engaging, yet funneling approach to exposition is one of Persona 5’s most glorious strengths and notable weaknesses. The heavy emphasis on the core narrative creates a funneling experience that is unbelievably engrossing and so well-written that everything else surrounding it feels secondary by nature. However, this new form of design is rather detrimental to the crux of the series’ fundamental beauty, as typically each surrounding element should be equally as interesting, if not more so, than the main story – with each piece of the puzzle being congruent in some manner. Character development, while still serving a competent level of importance, feels shallow in comparison to its prevalent nature in previous entries. Dungeons take place in Palaces created within the mind of each corrupted target, as opposed to the conflicted internal manifestation of your allied characters – this altered form of personal connection is not nearly as emotionally moving or inspiring as the primary light is cast between the allied character and the corrupt target as opposed to the weighty sense of responsibility gathered through the profound discovery of self-actualization and self-love crafted so immaculately in Persona 4. Due to this altered sense of focus, socially profound elements – such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and inferiority complexities – are inherently missing, all of which were present and appropriately handled in Persona 4. My biggest gripe with the overarching narrative falls on its inaugural level of intensity and how it’s a diminutive fraction compared to the series’ framework – targeting corrupt adults involved in scandals of abuse, plagiarism, theft, and other illegal practices is a just course of action, but none of which compare to the chilling weight of hunting down a serial killer. Persona 4 primarily focused on discovering the culprit behind the Inaba murders, each course of action was connected and served a relevant purpose, while Persona 5’s selected points of interest feel sporadic and disjointed in comparison. This heavy emphasis on narrative also resulted in an unfortunate lack of entertaining events; Persona 4 was chock full of endearing events that ranged from the utterly hilarious to the euphorically heartfelt, they were incredibly heartwarming and paced the core story and development efficiently and never imbued a dull moment. While Persona 5 has its decent share of separated events, they simply pale in comparison to the work of its older brother. However, a notable highlight of Persona 5 is its exquisite sense of style – from the impeccably funky music to the wonderfully idiosyncratic menus and aesthetics, nothing comes remotely close to Persona 5’s stylistic approach. Topped off with its gorgeous anime cutscenes, Persona 5 is a vibrant spectacle that is extraordinary to behold. While my notable nitpickings may seem rather off-putting and discouraging, at the center of this concrete experience is a captivating narrative that is not only the best in the series, but a strong brilliant work of art that stands tall in comparison to the JRPG greats.
A good majority of time spent in Persona 5 will have you partake in enthralling confrontations, and luckily the core battle system is mechanically sound and immensely enjoyable, so it’s time well spent. The turn-based system is chock full of JRPG standards – your usual flair of melee attacks, ranged attacks, offensive and defensive magic skills – but adds a few elements that are more intrinsic to the Persona series. Exploiting enemies’ elemental weaknesses is an integral strategy as the moment every enemy is downed by their respective weakness, an opportunity to perform an all-out attack becomes available – a full frontal assault that inflicts additional damage. Once you down an enemy with their weakness, you are given the opportunity to follow up with another move of your choice or you can perform a baton pass and give that extra turn to another character. It’s an excellent new ability that adds an unique level of strategy to an already well-developed battle system. Aside from performing an all out attack, you can also hold up enemies with the new negotiation system. You can choose to negotiate with the enemy shadow for additional money, items, or for them to join your cause. As opposed to the random nature of persona collection in the previous entries, Persona 5 implements a far more tangible and enjoyable system for persona gathering. Depending on the shadow’s emotional stature and your selection of dialogue, the shadow can become a persona of your own in the form of a new mask. As a holder of the wildcard ability, you are able to hold multiple personas and switch between them during battle – each of which have different abilities, vulnerabilities, elemental strengths, ailments, and garner experience outside of your own experience pool. The ability to hold multiple personas permits a glorified sense of experimentation as you are able to fuse personas to create new ones. As I previously mentioned, dungeons now take the role of Palaces – the cognitive manifestation of the corrupt target – which are fundamentally superior in level design than anything the examples of yesteryear dished out. With Persona 4’s dungeons, each one boasted their own aesthetic variances and visual design, but each floor and respective section of a dungeon felt decisively repetitive and stagnant, with the actual floor layout being procedurally generated. Persona 5 is far more calculated and deliberate in design compared to its predecessor, which works in its favor as each piece of the Palace serves a purpose and fundamentally feels different, both in aesthetics and design. Palaces offer a slew of different tantalizing approaches to alleviate the traditional sense of repetition as there is a healthy amount of shortcuts, hidden treasure, and optional enemies to encounter throughout your infiltration. Lastly, boss fights are vastly superior to the standards set in Persona 3 and 4 – with each fight flaring its own set of identifying tendencies to separate the encounter from the general mass. Some boss fights require you to temporarily send a teammate onto the sidelines to use the environment to negate an impervious enemy, all while your shortened party bides time and distracts the boss. Other encounters incorporate an enticing roulette mini-game, luring a glutinous boss with a rare item, sending a teammate to maneuver and launch a visceral javelin, and using a boss’ own vulnerability paint to even the odds – all of which make their respective boss fight feel distinct and fully fleshed out.
Once you complete a Palace, it is inevitably destroyed – which makes sense within the context of the narrative – and cannot be visited subsequently, which would leave little room for level grinding. Smartly enough, Persona 5 still incorporates the procedurally generated construct that occupied most of Persona 3 and 4, but has it act as a secondary element purely for the sake of longevity and level grinding. So even though you cannot return to Palaces upon their completion, you can continually return to Mementos, a procedurally generated area that acts as the collective cognition of the general Tokyo mass, taking the form of the underground subway system that inherently infect the lives of the populace. There are different sections within Mementos that display minute aesthetic differences, but each floor in the respective section is practically identical to one another but provide a random layout by design. Here, players can explore the subsequent depths of Mementos to level grind and discover hidden treasure randomly scattered throughout the plains of this bleak subway. Most importantly, Persona 5 incorporates a genius request system which takes the form of the familiar side quest structure; followers of the Phantom Thieves – your band of masked vigilantes – will make requests for your group to target individuals whose crimes are smaller in scope but still require attention. These individuals’ cognitive selves are located within the depths of Mementos, and while these encounters are nothing more than minute vignettes with an absence of tangible weight, they are a welcome additions to an already engrossing experience. There are only a select few requests that provide emotional development and purpose; these requests are earned through the development of your confidants, your relationship between select individuals that provide both abilities in the gameplay front and invigorating development on the narrative side.
Persona 5 is in every way a traditional dungeon crawling JRPG but it is also an adequate social simulator, adding a significant level of character development that is unrivalled in the JRPG catalogue. First and foremost, forming bonds and relationships – which are addressed as the aforementioned confidants in Persona 5– is the crux of the series’ social sim aspect and is arguably the best part of the Persona experience. While I stated that the character development in Persona 5 is not nearly as strong as the connection fostered in Persona 3 or 4, it is still a definite highlight and absolute pleasure to uncover the untold stories of each individual. Each confidant is tied to a specific arcana, which in relation affect the personas tied to that arcana. Developing your bonds between your confidants not only provides an engrossing optional story but also unlocks imperative abilities, relevant stat increases, and additional experience when fusing a persona of that specified arcana. Spending time with specific confidants will unlock abilities that are entirely optional but inherently essential for numerous gameplay elements. Abilities range from swapping out party member mid-battle, allowing you to explore the city at night after infiltrating a dungeon during the day, recruit personas without having to negotiate, allowing sidelined party members to perform a random attack, or having benched members accumulate the same amount of XP as the active party. Through this, the act of developing bonds seamlessly affects the nature of gameplay in a manner that is simply untouchable. Time management is extremely important in Persona 5, so having these abilities to elongate your managerial decisions is essential. Offering so many different time consuming options in a finite amount of time, these decisions bear significant weight and provide a nuanced sense of challenge that one might not expect when delving into a JRPG. You can read a book which will increase a relevant social stat – such as charm, guts, kindness etc. -, spend time with specific confidants that are available that day, partake in a slew of different activities such as fishing or batting cages, cook some delicious curry for SP recovery, study in the school library, earn some extra cash at a part-time job, or explore a dungeon or Mementos, all of which doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Persona 5 has to offer. There are so many different complex systems that are relatively overwhelming and its time management system is a lot to juggle but it’s also a tremendously rewarding experience when you max out a confidant or social stat, and lamenting over any missed opportunities or questionable decisions makes the New Game+ system all the more beautiful.
Adhering to a schedule and meeting deadlines is a reality that we wish to escape from when entering the realm of video games, so it’s kind of bizarre that the Persona series incorporates these tedious elements but somehow makes them fun. Leading the double life of a high schooler and following the provided routine is surprisingly addictive, and emits this coincidental Spider-Man vibe of following your heart, doing the right thing despite being called a menace, and prevailing through your own emotional struggles and inner demons. The motivation and selfish nature of the corrupt adults pales in comparison to the villainous repertoire of Persona 3 and 4, and the emotional connection between the Phantom Thieves just never hits the same stride as the loveable mystery gang of Persona 4, but toss the negative qualms aside and you have the most mechanically sound and centrally driven Persona experience to date. It’s a near masterpiece that perfectly encapsulates an invigorating sense of equilibrium between quantity and quality. The stylistic menus and slick transitions are in a league of their own, the localized voice-acting is the best the series has seen thus far, and the bombastic score composed by Shoji Meguro is the delightful cherry on top. Persona 5 is an excellent sequel that most certainly lives up to the series’ high standards and, in a lot of ways, sets new gold standards for both the series and JRPG genre as a whole. It’s a symbolic experience that is layered with compelling themes and interactions, striking at the heart of many contemporary issues, while never shoving a political agenda down your throat. Persona 5 is definitely an overwhelming experience for the faint of heart, especially with its complex systems and rather slow opening, but persevere through its inauguration and you are left with an exceptional experience that will stay with you for years to come.