Persona 5 is an RPG from Atlus. While this is obviously not the first entry in the franchise, it has few connects to past titles and tells its own story. The series itself mixes aspects of Jungian psychology with fantasy elements in a modern setting. I enjoyed the previous two main games, so I had high expectations for this one.
*Copy purchased by reviewer.
Persona 5 tells the story of the Phantom Thieves. Over the course of the game, the vigilante group forcibly reforms corrupt individuals for the sake of improving society. They accomplish this by delving into the villains’ mental worlds and stealing the source of their distorted desires. These cognitive worlds are known as “palaces” and are ruled by their owners’ shadow.
The playable protagonist acts as leader of the Phantom Thieves. His story begins when he intervened in an attempted rape. Since the aggressor has authority over the police, he went free while the protagonist was arrested for assault. Once he is out on probation, he moves to another town to avoid the stigma associated with having a criminal record. Of course, people quickly find out all about his situation and rumours begin circulating about him.
Over the course of the game, the protagonist befriends an eclectic ensemble of fellow outcasts suffering from similarly undeserved reputations. While some of these characters join the Phantom Thieves, many only act as confidants. Each of these characters have their own side story that the player can choose to clear. These stories can get a little formulaic in places. Just about everyone who is not a Phantom Thief starts a side quest at around the same time. Every female confidant can become one of the protagonist’s girlfriends after the same number of events. Since these relationships start so late in their storylines, they feel practically pointless. Luckily, the game does not penalize players for ignoring their girlfriends, which is likely to happen once their story ends.
When Persona 5 first begins, it throws players into a heist gone wrong some ways into the game. As the protagonist is apprehended, he is informed that someone betrayed his group. This sequence sets up the frame story and lets players know to keep an eye out for potential backstabbers. However, a certain clue makes the culprit’s identity obvious long before the actual reveal. During the proper explanation shortly after the story catches up to the opening, someone actually mentions this clue. They even say that the protagonist probably noticed it. Of course, that does not stop the cast from going on and on about it. They cover the entire plot behind the treachery multiple times through a number of long expository scenes.
Between heists, the story briefly returns to the interrogation. There really seems to be no point to this other than reminding the player that it is taking place. Additionally, the game jumps to the interrogation when the player gains a new confidant. Not only are these scenes pointless, they can also be ridiculous. Some characters are only available after the story advances to a certain point. The person performing the interrogation is already familiar with some of these individuals and even expresses shock that they aided your group. However, she then inquires as to who provided you with assistance once they officially become a confidant, as if she forgot all about them.
There is one more major twist to the tale, but it is one that only fans of the series will appreciate. For those who are unfamiliar with the previous games, it will only come off as an entirely pointless event. Of course, it really is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it was still a clever subversion of expectations. Aside from this ultimately minor thing, there are only a few obvious references to past titles. Most of these are simply names or descriptions appearing on the news on random days. There are also a few advertisements in the background of certain areas which feature characters from previous games.
Despite being prominently featured in the game’s promotional material, Ryuji and Ann seem to be rather insignificant characters. They are among the founding members of the Phantom Thieves, but they have less depth than even some confidants. Furthermore, their significance to the story more or less ends by the conclusion of the first heist. On the other hand, another character that joins later displays many facets to their personality and remains relevant to the plot throughout the story. There is good character writing here, but not all characters are as well written as others.
Some of the best characters are the villains. They are evil to a cartoonish degree and easy to hate, yet they all still manage to be believable. When in public, they hide their atrocious nature and act like normal people. They also make excuses which reveal why they think they are entitled to commit such horrible acts. It all seems plausible which makes for some rather compelling villains.
As with previous entries in the series, the English translation keeps honorifics. If there were any typos in the game, I did not notice any in my playthrough. Considering the sheer volume of text, that is rather impressive.
Aside from a few 2D cutscenes, Persona 5 uses cell-shaded 3D models. These models are among the smoothest I have seen this technique used with, and the result looks really nice. There are quite a few models in this game too. The city is full of unique people, and the mental world is full of beings known as shadows. These shadows also act as the eponymous personae. Since summons are used as enemies, there is quite a lot of room for a large roster. These beings are the usual Shin Megami Tensei creatures which are based on lore from around the world. With a variety that covers Celtic heroes to Hindu gods, there is something here for everyone to enjoy.
In the real world, the character and environmental designs look realistic enough. The main cast do stand out with colour schemes that are relatively brighter than their peers, but their fashion sense is not especially eccentric. It all looks reasonably believable, which helps the audience connect to the story.
While exploring dungeons, the party’s outfits change into less normal attire. These clothes are intended to look cool in addition to contrasting their appearance in reality. The worlds themselves are locations where treasure is kept. They are distorted, but they still have some grounding in real world equivalents. All this scenery helps give excursions feel like proper otherworldly heists. Adding to the more fantastic side of the atmosphere, vibrant colour splashes up from the ground with every step.
As for those 2D scenes, the art features quite a lot of detail. One clip looked as though it was missing a few frames when someone stood up, but the rest of the animations were fairly smooth. These cutscenes are somewhat infrequent, but they are nice to watch when they do appear.
It is worth mentioning that the game disables the PS4’s built-in recording and screenshot functionality beyond the first few minutes. I heard that some players got around this by taking pictures of their screen with their phones. My attempt did not work out so well.
For the most part, the music in Persona 5 is a bit lackluster. The majority of the songs in the game use simple rhythms and have the same sort of vibe which makes them rather indistinct. Its jazzy sound is by no means bad, but few tracks felt like more than generic background noise. Furthermore, the tracklist seems rather small and certain songs are appear too frequently. Throughout the entire game, only one song plays while exploring the streets at night. It is a decent track with great vocals, but it gets old after a while. Likewise, only one track plays while traversing Mementos, a dungeon with over 50 floors.
Still, there are times when the game puts its soundtrack to good use. Normally, each dungeon has its own specific song playing in the background and they all feel suitable for committing capers. When the day of the heist finally comes, a more intense piece takes their place. Battles usually have their own music, but the this special track continues playing through them. This keeps the tension up and helps give heists a different feel than ordinary excursions. Furthermore, the songs that do stand out are wonderful with powerful vocals, catchy rhythms, and exciting flourishes.
The English voice acting in this game is fairly high quality. Apart from the Tower confidant, the entire cast feel like perfect fits for their roles. Even then, the Tower confidant sort of works and hardly sounds atrocious. Furthermore, every performance sounds exactly as natural as it should. Most events in the main story are voiced as are the first and final confidant events. Oddly enough, the auto-forward works during certain scenes without audible dialogue while it does not for others. For those who prefer Japanese voices, they are available as free DLC.
The protagonist does have a voice and he is rather talkative outside of dialogue. He has quite a few lines and comments on a wide range of actions. However, he remains silent when the player picks options during conversations.
Unlike previous games, the main dungeons in Persona 5 are not randomly generated. These areas now feature actual level design and each one has its own gimmicks. Among these gimmicks are various puzzles such as decoding a simple cipher and walking on squares until they are all the same colour. Solving them is not especially difficult, but they add some depth to the gameplay.
These levels also feature a cover system. Not only does the cover system help avoid detection, attacking from cover guarantees an ambush against the enemy. The game also allows the protagonist to quickly move from one hiding spot to another. However, the controls do not always work well. Sometimes it feels like the game requires too many inputs to rotate around an object. Other times there are too few and you can end up on the wrong side when you just wanted to change direction. Every action uses the same button, so it is also easy to take cover or attack when you want to interact.
In addition to palaces, there is a special dungeon with random generation known as Mementos. This one allows players to face enemies from locations they have cleared that are no longer available. Mementos lacks cover, but it is a source of infinite treasure and materials. Occasionally, the Phantom Thieves receive requests to change the hearts of people without palaces. These missions require the team to take out mini-bosses in Mementos. These battles serve as the only side quests in the game; players are never tasked with the acquisition of rare goods.
During combat, characters take turns performing attacks and support actions. However, when someone lands a critical hit or successfully exploits a weakness, they get to go again. These actions also knock the opponents down. Once all opponents are downed, an extra team-wide attack can be performed. The protagonist is capable of changing his persona, allowing him to access a wide array of skills to fit any situation. However, the game ends if he dies.
That is more or less the same as the past few titles, but there are some new systems. When the enemy team is down, you now have the option of making requests. This allows you to get rewards without prolonging a fight. It also allows you to recruit them for the protagonist to use. Initial recruitment usually requires providing two answers they like. Each enemy has their own personally that sort of hints at what they want to hear, but the right answers are not always obvious. Fortunately, certain confidants provide skills that aid in negotiations.
Another new twist is resource scarcity. The best way of knocking down most enemies is with elemental skills, but the SP required for these is not infinite. SP recovery items are not common and you are unlikely to acquire SP replenishing skills until around halfway through the game. The party also has access to firearms, but ammunition can not be restocked in most dungeons. How far you get in a single excursion typically depends on how efficient you are with these resources.
Perhaps the best aspect of combat is the interface. All basic actions are mapped to individual buttons which helps speed things up. Skills are still accessed from a menu, but you can pull up that menu with a single button rather than navigating a separate menu first. This setup gives combat a relatively fluid feel that makes it stand out from other games in the genre.
Outside of dungeons, Persona 5 revolves around time management. The protagonist generally has two periods of free time each day and the game lasts several months. Players can use this time to take on dungeons, increase their social stats, or bond with NPCs. As characters grow closer to the protagonist, special benefits unlock. These range from additional options and mechanics in battle to having more free time. Dialogue options appear during events when spending time with people which can boost affection. However, they will grow to love you regardless if you are around them long enough. Certain characters require have a stat requirement for interactions, so increasing these is important as well. Of course, the game ends if hearts are not stolen before the deadline, so that might be the most important thing.
One noteworthy perk of spending time with party members is the Baton Pass. This mechanic enables characters to transfer their extra turns to other people in the active party, allowing for uninterrupted series of attacks that down enemies. Each pass also increases the power of the character receiving the free turn. This is a rather neat skill that helps battles flow more smoothly, so it can be annoying when new characters join without the ability unlocked.
A few activities that raise social stats have full mini-games attached. Batting practice tests players’ reflexes as they try to hit a moving ball. Fishing tasks players with throwing bait right in front of a fish’s face, then keeping an icon in a middle of a meter while reeling it in. Retro games will have players mashing buttons, entering specific button combinations, and rolling dice. There are books for each of these activities which unlock an easy mode, so just about any gamer can complete them. None of these mini-games feel especially compelling, but they still help shake up the daily routine.
The game steals quite a bit of the protagonist’s time. Morgana often confines him to his room on nights before major events. The cat also refuses to allow him to play games, watch DVDs, or train on these nights. The game never tells you about this in advance, so it is easy to end up with a late fee on rentals. Furthermore, heists have scripted events that can take up multiple days. It is best to complete heists well in advance so that these events will not cause you to miss the deadline.
This game also does a lot to rob players of their time. When requesting something from a Persona you once owned, they will ask if you want to talk. This adds a few extra dialogue boxes and an additional prompt and you have to deal with it constantly. The ambush animation is longer than the regular battle animation and can not be skipped. It also takes a while to get through the results screen which is similarly unskippable. You must wait for protagonist to put away his umbrella when entering a building on a rainy day. The worst offender is the social skill increase notification. An overview of all stats lingers after the protagonist has a pointless animation. These are all minor inconveniences, but they are rather frequent and add up over time.
On my initial run through the game, I managed to max out all social stats and confidant ranks. I also read every book, finished every game, and earned all other trophies that do not require new game+. As I did this without following a guide, I want to say that the time management is relatively easy and forgiving. However, I relied heavily on two confidants that help with time management, so players who do not interact with these people may not experience similar results. Still, social stats and certain confidant perks carry over to new game+, so it should be very easy to grab every trophy on a second run.
I do not feel as though Persona 5 lived up to its predecessors. Many prominent characters appear to be lacking depth and the game gives away its biggest twist. The concept seems interesting enough, but the game never does anything especially noteworthy with it. Still, many of the villains were great. There is sufficient reason to want to take them down and they still manage to behave in a believable manner. With its nifty new mechanics and smooth flow, the combat is not only the best in the series but among the best in the sub-genre. The confidant perks are another nice addition as well, though the restrictions on daily activities and abundant wait times can get annoying. With a nearly perfect English dub and smooth cell-shaded graphics, the overall presentation is great. Persona 5 is not my favorite Persona game, but it still feels worth playing if you enjoy the genre.