There’s something to be said about an underdog commanding respect when the odds are against it. That’s basically the story of Persona 3 and 4, a pair of Japanese RPGs released in the mid-to-late 2000s when mainstream sentiment against the genre was at its peak. At a time when JRPGs could expect to score 6s or 7s by virtue of being JRPGs, these games still managed to impress critics and gamers alike, spawning a score of spinoffs and heralding a new renaissance for the genre.
Nearly a decade later, we’ve finally got the latest mainline entry in the Persona series with Persona 5, and it hits just as hard as its predecessors.
After an attempt at doing the right thing goes terribly wrong, you end up expelled from your school, not to mention you’re stuck with a criminal record and put under probation. There aren’t many schools that are willing to take a bad egg like you, so when Shujin Academy opens its doors, it’s not like you’ve got much choice. Things are bad, but they could be worse; all you’ve got to do is keep your head down and your nose clean, right?
Naturally, that lasts for all of five minutes before you fall in with the wrong crowd. Long story short, you end up as leader of the Phantom Thieves, a group of supernatural bandits and vigilantes. The Phantom Thieves possess the power of Persona, which lets you summon magical incarnations of mythological and legendary figures. You can use this power to invade the twisted minds of depraved individuals and it’s up to you to take down the worst of the worst, the bad guys that nobody else can touch.
By infiltrating your target’s mental Palace and stealing their twisted desires in the form of a Treasure, you can force a change of heart, causing them to confess their crimes in the real world seemingly of their own volition. That’s all well and good, but you’ll need to balance being a Phantom Thief with the hard work of being a high school student…not to mention that you’re a high school student that everyone already expects the worst from. Step too far out of line and things will go poorly – not just for you, but for the people you’re fighting to protect. Persona 5’s plot deals with some heavier themes and tones than previous titles and it ends up being a darker story on the whole as a result.
Persona 5 plays out much like the previous two main-series Persona games; it’s a sort of life-simulator meets dungeon-crawler. Typically, your character has a run-in with a bad guy and is given a deadline by which they need to force their heart to change via Phantom Thief activities. You’ll also need to spend your already-limited time studying, hanging out with friends and doing other typical teenager things; you’re not just after fun, of course, as building strong bonds with others will provide the strength of heart needed to enhance your Persona powers. In line with this game’s criminal theme, your contacts tend to be shadier than most, which lends a little more interest to the search for new friends.
When the time comes to head into a Palace, though, your world changes. You’re no longer just some good-for-nothing high school kid; you’re Joker, the leader of the Phantom Thieves, a suave bandit who’s capable of anything. Persona 5 oozes style when you’re exploring dungeons; you can sneak around, dash between hiding spots to ambush enemies, clamber up and down objects…the bottom line is that you can be the thief you were meant to be and look great while you’re doing it. Naturally there’s plenty of treasure to search for as well, and if you haven’t had enough thieving, you can explore randomly-generated dungeons in your off time as well.
The best thieves are able to rough their marks up a little when necessary, of course, and in a Palace you’re going to have to deal with Shadows – demonic entities in the service of the bad guy you’re working against. Taking on a Shadow correctly involves stealthily ambushing them before engaging in turn-based battle. If you’ve played any Shin Megami Tensei games in the past you know the drill: exploit your enemies’ elemental weaknesses to deal more damage and earn extra turns while carefully planning to avoid having your own weaknesses exploited.
Persona 5 shakes up the formula a bit by bringing back demon conversation, a feature that’s been absent from the series since Persona 2. When you’ve knocked down the entirety of an enemy party by striking their elemental weaknesses, they’re at your mercy, and the Phantom Thieves can move in stage a hold-up. From there, you can execute a devastating and flashy All-Out Attack that typically ends the fight right there. Alternatively, you can talk to the demons, essentially coercing them into offering you items, money, or their powers.
That last option is how your hero obtains new Personas, and those Personas can be further refined by fusing them into more powerful forms. If you’ve played previous games in this series you’ve got an idea of what you’re getting into here, though I did find that Persona 5 on its normal difficulty setting tended to be easier than previous Shin Megami Tensei titles.
The delicate balancing act between an intriguing main story, fascinating side characters to meet and learn more about and strategically gripping turn-based combat is what makes Persona 5 such a fantastic RPG. It engenders the same feelings Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did: that there’s an infinite number of interesting things to do, that you’ll never have enough time to do them all and yet despite all that you still want to see everything you can. In my mind, that’s the essence of solid game design, and it’s on display here.
Remember how I mentioned that this game oozes style? I can’t really emphasize that enough. Persona 5 is all about cool. Everything is cool. Palace infiltration is cool, combat is cool, the characters look cool, even the menus are cool. Your heroes swoop from cover to cover, back-flipping into battle and launching cinematic assaults on their hapless foes. This is a non-stop assault of cool that doesn’t end until you turn the game off. It’s nuts. This is easily one of the most impressive-looking Japanese RPGs I’ve ever played, and that’s not saying anything about the fantastic music and sound. If I have any complaints it’s that we’re still seeing demon models that debuted back when Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne came out back in 2003, but at least they’ve been zazzed up a little and don’t stand out too much from the rest of the game.
The darker feel of the Persona 5 suits its slick aesthetic, top-class storytelling and wealth of content; it’s a must-have experience for fans of the previous games and it’s welcoming enough for new players that they shouldn’t pass it up as well. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the obvious front-runner for Game of the Year 2017 up until now…but it looks like that trophy just might be stolen. If you enjoy RPGs at all, Japanese or otherwise, you owe it to yourself to play Persona 5.