Reviewed on PS4, copy supplied by publisher.
It’s important to note before we begin here: I’ve played many previous Persona games (and the wider, Megami Tensei titles), and have never found myself sucked into the allure like others. The series is seen as one of the best examples of the JRPG by so many, and it’s amassed a huge following. So much so that, even in a year promising such mammoth titles like Horizon, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Resident Evil VII, Persona 5 sat comfortably on top of many people’s most wanted lists. Yes, it’s a hugely anticipated title.
Despite my previous opinions of the games, which always left me wondering if I’d missed something given their JRPG darling status, I was also sucked onto the hype train, eager to see what the series’ latest outing could deliver, and boy am I glad I jump on board. It’s like the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I now see why so many hold the series in such high regard. It just took the right mixture of elements, and Persona 5, for me, nailed it, and nailed it hard, with a very big hammer.
Set in Tokyo, the game revolves around a group of high school kids, as the Persona series usually does, this time working on the theme of stealing people’s ‘hearts’ or the physical embodiment of their desires. This is done by pillaging ‘Palaces’, manifestations in a realm called the Metaverse where everyone’s innermost desires are given physical form. By doing this, it’s possible to change a person in the real world, turning even the most untouchable villain into the exact opposite who has lost all of their desires to function as they once did. It’s complicated, as it almost always the case in JRPGs of this nature, but the premise is excellent, and makes for a central story that’s just a joy to play through.
Being a Persona title, this is all framed by the characters and their own story lines, each of which quickly becomes are truly intriguing prospect. Each and every character here is relatable on some level, with personalities that are both believable and sincere. Even though they’re wrapped up in the usual OTT anime aesthetics and mannerisms we’ve come to expect, they all quickly become people you care about. This is emphasised by the game’s social element that sees you interact, spend time with, and generally organise your time around both your important tasks, character growth, and your friends. Even NPC characters can be important, as forming bonds with them can help you in many other ways. This all makes for a world that’s engaging and believable, whether you’re exploring the streets of Tokyo, wandering the halls of the school, or plundering a Metaverse palace.
The game itself plays out in many forms depending on what you’re doing. Outside of the Metaverse you’ll be engaging in a lot of dialogue with others, spending time at school doing your student-thing, and engaging in necessary tasks like studying, earning money in part-time jobs, getting to know NPCs, and preparing for your excursions into the Metaverse.
The action of the game comes into play in the Metaverse when you delve into the game’s dungeons. Here you’ll explore, use stealth to gain the upper-hand on foes, and, of course, engage in turn-based combat.
For the first few hours, you’ll find the game to be a very, very slow burner. It takes quite some time for it let go of the reins. In fact, I foresee many newcomers to the genre being put off due to the sheer amount of dialogue, and stop/start gameplay. In the first few hours, the game just doesn’t flow all that well, and you’re constantly sidelined and forced to do what it asks. However, eventually the game lets you free, and you’re able to do much more on your own, without any shackles.
This is handled well, with characters and the story making the transition fit, such as your guardian eventually trusting you enough to let you out at night, it just takes a little too long to happen in my opinion, and many will never play through long enough to get to this point.
When the game does open up, and you’re introduced to the greater time management and array of tasks you need to perform, you realise just how good the flow of the game is. Each day you can only do so many tasks, so you have to decide which. Each kind of task will grow you and your friends in specific was, so it directly affects how your character progresses in skill and strength. Indeed, almost every act or character interaction you make here affects the wider picture, it’s really quite something, and so well implemented.
Often, you’ll have a set amount of time in days to get a job done, so managing your populated calendar is paramount. There’s also the need to enter the Metaverse to grind and level up, lest you come up short in future encounters.
When in the Metaverse the game eschews the series over-reliance on often dull and tedious randomly generated dungeons in favour of far more engaging, crafted levels. These dungeons are far better than the efforts in previous series, although the random dungeons do still exist in side mission, and optional form, so if you liked that approach, it’s still here.
Exploring and using the game’s simple, but effective stealth mechanics to ambush enemies and get a guaranteed first attack works very well, and when you do engage in combat, you’ll find some of the best turn-based combat we’ve seen in a JRPG in some time.
Speaking as someone who’s grown increasingly tired of the stale turn-based formula over the years, Persona 5 actually made things feel fresh again. The combat system is brilliantly done, with a solid turn-based system bolstered by Persona‘s trademark mechanic that lets you talk to enemies to take on their powers, or merely force them to give you items or money, and there are various other unique features , such as the hold up that’s triggered when you knock down every enemy by attacking them with methods they’re weak against, and a mixture of melee, ranged, and magical attacks for each character.
Combat flows smoothly too, and if you wish you can blast through battles in no time, or you can take it slow and really get into the whole tactical side of things, trying to capture each type of foe, or making tons of money with hold ups. Combat can be tricky, with higher difficulties really demanding correct perpetration and choice of actions. It pays to know your foes weaknesses, so ensuring you have the correct team mates, abilities, and personas on hand is very important.
I can’t go any further without mentioning Persona 5‘s style. Simply put, this is one of the coolest, and most stylish games I’ve ever seen. Every pore of it oozes class, whether it’s the battle system’s flurry of impressive visuals and effects, the artistic and nifty loading transitions, the character designs, or the superb soundtrack, it’s all just fantastic. Not since my beloved Killer7 have I been so enamoured by a game’s presentation, and believe me, that’s saying something.
Persona 5 is a huge game, with an easy 100 hour average playtime, and it has so many intricacies at work I just can’t go into them all here. It’s also a game that’ll be ruined by spoilers, so I’d urge anyone playing it to avoid these. I feel Atlus has gone too far with its attempt to suppress this, disabling all of the PS4’s sharing options (you can’t even take screenshots in-game), and threatening content ID strikes and channel take downs, but I do understand why. As Jim Sterling put it, this will only prompt more spoilers in retaliation, so be careful where you go online.
Persona 5 is, without a doubt, the year’s biggest surprise for me thus far, taking over from the also great Nier: Automata. I wasn’t expecting a great deal here, given my so-so experience with the previous games, but Persona 5 blew me away, and I found myself playing a truly great JRPG, and one of the best games of the year.