After nearly a decade in the dark, the cult RPG series makes a stunning return
After nearly a decade in the dark, the cult RPG series makes a stunning return
Have you ever wanted to change somebody's mind? That is the question that Persona 5 asks. And honestly, who hasn't? As the cast of Atlus's latest life-enveloping line of Japanese-style role-playing games knows, things often go horribly awry. A teacher threatens to expel you unless you fuck him; a man with connections sues you for all you're worth when you accidentally catch him in a compromising position. Injustice lurks everywhere, yet no one can do a thing to stop it. If only you could steal into the heart of the matter, like a thief in the night, and rip out the rotten core. Then, perhaps they would realize the error of their ways.
Persona 5 gives you this power, and many more. As a falsely-accused teenage delinquent given a second chance at scholastic life deep in the heart of Tokyo, you lead an ever-growing gang of unassuming high-schoolers tasked with literally stealing the hearts of the corrupt adults around you. However, unlike most RPGs, you don't simply don a mask and forever adventure as your alter ego – rather, you spend most of your time maintaining your secret identity through everyday activities, like taking exams, hanging out with your fellow thieves, or even working at a convenience store. But when it's finally time to delve into a dungeon in search of treasure, the power of your Persona – the supernatural embodiment of your rebellious soul – ensures that these richly-rendered mundanities have a surprising impact on your Shadow-slaying skills.
If this all sounds like Greek to you (or perhaps Japanese) don't fret: you're not alone. The Persona name may represent the most popular outgrowth of the seemingly-eternal Shin Megami Tensei series – twisted and tangled with branches, spin-offs, and sequels, almost like a Japanese version of Richard Garriott’s Ultima games – but the games have never rocked the charts, even after the transgressive Persona 3 redefined the direction of the franchise with the introduction of a calendar and other life-simulation elements. These changes set the stage for the unexpected success of 2008's Persona 4, a demonic murder mystery set in a tiny mountain town. While it didn't exactly set the world on fire to the degree that, say, Final Fantasy VII did, it managed to spawn a successful mini-franchise of associated titles, including two Arc System Works-developed fighters and a rhythm game. With Persona 5, Atlus seems poised to finally pierce the veil of mainstream success, even though – as fans continually remind them – they've taken nearly a decade to do it.
Longtime fans steeling themselves in anticipation should happily unclench; from its cunningly-considered battles to its earnest exploration of vigilantism, Persona 5 scintillates on every level. And though it shouldn't surprise anyone that the formula behind the two greatest role-playing games of a generation still delivers in 2017, a few deft tweaks make it even better. As in 3 and 4, your protagonist remains the only party member capable of wielding multiple Personas, each of which corresponds to one of the twenty-one arcana of the Tarot. (Proper care and maintenance of these Personas feels a bit like demonic Pokémon – except, instead of breeding them, you create new Personas by brutally executing two at once with velvet-trimmed guillotines.)
In most RPGs, the pace of your adventure is totally self-determined – while the residents of the kingdom might suffer mightily under the boot of the Big Bad, they can always wait it out while you go explore side-quests to your heart's content. Not so in P5; here, time is the great equalizer, with the stark pages of your calendar largely determining whether or not you maximize your relationships with your hacker foster sister or your barista legal guardian before the game's untimely end. These so-called "Confidants" don't just help you pass the time – they help shore up your party's combat capabilities, with your teammates receiving unique bonuses from higher levels of comradeship. But since choosing to dive into combat knocks out both the afternoon and evening blocks of an individual day, proper resource and magic management is paramount, if not mandatory. And worse still, each dungeon comes with its own hard deadline; let that day come and go, and you'll find yourself jumping back a week or reloading a save.
From a crisis at the school festival to a rather unlikely field trip to Hawaii, it's fair to say that fans of "slice-of-life" anime will recognize some of the plot strands that comprise this high-school drama. In intervals between dungeons, it's easy to feel like you're residing in a convincing recreation of Tokyo, albeit one painted in digital cels rather than ornate brushstrokes. Even the simple act of boarding the subway calls forth one of the game’s incredibly-stylish animations, as a loading screen made of grayscale commuters milling about screams into view. While the combat crawls offer their share of thrills, the slow, pleasant rhythms of everyday life – from shopping for weapons at the mall, to taking your favorite party member out to a park – form much of Persona 5's enduring appeal.
All that said, when it comes to the dungeons, the team behind P5 certainly didn't slouch. Far from the procedurally-generated corridor crawls of 3 and 4, these "Palaces" – generated from the distorted desires of the adults that lord over them – combine the signature overtly-symbolist style of the series with smarter design, complete with puzzles and shortcuts. Best of all, a new cover system grants you a meaningful way to avoid most combat encounters – while it's slightly imperfect, it allows for a more strategic approach than simply grinding all the enemies along your path into gristle and yen.
The math underlying the combat remains largely unchanged, a productive union between the exploit-the-weakness element blasting of previous Shin Megami Tensei games, with a sprinkle of monster management. Hit a bad guy with their weakness, and you'll be granted another turn. Hit all the bad guys with their weakness, and your party will hold them up a la Heat, giving you a chance to light them up with a powerful attack, pump them for money, or even recruit them to your cause. With nearly a dozen different kinds of damage and status ailments apiece – including one that kills you in just three turns – and an array of buffs and debuffs that actually make a mathematical difference, the combat in P5 is as challenging, as surprising, and as rewarding as in any RPG out there – turn-based or otherwise.
Still, among all this skillful yet subtle reinvention, P5 does somewhat stumble at its core competency – the story. Its unabashedly linear construction allows for a stronger, broader main thread than that of Western trope-tellers like Bethesda or even BioWare, and its side content – the quests you complete with your "Confidants" – supports this central plot, rather than distracting from it. However, P5 leans into the usual video game fantasy of unlimited power and prestige a little too readily, even as it rips into territory that most titles of its magnitude and budget avoid, like sexual harassment and real-world governmental unrest. Like its predecessors, Persona 5 is an unabashedly contemporary work that takes great care to deal with these contemporary issues, except this time around, it seems that all of the solutions to these problems begin and end with the unique power of the protagonist and his Phantom Thieves.
The familiar complex themes of sacrifice, responsibility, and camaraderie in the face of overwhelming odds that mark the rest of the franchise remain mostly unexplored here, replaced with hollow heroics and self-serious badassery. The fact that many of your actions in the game are directly tied to a meter that shows your group's social media popularity contrasts considerably with the larger franchise's rather dim view of humanity in general. Persona 5 styles itself after picaresque novels that feature larger-than-life characters like Zorro, Captain Kidd, and Arsene Lupin, folk heroes who steal the king's gold and then ride away on horseback, never to be seen again. In real life, of course, the likes of Lupin never really get away – instead, the authorities catch up, and they end up like Kidd, strung up in the gallows, made to atone for their crimes. Such a moment never comes in Persona 5.
Yet some will still prefer it. For all their transcendental qualities, most people missed out on P3 and P4, victims of circumstance and dated aesthetics. With the fifth iteration, you have no excuse. In a year choking with exceptional game after exceptional game, Persona 5 still manages to stand out as the unmissable RPG. For me, it has more soul, passion, humor, and panache packed into one percent of its 100-hour odyssey into thiefhood and triumph than any major release of the past year. Persona 4 brought my love of video games back from the dead. Persona 3 sustained it. And now, Persona 5 proves that it's a love still worth keeping, nearly a decade later.