The word ‘stylish’ is one that’s undeniably overused in videogame reviews. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to write about Persona 5 without using it. Persona 5 is stylish as hell and it flaunts it.
Everything from the character designs, art style, HUD and menus has been designed to ooze style. Thankfully, stylishness hasn’t been at the expense of function. Persona 5 is both gorgeous to look at and intuitive to use.
It’s often easy for JRPGs to become cluttered with menus and difficult to navigate, but Persona 5 avoids this pitfall entirely. The HUD and menus are clean, direct and simple. Everything you discover and all mechanics and menus are explained as you go and there aren’t any situations in which you’re lost as to what to do. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the genre as a whole, Persona 5 eases players into proceedings.
Anime High School
Once a niche series, Persona has exploded in the west in recent years. So much so that Persona 5 was completely out of stock at retail in Australia for two entire weeks after launch. On one hand, it’s a little strange that it’s become so popular, given the subject matter. On the other hand, with anime’s popularity continuing to grow and the Persona titles being so well made it’s really not surprising.
Persona 5 follows the established formula of the series and puts you in the shoes of the new kid in town. Dramatic events have led to your transfer to Tokyo with Shujin Academy being the only school that’ll take you in. Family friend, and gruff father figure, Sojiro Sakura gives the protagonist a place to stay, but only as long as he behaves. A fact of which he’ll remind you of regularly.
The opening couple of hours are very linear and largely consist of slick anime cutscenes, in-engine cutscenes and brief gameplay sections serving as tutorials. Aside from the explosive opening scene, Persona 5 begins rather ploddingly. That may sound like a criticism, but it’s actually the opposite. After you get deeper into the game, you’ll be longing for the simplicity and slow pace of those opening hours.
Time to Kill
Each day is separated into several periods of time. You’re only able to carry out a few activities per day with options including studying, hanging out with friends, taking part in mini-games or visiting the Palaces in the Metaverse. The former are all ways to learn new skills, improve stats or foster relationships. All of which are essential in levelling up and becoming strong enough to defeat the bosses.
The latter, as with all Persona titles, is a sort of shadow realm. It reveals people’s true natures and is the dungeon crawling portion of the game. In the Metaverse, characters’ shadow forms take control and Personas are used and captured (like Pokèmon) to do battle.
Getting to the heart of each Palace is key in Persona 5 as doing so will affect events outside the metaverse. Each Palace is a representation of an antagonists true desires and each is designed to reflect that. The first of these, Kamoshida’s Palace, is an enormous castle that sees the Gym Teacher as King, able to do what he wants, whenever he wants.
Persona 5’s use of a clock isn’t only limited to each day. Early on, you’re given a countdown timer until game over. Fail to complete the game’s first Palace in that time and you’ll fail. No second chances. Well, other than reloading your save and trying again.
Chaotic, Insecure Delusions
This is when time management and choice become a huge factor in your success. If you spend too much time worrying about one stat or relationship and neglect another, you may find that when you face the boss you’re grossly under prepared.
You’ll never have enough time to see and do everything, which is important to note. Modern games place an emphasis on completion, but it’s the opposite for Persona. Using your gut instinct and knowing you’re going to miss out on certain things is the only way to play. Besides, there’s a new game plus mode for those keen enough to see the differences.
Persona’s use of the Shadow, Metaverse and psychological metaphors lean heavily on the works of Carl Jung. While not always subtle or particularly clever, Persona tries, more than many other games to include some assessment of the psychological effect actions can have. It especially looks at how interpersonal relationships and interactions with other humans have an impact on the way a person thinks and feels.
So Much Drama
It’s an interesting concept and one that may seem at odds with the high school/high fantasy setting, but it works brilliantly. Perhaps because the high school experience is one we can all relate to. The alienation, fear, desire to fit in and loneliness that come with being a teenager sit at the forefront of Persona 5. They do so, without sacrificing entertainment or enjoyment.
The plot takes place via flashback after the opening sequence. The protagonist and leader of the Phantom Thieves has been taken into custody. Questions are asked and accusations levelled about the Phantom Thieves and their goals.
What seems like a story about Japanese teenagers, in true Persona fashion, becomes so much more. Murder, intrigue and political maneuvering all feature in the plot, but it’s the sub-text and the things which are only alluded to that have the greatest impact.
Not All Sunshine & Rainbows
Sexual and physical abuse and suicide are focal points of the narrative from early on. They’re never explicitly revealed, but connecting the dots is easy enough. Persona 5, for all its style and charm and frivolous exterior is heavy and deals with weighty issues.
It does so quite skillfully too. Persona 5 is very much an anime story with all the tropes you’d expect from the genre. It’s hard not to love and loathe the characters you’re respectively supposed to. It’s also impossible to not become invested in the plot. It becomes your story as the protagonist becomes an extension of you. He becomes your Shadow.
Not everything is great within Persona 5 though. For the most part, its treatment of female characters is excellent, but a few egregious moments of fan service. Unfortunately, there’s no option to play as a female protagonist because the developers considered it not worth the effort.
Lack of Inclusion
Worse still is the treatment of gay people. A recurring joke features two characters, played up for the effeminate nature and sexual orientation. Persona 5 strives so far to treat characters as believable, real people, but then uses two gay guys as the punchline to a joke. It’s offensive at best, homophobic at worst.
The protagonist also has plenty of romance options within the game, provided they’re of the opposite gender. He’s even able to romance older women, some in positions of authority over him, with little consequence. There’s no option for any male-male romance. In 2017 this isn’t just an oversight, it’s a deliberate omission.
Social issues aside, Persona 5 is a brilliant, deep and complex game. The narrative is the high point and is supported by some of the best JRPG dungeon crawling money can buy. It’s a shame that the developers have willfully ignored/maligned a section of their fanbase, though hopefully in future this can be remedied.
Game of the Year?
Fans of Persona need to play the most recent addition. If you’re curious about the latest entry, but have never played Persona before, Persona 5 is a great place to start. It’s accessible, artful, plays like a dream and features a dynamite plot.
Mark it down as an early contender for Game of the Year.
Persona 5 was reviewed on PS4 using a promotional copy provided to PowerUp! by Atlus.
Game Title: Persona 5
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