Two decades ago, I fell deeply in in love with a role playing game. Sure I’d been introduced to text-based role playing games before, we’d typed each other, me telling them what I wanted them to do and their frequent replies that they didn’t understand what I wanted from them. They were all so similarly dressed in wizard’s robes or were brandishing large axes clothed in leather jockstraps and always just charging into things. We’d sit alone together for a few hours but it never went anywhere. Then she arrived, wearing a kimono and floating in on a Cloud, her whisper a breath of fresh Aeris. When it came for us to say goodbye and go our Sephiroth ways, after around 50 hours I knew my gaming life would never be the same. My words cannot convey the impact Final Fantasy VII had upon my love of gaming. And now, after two console generations have passed, I’ve finally met a someone who is the personification of everything that made me fall in love with JRPG’s 20 years ago.
Persona 5 from Atlus is the latest in their franchise of the Shin Megami Tensei spinoff games. You take on the role of a high school student, forced to re-establish his life after a brush with the law that sees you relocate to Tokyo. Under the watchful eyes of a family acquaintance, you’ve been transferred to a new school where you’re expected to follow a disciplined lifestyle of study and orderly conduct. With this goal in mind, on your way to your first day of school you bump into Ryuji, the school outcast and hotheaded tough guy. He realises quickly you’re a new transfer student and potential friend and offers to accompany you to your classes. On your way to school, however, you cross over into a parallel dimension with twisted and distorted elements of the real world. It’s a corrupted version of where you should be and without warning, you and your new found friend discover you’re fighting for your lives. It is in these moments of extreme stress and danger that you discover your abilities to unleash personas – magical personifications of their psyche – which aid you in battle. As soon as you befriend more students through perilous encounters, you form the guild of the Phantom Thieves, who can traverse into the perverted conscious of flawed villains to rectify the distortion and “steal their hearts” to balance justice in the real world.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Persona games are famous for their mixed gameplay experiences of part Japanese social simulator, part traditional JRPG dungeon crawl with turn based combat. As the narrative develops, players will need to prompt a change of heart in various threatening villains within a certain number of days, achieved by balancing the character progression in the real world, whilst using precious time to infiltrate the distorted conscious (metaverse).
In the twisted consciousness of the villains, your team of thieves will need to navigate through dungeon-styled levels, solving a variety of puzzles while defeating shadows – Persona creatures that are manifested from the darkness of the villains’ souls. As thieves, you’ll need to make full use of your wits and guile as many foes will overpower you should you not improvise to achieve the upper hand in battle utilising ambush tactics. In addition, should you be discovered by Shadows whilst creeping through another’s consciousness, you will raise alarm in the villain’s mind, forcing you to be expelled from the distorted world should they become fully aware of your intentions. Persona 5 steers clear of random encounters, with the mind’s landscape littered with patrolling enemies, who you’ll need to ambush or who will viciously attack you should they find you prowling in off-limit areas, initiating the combat. Encounters are turn based in the style of traditional JRPGs, where you can choose between various magical attacks through the use of Personas, physical attacks, gun attacks, guarding and using items to change the course of battle. Persona 5 excels in its focus on the weakness system, which allows chaining combination attacks and additional parlay mechanisms in combat scenarios, should you manage to incapacitate enemies through focusing on their weaknesses.
Targeting enemies weak to gun attacks with your firearms will cause you to knock them down, causing increased damage and rendering them into a weakened dizzy state, also allowing you an additional action opportunity. Those actions can be chained into devastating combos, allowing you to tag in party members to utilise their persona elements to target other weaknesses of the enemy as well as giving them boosted damage states or simply creating weakness combo attacks until all enemies are in a weakened state, which then triggers the “Hold Up” parlay options for your party. Combat will pause, offering you an opportunity to persuade the enemy persona into joining forces with you, convince them to give you an item or money in exchange for sparing their life or allow you to perform a devastating “all out” attack that deals massive amounts of damage to all enemies and often results in their instant death. It’s a combat system that stays unique and fresh throughout the game and has both banes and boons for the player in various combat scenarios. The weakness system is double edged blade though, with enemies that ambush you receiving the same benefits for targeting your party’s various weaknesses, which can result in initial devastating combos that leave your team a murmur from death. You can also find yourself facing enemies for which you have no persona actions that can exploit their weakness, leading to challenging encounters when you aren’t prepared with a balanced team. You’ll need to make a number of runs to make it through each consciousness to steal someone’s heart, and your personas are only as strong as their characters, making your personal and social development outside of the metaverse crucial to success.
In the real world, you’ll be attending school and studying to improve your character’s knowledge, working jobs in order to earn valuable currency to buy items for your party and performing a myriad of real world actions to hone your characters attributes to ready yourself for the social and combat challenges that lie ahead. Every action has a certain benefit to your character, from visiting the bathhouses to improve your charm with the ladies, enduring back alley clinical testing to improve your guts, through to simply studying in a crowded diner to improve your knowledge with the strongest cup of coffee served in Shibuya. The sheer scope of activities offered to players provides unique ways to improve your stats depending on opportunities that arise through messages from friends as well as certain days of the week and weather conditions offering better conditions for levelling up. Who knew that bathing on a Monday or studying in the rain provided better results?
Most important of these real world activities are improving your social bonds and relationships with your party members and other characters aiding your activities as The Phantom Thieves. These “confidant” relationships not only weave an amazing narrative that feeds the world of Persona 5 and are integral to the story but also will grant you special combat abilities with these allies and more importantly, unlock the true benefits of the Persona levelling system.
Through victory in combat, your Personas will level up, gaining new abilities and attacks. But unleashing their true potential happens outside of combat through sacrificial offerings that can either fuse lesser Personas to form unique and more powerful combinations or simply take the essence and experience of a Persona and infuse it into another of your choice. Each Persona has a particular class, related to a specific confidant of our protagonist. Improving your affinity with the confidant improves the experience of the newly formed Personas, making for exponentially more powerful aids in battle. You’ll fuse various powers and introduce skill cards to change the abilities of your Personas to suit your combat needs. It’s a simple yet extremely deep system that allows you to customise your player’s abilities throughout the unfolding story.
And what a story Atlus have put together here of the escapades of the Phantom Thieves. Atlus has blocked recording and sharing of any Persona 5 gameplay in order to remove the chance of spoilers and with good reason. I won’t divulge anything, except to say that Persona 5 deals with a wealth of real issues, human weaknesses and faults and creates meaningful relationships through the experiences of your group. I care deeply about each misfit in my group, the flawed characters that they are despite their heavily influenced anime caricatures.
Persona 5 as a traditional JRPG succeeds by perfecting all the star performances of its predecessors and adding new and unique elements that create a fresh feeling to the game. The game has more swagger than a combination of Elba, Hiddleston and Cumberbatch laced with the Jazz tones of Miles Davis. Every element of presentation is stylised from the graffiti menu system, the bustling recreation of downtown Shibuya through to the stylish all out attacks that fill the screen like a shonen jump action poster. The acid jazz soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in the last 5 years of gaming, with an effervescent style that I found more than one time humming on my way to work. Even the slightly dated graphics system due to the game being developed for both PS3 and PS4 can’t hold back the game from having one of the most memorable graphical design choices in recent gaming memory.
The game was not without its flaws, veterans of these style of games possibly resenting the consistent hand holding of the first 8 hours of the game. Dialogue “choices” are often offered mostly to create the illusion of determinism and the often massive amounts of text in certain elements of narrative scenes that bog down some players. But despite these minor instances, no game I’ve played in the last 5 years has made me fall in love with video games again like Persona 5 has. The game allowed me to live my own anime narrative, choosing when to develop my character socially, stock up on goods whenever I wanted or needed to, battle a 6-pound hamburger in the evening, fight shadows in the afternoon and study for exams in the evenings. It asked real general knowledge questions to gain knowledge points, learn to make coffee with a mentor and get my fortune told in the back alleys of Shinjuku. It treated me like an adult, showing me the deadlines of when my missions needed to be completed and I was free to explore my own path to get there within a time frame. I was allowed to get lost in this world, within reason keeping the gears turning to drive the campaign through its goals while allowing me to control my destiny.
Personas 5 is one of the most polished productions on the market in years. Every aspect has been finely tuned to smooth out any possible frustration for players. Loading screens feature beautifully rendered transitions in the moments between scenes, saving happens in mere seconds, repeated dialogue scenes after dying can all be fast forwarded, the anime scenes are beautifully rendered and the pacing is near perfection. Before any element of the game induces monotonous action, additional elements are made available to the players to breathe renewed purpose into your strategies. Feel your party becoming stale, new characters are coming soon, feel like you’ve explored all the locations, new areas will unlock even 50 hours into the game. Persona 5 consistently balances that fine line or overwhelming the player with too much choice and starving them of content that keeps you hungry to play through another session.
Unless you hate everything involving Japan, role playing games or games that pimp steps over its compatriots; you need to play Persona 5. Hell, if you hate any of these things, why are you still reading this?