Contrary to the meme-worthy hit battle song "Last Surprise", I did see this coming.
Persona 5 was nothing short of a breakthrough success for Atlus and the long running JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game). It was the largest debut in the series reaching #1 on the sales chart, and it is also the first JRGP game to do this since Ni No Kuni back in 2013, and boy does it deserve it. The game holds up very well against the high expectations that have been instilled due to it's long development time. The last Persona main-series persona game (Persona 4) was released back in 2008 leading to a nearly 10 year gap between the games. Granted along the way we got a remake in Persona 4 Golden and the spinoffs: Arena (Ultimax), Dancing All Night, and Persona Q. But it goes pretty well without saying that fans of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series have been waiting for this for quite some time.
In my own humble opinion, it's the best AAA game of this year by quite a considerable margin. That's really saying something considering this year has put out games like: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Resident Evil 7 with many to more still to come. But is it the best game in the Persona series...? That's up to debate between the fans and critics.
Let me go ahead and lay out my points for the game and there will be some spoilers ahead, so if you don't want to see them this is how they will look:
The Krabby Patty Secret Formula
You can click/tap on the text to reveal it.
As with any other Persona games, you play as an unnamed protagonist who is a transfer student and finds him thrust into some rather unexpected situations that results in the awakening of his/her Persona. They're commonly considered as a "mask" for an individual to use to face hardship. From there they use their Persona and end up partnering up with other Persona-users to take on the troubles that are plaguing their world. In Persona 3 it was to eradicate a mysterious time called the Dark Hour with the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES), Persona 4 had the Investigation Team in which their goal was the solve the murders that had started occurring in their small town of Inaba. Persona 5 has the flashy band of rogues known only as The Phantom Thieves who steal the hearts of those deemed to be distorted and out of touch with reality.
The game takes a unique twist on the Persona formula and goes for the Quentin Tarantino approach of nonlinear story telling. I'm confident not putting this under the spoiler tags because it literally happens at the beginning of the game. You start out in a bizarre Casino attempting to steal some kind of briefcase. After battling your way through a few shadows and running off, your character jumps out a window and is quickly ambushed by police and arrested. He is warned about being sold out by one of his own teammates, and carried off. After a brutal interrogation scene with the police, the Public Prosecutor Sae Niijima enters the room and the game truly begins as she asks you to recall the events that lead you here. The game's clock rewinds and the story unfolds...
Your character enters the Tokyo area as a transfer student at Shujin Academy, being expelled from his previous school and put on probation due to a faulty assault case. It starts out pretty simple when the protagonist and their new friend Ryuji stumble into the Metaverse (world that exists in the collective human cognition where desires take control), and end up finding a strange castle controlled by their gym teacher Suguru Kamoshida (You also meet a very important party member named Morgana, who is a strange shape-shifting cat-like being). These places are called Palaces, they're a core fundamental of the story as everyone who has distorted desires eventually has one of these. At the heart of the palace is a treasure, you steal that and their desires disappear and you get to watch them pour their souls out and confess all their wrongdoings from their very own mouth.
Eventually after tearing through the palaces of A Plagiarizing Artist and Mobster, your party starts to grow with the additions of Ann Takamaki, Yusuke Kitagawa, and Makoto Niijima and The Phantom Thieves catch national attention. Fame rises and the jobs naturally get bigger as well. Along the way you become acquaintances with a detective named Goro Akechi. Fast-forward to add a few more members and take down some more palaces, you finally end up close to the present as you take on the Casino palace which houses the manifested desires of none other than Public Prosecutor Sae Niijima. You see... shortly before this mission to take on Sae's palace a series of deaths ended up being tied indirectly to The Phantom Thieves, your group is of course innocent, but the general public doesn't buy into that because the ways of their deaths are extremely similar to how the Thieves "steal the hearts" of their targets and their approval sinks with many calling for the group to be exposed and thrown in prison. So you try to invade the palace of the Public Prosecutor to clear your name at the request of the newest party member, Goro Akechi. However, as you already know from the beginning of the game you fail in your efforts and you were set up. In traditional fashion of these games, it warns you that things are about to get heavy and to save the game, because if you screw up the dialogue options that follow. It'sand you get one of the bad endings. Toss in a rather brilliant twist (in my opinion) and things are back on track to the present.
Now, I could keep going on and spoiling the whole entire story. But I think that's enough for me to go off and make my point in stating that while the game is filled with many tropes and isn't entirely original in it's goals, it accomplishes them in a manner that feels rewarding. If you've played a Persona game before, you can start to get an idea where this story is going they have a pretty standard pattern that works and is successful, Persona 5 is just another one in the pile. I think the important part of the story is way it handles the narrative and the pacing is very solid and reasonable. All the characters in The Phantom Thieves are pretty relatable and you start to feel and sympathize with them with relative ease. This makes for a game that pulls you in and makes you feel as if you truly are the protagonist and the ever dependable leader of the Thieves. This is no different than the feelings that I had during my time playing Persona 3 and 4; once again Atlus continues to lock it down in this department.
Story Rating: 9/10
This is your typical modern Shin Megami Tensei: Persona game. There's the world in which you do combat and questing, and then there is the social/life simulation world where you engage with your Social Links (or Confidants in this game) and build relationships that will benefit you down the road as well as develop the story of your world. Both of these concepts are well fleshed out and I don't think there was a single Confidant that I didn't end up liking in this game whereas the previous games had one or two I thought was bland.
With a large portion of Tokyo to explore, the game presents a solid variety of things to do with plenty of little nooks and crannies to explore at your own choosing. I never felt bored at all running around town, as a matter of fact I avoided using quick travel in my first playthrough purely because I loved the simple fun of running around town and living deep in the immersion as my character. I have zero complaints with the world of Persona 5, if anything I wish I could have MORE time to explore. We'll get to why I couldn't explore as much as I wanted in a little bit.
The combat is also given a refreshed vibe as they decided to introduce new mechanics as well as bring back others from previous games. They decided to throw back to the early Persona games by allowing you the ability to negotiate with shadows and recruit them into your eventual Rolodex™ of Personas. Another neat little throwback to previous games was the re-inclusion of Psy and Nuclear abilities that can be utilized by the various Personas in the game. Out of everything that has been added into Persona 5, the biggest inclusion for me is the Baton Pass. When you knock down an enemy with a move they're weak to, you can "pass the baton" to another character and allow them to attack instead of using your One More. This allows for you to chain together combos easily and quickly move in for an All Out Attack, which is a staple of the series combat. It's an absolutely marvelous way to streamline the combat and not let fatigue set in after battling through so many enemies.
Now, with all that praise, there's a decent amount of criticism that I have with the gameplay and I'm going to use a three point bullet for that:
- Railroaded Gameplay (Thanks Morgana)
- Repetitive and Boring Palaces Mechanics
- Stealth in a game that doesn't need it
In a game that showcases an interesting and vibrant world, there's nothing I hate more than having to forcibly go to bed. It's tiring and annoying. In the previous games they would have some segments they put you on rails for and you have to play though it, but it didn't ever feel this bad. I would have liked to see a status penalty a'la Persona 3 where your character can suffer fatigue from not resting at the risk of going out at night or other activities. However, until you max out a certain Confidant, you're forced to go to bed after visiting the Metaverse. There's also quite a few long story arcs where your nights are shut down as well and it just frustrates me as a player, because it makes me feel like I have to have a perfect playthough to get all the confidants maxed out before the game inevitably ends. I want to be able to enjoy more time being a teenager in Tokyo, the constant going on rails just tanks some of that value.
The next complaint is some of the Palaces. In previous Persona games, the dungeons were randomized on each floor. While this meant it was easier to deal with, it also meant more grindy feeling progression. Persona 5 tries to mix that up by having the Palaces being handcrafted and unique, this allows for stable puzzles and lore to be included. While this is great in practice, the execution leaves a little to be desired. Some examples are: The doors in Kaneshiro's Vault and having to collect the passwords to unlock them, The Rat Labyrinths in Shido's Cruiser, and the Air Locks in Okumura's Spaceport. Combined with the length of some of these palaces, and it really takes it's toll on the player's desire to finish them and actually care by the end. Some of them I just ended up trying to blaze through because I was sick of it.
Lastly, the series has never been about stealth and I see where they're trying to go with it through the thief motif. But it just doesn't really pan out as well as one would have imagined, the cover mechanic is clunky and the surveillance system is garbage. A big problem I had with the issue of getting spotted is the fact sometimes enemies would spawn right on top of you allowing for zero reaction time. There is absolutely no reason for that and it just gets on my nerves. I hate being forced out of a palace by that way, granted it only happened twice, it's was enough of a problem to warrant as a complaint.
Overall, I'm able to look past these complaints to a degree because it's still a Persona game at it's core which is enough to keep me playing even through those issues. However, as a cause of that, it's the category I'm giving the lowest score which is deserved due to how unavoidable the issues are.
Gameplay Rating: 7/10
This is by far the most flashy presentation I've ever seen in a video game. Shigenori Soejima really knocked it out of the park with the artistic direction in this game. Everything is artsy and in your face, even right down to the menu screens. There is constant animations on almost every little facet of the user interface and it's just so fun to interact with. I can recall a few times that I would flip between menus just because I loved seeing the various transitions so much. This is a golden standard and I would love to see games attempt to tackle more styles like this. It adds an extra level of pleasure when navigating the interface and never finds itself becoming boring or too much.
Costumes and character design is top notch, all of the Phantom Thieves look great and have intriguing styles that accompany them. Any time they trigger an All-Out-Attack that your team successfully wins, you get a nice victory card reflecting their personality. This small little detail makes your victory just that much more awesome compared to the previous games. Also they make for pretty good wallpapers on your computer.
View All-Out-Attack Victory ScreensClick Here
The whole game bounces around this high-contrast comic book style feeling with heavy usage of a red, black, and white color scheme. The result makes everything stand out and really catch your eye with the invasive qualities of that bright red white being contrasted with the total black. It's a pretty great way to identify the game from the others in the series. Take for example Persona 3 and 4. Persona 3 had a very subdued blue color scheme mixed in with a lot of grays and occasional green making everything feel chilly, dark, and at times quite depressing which fits in very well with the theme of the Dark Hour and the constantly recurring motif of Death and it's inevitability. While Persona 4 had a very bold predominantly yellow with a combination of colors that could only be described as retro and the 1970s'. It's gives the game a minor psychedelic appeal which is added to with the whole traveling into TVs method for dealing with shadows and dungeons. This brings us to Persona 5 where the black brings out the ideas of stealth and the red showcases the brash intensity of the rebellious Phantom Thieves, it also can hint at the idea of danger and being chased which you will get used to a lot in P5.
Overall, you could write a class on the design concepts of the Persona franchise and how they tied into both psychology and philosophy. The games have immeasurable depths in that department.
The only problem is a rather small one, and that is the clear fact that this game was originally developed as a PlayStation 3 exclusive before making the jump to be included into the PlayStation 4 development cycle. Some textures are rather sub-par and muddy in a few areas, but it isn't noticeable for the majority of the game. But it does exist and its one of the reasons I knocked it down to a 9/10 on this category. The other is that I would have preferred the game to run at 60 frames per second for the sake of a smoother presentation, however, it's not mandatory for this genre and 30 frames per second is passable. This was purely a point of personal preference. The main point that keeps things going is the performance for the PS4 version is rock solid, but the PS3 is almost as good save for resolution and screen tearing. It's a great experience for both consoles.
Design/Graphics/Performance Rating: 9/10
Where do I even begin with this one... Basically, anything feels like an understatement in my mind. Shoji Meguro has once again created a masterpiece, and it's no surprise at this point. He's easily in the upper echelons of video game composers due to his absolutely fantastic work with the Megami Tensei games. Atlus really has it good with this guy in their pocket. It's no joke when I say that the music is what originally got me into the Persona games, it's infectious and perfect for setting the tone every time.
Similar to the design, the music in Persona 5 is packaged in a highly glossed wave of smooth beats and soulful instrumentation. As always, the music in Persona is accompanied by great vocals; Lyn completely blows the roof off with the powerful jazzy voice she introduces to the music as well. Many classify the sound specifically into the genre of Acid Jazz. I'm not here to get into the specifics of what the music "technically" is. I'd rather just show you some of the game's finer examples of what makes the OST so amazing. The following songs are four that you will encounter pretty commonly throughout the game.
Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There
Life Will Change
Beneath the Mask
All of them bring forth the same essence of powerful and tasty jazz. It starts out quickly with the game's main theme of Wake Up, Get up, Get Out There just popping right out of the gate, and once those strings kick in you can't avoid feeling that groove.
The song Life Will Change is the song you will hear when you're doing the final run on a palace and attempting to "steal someone's heart". It was the very first song I ended up hearing when the game was announced via this trailer back during E3. It is just one of those songs that pumps you up and gets you going. I always look forward to doing a raid on a palace because I KNOW this song is going to play.
Beneath the Mask is the flipside to the previous two songs. It's infinitely relaxing and the perfect song for having your character wind down for the night, even if it is forced sometimes... Thanks again Morgana... *Grumble Grumble*
You all knew this was coming. You cannot have a Persona game without having a battle theme you have to listen to for countless hours of gameplay. From the same series that gave us legendary themes like: A Lone Prayer, Mass Destruction, Reach Out To The Truth, Time To Make History, and my personal favourite Wiping All Out; Persona 5's Last Surprise is just another one in the proverbial haystack of great battle music for the franchise. One unique feature of Persona 5 is you can play those classic battle themes by equipping the appropriate clothes via the DLC, so if you want to go back to the glory days the only thing holding you back is your wallet. That is if you haven't come to hate these songs already from hearing them all the time.
Music Rating: 10/10
A Final Look at Persona 5
Overall, you're looking at a game that is both simultaneously one of the best games of last generation (PS3) and the current generation (PS4) consoles. Interesting to think about, but I suppose that's one of the unique things that can happen when you have a long development cycle for a game. Fans have been waiting a long time for this, and it's completely worth the wait in every sense. Thankfully, Atlus has already begun the trademarking for a ton of Persona 5 spinoffs; so even though Persona 6 is probably a long time away we will be able to continue to get our Persona fix beyond this wonderful game.
Now for my personal opinion, it's still not my favourite in the series. That still belongs to Persona 4 Golden, that game captured my heart and is everything I want in a JRPG. Don't worry though. The difference between first and last when it comes to this franchise is negligible at best. It's like arguing which one is more perfect. The only factor that holds Persona 5 from taking 1st place on my list is truly on those gameplay complaints I listed. I really felt like those three things, especially the first two, held back the game from progressing in a flawless fashion that doesn't wear out it's welcome. But far too often did I find myself desperately wanting out of a palace because I was bored, and then not feeling like I had enough time to enjoy the city of Tokyo and my confidants due to being on the rails for the plot taking full control and Morgana refusing to allow the protagonist out at night.
Regardless of where you may stand on my few complaints, you're looking at a fantastic game that I consider a must play for fans of RPGs, not just Japanese, but Western too. This game is very accessible for new fans deciding to give the franchise a shot as well as Persona veterans. I recommend that you do not miss out on this one, you'll come to regret it down the road.
So with out further ado, let us start the game.
Persona 5 Final Rating: 9/10