When you think of Atlus, the first thing that pops most gamers is the Megami Tensei, Power Instinct or Persona. The latter is one of those Japanese niche sagas adored by its fans and completely unknown to the rest of the world until Persona 4 and soon enough its portable version on PS Vita Persona 4 Golden which was praised by critics for its dark story and rich gameplay. Now celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Persona franchise, Atlus in-house P Studio released Persona 5 in Japan last September, and it’s not until April 2017 that the game will land in the Western world on both PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. A new console, with a new engine, the game has been a challenge for P Studio, but rest assured, Persona 5 is probably the best entry in the series since Persona 4.
In the Persona games, which are technically a sub-franchise of Atlus’ Megami Tensei, demons are replaced by Personas! These creatures are the reflection of each protagonist’s own deep personalities or subconscious. Regardless of the Persona episode you may have played, the main characters are always high school students who lead a double life, bringing a lighter tone to the universe of Persona, unlike the often apocalyptic Shin Megami Tensei games.
The first episode of Persona was released in 1996 on the original PlayStation, also known as Revelations: Persona or Megami Ibunroku Persona in Japan, and unlike other JRPG series, the period between Persona releases is quite big. 20 years later, we finally play the first HD Persona game, a long 12 years in the waiting since Persona 4’s release on the PlayStation 2 in 2008. And my oh my, all this waiting has been worth it for me.
Persona 5’s story is as original as all other Persona games, scratching all sorts of clichés of the gaming industry, ditching the princess in distress to save, or even the typical millennium prophecy legend that you find in most RPGs and JRPGs. Instead, Persona 5 deals with more down-to-earth subjects such as harassment, social isolation, treason, and even darker topics like rape. The subjects evoked are deep and described with a certain realism which will emotionally touch any kind of player, and even if you have never experienced these situations, the narration and acting are convincing enough to make you feel involved as a player, but also as a human being. On that note, for those of you who are purist of Japanese RPGs, the Japanese voice-over will available as a downloadable content for free around the time of the game launch.
At the center of all these subjects is you, the player, enacted by a young student, freshly transferred to a new high school in Tokyo. Quickly enough, you discover that you can “purify” the hearts of ill-intention adults by stealing their darkest desires within their hearts, through the power of your Persona. And because “with great power comes great responsibilities”, you and a bunch of other students with similar abilities decide to join forces, turning into a vigilante group called “Phantom Thieves of Hearts ” and set off to to purify the hearts of corrupted adults in hope to put some reform order in Tokyo.
These thieves and characters all have their own certain presence in terms of personalities, with a sense of honor, turning this band of misfits into a guild worthy of the iconic gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (your first Persona is also called Arsène, so seems fitting). Whether it’s in the way they prepare for their missions or infiltration, their animations, or even how they speak to each other, you’ll feels like you’re living a darker version of Ocean’s 11, Carmen Sandiego or previously mentioned Arsène Lupin.
This duality between the difficult subjects in the game, and the lightness in these infiltration and theft sequences works perfectly. The first scenes grab you by the guts, twisting them, and call you’re your deepest emotions like a challenge to your consciousness and personality. It’s crazy how much Atlus wants you to be like the main protagonist, and fight for the injustice of this virtual world, which you are witnessing and engaging on all emotional levels. The mask and attire that our hero puts on will become Superman’s cloak and underpants, a symbol of justice, and conviction to restore order where corruption is king. It’s just simply excellent, and not even superhero games made me feel that connected before.
This duality is also reflected in the way you play the game. If you’ve never played a previous entry in the series, Persona 5 is both a role-playing game and a high school life simulation (if that’s even a genre on its own). Yes, because before embarking on dungeon looting and fighting shadows (the name of the demons in Persona), you will have to study enough to get good grades in class, join a sports or artistic club, get a part-time job, socialize with friends, and even build a relationship with a potential girlfriend. Persona 5 takes place over a year roughly (9 months to be exact), so you only have a limited number of days to complete all these tasks as well as the main storyline. And as someone that played 3 different playthrough of Persona 4 Golden, you should know that the only way for you to fully complete the game is with a New Game +, as it’s almost impossible to achieve every goal in one adventure.
While all these “life simulation” activities can be perceived as superficial or even uninteresting, you’ll soon understand that they play a major role in the core game. You will spend as much time flirting with a potential crush or doing your homework as you will fight shadows in dungeons, and that’s because success in your real life will improve your own and partners’ fighting skills! Thankfully, the dialogues are so well written that every new conversation and interaction with a character is a real pleasure to discover. Mind you, we’re not talking about predefined NPC dialogues, as Persona 5 takes relationships building to a different level, one that could put the iconic Mass Effect’s own mechanics to shame. A simple conversation with Ryuji about sports (your first acquaintance in the game) will for example, build up to learn darker secrets about the character and his track and field past, but that won’t happen unless you have decided to spend some time with him. And so, with this system, you get closer to all these characters and eventually get attached to them, in a way that few games have been able to do with me with that much sincerity.
If you noticed so far in the review, we’ve mentioned a lot the word dungeon, and that’s because it makes more sense to use it in this game than the other entries in the franchise. While the Midnight Channel different “shows” were the dungeons In Persona 4, you and the rest of the Phantom Thieves will venture into “Palaces” in Persona 5. These palaces are places in the “Other World” or parallel realm where corrupt versions of adults hide their deepest treasures, which are the root of their bad motives, and thus need to steal those items to force a change of heart in the real world.
Due to the nature of the characters’ “gentleman thieves” ater-ego, the dungeon approach are played for the first time in the Persona franchise, as a basic infiltration and stealth game. So unlike classic RPG games with randomly generated battles, you’ll have to use tables, chairs and all sorts of cover based structures to hide and ambush your enemies by surprise. You will also have to be careful to move forward without making any loud noises, to slowly get behind the enemy, to have the advantage in combat with a first strike. On the other hand, if you ever find yourself spotted by an enemy, they will alert every other one in the vicinity, and rush to you, so you better be careful not to get caught!
At first, I was worried that the infiltration part was just a simple gimmick of a mechanic that would turn quickly into repetitive and boring actions, but Atlus have done an excellent job on this front. We’re obviously not talking about the same degree of stealth game mechanics of a Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, but these phases require skill and reflex, and their success become beautiful surprise attacks.
The combat system is at first glance your classical turn-based role-playing system, but calibrated to perfection. Thanks to the clarity of the menus and ease of handling, Persona 5 is unlike any JRPGs (or Western RPG even) where you have to navigate several menus, select the action (attack, spells, etc), pick which enemy to target, before finally being able activate the action sequence. Instead, everything is directly attributed to a singular button on the PlayStation controller, and so enemies are simply selected with the directional D-pad, triangle is for Skills, X for attack, O for guard, etc. By reducing the time spent in the menus, the combat becomes almost natural, and you’ll never feel bored, even after the good 60-70 hours necessary to finish the game.
The core of these fights is to smartly exploit the enemy weaknesses, by using a type of attack or elemental skill which they are vulnerable to. Like with most RPGs, that happens with trial and errors, and also affects you and your team, as each Phantom Thief has a weakness as well, including the main protagonist. The latter’s weaknesses is based on the Persona he’s using, as you are the only one capable to use multiple Personas.
Exploiting these weaknesses on shadows will knock them down, which if done on every enemy will activate a “Hold Up” instance. During these sequences, your team circle around the shadows, and hold them up with their firearms, giving you three available options: perform a powerful team attack called “All-Out Attack”, extort money, ask for an item, or even demand its power. Because yes, in addition to being a dating and life simulator, an excellent role-playing game, Persona 5 also has a collection dimension similar to Pokémon, which is extremely addictive. Unlike previous episodes, you must negotiate the terms with the shadow, before you can convince him to join your team. This is done by answering his questions, which are usually linked to the characteristic trait of the enemy. In the end, there are more than a hundred Persona to collect and use in combat, without mentioning that you can later on fuse them together to become stronger ones.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning what is probably the best part of Persona 5: the art direction. Persona 5 is easily one of the most beautiful – if not the most beautiful – video game I’ve ever played in my life. The whole game ooze with style, with a strong and confident visual identity! The whole game is designed with these sharp and strong red and black colors, which become hypnotizing. The black of the thief and the red of the heart combine marvelously to deliver this fantastic and eccentric universe, from which I don’t want to leave.
These aesthetic and color scheme is found even in the menus of the game, and main user interface, which are surely the most stylized ever made in the gaming industry. I’ve never had that much admiration going through menu options, which also present the main character in classy poses with each selection… It’s just a beauty!
What about the soundtrack and musical themes? Composed and arranged by Atlus’ iconic Shoji Meguro, Persona 5’s OST is probably the best composition done in the Japanese musician career. There’s something for everyone, ranging from good ol’ rock, to funk, with even Acid Jazz filled heavy bass lines that are on par with Brooklyn Funk Essentials or Jamiroquai songs… I’ve had the opening theme “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” (sang by Lyn Inaizumi) stuck in my head for now a week, I have bloody goose bumps every time I hear the combat sequence song, and made the main theme my phone’s ringtone. The entire soundtrack is just sublime, quirky, innocent but also mature and serious
Persona 5 was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 promotional copy of the game provided by Atlus and Deep Silver. The game is also available on PlayStation 3 in both digital and retail stores. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published (click here for more information about our review policy).
• Great lifespan thanks to New Game+ and multiple endings
• An exciting story filled with deep topics
• One of the best Persona combat system in the series
• Quality dating sim mechanics
• One of the most original art direction
• Simply magical soundtrack
• Probably too niche or weird for some people