Like a lot of people, my high school days were an awkward period of my life where I was no longer a child, not yet an adult, and still navigating the world around me. Who were my friends going to be? What challenges would I face? What did I want to with the free time I had? How was I going to get through my homework and still be cool?
The high schoolers of Persona 5 are having a better time than I did. I wasn't summoning mythological demons out of my soul to do battle against the hearts and minds of cruel adults. Persona 5 is a darker, more mature take on the Japanese role-playing game than you might expect, though it's stylish all the way down. The game's menus, soundtrack, and overall vibe ooze personality. Even the game's weakest parts form a cohesive package. Night after night, I found The Phantom Thieves were taking my heart.
Persona 5 (PS4 [reviewed], PS3)
Genre: Japanese RPG
Released: April 4, 2017
Played: Completed campaign in 130 hours
Persona 5 was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
Persona 5 follows in the long shadow of Persona 4, a hardcore JRPG that gained wide acclaim for its relatable characters and engrossing plot. Like Persona 4, you play the role of a semi-silent Japanese teenage boy in Persona 5. However, the protagonist this time is a delinquent with a mystifying past, all because he stepped in to stop a sexual assault. As part of his probation, he is sent to live in Tokyo in a foster home and is expected to be on his best behavior. Things go quickly awry after he gets mixed up in another dimension that awakens his powers. To rebel against adults known to be hurting innocent people, he forms a sort of vigilante group with his classmates called The Phantom Thieves. Half of the story is told through flashbacks of police interrogations that recall his past adventures, until the present catches up. It's a cool framing device, but it can be a little clunky at times. At one point, the prosecutor asks you why a random fortune teller might be one of your accomplices. That example felt too far-fetched as a story beat to be taken seriously.
Speaking of clunky, some of the dialogue appears to be lost in translation. You can tell that a lot of the spoken lines are literally translated from Japanese. The dialogue could've been rewritten to sound more natural in English, but the general gist and characters' intentions are there. Outside of some awkward moments, you can mostly follow along.
Despite this quibble, Persona 5's greatest strength is its adult themes. For example, the first dungeon is inside the head of a teacher physically abusing and sexualizing some of your classmates. Persona 5 is a game that is unafraid to go there, and when it does, it has a lot to say about some pretty abusive situations. The villains of the story are sometimes treated with more sympathy than the heroes, though playing over the course of 100+ hours, you'll notice that everyone has their chance at a lengthy backstory. The stories of party members Makoto and Futaba are standouts for me.
Your team uses a phone app to jump into the Metaverse, a place where evil shadows lurk and prey on the perception of people in the real world. Stopping the villains requires the heroes to take the "treasure" from the palaces of the criminal's mind, essentially robbing the person of their evil and forcing them to confess their crimes in reality. Defeating the shadows requires the summoning of personas, essentially demons that look like Captain Blackbeard and...this penis in a wheelchair from Buddhist lore. This time around, the personas represent the masks we all wear day-to-day, and the main character can switch them as needed. You can also fuse personas, negotiate in battle to get them on your side, and sacrifice them to strengthen other personas.
Combat is also pretty simple, but enjoyable. Attacking an enemy's elemental weakpoints incapacitates them, earning you an extra turn. Imagine Pokemon hopped up on mythology, mixed with a little bit of rock-paper-scissors, turn-based combat. It isn't difficult on the normal setting but the game does throw some challenging sub-bosses to check your progress. Since you're playing as thieves, there's also a stealth mechanic you can abuse to ambush enemies. If you despise stealth in video games, don't worry, it's not punishing if you choose to strong arm your way through combat instead. The party members' abilities are well balanced, and the combat does encourage experimentation with different strategies.
As in other Persona games, time management weighs heavily on your daily decisions. Each dungeon has to be completed by a certain calendar date, though you are free to pursue anything that might help you get through it before the deadline. Hanging out with your confidants spends in-game time, but also grants you bonuses in and out of the Metaverse. Working at the convenience store might make you some money and improve your personality. Making a lockpick will help you get more loot, but will also eat up your afternoon. A lot of seasoned Persona players may be tempted to min-max their first playthrough to efficiently use the in-game days, but there's enough leeway to see most of what you want. Pro-tip: hanging out with the Temperance and Fortune confidants provides the most useful bonuses. Otherwise, I'd recommend hanging out with the characters whose side stories you enjoy.
Supporting this gameplay loop is the game's stylized menus, jazzy soundtrack, and confident art. In many other video games, this stuff is set dressing, but is integral to the experience in Persona 5. I could spend an entire week bumping to the game's soundtrack and gawking at its menus. It enhances the game's themes and adds a lot of color to the Tokyo setting. Looking at a subway map feels as evocative as reading a comic book. I wish every game could make the mundane as exciting as Persona 5 does.
The characters of Persona 5's cast are archetypal tropes of Persona 4 characters, both from a character and gameplay standpoint. Ryuji is Persona 5's brash mashup of Persona 4's Chie, Yosuke, and Kanji. Ann is like the model Rise mixed with Yukiko's abilities. Morgana is Teddy, Akechi is Naoto, and so on. They'll occasionally surprise you though, and yes, much of the female cast is romanceable. However, the game's handling of sexuality can feel immature. Ryuji, Yusuke, and Mishima act horny for the majority of the game, gay characters are horribly stereotyped, and every female NPC is leered at like they're some piece of meat. The audience this game is written for deserves better treatment than pubescent thinking. When Persona 5 sets the expectation that these characters are supposed to be likable, it's hard to see why the writing supports that.
What I did find likable was the creative level design in the game's dungeons. The palaces range from an art museum to a space station, and feature a surprising amount of light platforming and puzzle-solving elements. The standout among these is the casino-themed palace, though all are well done. Mementos, the procedurally generated side dungeon designed for grinding experience, is less exciting but useful if you're finding the combat difficult.
The game's story goes on for a while especially if you decide to go after the true ending, but it's hard to put down. The Phantom Thieves go from small-time crooks to leading the charge against corrupt politicians. Their journey is accompanied by in-game Internet fan commentary, which makes their struggle feel pretty modern, even if I rolled my eyes every time I saw "LOL Phantom Thieves." The game is peppered with some predictable anime tropes, so know that going in.
Persona 5's teenage saga feels like Atlus leaned into Persona 4's popularity, extracted its best parts, and took them to their logical extremes. The combination of Persona 5's systems is a blast to play through. Even when the game fumbles some of the character moments, it's a more mature RPG than most. The game's loading screens consistently flash "Take Your Time," which points to the game's overall length and thieving motif. The Phantom Thieves took my time and my heart, and I would gladly have it taken from me all over again.