Platforms: PS3, PS4
Rating: M for Mature
Persona 5 has been a long time coming. The last numbered Persona game, Persona 4, was released in 2008. While multiple spin-off titles have been released, it has been almost a decade since a true sequel was introduced. Understandably, expectations are high. While Persona 5 delivers a JRPG that is massive in scope, it lacks some of the heart of its predecessors.
Spiritual Content: The Personas themselves are based on figures from myth and cultural stories. This includes Personas that are gods of other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Various iterations of Satan and archangels are also Personas. Tarot card arcana are used to represent characters and Personas and a fortune teller is a “confidant.”
Violence: While the gameplay itself involves attacking with melee weapons, guns, and magic, the story also deals with such topics of abuse and murder. Animated blood is present.
Language/Crude Humor: Sh*t is what you will hear most often. The game often avoids saying f*ck, instead using “eff,” though the occasional uncensored form slips through.
Sexual Themes: One of the villains is abusive towards women and rape is implied at one point. The protagonist can start a relationship with any of his female confidants including those who are much older than him. One confidant is also a maid whose job tends to have more of a sexual focus than a housekeeping one. The protagonist may hire her to spend time with her in a non-sexual way (though you may also start a relationship with her). The game also has two minor gay men who appear twice in the story, but many even in the LGBT community have found their portrayal offensive. Some sexualized outfits are also present.
Drug/Alcohol Use: One of the confidants spends most of her time at a bar. One of the villains smuggles drugs.
Positive Themes: The ultimate theme of Persona 5 is seeking to make the world a better place. It asks us to consider the state of the world in all its corruption, and do something about it. The game also stresses that positive relationships between people and forgiveness is key. The characters in this game are so forgiving it almost takes some suspension of disbelief. Additionally, there is one side scene where two characters fail to understand the meaning of the cross and a priest corrects them.
Persona 5 centers around the protagonist (able to be named by the player), who, after some legal trouble, is forced to transfer schools to Shujin Academy in Tokyo. Once there, he befriends several other students who later join him on adventures to the Metaverse, an other-worldly location born out of the desires of man. There are several “Palaces” in the Metaverse. Each Palace represents the twisted desires of someone within the real world. Each Palace also contains a treasure, guarded by a Shadow (monstrous) version of the real world individual. If this this treasure is stolen, then the person in the real world will have a change of heart and admit their corruption. Thus, the protagonists, having dubbed themselves the Phantom Thieves of Heart, set out to reform society by stealing the treasures of these corrupt individuals and making them confess to their crimes.
This may sound overly complicated on paper, but it plays out in an understandable way in-game. The overall theme of Persona 5 is that of social reform. This makes for a unique and deep story as the protagonists are confronted with all different types of human vices, from greed to lust to pride—the underlying theme of the seven deadly sins runs underneath everything. The game presents a meaningful story that asks its players to question what they continue to allow in their society.
Unfortunately, while the story is ambitious, it sometimes fails to make the same impact that its predecessor. Persona 4’s main theme is that of identity, with an emphasis in self-discovery. Persona 5 asks us what we’re willing to accept as a society, but makes it difficult to meaningfully answer that question. When Persona 4 asks us to consider what defines us, we could look within ourselves for the answer to that question. When Persona 5 asks us what we are going to do about organized crime, the answer is much more nebulous. Persona 4 tells us that we are able to find joy in absolute truth and identity. Persona 5 tells us that the only way to help someone suffering from abuse is to enter a magical world and change the heart of the abuser. That is just hard to relate to. While Persona 4 dealt with issues such as gender stereotypes and belonging, Persona 5 deals with things such as the aforementioned organized crime and corruption in politics, things the everyday person is unlikely to personally deal with.
Persona 5’s focus on large-scale issues is also of detriment to the characters. I don’t mean to keep bringing up Persona 4, but the comparison helps make clear where Persona 5 falls short. Almost every dungeon in Persona 4 is based around one of the main characters. What the player learns by playing through that dungeon helps develop the character in question throughout the rest of the game. In contrast, only one (two if we’re generous about who we’re calling a main character) dungeon in Persona 5 is like this. Instead, the focus of each dungeon is on one-note villains. We learn the inner workings of the these villains’ minds, but they are never seen again after their dungeon is completed, so it is ultimately pointless.
In addition, the main characters seem to have very little identity besides being a member of The Phantom Thieves of Heart. Throughout the game there are several in-game days that are just for the purpose of furthering the story or developing the characters. Some of these events such as the school trip and school festival return from past games. In past games, these scenes were just fun moments that developed the characters and gave a reprieve from the dungeon crawling. In Persona 5 however, during these events, the characters only seem to talk about whose treasure they want to steal next or how popular they are getting as the Phantom Thieves. The characters seem to have no identity beyond being Phantom Thieves. The voice actors for each character help to alleviate this issue a bit however, injecting life into occasionally bland characters.
I do not make all these comparisons to past games to harp on the game, but rather demonstrate how the story is a step down for the series. It is worth noting though, that a step down still results in a pretty engaging story. It may not have the punch that Persona 4 did but considering how lengthy the game is, it’s a testament to the quality of the story that it remains engaging the entire way.
As for the gameplay, Persona 5 is split into two different types of gameplay. Firstly, there is the dungeon crawling portion in which the protagonist and his friends explore the Metaverse and battle the enemies within. The second type of gameplay can be described as a social simulator in which the player can engage in various extracurricular activities or spend time with friends.
The dungeon crawling aspect of the game is where the titular Personas come into play. Personas are the representation of one’s ego that take on physical form within the Metaverse. There are over 100 Personas in the game to use and this is where the comparison to Pokémon is often made. You are granted the ability to fuse Personas to create new ones as well as several other “executions” to customize your them. Each Persona has its own strength and weaknesses. You will use these Personas to combat shadows in the Metaverse in turn-based battles.
In these battles, you bring three other party members with you who also have their own Personas. Once in battle, you have a variety of options open to you from magic attacks to melee attacks to guns. Your goal is to hit the enemies’ weaknesses, as doing so will grant you another turn. When done with maximum efficiency, you are often able to defeat an entire group of enemies before they’ve even had a chance to act. Should you hit every enemies’ weakness, you may choose to negotiate with the shadows and ask for money, items, or for them to join you as Personas. Be careful though, because your Personas also have weaknesses and the enemies can exploit those for the same benefits.
The Palaces themselves are now all uniquely designed as opposed to the randomly generated dungeons of games past. This is both a boon and a detriment to the game. The dungeons are wonderfully creative and evoke the feelings and symbology they are meant to express. Gone are the days of just wandering around similar looking corridors looking for stairs. That being said, there were times while I was dungeon crawling that I missed samey corridors looking for stairs. Persona 5 supplants the wandering around with a different kind of wandering around. The Palaces are littered with puzzles, but these puzzles often boil down to exploring until you discover the solution to the puzzle, then traipsing back to a specific location to use the solution. In one later dungeon, the goal is to talk to several important people. You’d find one such person on the floor of the Palace you were restricted to. You are then given a menial task. Upon completion the important person would give you the seal of approval you need. The next floor would then open to you for you to repeat the process with someone else. It may have a different coat of paint, but it’s the same thing. The unnecessary spread of save points in some dungeons do not help matters, for if you get taken out in battle, you’re sent back several minutes and forced to repeat much of the menial tasks you just completed.
The second type of gameplay Persona 5 boasts, that of school life, is what makes Persona franchise unique. For many days during the year, you will have some allotted free time. During these moments you may choose to level up your social stats such as intelligence and guts, or you may choose to spend time with your friends or locals. Doing so will develop your character as well as provide bonuses to you or your Personas. Each bond or “confidant” you forge helps prepare you further for treks into the Palaces. The social elements of the game weave seamlessly into the dungeon crawling aspects of the game. The game certainly isn’t lacking for characters or things to do after school either. You’ll often be hard pressed trying to decide what to spend your time on.
It should also be noted that Persona 5 has a wonderfully creative UI. The menus are slick and well designed. It seems like a small detail, and to a certain extent it is, but it helps the heart of the game come through, even if in just a minor way. The graphics follow suit, using a more anime artstyle and some anime cutscenes. They work well for the flashy style of the game. The music is also great. It’s a little less catchy this time around, but it serves its purpose well and is appropriate for the situation.
Ultimately, Persona 5 is a massively ambitious game, that in its ambition, sometimes loses sight of what made past games, especially Persona 4, so enjoyable and relatable.
The Bottom Line
Persona 5 is a wonderfully crafted game that is sometimes too ambitious for its own good