by Andrew Skelton (Outfoxed)
I was 17 years old when Revelations: Persona first came out for the original Playstation. After growing up with loads of wonderful RPGs on the NES, SNES, and Gameboy, Sony’s premiere console was disappointing due to the lack of the genre since it’s launch. In fact, while the console had been a day-one purchase for me, the lack of my favorite type of games was a cause of much consternation. Persona changed that for me, in one fell swoop. Issues with the game and localization aside, I spent way too much time getting lost in the mazes the game threw at me, and tried to collect as many demon cards as I could to create better Personas for my party.
Fast forward to April of 2017, and the fifth installment of the series so graciously provided to me is finally here. Delays pushed its release back several times, and many people struggled, wondering if the wait was worth it. Can Persona 5 live up to its storied predecessors? What about surpass them? Does it even do anything different the other games haven’t? These were all questions racing through my mind as I started the game up; questions I’m sure many of you also have. I’ll happily cover these questions and more, but for those of you new to the series, a brief history lesson might be in order.
Happy 20th Anniversary
Persona 5 comes from a long, storied line of games. It is a part of the Megami Tensei series of games that carry with them an illustrious 30 year history, dating all the way back to the Famicom console in Japan. While the main Megami Tensei series only has 10 games in it, there are countless other spin-offs, off-shoots, remakes, and side stories. All in all, this totals up to over 50 games, though many of these games never saw release outside of Japan.
The Persona series was actually one such side story, based originally on the high school setting of Shin Megami Tensei If… and originally dubbed Revelations: Persona. The series is currently experiencing its own 20th anniversary, which is a milestone for any company. Obviously, Persona 5 is the fifth numbered game in the series, but like its parent franchise, there have been several additional games released in the series, including sequels, remasters, expansions, and more.
Setting the Stage
Like most Persona games, the mood is set almost from the beginning. It’s dark. It’s depressing. It’s downright oppressive, really. The stylish, almost over-the-top opening scenes give you a good sample of what the game is going to be about. It’s through these events we learn more about what drove the nameless main character to thievery and vigilantism. The story connects you immediately to the fate of the main character. It also sets the story for the rest of the game — imprisonment and struggle are the core factors that should draw your attention.
After losing everything due to no fault of his own, you’d expect this nondescript high school student to just put his head down and go about his daily life to avoid drawing attention to himself. This is a Persona game, though, and that’s not going to happen. Oh, sure, you still have to guide him on a normal life of being a student, making friends, taking tests, and dealing with horrid rumors. You’re playing a hero though. In addition to your daily life, you’ll also need to investigate the corruption that got you in this situation in the first place. With your teammates at your side, you’ll deliver a unique brand of justice to ne’er-do-wells: stealing their most precious of treasures, and force them to confess their crimes.
Because You’re A Wanderer
The controls in Persona 5 make sense; they are not configurable though. A relatively minor point, for sure, but for some people this can be a deal breaker. That aside, the controls are very responsive, though talking and interacting with things will take some precision. Sometimes you need to face a person or an object just so in order to interact with them. As you wander the town, you can talk to various people, or listen in on other people’s conversations. Most of the time this is just for flavor, but you can learn about various additional activities or shopping potential simply by paying attention to everyone around you. Best of all, you can quick travel to anywhere you’ve unlocked quickly, meaning if you don’t want to wander around Tokyo all day. I mean you can, but you don’t have to.
Having solid controls really comes in handy when skulking through the dungeons in the game, too. While not a true stealth game, many benefits come from sneaking up on your enemies before engaging them, which will be discussed in the near future. You’re also given access to a skill early on that highlights treasures and clues to progress, so you’ll want to make use of that whenever you get stuck. Plus, given the stealthy, thieving nature of the party, you can use the environments to sneak past enemies if you don’t want to fight them at all.
If you’ve played previous Persona games before, you know all about analyzing enemies in battle. The option for one touch scanning of weaknesses is once more available in Persona 5, but a brand new addition has also been added: the ability to one-touch access skills that target those weaknesses. Some may consider this a bit of a dumbing down, but I’ve found it to be an incredible quality of life improvement across the board. It allows for faster battles, and a much more seamless flow throughout the game.
Confidants in Confidence
Introduced in Persona 3, one of the defining of the Persona series are the Social Links. Simply put, these are bonds you form with others, and each is represented by an aspect of the major arcana in tarot decks. As you spend time with them, you develop your friendship, learn more about their backstory and motivations, and in some cases, can even develop a romance. In Persona 5, they’re referred to as Confidants; slick, given the theme of the game. They also possess major utility for the player character beyond simply interacting with the world this time around too.
First off, your allies are all part of this social network. Increasing the rank of their link will provide several combat benefits, such as following up on your attacks when you fail to knock an enemy down, allowing an additional negotiation attempt when trying to talk with demons (more on this later!), helping other party members recover from status ailments, and more. One brand new feature it introduces to the series is the Baton Pass command. This allows you to transfer the extra turn you get when hitting an enemy weakness to someone else. It also provides an increase to damage or healing for that action. Some skills even gain an even greater bonus after the pass, too, so this simple addition has a wide variety of applications.
Also new for the series is giving non-combatant social links significant bonuses for the team. There are way too many to list here, but some of the more important ones include being able to purchase SP restoration items (SP being the equivalent of magic points), receiving extra gains on future social link development, unlocking additional time to spend throughout your day, and access to cheaper and more powerful pieces of equipment. This really steps things up from Persona 3 and 4, where Social Links were only responsible for giving your Persona fusions more power.
Not One but TWO Dungeons, Ah Ah Ah!
At the crux of any RPG are the myriad of dungeons one encounters. Persona 5 offers two different styles this time around. The game’s story dungeons, referred to as Palaces, are static, unlike the previous two games in the series. In order to progress with the plot of the game, you’re going to need to go through them completely. In addition to scores of enemies, each Palace has several unique puzzles specific to that dungeon. Your main objective is to secure a route to the villain’s prized treasure and figure out the best way to take it from them. It would have been easy to make these dungeons short and sweet because of their story-based nature, but instead, these dungeons tend to be quite long. Thankfully, several safe rooms exist throughout each, giving you a place to save, and change party members if you desire. One change to keep in mind about Palaces, though: once cleared, you can never go back. Make sure you’ve claimed all the treasures lying around before you decide to challenge the boss!
For fans of the random dungeons of Tartarus in Persona 3, and the Shadow Worlds of Persona 4, fret not; Persona 5 offers you Mementos. Mementos are randomly generated dungeons whose layout changes every time you enter it. You’ll receive a good portion of side quests to travel through Mementos to solve various problems NPCs are having too, and it makes a great place to go for money and experience if you ever feel you’re lacking in either. There are tons of floors in Mementos, but keep in mind it’s gated by story progression, so you can’t do everything at once (for very, very good reason).
Fighting the Good Fight
Combat is a major part of Persona 5, and there’s no getting around that. From the very beginning of the game, you’re asked to select a difficulty. For first time players to the Megami Tensei series, I’ve no problems recommended the easiest difficulty of Safety. You see, the Megami Tensei games have a certain reputation of being brutally difficult until you learn how to exploit your enemies and their weaknesses. Normal difficulty here is what hard difficulty might look like in a regular game. That being said, pick whatever you want! You can also downgrade the difficulty if it’s proving too much for you, but once you’ve progressed too far in the story you won’t be able to up the difficulty.
There are no random encounters in Persona 5. Ideally, you sneak up behind the opponents while navigating to initiate combat. This gives you the major advantage of a free turn for you and your allies before the enemies act. Since this is a turn-based combat system, normal turn order is dependent on everyone’s respective agility stat. Taking out opponents quickly is crucial as the brutal enemy AI has no hesitation on ending you quickly — and if the main character falls, it’s game over! By exploiting elemental weaknesses (eight in total, with nuclear and psy damage making a comeback along with physical and gun damage), you knock them down and get another attack. Knock all your opponents down and you get the chance for an all-out attack, dealing massive damage to every opponent in a super stylish combo. You can also enter negotiations with downed demons, which will have them give you money, an item, or if you can successfully deal with their questions, receive their power as a new persona. Why would you want more to choose? Outside of additional elemental coverage, demons are also used in Persona fusions, which will be explained later.
Boss fights, as you can imagine, are significantly harder. They have more health, do more damage, and are offer the greatest challenges to overcome. Persona 5 adds one more idea to the boss battle formula though: every story boss has some sort of gimmick to take advantage of. As the fight rages, options will open up to you to somehow weaken the boss through cunning tricks. Selecting the right character for the job gives you a massive damage boost. Be careful, though! Choosing the wrong option will cause the ruse to take longer or even to fail completely. Think about each boss and what they represent, and act accordingly.
Mementos bosses come from the side quests you pick up throughout the game. They take the form of regular demons, but many don’t share the same weakness or affinities their counterparts do. Defeating them unlocks special treasures from mundane to amazing, some of which can unlock brand new Personas to use, too!
Can You Afford Anything but the Best?
Outside of leveling up your characters, which increases their maximum HP and SP, equipment is one of the biggest means of making your party stronger. Every single party member has a unique weapon type to use (every weapon they can equip looks different too — a nice touch indeed). In addition to power and accuracy, weapons can also have additional effects, like a low chance to inflict burning on an opponent when hitting them, or granting an increase to one of your primary stats. Armor is similar in that regard: while it grants you increased defense and evasion, it can also provide additional strengths like elemental and status protection.
One piece of equipment making a return from Persona 1 and 2 are guns. While Persona 3 took a different route with firearms, they were lacking completely in Persona 4 outside of one spoiler-iffic villain. Guns in Persona 5 tend to be much stronger than normal weapons, but at a cost: you have limited ammunition once inside a dungeon. While refilled whenever you leave, strategic usage inside a Palace or Mementos level is what counts the most. Again, every party character has a unique firearm, and they also range widely in execution. For example, the main character’s gun hits one enemy, but another character fires at random targets.
Finally, there are accessories. Like weapons and armor, accessories provide a wide variety of bonuses to your characters. These also stack with your gear, too! You can use accessories to shore up weaknesses, balance out attributes, protect from statuses, or even increase their chance to critically hit an opponent (which functions similarly to hitting their weakness). There are also plans for a wide variety of character costumes which are cosmetic in value, but can add some variety to your dungeon delving experience, if only visually.
This Ain’t Your Father’s Fusion Dance
Like Persona 3 and 4 before it, the main character of Persona 5 is the only one who can use multiple Personas. The rest of your allies are locked into theirs for the rest of the game (though you might be able to upgrade them if your friendship is strong enough). How do you gain new personas, you ask? Well, I touched on negotiation earlier. There’s also another way: Persona fusion. The simplest way to describe fusion is this: take a demon; take another, different demon; smash them together and ta-da, brand new demon. Obviously, it’s not quite that simple — there are fusion charts, calculators and more on the Internet that determine which Persona you will receive as a result of the fusions you do. When you fuse two Personas together, you also inherit their skills on the new one, based on the skills it can learn. There are limitations through fusion. Fiery demons won’t learn ice skills, for instance. There are ways around that through the use of skill cards. Later in the game, you’ll receive these cards that add the specific skill to any Persona. This allows you to completely customize your favorite persona. Popular builds include all-element personas to ensure you’re never without an element to exploit, buffing and debuffing personas (super helpful against bosses), and many more.
There are further Persona fusion methods unlocked during the course of the game, too. Many rare or unique Personas can only be fused through the combination of three or more specific ones. These Persona tend to be far more powerful than what you can get at that point in the game, so it’s worthwhile to try and develop these when you can. You can also eventually unlock a feature that will allow you to train away a Persona’s weakness. This is a huge benefit to ensure your opponents can’t exploit your weaknesses like you’ve hopefully been doing to them. You can even use Personas you don’t need to fuse to enhance the strength of your favorites. This results in a sum of experience, and the ability to inherit even more skills that weren’t gained during the initial fusion.
Given the massive number of demons in the game, the Persona Compendium will quickly become your best friend. By registering them in the compendium, you can summon any persona inside by paying a modest fee. Skillful use of this while fusing will vastly increase your main character’s strength. Any time a Persona is different than what’s saved in the compendium, you’re given the option to update, but there may be strategic sense in not always registering every single difference.
Music to Soothe the Savage Beast
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the music of the game. Shoji Meguro once more delivers an astounding score. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Shoji Meguro has been the composer for every Persona game save for Persona 2. He’s known for fitting his songs to match the mood presented by the story. For Persona 5, this means a nice blend of Japanese pop, some jazz and blues, and some frantic alternative rock where appropriate. Songs fit the mood of the scenes with amazing accuracy, and it’s not uncommon to be humming/whistling/singing along well after you’re done playing for the day.
The art direction of the game also fits the oppressive themes of the game. It’s dark and gritty, with glimmers of color and hope splashed everywhere. The dark lines and shadows make everything pop and come alive, and even the loading in of NPC assets as nondescript figures until you get closer makes a lot of sense for the game. Skill and spell animations share equally into this, giving a nice showy effect, without being so over the top. The demons themselves have been given some graphical touching up due to the graphical power of the console, and the effects when Personas are summoned really fit the mystical side of the game.
But Wait, There’s More!
I’ve done what I could to cover the core experience of what Persona 5 has to offer, but there’s even more that just doesn’t fall under the basics. For example, the main character has five attributes that you raise through various activities. These are required for various events, social links, and assorted checks across the game. You raise them in many different ways: books, part-time jobs, and soaking in the bath house (just to name a few). As expected, part-time jobs even give you extra money to help partially fund your expeditions into the Palaces and Mementos. There’s even batting cages with a simple minigame you can enjoy for fun. You can even access online features that show you how other players of the game have spent their day (a fun little social experience itself).
Since the game takes place in Tokyo, many landmarks and locations are also well represented.. Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Akihabara all exist in the game, and their eccentricities are all shown off. People are everywhere, too, mulling about, looking at their phones, talking to friends, and the like. Even if you can’t interact with most of them, it adds a ton of flavor. There’s even ambient chatter you pick up on from no one in particular that creates a game world that feels alive and vibrant.
Final Verdict: Excellent (5/5)
Now, I freely admit to being a bit biased when it comes to the Persona series, and Megami Tensei in general. That aside, Persona 5 does a lot of things right. Its aesthetic is great, the tone of the story really draws you in emotionally, and mechanics are all very much spot on. Despite it being close to 10 years for a true numbered sequel to arrive, I assure you it’s been well worth the wait. Even with the changes and improvements, the game has also managed to retain a semblance of difficulty like most Megami Tensei games. The difficulty does gradually even out, especially as you develop stronger persona and recruit more teammates — I found that by the third main dungeon I was able to efficiently deal with everything thrown at me.
If you’re looking for a solid, engrossing experience that’s certainly no slouch when it comes to time investment (80+ hours for a first playthrough is average!), and are in need of a satisfying Japanese RPG, you owe it to yourself to check out Persona 5. From dating sim to stealth to random dungeons, the game does a lot, but most importantly, it does them well.