“Don’t look at me like that,” Persona 5‘s hyper-stylish pause menu tells me, the protagonist’s hand having slapped the screen and the options menu popping up. But I can’t help but look at Persona 5. So gorgeously constructed is it you’re mesmerised by every pixel of craftsmanship flair. It’s impossible to look away.
Don’t look at me like that. Body pressed into the darkness of a corner you watch the shadow guard moving away; you swiftly slide through cover drawing closer; with a tap of the face button you leap at them, pulling their mask off, their gooey form drooping to the floor, the words “ambush” jumping out of them, you’re already in the battle with your upperhand With the enemies dispatched, the protagonist takes off in a gentle run, between his posing teammates, the loot and experience flashing across the screen; he slows his jog down, and you’re right back where you were in the dungeon.
Hours pass in Persona 5 without you realising, so hypnotised are you by the sheer joy of looping between them, each giving their own distinct flavour of pleasure.
It’s not just the dungeons that feel so swish — moving between areas with their brief loading screens of commuters, tapping your train pass to exit the station, even every damn menu in the game. It’s almost overwhelming how beautiful everything is. Look up the word “slick” in the dictionary and what will you find? Uh-oh, it’s the Persona 5 protagonist, reaching out of the book with his hand, saying “don’t look at me like that”. The soundtrack too, is just about one of the best and catchiest things ever, providing a lovely gel that makes it all come together.
It’s a game wholly aware of how it presents itself, and the importance of not only having fantastic systems, but systems that mechanically all slot together just so to keep the whole thing moving at a rapid fire pace. Hours pass in Persona 5 without you realising, so hypnotised are you by the sheer joy of looping between them, each giving their own distinct flavour of pleasure. No compromises.
Persona 5 steps away from the smaller towns and communities of the previous settings, this time throwing you right into the thick of Tokyo itself. The same goes for the main protagonist too (code-named “Joker” after the gang gets together). Having been stitched up for assault defending a woman on the street from a harasser, he now has a criminal record, and has been forced to move from his hometown, joining a school in the heart of Tokyo and living in the attic of his new fake dad’s coffee and curry shop (he’s a family friend, and yes, coffee and curry is an actual thing in Japan).
Persona 5‘s story is dark from the get-go.
It’s on your way to your new school that you bump into Ryuji, the typical headstrong tough guy with a heart of gold, and the both of you end up accidentally coming across a huge castle where the school should be. You’ve stumbled onto a Palace, a product of the other world that lies parallel to our own, where twisted desires of particularly nasty individuals reshape the world. It’s all part of some shared psyche — the anguish of the punished students within, victims of abuse, are made manifest.
Persona 5‘s story is dark from the get-go, and also very mature. The character writing is as strong as you’d expect — these feel like real young adults with their own individual problems and personalities. This time, though, some of the dark sides of humanity they’re forced to go up against surpass those of the other games. Things in this city are denser, more complicated.
The game’s dungeons are a series of elaborate mind heists through some of the worst minds Tokyo has to offer.
Using their new-found Persona powers, the rag-tag team of teen friends are able not only to enter into people’s “Palaces”, but also to steal their hearts. This, linked to their soul, will crush their ambitions, and generally cause them to confess their crimes in the real world. Essentially, the game’s dungeons are a series of elaborate mind heists through some of the worst minds Tokyo has to offer. Each palace is designed to match the themes of the story and its owner.
This isn’t just set dressing either, but the way you work through and interact with the palaces is all pinned down by these themes. One stand-out is a casino that highlights how the justice system can often be stacked against people who can’t game the system. It feels like not just a struggle through a dungeon, but against the casino’s systems themselves. Each Palace feels completely unique, and stands out in its own way. Wanting to see who you’ll need to take on next, and what form their palace will take, will keep pushing you on to the next challenge.
Some of the most well designed dungeons in any JRPG ever.
Because yes, the dungeons in Persona 5 feel more robust than ever. These are some of the most well designed dungeons in any JRPG ever. They don’t feel like lightly decorated corridors or maps, but fully constructed and built environments. The first Palace takes the form of a castle, and sees you scaling spiralling towers, leaping across chandeliers, looking for hidey holes and secrets that contain treasures — all while avoiding and jumping patrolling shadow knights. There’s a huge amount of interactivity to the areas, like slinking from cover to cover in the game’s brand new stealth system, or interacting with objects to, say, jump up on top of a shelf and wiggle through a hidden and optional vent.
The battle system incorporates all of the best elements from the rest of the series, literally to a degree, as Nuclear and Psychic attributes are back from the first two games. And that’s not all, thankfully full-on demon enemies and negotiations are back too. Don’t fret, though — this version of negotiations are the simplest and easiest to understand yet.
Once enemies are knocked down from a critical hit or a weakness, you can hold them up, choosing either to use an All-Out Attack to hopefully finish them off, or negotiate with them. You can squeeze them for items or cash, or try and forge a contract with them to welcome the Persona into your heart. Equally, the Velvet Room’s Persona-fusing functions have been given a fresh coat of paint too — it’s never been easier to see which combinations will yield what, and exactly which skills will be inherited.
Encounters can drop like flies as you whizz through the Palaces.
But the tweaks to the battle systems don’t just pile new stuff on, they also improve the battle flow immensely. Knocking an enemy down gives you a bonus attack, a “1 More” as you’d expect, except now you can “Baton Touch” with an ally you’re friends with to pass that extra move on. This allows you to quickly control the flow of the battle, chaining together attacks all the enemies are weak against, and swiftly finishing them off with an All-Out Attack.
Couple this with the new ability to tap a button to have Morgana (the lovable cat mascot of Persona 5) recommend a move to use against enemies that they’re weak against — providing you’ve already discovered it of course — and encounters can drop like flies as you whizz through the Palaces. The game has a distinctive rhythm that’s hard to shake, and only really begins to wobble when you encounter roadblock enemies that have no weaknesses to finesse and that you do have to hit your head against. Still, even these can be rumbled with careful attention to critical hit rates, and by getting the jump on initiating the encounter.
Confidants can feed back into the game in a much more direct way than ever before.
The Baton Touch is a low-level benefit of having someone as your “confidant” — the new version of the Social Links introduced in the third game that became a hallmark of the series. Now even the non-party confidants can feed back into the game in a much more direct way than ever before. Some, for instance, allow you to retry failed negotiations, or perhaps highlight the best choices; another grants you access to some very useful accessories; one lets you skive off in classes to perhaps read a book, or secretly craft lock-picks under your desk. A lot of these you’ll need to come across on your own by exploring the districts of Tokyo.
Tokyo is built out into specific, focused areas, as opposed to being an open world. But they’ve used that opportunity to dive in and make these areas feel super detailed and lived in, from stooped salary men making their way to work by Shibuya Crossing, to the quiet streets of Yongenjaya at night and the street corner gossipers. You can unlock more locations as you go on, and take the train between them, coming across more shops and quirky characters as you do.
Underneath Tokyo lies Mementos — a Palace of the shared consciousness (you see, only the worst of the worst get their own, specific domain). It’s a labyrinth of spiralling subway tunnels that you explore by way of Morgana transforming into a Totoro-esque catbus. Mementos plays home to some sidequests, and is the perfect place to level up and find treasures.
Don’t be fooled by thinking Mementos is optional though, as the game does require you to reach the bottom at some point. While this can be sped through late in the game, it’s best played dipping into a bit at a time. As is just about every facet of Persona 5 — rather than feeling like segmented chunks of game, it’s in the blend, just like Sojiro’s coffee, that makes the flavour truly gush out.
The English localisation’s script is really good, doesn’t pull any punches, and does a great job at carrying across the spirit of the Japanese version. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it seemed pretty faithful to the original. For the most part the English dub is spot on too, though as always it might take a little getting used to for those who have played the Japanese. Special shout outs go to Ryuji (Max Mittelman) and Sojiro (Jamieson Price), whose English voices I came to love in particular.
Some of the smaller roles feel like they were recorded much more quickly, and the audio mix itself leaves a little to be desired in places – but overall it’s well done and in-keeping with the Japanese version. Also, the Japanese voice-over will be available as free DLC to keep everyone happy. The Japanese voice acting? Also pretty excellent.
JRPGs will never be the same again.
It’s no secret that Persona 5 has undergone a whole lot of delays. But there’s no question that every second Persona 5 has been in development has been spent tweaking, perfecting, refining — resulting in what may very well be the perfect, distilled manifestation of not only what a great Persona game can be, but any JRPG or game. The bar has been changed. Gripes you might have with JRPGs have been utterly addressed.
“Perfect” isn’t a word I throw around often — there’s obviously no such thing as true perfection — but Persona 5 is just about the best example of a perfect JRPG. Every idea, every system, every grain of thought has been perfectly boiled down into a flawless reduction. JRPGs will never be the same again.