Persona 5 is the best Japanese RPG in over a decade

By Alex Donaldson, Wednesday, 29 March 2017 17:00 GMT

After many delays, Persona 5 is here. It was worth the wait.

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Persona 4 was a particularly special game, but it’s hard to really put my finger on why. It’s one of those classic occurrences where the stars just seem to align – the right game, starring the right characters with the right style at the right time. Persona 4 perhaps didn’t quite get that last part right, a PS2 title released a good two years after the PS3 had launched, but much about that game was near-enough perfect.

“Persona 5 is a seminal Japanese RPG, one that I’d safely scribble as an addition to the list of genre-defining greats such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII.”

Here’s the shocking thing about its sequel: Persona 5 is even better. I didn’t think it was doable, but Atlus and SEGA’s P Studio has done it. The result is a seminal Japanese RPG, one that I’d safely scribble as an addition to the list of genre-defining greats such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII. And, wow, yes – just typing that felt a bit nuts.

We’re eight years removed from Persona 4, and after a multitude of spin-offs and expanded rereleases Persona 5 is the clean break the series needs: a new cast, a new city, a new tone. The latter is the most important of those points, for while this game features many of the typical Persona tropes such as the Velvet Room, a transfer student joining a new school and the existence of another world populated by demons the game takes a different turn. It’s very different from the special anime super kids tone of Persona 3 and the Scooby Doo style supernatural murder mystery antics of Persona 4. Bear with me, since I know the description is a cliche, but Persona 5 is surprisingly dark.

Persona 5’s setting is Japan, but it’s a side of Japan rarely exposed in games of this type. The previous Persona games had their heavy moments but were generally simple stories about growing up and making friends, but Persona 5 is primarily about the underbelly of Japan. It’s about systematic abuse that is nigh impossible to escape from and about societal pressures that ruin lives or suppress personalities. It’s an interesting choice, because all of the archetypal anime stereotypes and cute little moments are also present, but they’re mingled with and set in stark contrast to many of the game’s overall themes.

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It works, and the end result is that it feels like Persona 5 has something to say. This is pretty rare in games in general and in games out of Japan. I can think of a few, such as flashes of politicking in Yakuza, Metal Gear’s military posturing and Ace Attorney’s message on Japan’s justice system in the final act of its fourth game, but Persona 5 runs with this in an unexpected way and with incredible confidence.

It’s impressive that the developers were able to find a balance in tone between shadow world dungeon-crawling adventures and the harsh reality of the darker side of life. Quickly the game throws this all at you: you’re a criminal and rejected by society at large, and your new school hides large-scale physical abuse at the hands of a teacher. One of your first friends is under pressure to begin sleeping with him. There’s an attempted suicide. It’s all rough – but you can do something about it.

The set-up is this: your newly discovered super powers can be used to ‘change the hearts’ of evildoers, forcing them to suffer a terrible realisation of their actions and ultimately confess their crimes. This begins with taking down a corrupt teacher at school out of necessity but quickly unfurls from there into a sprawling storyline. Your characters become Robin Hood figures, criminals who target criminals and the corrupt.

Changing hearts involves heading into a shadowy reflection of Tokyo and infiltrating a representation of your target’s malicious desires. The corrupt teacher envisions the school as a castle of which he is king, and the shadow version of the school reflects that. Within these segments Persona 5 is most traditional, offering up a fully turn-based battle system that proves combat like this doesn’t have to feel slow and outdated. Where Final Fantasy has experimented with auto battle driven hyper-speed turn-based combat and more Western-inspired action-based combat across its two last single-player entries, Persona instead focuses down on traditional turn-based mechanics but with a streamlined control system that helps to make fights smooth, snappy and engaging.

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“As you learn how the game functions you can accelerate the pace of combat significantly for most encounters.”

The key change here is that each major action is mapped to one of the PS4’s face buttons, doing away with the need to scroll through stodgy menus in order to find the move you want. Persona 5’s menus look eclectic and a little confusing at first glance, but the UI is actually incredibly smartly designed with button function clearly very carefully considered indeed.

After a few hours you’ll know its stylish menus inside out and you’ll be comfortable rapidly firing your way through combat with confidence. It never quite feels right that you can make a turn-based JRPG feel this fast, but as you learn how the game functions you can accelerate the pace of combat significantly for most encounters. When you need to step back and take a breather to think, the game is accommodating of that too.

The basic combat systems are pretty much traditional Persona, with the same old emphasis on elemental strengths and weaknesses, critical hits, all out attacks and so on that the series has had for years. Small tweaks and additions enhance these systems, mind – random demon draws are now replaced by ‘demon negotiation’ where you try to persuade a persona to join you, while the new baton pass mechanic adds yet another wrinkle to widen up combat options and make things even more speedy. It slices clean through a lot of the methodical plodding that dogs many turn-based combat systems as they wear on. The end result is sublime.

If you’re unfamiliar with the titular Persona mechanic, here’s what you need to know: it’s a bit like demonic Pokemon. Persona are demons in the shadow world and they’re the source of your power, with your equipped persona changing your available move set. New Persona can be caught in dungeons or created by fusing other persona together, and each persona falls into a category based off one of the tarot arcana.

This all plays back into another key area of the game, relationships. Formerly social links and now known as confidants, these are characters who befriend the protagonist, each also aligned with one of those tarot arcana. Your guardian is The Hierophant, while a corrupt doctor you can befriend is Death. An alcoholic journalist you can get to know is The Devil – what are you trying to say, Atlus?

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As you get to know these characters better your rank in that arcana rises, and the higher your rank the better the persona you’ll be able to create within that arcana. Confidants also provide additional bonuses as you further your friendship – the doctor will offer more medicine types and discounts, for instance. This isn’t all about the bonuses, mind: the confidants all have their own unique backstories that are well worth seeing, and a large part of the driving force of progress in this game is learning more about the colourful cast of characters that surround you.

“Making you truly care for its characters has always been one of the strengths of the Persona series, but for the first time it feels like these characters have been paired with a story that has something more to say.”

Key to the Persona formula and still present here is the fact that time is limited. You can’t just grind out each confidant relationship – each in-game day only allows time for a couple of actions, so you’re forced to make hard choices about who to spend time with. Confidants also have to compete with other interests: there are side activities you can undertake for fun or to increase stats like Knowledge, Kindness, Guts and so on (and these stats govern some speech checks), plus dungeon crawling must also take place within the same time-constrained calendar. Passage of time is based on actions taken rather than an in-game clock, so you’re never rushed, just torn. This works as well here as it has in previous games – that is to say, excellently.

Splitting your time between dungeon crawling and character time is always a difficult choice – combat is fun, but the characters are also fantastic. The core cast of the playable ‘Phantom Thieves’ make for a compelling ensemble, a group of characters united more by the fact they’re all outcasts from society above anything else. They develop convincing relationships, and the supporting cast is similarly excellent. Solid localisation work backs all this up, and some smart decisions such as finally jettisoning the Japanese honorifics from the English voiceover make everything feel a little more natural for the West.

Making you truly care for its characters has always been one of the strengths of the Persona series, but for the first time it feels like these characters have been paired with a story that has something more to say. The localisation and writing both deserve praise, for the game trades in a wide variety of tones from the cute to the absurd to the harrowing and all are treated properly. This is a game that made me laugh out loud in one story sequence and deeply uncomfortable in another with ease.

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When the time comes to hit a dungeon, they come in two different forms. Story dungeons are hand-designed ‘Palaces’ that represent a target’s malicious nature – there’s the teacher’s castle, while a mob boss makes his shadow lair within an enormous bank that holds his ill-gotten gains and so on. Each dungeon has unique mechanics – the bank has a neat little safe lock based puzzle and working security cameras. Stand-out visual designs for each top the unique feel off. This is a stark contrast to old Persona games, where dungeons were randomly generated affairs with only the visuals changing.

The dungeons are themed as palace heists, and this theme is used to the maximum with each one leaning into heist movie tropes gleefully. There’s a stealth mechanic that is fiddly and sometimes frustrating as a result of this, but the structure of the game is changed for the better. Each dungeon must be ‘cased’ with one complete run-through to track down your target before you return on another day ready to execute the actual heist. When you do, the game swaps out the regular dungeon music for a more thrilling track that runs uninterrupted to get the blood pumping.

As an aside, Persona 5 is full of experience-making little touches like this, such as how the excellent acid jazz soundtrack subtly changes when it rains. The game’s theme of imprisonment and breaking your chains is ever-present, and there’s some really wonderful touches in framing where often chains of some description are visible in shot even in the most mundane of places. This is a game where in fixed camera angle scenes people clearly thought very carefully about shot composition.

The randomly generated dungeons of Persona tradition also return in the form of Mementos, an always-open optional dungeon that grows as the plot progresses and is home to side quests, sub-bosses and grinding – but the truly exciting stuff is restricted to the game’s lavish story dungeons.

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Lavish is probably a good word for Persona 5 in general – it’s a game that has a sense of style and identity that is impressively strong and rarely seen. At first its menus might seem a little over-the-top and try-hard, but soon enough you’ll see how they channel the lifeblood of the game with their quirky style. Just when you think you’ve seen everything you’ll discover something new: a new side activity, a new little nook or cranny of the surprisingly well-realised microcosm of Tokyo or a hidden development in the story of a character you’ve come to love.

“It’s unrelenting in all ways, from how it constantly evolves and builds on its ideas through to how absolute and uncompromising it is in executing on its vision, message and style.”

This is an 80-plus hour game, but that adds to one of the most shocking things about it: it never feels stale and it never slows down. It’s unrelenting in all ways, from how it constantly evolves and builds on its ideas through to how absolute and uncompromising it is in executing on its vision, message and style. There are problems here and there such as that bloody annoying stealth cover mechanic, some dud localisation spots, a few late-game under-developed characters and an uninspired end-game combat gauntlet, but these issues are few and far between.

In an era when some have worried that the traditional turn-based Japanese RPG can’t stand up against some of the sprawling open-world epics from the West, there is Persona 5. It stands and says: no. It’s okay to be turn-based if you make it fast and fun. It’s okay to toy with anime archetypes if you build a compelling and real story around them. It’s okay to constrain the focus in some places in favour of excessive polish in others. It’s okay to be traditional – so long as that tradition is tempered with ambition and vision. It has all of that. It has a lot more besides.

Persona 5 is one of the best Japanese RPGs in many years and recalls the genre’s golden age. It’s a very special game indeed.

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