Persona 5 is an absolutely massive game. Instead of rushing through it to get a day one review out the door, we’ll be taking our time through what Atlus tells us could be more than 100 hours of refined, JRPG goodness. This is our Persona 5 Review-in-Progress.
As a relative newcomer who first found the series with Persona 4 Golden, I wanted to take my time, build relationships, and dig into this dark fantasy like no other – which is exactly how series veterans will tell you Persona games should be played.
More than your eyes can see
When I was 8 years old, I had a crazy idea that our eyes limited what we could see. Just maybe, the reality we knew was only so because it’s what our eyes were capable of seeing and just beyond our perception colors and creatures and whole places were twisted; the fantastic become real. Someone on the Persona team seems to have felt the same way.
Like Persona 4, two worlds exist side-by-side: the real world and the Metaverse. Whereas before you and your ragtag band of high schoolers would crawl into other worlds through their televisions, here the protagonists walk between realities with an otherworldly GPS app that mysteriously appears on their smartphones. The Metaverse is a place of mankind’s innermost realities, where perceptions becomes truth and character’s innermost hearts are worn on their sleeves to make the world around them.
There is a pervading darkness in Persona 5’s early chapters, both in the real world world and in the Metaverse, that shows no signs of slowing. Ironically, murder in the real world carries less weight than the smaller, closer to home horrors: sexual assault, abuse, and corruption. You are the quintessential “little guy,” conscripted into a metaphysical thieves guild, un-weaving the threads of fate that from the outset spell your doom. And don’t forget your social life and grades! You’re a teenager after all.
That darkness is a lively undercurrent to everything. Even when you’re doing the most seemingly mundane thing, the knowledge that inside all of these other people, palaces of shadow and wonder await is fascinating. Inside them? Shadows. Personas that await their blood offerings. Dark, violent fantasies. And surrounding it all, the inexorable chains of fate the few will ever escape.
A framed story you don’t want to miss
The storytelling is superb and is married to the game’s core mechanics in more than cursory ways. It’s not a spoiler to say that in doing a good thing, your character finds himself an outcast starting his life over again in a new city at a new school. Mysterious deaths and massacres are popping up all over the place, filling the streets with nervous chatter. You’re also the criminal burdening everyone with your very presence. The nervous chatter, because of the murders or you, breaths an anxious life into the halls and city streets.
And because the Persona team has wisely structured the story as a framed narrative where the ending is the beginning, there’s always a sense of wonder about when the other shoe will drop (continually).
What’s really striking is just how brilliant the Metaverse construct is. Persona is all about its story and characters. Since the palaces you pillage are manifestations of real world characters, the very act of engaging with the mechanics with them gives you a deeper understanding of the characters who created them and the veils they hold up to the waking world. In all my time critiquing video games, I have never encountered an RPG that so skillfully marries character development and gameplay mechanics.
The characters, so far, are likeable. It’s a slow burn, aside from one early enemy, but I’m curious to see how they grow and develop as time goes on.
Systems on top of systems
It would be difficult for any review to give you a full picture of the epic depth that Persona has to offer. On the most basic level, Persona 5 operates like other roleplaying games. You fight enemies to earn experience, level ups, and items. But there’s so much more than that.
Battles are turn-based and completely strategic. Personas, spiritual personifications of character’s innermost selves, can be called upon in battle to unleash special attacks on enemies. It’s similar to Pokemon in some ways, as different personas have different affinities. Yet, it’s also much deeper. If you use a skill-type your enemy is weak against, they’ll stagger, allowing you a “1 More” attack that can be chained for devastating effect. If you stagger all of the enemies on the field, you can trigger an “all out attack,” a super powerful assault from your entire party. There’s a skillful trade-off at play in what abilities you use also. Some require SP and others HP, which can put you at a disadvantage if overused.
Oh, and you also get a gun you can unload all at once. It’s a powerful but limited attack as ammo only replenishes in the real world.
This is all to say nothing of the fact that you’ll collect Personas as you go, eventually fusing them together to create new, more powerful versions to use in combat.
All of that is Metaverse-centric stuff. There’s a world of systems in the real world too. Developing your relationships is, as always, incredibly important. Friends become Confidants and they open up new abilities and story beats. Taking part in activities like going out to eat or catching a movie in your downtime is important bond building fare, but embracing your downtime is also important for building your non-combat stats. Like Persona games before it, P5 not only gamifies downtime activities, like studying and watching DVDs, but makes them fun and essential.
Wrapping up week one…
Persona 5 has an incredible sense of style that immediately catches the eye. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the way city-folk seem to draw in from gray cut-outs or some of the blurry, aliased textures that are clearly concessions to the PlayStation 3, but for every small criticism I could make there more things I could applaud. The painterly, colorful aesthetic. The wonderfully imaginative environments. The clear-polished cool of the battle conclusions. The many times you just have to pause and admire the wholesale art direction of this behemoth is inspiring. It all adds up to a game that is immediately memorable.
It’s early days in my Persona 5 adventure, but I’m already enraptured.