Full Disclosure: Code provided for coverage purposes. The author of this editorial is friends with a team member at ATLUS, though no editorial direction was influenced by this relationship.
From the first moments of its opening cinematic played until the very last drop of its acid jazz soundtrack in Persona 5, ATLUS’ most recent entry in the Persona franchise, I found myself absolutely enthralled. Oozing with a confident style that most games can only dream of having. Its bold use of color, stylized menus and loading screens, thumping soundtrack and, most of all compelling and engaging characters make Persona 5 one of best games I’ve played in quite some time.
Originally released in Japan in 2016, ATLUS’ JRPG hit American shores in early 2017. However, I didn’t actually start Persona 5 until the end of November last year. I have this issue where if it’s not a game I’m reviewing, I have a hard time sticking with a game all the way through. I need to play something else. It’s why I’ve not fully beaten games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Kingdom Come: Deliverance, despite having 30+ hours in each of them. Persona 5 I figured initially would be much the same: a game I’d dabble in for a few days and then it would fall into the ether of my ever growing backlog.
I could not be more wrong.
During every game review or hardware review I’ve done since November of last year, there has been a yearning to get back to Persona 5. I’ve not felt a pull like that since the early days of The Lord of the Rings Online. So throughout the last year, in between game reviews and coverage assignments, I’d fire up my PS4. It was the only game I would leave running so I could just hop back in at a moment’s notice. Every game I played throughout the year has been stellar – Yakuza 6, Conan Exiles, The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth – but once I was done with those reviews I immediately felt the pull to find out what happened next to the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. That desire to play a game I knew full well would consume at least 100 hours or more of my life was something I simply didn’t expect.
So Why Is Persona 5 So Good?
From its first moments, Persona 5 assaults you with style. The bold use of red and black pops on screen perfectly with the comic book aesthetic. Every element of the games design exudes this style, from the menu screens to the loading transitions. Never before would I expect to be writing about quality loading screens by here we are. Persona 5 seeps its sense of style into every facet of design – and it all adds up to an incredibly visually stimulating experience.
It’s not perfect, however. This is, at its core, a game built for the PS3 – and as a result the technical limitations on its graphics tech are apparent. However, this is an instance where the art style more than makes up for its technical shortfalls. I never felt over the course of my 100+ playthrough that I was missing something because the character models and environments weren’t as fleshed out as you might see in a game built for the PS4 – each pixel shines with Persona 5’s incredible art direction, but it’s definitely noticeable in many instances.
Persona 5 also runs at 30 frames per second on PS4, which is a shame. Normally I’m a stickler for high frame rates in games, and indeed I’d welcome in a heart beat a 60FPS patch if ATLUS were to make one. However, this was also an area where I didn’t feel as affected by the framerate as I would in say, PUBG on console. I wholeheartedly believe my already incredible experience would be made better had it been at 60 FPS, but this is the first game in a long time where I haven’t felt the framerate limiting how I feel about a game. The more concerning area was the camera in some areas of each Palace, what Persona 5 calls dungeons. As good and enjoyable as it can be, there are some incredibly frustrating moments when your camera hangs on something or can’t quite get to the angle you want it to hit to make navigating some of the tight corridors easier. More often than not, though, exploring each Palace and the procedural generated Mementos was a joy and each Palace gave the sense of truly being a Phantom Thief, infiltrating a highly secured area in order to find someone’s treasure.
The Stories Drive You Forward
However, what really makes Persona 5 linger on my mind daily since finally beating my first playthrough almost two weeks ago are the stories it tells. There is the overarching storyline: a band of disillusioned teenagers who are cast aside by a corrupt society teaming together to affect real change in the world around them. However, the individual character stories drive Persona 5. Helping a student who’s been labeled a trouble maker and ostracized by his friends believe in something again, or befriending a loner who is struggling to come to terms with her best friend’s attempt at suicide set the stage for the many incredible stories you’ll come in contact with. Learning more about your fellow Phantom Thieves and what drives them makes each Palace more and more satisfying to complete as a team. Persona 5 does an incredibly job showing that level of camaraderie increase over the course of your playtime through the Confidant system. Spending time with your friends and help them sort through their struggles translates to a more effective group in combat later on in the dungeons. Learning what drives your teammates forward could mean the very real difference between taking a fatal blow from an enemy or a teammate taking a bullet for you.
The stories told throughout Persona 5 don’t shy away from some incredibly heavy material as well. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, suicide, mental health, corporate greed – all of these are subjects that Persona 5 handles with grace and care, never feeling heavy handed throughout. It makes the world of Persona 5 – demon summoning and talking cats notwithstanding – feel real and believable. And as a result, it makes for a more compelling narrative where I felt entranced and engaged with every word.
While Persona 5 is about dungeon crawling and acquiring more and more Personas to your collection, the social sim also plays a major role in every aspect of the experience. More often than not, games are littered with icons for you to fill your time collecting. However, those don’t typically factor into game play. Persona 5’s social simulator fully influences the dungeon crawling. Like the incredibly style of Persona 5’s presentation, nothing feels wasted. You don’t feel like you’ve wasted time because you studied for a test or took on the Big Bang Burger challenge to boost your guts. Every activity serves a greater purpose, which is refreshing in the day and age of filler gameplay in most games today.
As a result, every moment I played Persona 5 I felt hooked. All of these experiences – whether it’s running down the streets exploring Shibuya at night to helping your friend overcome the challenges society is placing in front of them come together to create one of the most complete games I’ve played in years. Gone are the days where I could spend hundreds of hours on every JRPG under the sun, but if they all were built like Persona 5, I would have no problem doing so again. Persona 5 reignited my love for traditional JRPGs, and at the same time reminded me of what video games can truly be: an outrageously endearing medium to tell compelling stories.
There is so much Persona 5 does that delights and surprises that it’s hard to cover it all. From the subtle visual cues that your skills are improving, to even just the transitions between menu screen Persona 5 is confident in everything it does. Nothing is left feel unfinished, no area of the game devoid of polish – Persona 5 is a refreshing example of a developer’s attention to detail. In a world when games are typically released lacking polish or simply broken on some platforms, Persona 5 is the antithesis of that ideal. It is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most complete games I’ve played this console generation – if not the most polished title.
In our review written by Christopher Coke back in 2017, he summed up Persona 5 thusly: “Persona 5 is a triumph of game design that stands apart from other JRPGs. RPG fans owe it to themselves to drop what they’re doing and play now. You won’t regret it.” I could not agree more. Every aspect of Persona 5 draws me back in, where most games would tire me out at 30 or so hours, I’m already 15 hours into a New Game + playthrough, eager to play through the confidant stories I missed the first time around. There are few reasons why I’d say buy a console to play a game – I firmly believe Persona 5 is worth the purchase of a PlayStation 4. It firmly has its hooks in me, in a way I never saw coming. Persona 5 completed changed my outlook on video games, almost as if I had a change of heart, and it’s definitely a game I’ll continue playing for years to come.