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Japan’s year of “shut up and take my money” gaming surges on as I’ve finally beaten Persona 5. I’ve yet to spend more than a few days away from the game since its release, but this is the rare gem that can’t be beaten less than nearly a hundred hours. The gaming industry is often under fan fire for a failure to deliver enough bang for the player’s buck. Safe to say this is not one of those instances. As a Persona rookie, I had zero idea what to expect from this new instalment and can only speak from that fresh perspective. That’s an important detail, as this game wields an intimidating learning curve that new players will have to get ready for. With that said, despite a handful of nitpicks we can save for later, Persona 5 was an outstanding introduction to the franchise.
I don’t usually love turn-based combat. Unless I’m playing Pokémon, I’d rather feel as if my heroes are actually fighting. Final Fantasy pulls it off just fine, but I’ve been relieved to see their transition towards a more high-octane style of action. Persona, on the other hand, feels very at home in the style that has players thinking three moves ahead. While other turn-based titles feel slow and clunky, Persona battles actually fly forward with some pace and excitement while you decipher ways to win in a single turn. For once, I didn’t spend my turns imagining how much cooler this would all be if I could just run around executing these commands myself.
Half Student, Half Superhero
Persona’s central dichotomy is a back and forth between netherworld, “metaverse” combat and living out the day-to-day life of a Japanese high school student. As great as the fighting is, I actually preferred my social time in the real world. The whole life simulator was way more fun than I anticipated, which left me blitzing through the stretches of action so I could get back to ramen bro-dates and quirky relationship prospects. I imagine that preference isn’t the boldest statement to experienced Persona fans but, for the many fellow rookies considering this fifth instalment for themselves, I can say it’s an interesting new thing to say you’ve enjoyed in a game. I think my official induction into Persona fanhood was when I said something along the lines of “I need to wrap up this Palace so I can get home and study.”
I didn’t happen to catch the cinematic masterpiece that was xXx: Return of Xander Cage. But there’s a moment in the trailer when American hero Samuel L. Jackson says, “Kick some ass. Get the girl. And try to look dope while doing it.” That’s more or less Persona 5’s sense of style in one quote. I imagine this isn’t new to the series, but Persona 5’s stylistic genius fills every single aspect of the game with an impressively odd beauty. Anime tends to offer a more unpredictable creativity, and Atlus has long since been a leading developer in the gaming sphere of that genre. The game’s whole atmosphere is hyperactive, retro, tastefully sexualized and, above all else, a ton of fun. Even the damn menu screens in this game look awesome. It’s odd praise, but these are the best menu screens I’ve ever seen in a game. Much like Game of Thrones, I maintain that one does not simply skip the Persona 5 intro. Go find something to do once you’ve seen it a thousand times already; hang up some clothes or something. You need to let those two minutes run. The sequence, alongside the entirety of a great soundtrack, sets the exact tone you can expect throughout your many, many hours of playtime.
Since my compliments towards Nier: Automata are leaking into everything I write nowadays, ranging from a tweet about the NHL playoffs to a work email, I may as well make this comparison while it’s actually appropriate. Nier masterfully blended and balanced tones, allowing the many emotions any human being naturally has to appear and breathe during the player’s experience. They understand that even a healthy dose of humor and unpredictable twists in tone wouldn’t compromise their dramatic vision. In fact, these touches enhance the narrative weight that earns a permanent place in your entertainment heart. Persona is, in many ways, the opposite side of that same coin. Their emotional baseline is levity, as a team driven by friendship continues to share fun times despite experiencing one tragedy after another. Persona 5’s ability to tackle some very heavy concepts, then slap a smile back onto your face moments later, is a testament to their similar understanding of human beings.
Persona 5’s greatest strength is its collection of characters. The plot itself is interesting, with no shortage of positive messages, but primarily benefits from the personalities that supercharge the premise. The group definitely achieves the coveted Harry Potter effect, in which the audience feels as if they’ve grown up and become friends with the characters themselves. Together, they unravel the mysteries behind the game’s many antagonists and explore the literal depths of human desire. There isn’t a poorly developed party member in the bunch, allowing you to simply pick and choose favorites based on what you look for in a friend.
The strong supporting cast highlights one of my issues with Persona 5, one that leads into a few others. The protagonist is well established through the reactions of others as a strong leader and endearing friend. However, he doesn’t actually receive any dialogue. Outside of short phrases to signify certain actions, the protagonist doesn’t speak at all. I’m sure that’s not a new Persona thing but, as a new and passionate fan, this was one of the game’s few elements that diluted the entire experience. Sometimes, with so much snappy dialogue flying around between the others, your main man will just sit there and get lost in the scene. In 2017, there’s no excuse for a silent protagonist in a game that’s largely based around dialogue and developing relationships. I give Link a pass. That’s just his thing, and he owns it. But for just about every other example, the mute hero is an overrated and tired trope.
The Illusion Of Choice
Allegedly, the reason for this longtime trend is to let the player feel as if they’re actually experiencing the story instead of watching some chatty lead character. But we’ve all experienced real life. And I’m pretty sure we’re usually allowed to speak and contribute in a room filled with our best friends. Sure, I never feel as if I’m actually Nathan Drake, for example. I feel as if I’m watching him. But silence doesn’t create a sense of immersion. Choice does. The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia runs his mouth more than any protagonist I’ve ever seen. That beautiful game talks your ears off. Yet I still felt as if I was in his shoes because the game allowed me to influence certain aspects of the story. And that leads into another Persona 5 problem. Most dialogue text options influence absolutely nothing. Most of them are just three different ways of saying the same thing.
There’s one game-changing “choice” that, if botched, leads straight to the bad ending. No one will choose it unless you’re a trophy hunter or some kind of sadist. That aside, Persona 5 feels like a decision-based game in which you don’t actually make any decisions. The real-world storylines wear the mask of a life simulator when, in reality, you’re just activating whatever is set to happen next. You can choose your eventual girlfriend, and whether or not you have several. That’s about it. In an ideal and theoretically programmable game, each confidant’s side story would contain dynamic sequences that give your fully voice-acted words some significance. Fallout does that, and they’ve yet to figure out how to make a doorway I won’t get stuck in.
A Long Game That Should’ve Been Longer
It’s not a long list of negatives, and my only real complaints feel more like missed opportunities. I can only imagine a version of this game, one that I already enjoyed so much, with the added element of a truly influential protagonist. Time management can also be a pain, as the game essentially holds you hostage into playing a New Game + in order to complete all confidant storylines or check out those ultimate fusions. That’s a mighty ransom for a game that takes well over 80 hours to beat once. I would’ve played it again regardless, because it’s a fun game. But now I’ve been forced to in order to find out how that double date with Makoto was going to play out. The game does emphasize the need to spend your time wisely, and I can at least say it taught me to be efficient with what I was given.
All things considered, Persona 5’s story of the Phantom Thieves is a memorable collection of quality character moments and stylish adventures. It’s one of the more complicated games out there, and newcomers will have to prepare for a ton of different mechanics and new information if they want to enjoy the full experience. But I’ve long since learned that playing Persona is worth the effort. One of gaming’s great measurements, much like movies, is how long something stays with you after the credits roll. And I anticipate remembering and replaying Persona 5 for a long time.
As a lifelong moviegoer, viewer and gamer, I enjoy any chance to talk about these passions. From reviews to theories or any fun topic, let's talk entertainment.