Persona 5

Japanese Level (i.e. Should I import?) – Persona is not a title to be taken lightly. While those with a conversational level of Japanese could probably work through it, a lack of furigana and several instances of more specific technical terms related to technology, legal issues, science, etc. may see them lost. That said, a log is always available if you wish to pause a scene to see exactly what was said.

Atlus is in full anniversary mode at the moment, with 2017 being the 30th year since the first Megami Tensei title was launched, and the 25th celebration of the branching Shin Megami Tensei series. 2016 was a big year for yet another spin-off – the series of Persona titles reached 20 years, and it was celebrated in a big way with the release of Persona 5. Interestingly, this is the first main title in the series to completely cast itself free of the SMT name. It’s not much of a surprise, considering how strongly the series skyrocketed into popularity with the third and fourth titles. Known for deep storylines that allow for fantastic beasts while still being somewhat grounded in the real world, the Persona series also excels in all areas from thrilling combat to amazing visual design, with 5 handily taking it to the next level.

A series of unfortunate events sees the game’s protagonist (who I’ll refer to as Akira, his official name) falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit, expelled from his school, and forced to move out of his home town. A family friend takes him in as a provisional guardian, letting him stay in the small space above his restaurant so long as he doesn’t cause trouble, else it’s back to police custody. New to Tokyo, he has to adapt to a new city, new school, new friends, etc. Oh, and there’s the strange dream he has where a man with a long nose tasks him with fighting corruption in the world.

It doesn’t take long for him to get a chance to do just that, when he and Ryuji, a classmate, are sucked into a shadow world, twisted by the desires of someone with power who seeks to punish those beneath him. Summoning up the courage to stand up to that kind of abuse allows Akira to awaken the power within him known as the persona. Using the new power, he manages to escape with Ryuji, thanks to the help of a talking cat found in the dungeon who teaches them that the key to clearing the corrupt castle is to steal what matters most to its ruler. And so it is that some high school kids decide to form the Phantom Thieves and rid the world of corrupt adults, and there’s quite a few, in their free time, instead of hitting balls with sticks like their peers.

And look good doing it

And look good doing it

One of the great things about the Persona series is how it’s grounded in the real world and thus deals with issues that few JRPGs steer well away from. As the narrative progresses, there are situations involving sexual harassment, suicide, extortion, overworking, political corruption, and more. Some of them will likely resonate more with the Japanese audience, but other aspects are relatable worldwide. Some of them even seem to fit nicely in current events. Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. The story also involves more pleasurable scenarios like a day at the beach and numerous outings to famous areas in Tokyo. You’ll also find that it’s easy to jump in as, aside from a few scant references to other characters and events from previous titles, new-comers to the series won’t be missing out on the story.

The bulk of gameplay can be divided in the Persona series can be divided into 2 portions – daily life and dungeon crawling. They’re both unique enough that it’s possible to love one and hate the other, but they’re both necessary and complement each other in several ways. As the chapters in the game are essentially split based on the active dungeon, we’ll begin there.

Dungeons exist as part of the shadow world in Persona, taking on a form based on the desires of the one who created it. Here, they tend to fit the bandit theme, largely resembling places one might expect a thief to hit, such as an art gallery or a bank. A welcome change in this entry is that the dungeons are no longer simply square grids with a rooms devoid of all but enemies. These are actual structures, with corridors, rooms both large and small, furniture, etc. A unique sneaking mechanic benefits from this, allowing the Phantom Thieves to stick to walls and chairs to hide from enemies (even, comically, if they can clearly be seen). Sneaking is important, as getting caught increases the security, making enemies even tougher. There are often puzzles to clear, simple platforming sections, and numerous design touches that make the dungeons a joy to explore.

Flash AND substance

Flash AND substance

Unlike Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves can’t jump back into completed dungeons. But if you’re looking to level up between chapters, there’s another option – Mementos. A special dungeon resembling a subway system and similar to Persona 3’s Tartarus, this area allows you to battle through a number of randomly generated stages, which can be revisited to allow for all the grinding one could ask for. As the story progresses, more stages are added. For some, this can be an absolute necessity, and it can be a good place to collect item drops and pick up Personas that may have been missed in the dungeons, but the stages do get very repetitive and lacking even any of the stealth mechanic, making the entire area a good place to put on a podcast (or Popcast) and mindlessly go about monster slaying.

Sneaking around only works so long before it’s time to cross swords with the baddies. When the player runs into a shadow in the dungeon, combat begins. Managing a sneak attack allows the player team to go first while the enemy will surround the team and go first if they get the upper hand. Each member is directly controlled, with a streamlined system where nearly every button leads to some option – one for melee, one to guard, one to summon that person’s Persona (which is used to cast magic spells). Every enemy comes with a set of strengths and weaknesses. All the types from Persona 4 (physical, fire, ice, wind, electric, light, and dark) are here along with new additions: projectile (guns), nuclear, and psychic. Effective use can stun enemies, leaving them open for powerful assaults, but the enemies can also take advantage of your weaknesses to do the same. There’s a variety of combat options, from chaining attacks to effectively using status effects, and more. Be careful – unlike most JRPGs, if the main character goes down, it’s game over. Boss fights are tense, and I personally had several close-calls, meaning understanding your team make-up is very important.

Even the combat stills look amazing here.

Even the combat stills look amazing here.

While the other members of the Phantom Thieves have one and only one persona, Akira is blessed with the ability to summon many to his aid. They can’t be captured, though. Instead, they can be convinced to join in mid-battle through successful negotiation. They can also be created by combining others in a special area known as the Velvet Room. Over 150 are available, and creating them yourself allows you to customize their abilities, such as creating specific healers or stat-boosters. This becomes essential in later dungeons, given how much more powerful created persona are, especially if their associated arcana is boosted (more on that in a bit). It can be a daunting task on the surface, but I found myself able to get by with a core group of 5 personas at any given time, keeping other slots open to collect new types.

While exploring the dungeons is great fun, the true heart of the Persona series is in the other side. For me, the sections when the protagonist and crew are going about their daily lives are far more appealing. As a high-schooler, it’s not enough to take on the task of exposing corruption, but keeping on top of his school work. After all, what good is saving the world if he doesn’t know the difference between the golden and silver ratios? Each day is broken down into several segments, beginning with classes at school.

The afternoons and evenings are open, allowing Akira to spend his time freely in a variety of different ways – from taking up a part-time job to taking in a movie. Most, but not all, activities outside of shopping will take up time, but in exchange they always offer some benefit, whether it be money, stat increases, or something else. It can be a lot to keep track of, but it’s a lot like building your routine in real life. Just like I always go to Starbuck’s on Fridays, I have to make sure Akira visits the juice stand on Sundays. Some activities are affected by the weather, the season, or even just the day of the week, so there’s always something new to try, and traveling from one area to another is quick and easy.

The city comes alive.

The city comes alive.

Then there are the social links. Throughout the game, Akira begins to form connections with those around him, both in the Phantom Thieves and around the city. Strengthening these connections provides a few benefits. For one, each one is connected to an arcana – a specific trait based on the tarot. Personas also belong to different arcana, so strengthening that particular person’s bond can also mean more powerful personas to create. Strong social links can also mean bonuses like access to better equipment, or protection from getting knocked out in combat. With so many social links available, it’s difficult if not impossible to get them all maxed out on your first playthrough without a guide, so find the stories that interest you or skills that will benefit you the most and go for it.

Every entry in the Persona series just gets stronger and stronger, and I’m really only scratching the surface of what’s on offer. There’s still the amazing soundtrack and fantastic performances from the Japanese voice actors, the way the city of Tokyo is so faithfully represented in such a way that it seems to have a life of its own, and much, much more. The main campaign takes about 60-80 hours, so there’s a lot of meat to dig through, but this will have to do for now. It’s amazing to see that while Final Fantasy continually shifts towards Western influences, Persona thrives on the JRPG formula and even redefines it. Here’s hoping the dev team can keep it up.


4/4 Pops:  Essential  The rarest of things, something that everyone calling themselves a game enthusiast should pick up and try once, regardless of preferred genres or themes.

PS4 version reviewed.

Review based on a Japanese retail edition.


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