Persona 5 Review – Back To School
Written by Laura Kate Dale
Developer: Atlus Publisher: Atlus Format: PS3, PS4 (reviewed) Released: April 4, 2017 Copy provided by publisher
It’s not often I sink 120 hours into a game in just two weeks, and usually doing so feels like an absolute chore pushed through solely for work purposes. Honestly, I really didn’t mind spending almost all day, every day, for multiple weeks being a magic Japanese school boy. Persona 5 made trading any semblance I had of a social life for a fake one full of talking cats and jock punks seem like a worthwhile and valuable use of my time.
God It feels weird to have finished something that consumed my life so fully.
Persona 5 is an RPG where you play as a japanese teen who, after preventing a powerful politician from sexually assaulting a woman, finds that same politician framing him for the assault. As a result he’s kicked out of school and sent from his small town to Tokyo, and a big city school that’s better equipped to deal with “problem students”.
He meets an eclectic group of archetypical classmates, then bumps into a talking magical cat and realises that he’s going to have to split the next year between managing a standard life as well as fixing some otherworldly bullshit. In that regard, it’s pretty standard Persona series fare.
If you’ve ever played a Persona game before, the core flow of the game here is largely unchanged. You have to split your time between managing your social bonds, attending school, practicing for tests, earning money at a part time job, reading books to beef up stats and tackling the occasional long form story dungeon.
There are only so many days available in the game, with certain events locked to set date ranges, so it’s highly likely on a first playthrough you’ll in some ways fail to utilize your time perfectly, and I certainly feel some room in P5 to come back a few months down the line and try refocusing my time in certain parts of a repeat playthrough.
If you’ve not played a Persona game before, don’t stress about the 5 in the name, it’s a completely stand alone title.
The most notable way Persona 5 differs from past entries in the series is the vastly improved approach the game has to dungeon design. While Persona 3 and 4 featured randomly generated labyrinth style dungeons that largely gated progression through sheer forced grinding and did little to clarify intended paths of progression, Persona 5’s dungeons are unique crafted spaces.
This shift from randomly generated content to actual designed levels helps a lot with the overall quality of the design, taking areas from grind fests to spaces that felt like I as a player could actually plan paths of least resistance and work towards a known goal.
The shift away from randomly generated labyrinths also allows for areas to be a lot more visually and thematically tied to the unfolding story, acting as mirrors of areas from the game twisted in interesting ways. This really helps the dungeons to feel more tied into what’s happening in the rest of the game.
The combat flow inside of dungeons is also considerably altered in P5 with a focus placed on successful stealth before engaging in combat.
Here’s the short version – If you fight an enemy without sneaking up on them, or are caught mid-sneak, a bar within that dungeon fills by 15% and if you defeat a set of enemies it drops by 5%. If the bar hits 100% then you are booted out of the dungeon for that night, meaning that you’ll need to spend an additional in-game day attempting to complete the dungeon rather than making any other uses of your time.
The stealth system on the game is simple and stylish with easy options to hop behind cover and lunge at enemies that will likely pose no mechanical interest veteran stealth game players. Someone like me, who sucks at stealth mechanics, gets to feel consistently cool and in control. So long as I took a few seconds to think about where I was heading and my route there, I was able to avoid the vast majority of non stealth encounters with relative ease.
The use of lost time as a punishment for failed stealth feels like a brilliant level of punishment because of how keenly aware I was at all times of the feeling I was already missing content passing me by in game.
However, if you are a fan of those randomly generated dungeons or just want to grind out levels in an environment that isn’t a fixed story environment, Persona 5 does include an optional way to experience that content in the form of Mementos.
Mementos are endless randomly generated dungeons that remove the stealth elements from dungeon traversal, allow level grinding without having to revisit old environments, and allow the story dungeons to be made more story tied and tight while not closing off the old style dungeons as an option for players. I really feel like in that regard Persona 5 fit in the best of both worlds.
The combat in Persona 5 is still largely the same turn based combat system from earlier Persona games with a few minor tweaks that I think largely benefit the overall flow of the game.
The biggest of these combat changes is an increased focus on elemental attacks. If you successfully work out an enemy or enemy type’s elemental weakness and attack them with it you’ll knock that enemy down allowing for an out of order followup attack. If you can successfully knock all enemies in a fight down simultaneously you can either finish them off with a cool team wide finishing move or talk to them.
Previously employed in the Shin Megami Tensei series but not in the last couple of Persona games, talking to a group of downed enemies will allow you to attempt to recruit them as Pokemon style summons for the protagonist, as well as asking them for money or items. This is done via a slightly wonky dialogue tree that requires some guesswork to ascertain what sort of response will get the enemies to co-operate rather than run, but it does feel cool to occasionally add a badass creature to your toolset mid dungeon.
I do however wish working out what to say to enemies was a bit more clear and less convoluted.
Outside of the mechanical stuff which all either is as it was in Persona 4 or improved, the overall presentation in Persona 5 is pretty stellar. While it’s not a technical powerhouse in terms of pushing the PS4 to its limits, the bright crisp over the top art style really gives P5 a solid unique identity. It’s the kind of game I could be hard pressed not to recognize from any given screenshot. The music is also some of the best the series has seen, mixing jazz, classical, orchestral rock and J-Pop beats into a catchy blend I’ve been listening to on loop while writing my review.
The writing is up to the Persona series usual high standards. It’s a slow burn of a game, the kind of game you need to be willing to sit down and focus on to experience properly rather than just rushing through dialogue.
While some are going to be annoyed by the sometimes glacial pacing, I personally loved the day to day flow the same reason I tend to enjoy my first few weeks with an Animal Crossing game. I got quickly invested in the game’s wider cast, the ways their day to day lives evolved, and I was more than happy to sink countless hours into delving into building relationships with a fascinating group of people.
Honestly, I only have one major gripe with Persona 5, and it’s a gripe that I’m not sure is unfair or not. A big part of my ability to invest as much time as I did into Persona 4 Golden was due to it being playable on the Vita, a portable system, and Persona 5 being locked to home consoles (PS3 and PS4) does somewhat hamper my ability to integrate it into my life. While I usually want to be playing the game’s big sprawling dungeons on a TV, the slow intricate social life management sections of Persona are honestly perfect fodder for playing on the sofa while watching TV or on a quick bus ride to pass the time.
As someone who has spent a lot of time with the Switch recently, and who loved the hell out of the Vita during that year or two it was getting regular games released on it, I really did find myself at times wishing this game had some kind of portable version. It just felt like the social life aspects of the game might have been more at home when I experienced them on the Vita in P4G.
Still, the fact that’s my biggest complaint in 120 hours of JRPG says a lot. I was damn impressed by Persona 5, and will certainly be returning to it once I’ve had a few months to decompress from this super concise playthrough. I played 120 hours in just a couple of weeks and damn it was a lot of fun.