Persona 5 doesn’t waste time revealing its intentions to you. Right from the start you’ll be introduced to hyper-stylised anime visuals and an introduction that has you beating up bad guys and leaping around architecture to a lively pulsing soundtrack. Atlus’ latest Persona game is an impressive example of detailed and utterly focused game design that comes together in nearly every way.
Game: Persona 5
Publisher: Deep Silver
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided)
Full of humour and heavy on anime quirks, Persona 5 prides itself on its innate style that flows through gameplay and menus effortlessly. It’s vibrant, energetic and provides stark contrast to the sometimes-dark tale of a group of students who band together as ‘The Phantom Thieves’, battling corruption in the inner psyches of twisted adults. It’s surprising how well the narrative grabs your attention, delivering light-hearted fodder whilst in the same breath refusing to shirk delicate issues such as abuse, sexual harassment and even suicide.
This iteration follows the series’ tried and tested formula without too much deviation. During the day, you’ll be dealing with high school life; studying, taking classes and burning out on a part time job to earn some Yen. At night, you become the leader of a group of out-casted teenagers who travel to the Metaverse, Persona 5’s version of the Midnight Channel from previous games, to infiltrate the ‘Palaces’ of corrupted adults and steel the treasures guarded within. Doing so rehabilitates the individual, in turn improving society.
Living day to day life in game is possibly one of the most positively variable experiences I’ve played. The game world is quite contained into small, mostly linear areas but no day feels repetitive. It’s a testament to how well paced game is that there’s always something new happening to keep your interest. Sprawling Final Fantasy-like worlds are not something you’ll find here, but Atlus’ delivery of narrative and some brilliant design means you’ll get a very focused and always evolving experience – I was still getting new mechanic tutorials nearly 20 hours in to the game.
Dungeons, or Palaces as the game calls them, are perhaps a prime example of this nice variation. You’ll be researching your target in the real world and then infiltrating the Palace to find a route to the treasure room, which houses the corrupted heart of that individual. Once that is achieved, you’ll need send a calling card to the target outside of the Metaverse before the treasure becomes obtainable in its true form. The design of these dungeons is a true highlight of the game. Every location is brimming with character and great design choices and feels completely different from the last. One minute you’ll be transformed to navigate through a rat maze, next you’ll be traversing through paintings in a museum – it’s genuinely engaging throughout.
Same can be said for a slightly tweaked battle system from previous games that can be a bit mind boggling at first but quickly becomes enjoyable. You have your basic turn based combat but it’s rarely dull thanks to some mechanics that keep things largely interesting. Your Personas are the main star of the show, each having their own strengths and ability to gain new attacks the more they’re used. Come the end of the fight you’ll be able to negotiate with your enemies for new items, money, or have them join you as a new Persona you can use in battle. You can even fuse them together to create even stronger ones.
The way you’re able to down opponents and gain another turn by hitting them with their weakness really helps add some strategy to the fights. Combine that with mechanics such as passing the baton on your extra turn, going all-out attack with all your party members at once, or engaging in a negotiation for some surreal back and forth dialogue and you have a system that rarely gets dull. I certainly never felt the need to avoid fights due to over-repetition, which is perhaps a first for me in a turn-based combat RPG.
There’s lots to do outside of the palaces and living the school life was perhaps one of my favourite aspects. Levelling up your traits by reading books on the train, studying in the café and showing your smarts whilst being quizzed in class are only a few of the many ways you’ll get to spend your time. Maybe you’ll even want to partake in some sports at the batting cage or do some laundry – it’s all oddly entertaining. Persona 5 houses an amazingly addictive life-sim that sees you managing relationships with confidants (which incidentally help you in battle) and juggling part-time jobs which ultimately leaves you with a dilemma; do you infiltrate the palace to make some progress or put it off to try and level your knowledge or increase your proficiency. The balancing act is without doubt a delicate one as you’ll only have so long to infiltrate a palace before your time runs out.
On the surface of all that gameplay is a stylish and visually pleasing aesthetic. The red and black colour pops at every opportunity and cutscenes are an absolute treat. Even the post-battle screen is engaging and flows brilliantly back into the gameplay with all the panache of a top-drawer anime. Locations from the backstreets of Shibuya to the school itself all look beautiful for the most part, bar a few lacking good textures.
The least inspiring location is perhaps the procedurally generated area named ‘Momentos’ that allows you to steal some hearts on a smaller scale, in between bigger corrupted heart heists. The gameplay part of Momentos allows you to navigate deeper and deeper into its dungeon tackling tougher enemies, but it really isn’t much to look at. Same goes for a camera that doesn’t always like to play ball. You’ll be able to stealth lock onto scenery and ambush your targets, but I ended up avoiding it most of the time thanks to unwieldy viewpoints. It’s a small crack in an otherwise brilliant system.
Persona 5 is heavy on complexity the deeper you allow yourself to go, but the balance of mechanics is so exceptional that given the time, you’ll not only get to grip with it all, but you’ll be completely fixated with it. I’ve rarely played a game that infuses so many different ideas and pulls it all off without breaking a sweat. Combine that with the game’s confidence in its own design and direction and you’ll have yourself one of the finest JRPGs around.