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‘Persona 5’ Review – Stealing Your Heart and the Show

Persona 5 is a great game that sets a high bar with its amazing visuals, audio, gameplay, and story. It is a definitive purchase for anyone who finds themselves to be a fan of role-playing games, Japanese or otherwise.

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There are few games that reach the level of detail and style that Persona 5 has achieved. Everything, from the game’s striking and bold visuals to its snappy and catchy soundtrack, overflows with a level of love and dedication not seen in many games. Persona 5 is a 90+ hour modern RPG that delivers a story and gameplay experience above that of its predecessor and spiritual prequel, Persona 4.

Persona 5 follows the same basic structure as its predecessors, Persona 3 and 4: High schooler by day and vigilante by night. During the day you go to school, hang out with friends, and take in all the sights that Tokyo has to offer. The game takes place over the course of a year, and the map is constantly expanding as you discover new locations throughout the region. The city is vibrant and lively. It’s full of people and activity like any major city should be, and it stands in stark contrast to the much less active and bustling town from Persona 4. Faceless students and salarymen walk from train station to train station on the their morning an evening commutes, you can overhear the gossip of other people as you walk around the city, and each location has its own special shops that sell unique items, accessories, and gifts.

The liveliness of Tokyo doesn’t end with just its background though, as this attention to detail is even brought into things like menus or loading screens. The same NPCs you see walking around Shibuya or any of the train stations fill the loading screen as they move from one locale to next, and each shop keeper gets their own specialized shop menu. The doctor at the local clinic will spin around in her chair, check charts, and cross her legs as you navigate your way through selections of medicine and healing items for example.

During the daytime you’re also encouraged to make confidants, or friends, with the people you interact with from day-to-day. Persona 5’s main themes are about overcoming prejudice and adverse authority, and each confidant has their own issues they’re struggling with related to these cases. The aforementioned doctor was forced to take the fall for a medical screw-up made by her boss, there’s a politician trying to undo the mistakes of his past, and a girl that’s had her antagonizing mother’s hopes and dreams forcibly thrust on her, to name a few. Each confidant’s story is interesting, and while they’re not as fleshed out as the main members of the cast, it’s hard to not feel for them at times.

Confidants come in all shapes and sizes from your teammates to your homeroom teacher.

In past Persona titles these extra stories served little outside of making your level grind easier by giving you bonus experience, but in Persona 5 each confidant provides some kind of unique service both in and outside the life-sim elements of the game. Some of these hold a little more weight than others, and completing each confidant’s story line rewards you with both a great side-story and gameplay-related bonus. A shogi player will teach you battle tactics, the doctor will research new medicine, and even one of your teachers will help you in the evenings so you can get more stuff done.

When you’re not walking around Tokyo and taking care of your social life as a student you’re exploring the Metaverse, or the collective human unconscious, as the leader of the Phantom Thieves. A group built on the frustrations of disempowered youth, the Phantom Thieves seek to change the world by reforming the corrupt hearts of those in power. Each member of your ragtag team of freedom fighters has their own tie to someone abusing or using them, you included. The driving force behind the story is the fact that you were set up to take the fall in a crime you didn’t commit. You have to start your life over and move to a new city in order to escape the restrictions of being a convicted felon. One thing leads to another and you soon find yourself in control a Persona, a reflection of your own heart, which allows you to fight the other reflections within the Metaverse.

The Metaverse exists in between reality, and those with strong evil convictions subconsciously build dungeons, called Palaces, where their shadows reside.  By going into the Metaverse and defeating a shadow the Thieves can force a change of heart in the individual, and make them to confess their own crimes out of guilt. Each Palace is vastly different in color, design, and layout from the one before it. Unlike dungeons in Persona 3 or 4, Palaces are built as individually constructed levels rather than being procedurally generated. Each Palace comes with its set of sneaking points and puzzles that fit perfectly with the Palace theme. You use secret passage ways in an old castle and find clever ways to avoid security lasers in a museum to name a few.

There is one weak link to Palace design, Mementos, a side-dungeon that uses the same random generation that 3 and 4 used. It’s a small blemish on an otherwise great system and doesn’t really take too much out of the game. You won’t spend too much time in Mementos though, as most sections can be cleared in roughly half an hour or so, and you’ll only find your stays taking longer when there’s a side-quest to take care of.

Combat in Persona 5 is turn-based, a series staple, but it flows with a depth that’s akin to other ATLUS rpgs. Exploiting elemental weaknesses or landing critical hits knocks enemies down and gives you extra turns. The same is true for your enemies, and one small misstep can lead to a game over on higher difficulties. An element from older Persona games that was brought back for 5 is negotiation. When you knock a group of enemy shadows down you’re given the option to bargain with them. Every shadow falls into a certain class, and if say the right things you can easily extort money, items, or even ask them to join you as a new Persona (which can be fused with each other to make even more Personas).

Mastering combat feels rewarding, as it opens ways for plenty of unique combos with powerful outcomes. A true mastery of combat is needed for most of the major boss fights, which turn things on their head thanks to the unique gimmicks they introduce. Simply trying to brute force your way through a difficult fight is often the wrong way to go about it and will, more often than not, lead to your demise.

Both reality and the Metaverse are complimented by a masterful soundtrack. Both Persona 3 and 4 stuck to variations of pop-rock, but Persona 5 steps a bit more towards jazz with mixes of several other genres in between. In particular, the later Palace themes are some of the most memorable in the game because of how perfectly they fit their respective settings. Other standout portions of the soundtrack include the various battle themes as well as many of the slower tracks that play during evenings. There’s a huge amount of variety, even for simple background tracks, as weather conditions like rain can cause a slight change in tempo to readjust the mood.

The facial animations in cutscenes are strikingly well done, and each one is filled with emotion and vigor.

There’s one other element between the gameplay, visuals, and music that also stands out: the writing. Persona 5’s cast is one that’s easy to empathize with. The main cast isn’t defined by their high schooler age, but rather their actions. Some of these kids have been to hell and back, some lived through abusive situations, but all of them have to find ways to overcome and cope with both personal and societal stressors that have brought them into the Phantom Thieves. Despite being set in high school, Persona 5 is far from your typical “teenagers save the world” JRPG plot. It’s not just the main cast though, the villains are well-defined too. And while you maybe won’t agree with their actions, they all have a story and aren’t left as being evil for the sake of being evil.

The voice acting only serves to further this attachment, as both the English and Japanese voice cast bring out the best in each line. The real stand out performances in the both the English and Japanese dub are for Yusuke, an aloof and dramatic artist with some of the game’s best one-liners. Both actors do a great job of conveying his personality as he has plenty of mood changes. Every actor does a stand up performance though, and Persona 5’s dub also one of the best the series has seen since its start over 20 years ago. The game comes with dual audio so you can listen to whichever you prefer, but both are exceptionally good. The one major weakness of the English track is a few odd name pronunciations, but all the emotion behind the characters is still there.

There are so many positive things about Persona 5 that it’s difficult to sum them all up in a 1500~ word review. I haven’t gone over all the great little tidbits in the localization, the intricacies of the Persona fusion system, the vast amount of things you can do in Tokyo other than talk with confidants and shop,  and even the small shout outs and references to other things in pop culture. Persona 5 is a game stuffed at the seams with quality content. It’s an amazing game, whose only real hang ups are a few mispronunciations and one or two pacing issues that last for maybe 4 or 5 hours in a 90+ hour title. Persona 5 is only loosely connected with other games in the series, and requires no prior knowledge to fully enjoy. Any fan of RPGs (J or otherwise) is doing themselves a disservice by not picking up Persona 5.

Persona 5 Review

Taylor is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His passion for games extends across genres and generations. When not playing or writing about games, he's probably reading science fiction.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. John Cal McCormick

    April 18, 2017 at 8:08 am

    This is the best JRPG I’ve played in years. I find it interesting that Persona and Final Fantasy games came out after long development cycles, both trying to update the genre for a modern audience, and both picked completely different ways of going about it. Final Fantasy became a Western role playing game with Japanese characters and tropes. Persona doubled down on the turn based battling while making everything else around it more accessible, colourful, and interesting.

    It’s a superb game.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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