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.
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.
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.