Persona 5 (PlayStation 4) review
"Watch out. They'll steal your heart."
In the 9 (!) years since Persona 4 released, the series has exploded in popularity. Thanks to that game's great style and endearing cast of characters (minus Yosuke), it's earned a special place in many people's hearts. Finally, after countless Persona 4 anime adaptations and spin-offs, it's time for the next game in the Persona series to make its Western debut.
In Persona 5, your player character is an unnamed transfer student beginning his second year of high school in Tokyo, where he has been sent to live after being convicted of a violent crime and placed on probation. Crime elements aside, fans will recognize this as the typical Persona beginning, and it doesn't stray far from the path after that point. Once your character (given the name Akira Kurusu in the manga adaptation, so let's go with that from here on) awakens to his “persona”, a stand-like power that is a reflection of his inner self, you're be able to divide your time between exploring dungeons and living life as a high school student.
Upon discovering a mysterious app on his phone, Akira gains the ability to see people's “palaces.” Those palaces reflect how people with distorted desires see the world. Deep within a palace lies a treasure that represents the root of that person's desires. By stealing the treasure, Akira and his friends can trigger a change in the target's heart that will cause them to confess their crimes and turn over a new leaf. Hooray for metaphors!
This makes you a thief, a fact the game revels in. There's an emphasis on stealth while infiltrating palaces. Enemies are represented as patrolling guards before you fight them. They'll become more aware of you the more you're seen, or less aware if you start a lot of battles with sneak attacks (such attacks, which let your entire party move first, become basically essential late in the game). Still, the game is aware it's an RPG and not a proper stealth game. When hiding in cover, you are completely invisible to enemies. Snapping from one cover point to the next is instantaneous and completely safe. This isn't Metal Gear Solid.
The game takes place over the course of a year, with a limited amount of free time available to you to spend however you like. You can choose to spend your days improving yourself, fighting monstrous “shadows,” doing laundry, crafting useful tools for exploring dungeons, or tending to other activities that ultimately help you build relationships and, in turn, fight more effectively.
Akira has a special ability that most persona-users don't have. He can use multiple personas, recruiting enemies for use as personas and switching them mid-battle to suit the situation. He can also fuse personas to create new ones. It's like a Pokčmon game where you can decapitate Pikachu and Charmander to summon Satan. This is where the "Confidant" system becomes relevant (series fans will remember it as the all-important Social Link system). By spending time with player and non-player characters, Akira builds relationships with them. Each relationship corresponds to a tarot arcana, as do personas. By strengthening these relationships, the related personas gain EXP boosts when created through fusion, leveling them up.
Maxing out a relationship unlocks a powerful persona for fusion. Relationships bring other perks, as well. Becoming close to your maid will allow you to ask her to do things for you that normally take up your precious time. Maxing out that relationship will persuade her to give you massages after exploring dungeons, restoring your energy and allowing you to use that evening however you wish instead of just going to bed. Other relationships let you create HP and SP-restoring items, buy useful medicines and accessories, or defeat weaker enemies instantly by sneaking up on them. Plus, these side stories are where much of the character development is found, especially for characters who aren't party members. Confidants are as important a part of the game and story as the typical RPG adventuring.
Speaking of adventuring, recent Persona games have suffered from one major flaw: poorly designed dungeons. The last two games both featured repetitive dungeons made of the same two spaces reused over and over again: a hallway and a square room. The wallpaper and carpet changed between dungeons, but they were all basically the same. This is no longer the case in Persona 5, which features properly authored dungeons. A castle themed dungeon will have hallways and rooms, of course, but also a giant dining hall, a tower, a central staircase, and prison cells, all of which make it feel like an actual castle. It's a significant step up in an area where the series had previously suffered. There's still a huge procedurally generated dungeon you'll have to explore, but it's not 100% of your dungeon crawling experience this time around, so it doesn't feel so stale.
Unfortunately, not everything is improved. The script is a good bit lower in quality than has come to be expected of Atlus. Many lines are awkwardly written (like a character referring to a villain as “a scum,”) or, even worse, incorrect (such as a question about a shogi piece that, aside from being inappropriate for a western audience in the first place, actually says the writing on the piece means something it doesn't). A few such lines could be forgiven if there wasn't something similarly awkward in nearly every scene. Persona 5 had an uncommonly large translation and editorial team, and that really comes across in the lack of a unified voice across the dialogue. That's especially true of spoken names, with some characters pronouncing the same names differently by emphasizing different syllables. Atlus has typically been among the best in the business at localization, so it's disappointing to see them drop the ball with their biggest release in nearly a decade.
The poor script is a blemish on a game that otherwise puts its best foot forward in nearly everything it does. Persona is as stylish as ever, this time focusing on a sharp black, white, and red colour palette that works with the story's theme of rebelliousness. The acid jazz soundtrack fits Persona 5's nature as a heist game and never gets old (my run at the campaign clocked in at well over 100 hours, and I can't help but wonder how much of that was spent idling and listening to the battle theme or the relaxing evening music). Aside from some pacing issues early and late in the game, the story is interesting and the characters are likable. They never quite reached the level of the Persona 4 cast for me, where I was actually sad when it was over, but there's also nobody I was happy to see the back of (like Yosuke), so it sort of evens out in the end.
Persona 5 trades Persona 3 and 4's problems for some problems of its own, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the all time greatest JRPGs I've had the pleasure of playing. The mix of traditional JRPG dungeon crawling and turn-based combat (with a super stylish aesthetic) with the time management aspect create a satisfying gameplay loop that's tough to quit. It's certainly the best JRPG on current-gen hardware, so don't miss it.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (April 24, 2017)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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