After 20 years of Persona, and 8 years after Persona 4, Persona 5 is finally here. This very Japanese RPG series has grown tremendously since its beginnings, and Persona 5 is definitely their biggest release yet. So… how is it?
It’s pretty great.
Well, firstly, it’s definitely more Persona. Well, more of modern Persona. Persona 5 is a logical refinement of the gameplay we’ve come to expect from Personas 3 and 4. And if that’s all you need, then you probably don’t even need to read the rest of this review. In fact, you probably already have the game coming to you on release. Heck, even though I have a review copy (Thanks, Atlus!), I still have the Take Your Heart Edition coming in the mail. I am for sure a superfan.
But how about for those of you who aren’t Persona fans, who are looking for your first Persona game? Keep reading. I’ll come back to you in a bit.
In fact, for those uninitiated folks, let’s go over what a Persona game is. Persona is a turn-based RPG series based largely around the idea of setting an RPG in modern Japanese High Schools. You, the player, take on a blank-slate protagonist, going through their normal high school lives, dealing with high school problems. Oh, and also dealing with some supernatural disturbances that are beyond their understanding. So, just normal high school stuff.
Throughout the course of your typical modern Persona game, you navigate high school life, meeting people and becoming close to them. Almost simultaneously, you navigate themed dungeons, fighting enemies called Shadows and exploiting their weaknesses. So when I say that Persona 5 is more Persona, this is what I mean. It was also what I expected. But despite being clearly within these parameters, Persona puts a decently new spin on things and keeps them fresh.
Persona 5 is the slickest, most modern feeling Persona game yet. Before playing this game, I didn’t know how they could possibly alter the formula at this point to make it more modern while still retaining its charms. I’m guessing that’s a symptom of all the re-releases and genre mash-ups that Persona has been going through ever since Persona 4. But Atlus has done a tremendous job with exceeding my expectations on that front. Everything is streamlined; navigating dungeons and menus have become quicker, more kinetic. Modern hardware means modern conveniences; at least in my digital copy of the game, load times are quick and frame rates are smooth. As I said, it’s a logical refinement of Persona.
And when I say the game is “more Persona,” I also mean to say that there’s just… more in the whole package. There’s more voice acting than there ever was before, and Atlus has been able to do more meaningful 3D cutscenes than they ever have in a Persona game. It’s a clear combination of the scale of a Persona game with the technical prowess of Catherine, and that’s undeniably great.
The tone of the game is also darker than ever before. I know that “dark” is sometimes a cop-out filler word, but there’s not a better word for it. The deep red color scheme throughout the game is reminiscent of passion and rebellion, two themes that this game works heavily on. Your party’s goals aren’t as clearly heroic as they were in previous entries. You control a group of anti-heroes, doing what might be the wrong things for what might be the right reasons. The game sets up this tone early and it only gets deeper from there. Some messed-up stuff happens throughout the game, so be ready.
Combat is very similar to previous games, but refined. Battles still operate as puzzles, a game of “guess the weakness” where you try different abilities until you find the one that your enemy is weak to. Boss battles in Persona 5 go a step beyond that, sometimes operating as legitimate puzzles where you decide what to target when. There are also segments of boss battles where you have to send a party member off to perform some other task while you keep fighting. It does a good job of adding variety to boss fights.
Speaking of variety, combat has a few new mechanics to spice things up from previous games. Well, I say they’re new, but they’re really borrowed from Personas 1 and 2, and Shin Megami Tensei, a series that Persona spun off from back in the day. Your party now has access to guns, a separate battle command with its own separate resource management that some enemies are weak to. Also borrowed from SMT is the ability to negotiate with your enemies; as an alternate option from the All-Out attacks from previous games, when you’ve exploited all your enemies’ weaknesses and knocked them down, you have the opportunity to hold them up at gunpoint and take their money, items, or their power (in the form of a new Persona). Yeah, like I said before, this party isn’t necessarily heroic.
Also, once you’ve exploited an enemy’s weakness, you can tag in another party member and insert them just after you in the turn order. It allows for some interesting strategy, giving you much finer control of the turn order in combat.
It’s a great direction for the series, one that Persona fans will love and enjoy. It has definitely been worth the wait, and those that have been waiting the past 8 years since Persona 4 have no reason not to dive in.
Now, back to those of you who aren’t superfans. Thanks for holding out! I think there are a few reasons for you not to pick up Persona 5, or at least maybe not as your first foray into Persona.
No, I’m not one of those purists who says you need to go back and start with the original Persona on PS1. That would be ridiculous. But I don’t know if Persona 5 is the best jumping in point for the series. The intro to the game is very fast pace and high energy, but after that, things get a little sluggish. I’m not trying to claim that previous Persona games weren’t slow to start (it game take a couple of hours to get control of your character in Persona 4), but Persona 5‘s intro is sluggish in a different way.
Conversations about the first antagonist go around in circles. Characters will end up repeating, in different words, exactly what they said a few moments ago. It could be an attempt to make sure you retain all the information, but it made the time before the first dungeon began feel sluggish. Once I got into the first dungeon, things got a lot faster and more fun, but even inside the dungeon conversations get repetitive. Some characters only have one or two lines for exploiting an enemy weakness, and they’ll repeat it every time you exploit them. In a battle against three of the same enemy where you’re on a roll, you’ll hear the same line 3 times in less than 15 seconds. Maybe it’s a side effect of how much faster they’ve made combat, but those things begin to grate.
But, admittedly, as I got deeper into the game, these annoyances stopped bothering me. Some of them didn’t go away; character voice lines keep repeating, after all. But the style kept me going. The story picked up and found its legs, and the dungeons began being more varied. It’s undeniably a good game, but it might be hard for a newcomer to handle up front.
I don’t think that, gameplay-wise, Persona 5 is a bad intro for newcomers. I think it explains its mechanics fairly well and isn’t too overwhelming. But I think some of these gripes could end up driving the newcomer away before they can even scratch the surface of this long 80-hour epic.
Now is when it would normally be time for the score. Full disclosure, I haven’t gotten to complete the main storyline of Persona 5. That’s why you don’t see my thoughts on the story here. But since I haven’t had time to complete the game, I don’t feel comfortable giving the game a numeric score. But what I can say is that this game is a great Persona game that’s worth a look.
The average Persona fan stopped reading this article at “more Persona,” and that’s fine, because for anyone with experience with Persona that’s itching for more Persona, this is what you’re looking for. But for the newcomers here, Maybe don’t take the plunge just yet. I recommend renting it first to see if it grabs you, or maybe to grab the Vita release of Persona 4, Persona 4 Golden, to dip your feet into the Persona series. But either way, if you can sit through some of the annoyances, you’re in for a fun time.
P.S., for those of you wondering: the English dub is great! I recommend giving it a shot before you immediately download the Japanese voice pack on launch day.
If there’s anything I didn’t mention about Persona 5 that you want to know, ask in the comments and maybe I can answer for you! If you want to read more about Persona, check out my article on the merits of the Persona 4 anime!