Criminally, I’ve never played a Persona game before. It’s something I’ve always been ashamed of, especially since I consider myself a hardcore RPG fan, but I’ve never took the time to venture into a series that has always had a dedicated fan base regardless of its somewhat niche nature. Persona 5 felt like the perfect entry point for me then – the last RPG I played was ‘Final Fantasy XV’ late last year, so I’ve been itching to get through another huge adventure. There was so much hype around Persona 5 that I couldn’t help but to feel a little excited too, regardless of my lack of experience with the series.
I can say from the get go that Persona 5 not only deserved all of that hype, but exceeded my expectations too. I’ve seen people say that it’s not only one of the best RPGs ever created, but also one of the best video games; it’s a sentiment that I can now wholly agree with.
Persona 5 puts you into the shoes of the ‘new kid’ in school. He left his old school because of a heroic incident gone wrong – he saved a poor woman from getting sexually assaulted, but in turn got the blame for the crime due to ‘politics’. He’s then forced to leave his home town and go live with a friend of the family who has begrudgingly agreed to take him into his care, thus he starts his new life in the Shujin Academy in Tokyo.
Life isn’t easy in this school though, with the protagonist not only looked down upon by the school staff but also treated as an outcast by the students too. Outcasts attract outcasts though, so it isn’t too long before he makes some friends. Strangeness occurs when they find their way into a world where they can enter people’s hearts and uncover their deepest desires in a dungeon known as a ‘Palace’ though – weird, right? They then decide to form a group known as the ‘Phantom Thieves’ to enter the hearts of the dodgy folk of the city and give them a literal ‘change of heart’ to fix their wicked ways.
I found the story of Persona 5 utterly engrossing; I loved how every character whose heart you entered had different malicious intents, with the Palace you get to explore typically the perfect embodiment of this. It actually felt satisfying to see how your actions had an effect on each character too, with twisted folk like crime lords and perverted teachers changing their ways after having an encounter with the Phantom Thieves. Whilst I’m not sure how familiar the core elements of the story will feel to the typical Persona fan, as a newcomer I found it thoroughly entertaining and was able to get absorbed into the action from the get go.
The dungeon crawling in the game’s Palaces is great fun, with each location having a unique look that feels like it might’ve come straight out of a movie. You’ll be in a Spaceport, a Castle, a Bank, an Egyptian Tomb… there’s a ton of variety that ensures you’ll always see something that feels incredibly different. Previous Persona games have been known to have randomly generated dungeons, but the Palaces in Persona 5 are carefully sculpted to offer a thrilling experience as you plough through each tricky location. There are plenty of challenging puzzle sections too, with each Palace not only full of tricky enemy encounters but perplexing enigmas to test your brain.
There’s a neat twist on the Palaces in the way that they promote stealthy gameplay – you’ll actually feel like each Palace is its own heist, with you carefully breaking in to find some treasure. I’ve never seen an RPG utilise stealth mechanics in such a thorough way before, with the player finding themselves hugging the corners of walls and learning enemy’s movement patterns in a way to sneak their way through. Sneaking up on an enemy gives you the upper hand in combat too, so a stealthy approach will typically turn the tide in your favour.
The stealthy approach is essential in many ways, with the Phantom Thieves being kicked out of a Palace if they’re not sneaky enough. Whilst the whole system isn’t difficult to conquer, it does encourage you take your time – rushing your way through is punished by having a day away from the Palace, and with time a valuable commodity in Persona 5 you’ll want to ensure each stay isn’t cut short.
Persona 5’s combat was quite interesting to me in that it was extremely simplistic in design, yet the gloriously stylish aesthetic made it seen more action packed. At their core, battles are a traditional turn-based slugfest with the protagonists and enemies taking it in turns to attack each other. Anyone who has played a turn-based RPG before will be right at home, with each character having their own array of abilities including things like physical attacks, magic, and defensive manoeuvres.
There is a clever twist applied to the typical weakness/resistance formula of the magic elements though. Whilst most RPGs would have elements such as water being used against fire provide extra damage to an opponent, Persona 5 instead simply gives the attacking character an extra turn with their opponent being knocked to the ground. It’s an interesting mechanic that doesn’t only work really well, but also makes a traditional system feel more invigorating.
This isn’t the only way Persona 5’s combat drifts from the norm though. There’s also the ‘Hold Up’ system, which occurs whenever you down all of the opponents in an enemy party. Rather than simply taking them all out in a beautifully visualised attack that demolishes your opponents, you can instead negotiate with them in exchange for their life. Whilst this might simply earn you some free items or money, it’s also how you earn new Personas to battle for you in-game. This isn’t a cut and run process though, with enemies actually quizzing you in order to earn their services. It’s bizarre but utterly brilliant, following suit with almost every other aspect of the game.
Persona 5 isn’t an RPG in the traditional sense. Sure, you’ve got your typical turn based combat, an abundance of dungeons to crawl through, a kooky collection of characters, plenty of dialogue to read through, and an adventure that’ll easily last you a hundred hours, but it also plays out as a ‘high school student’ simulator. You’re almost like a superhero in some sense, living a normal life in the day and going on daring escapades at night.
The whole social and school life element of Persona 5 is what makes it so unique compared to other RPGs. Whilst a lot of your time is spent battling enemies in a bizarre fantasy setting, you’ll also have this feeling of normality when you’re attending school, studying for and completing exams, working a part-time job, and socialising with friends across Tokyo. You don’t have infinite time to complete all of these tasks either, with the game following a calendar and timing system where you have to manage each hour of every day.
Whilst careful time management is required to enjoy these outside aspects of Persona 5, it’s worth it as it lets you develop relationships with specific characters also known as Confidants. These Confidants will then help you as you progress through the game with extra support provided to the Phantom Thieves. It gives an actual purpose to the side objectives you’re taking part in, offering a sense of progression that makes all the effort worthwhile. There are over twenty Confidants to work with too, so it’ll take quite an investment of time to get them on your side.
Thankfully, the social aspect of the game is so enjoyable and diverse that you won’t be able to help but divulge in it all. Things like going to the cinema, playing some classic games, going fishing, going to work, or simply socialising with a friend are so rich with detail; whilst these kinds of tasks are often disregarded as an automation in most video games, Persona 5 ensures that the player is rewarded with some form of humorous scene or insight into the story that could’ve easily been missed.
One of the best things about Persona 5 is how it continually managed to surprise me the further I went through the game. Given that RPGs are long affairs, it’s easy enough to see almost everything one has to offer within the first twenty hours; Persona 5 had me constantly excited at what I was seeing for almost the whole ninety odd hours I spent with it. Whether it was during the social side of the game or whilst performing in one of the daring escapades with the Phantom Thieves, I was constantly in awe of the astonishing world of Persona 5.
It helps that the game is utterly beautiful to look at – seriously, so much care and attention has gone into the aesthetic of Persona 5 that even the menus are crafted with the kind of finesse I’ve never seen before. The game came out on the Playstation 3 in Japan so naturally it doesn’t take advantage of all of the power of the Playstation 4, yet somehow it makes up for this with a slick aesthetic that’ll constantly keep you impressed. Characters look great, the environments look superb, whilst all of the action flows together so seamlessly that at times you’ll simply be blown away. Even things like basic conversations have an over the top style to them, with each one displayed in a way that looks like it has come straight out of a graphic novel. Persona 5 is simply eye candy.
Persona 5 is simply brilliant. It has fantastic traditional RPG gameplay that’s invigorated thanks to an emphasis on a stealth-like approach and cleverly implemented combat mechanics, whilst the whole social element feels like it could’ve had a video game of its own. Having both aspects of the game melded together in one just makes for a fantastic experience that both RPG fans and gamers in general simply need to play.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 4/04/2017
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed)