Video Game Review: Persona 5

Details: Originally released in 2016 for the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. I played it on the Playstation 3. I beat the game in about ninety-five hours. The game received an M rating, so it’s for those 17 years old or older. More information can be found at the official site at https://atlus.com/persona5/

Score: 8.8/10

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 was easily my favorite Playstation 2 game by a wide margin. It combined the gameplay mechanics of a Final Fantasy game, a dating sim/visual novel, and a Pokemon game into an epic, maturely told adventure. Like how the Shin Megami Tensei preamble was dropped from the game title, Persona 5 refines the formula, cutting out things that didn’t work and adding a ton of refinements to this franchise’s formula.

It is no exaggeration to say that at the time of this review’s writing, Persona 5 is very likely the greatest turn based role playing game of all time, the greatest Japanese role playing game of all time, and perhaps even just the greatest role playing game of all time… or at least one of the greatest. With that said, this game definitely belongs to its genre. If you like Japanese role playing games and anime, I simply cannot recommend this game enough.

The only story spoilers ahead will be a brief synopsis of the first fifteen minutes of the game. The average time to beat the game as per howlongtobeat.com is around 100 hours, so that’s not much.

Persona 5 tells a story that takes place in present day Tokyo, Japan. You play a second year high school student who gets into some trouble with the law. This student is placed on probation for a year and forced to transfer to a school in Tokyo for that year. As you commute to your first day of classes, a supernaturally looking castle appears where your school is supposed to be. Little do you know that this is the beginning of an epic adventure involving mystery, murder and the oppression of the powerless. This is a story about The Phantom Thieves, a group of teenagers who steal the hearts of the powerful and wicked in order to protect the powerless and oppressed.

Worth mentioning is that you do not need to play any prior games in the series to play this one. All Persona games are standalone stories that are independent from all prior games.

As in most role playing games (or “RPG” for short), the story is the primary motivator and the most gratifying aspect of the game. This is certainly the case in Persona 5. I don’t want to say anything else about the story in fear of spoiling it, but the story does a great job of telling an epic, mature, and contemporary story. Common themes throughout the story are abuse, of both a violent and sexual nature. The game does not shy away from adult subject like sexual assault or child abuse. This is an “M” rated game, which means it’s meant for adults.

What’s also impressive is just how relevant the game is and was as of the time of its release in 2016. Specifically, it has something substantial to say about politics, groupthink, indoctrination, and individuality. As with prior games in this franchise, a major theme in the game is looking past delusions and seeing yourself and your reality honestly, to see past the lies you tell yourself. In this very supernatural and psychological world, deceiving oneself can have life or death consequences. In this way, the game conveys a very meaningful message to be true to yourself. This is a meaningful message, not only to teenage characters in the game, but for everyone.

What I love most about the story though besides the meaningful themes and mature subject matter, is the relationships you develop. Playing this game gives me the same feelings I got from reading a Harry Potter book. That is to say, this is a story about a group of young people rebelling against controlling adults, trying to change the world and bonding with each along the way.

There are some things that I didn’t like. Some characters are skimmed over when I feel like they should’ve gotten more screen time. Some character action seemed muted or not believable. Some plot events are overly complex and not explained well except through optional text dialogue. Otherwise, the story is a mostly great, supernatural, crime-oriented adventure.

I also want to say that this is a very Japanese game as it takes place in Japan. You really get a glimpse at Japanese popular culture from this game and I actually learned a bit about Japan as well. For instance, Japan has a voluntary probation system where all the probation officers are civilian volunteers. The idea is to foster a sense of community in reintegrating offenders back into society. Another thing I learned is that Japan has a 99% conviction rate of accused criminals… which almost guarantees that a substantial number of the people convicted are innocents paying for crimes they did not commit.

Gameplay follows the tried and true formula of the Persona franchise, except that it is refined to the point of being the best that any Japanese role playing game has ever been. As said above, gameplay essentially combines the elements of a Final Fantasy game, a visual novel/dating sim, and a Pokemon game.

The game is approached one day at a time and takes place over the course of the year you attend school in Tokyo. A day is split into mostly three time slots: morning, afternoon and evening. Mornings are usually spent at school where you are occasionally asked trivia questions that are eventually reflected on a final exam you take at the end of the semester. Afternoons and evenings are where the game truly takes place and allows the player to choose to do an activity. An activity generally fills a whole time slot and will advance that time slot to the next one. For instance, if you choose to perform an activity in the afternoon, time will then advance to evening where you can choose to do another activity. After the evening slot passes, the player is forced to go home, sleep, and wake up the next morning and decide how to tackle the next day.

One of the primary activities you can and must choose to participate in are the infiltration of dungeons or “palaces.” In each palace, the goal is to reach the very end where there is a “treasure.” Inside each palace are various enemies patrolling the halls as well as some bosses, culminating in a the final palace boss who is guarding the treasure.

In prior Persona games, the dungeons you explored were randomly generated layouts with homogeneous looking rooms. There was something fun about these repetitive dungeons layouts, but it was still mostly boring. Luckily, Persona 5’s dungeons are mostly deliberately designed and not randomly generated. That means that each area in a dungeon has its own themes and puzzles throughout and are far less boring than in prior franchise entries. Still, Persona 5 retains a single, randomly generated dungeon that you can use to level in between the major, deliberately designed dungeons. In this way, Persona 5 appeases those who wanted designed dungeons and those who enjoyed the randomly generated dungeons as well.

Combat is fundamentally your classic, turn-based role playing game system. You control a party of four and each character takes turns attacking, defending, and casting spells. Winning battles gains you experience points, which then raise your level, which then increase your offensive and defensive power.

Attacks and spells generally rely on a “type” system, not unlike Pokemon. Most attacks can be categorized as one of eleven types like ice, fire, lightning, etc. Attacking with an attack type an enemy is weak to causes extra damage and knocks them down. If you can manage to knock down all the enemies, you then get to perform a powerful “All Out Attack” which usually finishes the enemies. Your party members also have types they are strong and weak against, so it’s a good idea to keep in mind what those are.

Where Persona becomes unique is in how spells and abilities are gained. Normally, role playing games offer skill trees where leveling allows you to unlock new spells and abilities as you progress. Persona 5 relies on a different system for this.

All the enemies you fight (excluding bosses) are Personas that can be captured and then used by you in battle. You initially start with one Persona and are expected to catch more Personas as you progress. Capturing a Persona allows you to equip that Persona, use its spells, and take on the stat’s and attributes of that Persona. For instance, if you capture and then equip a Persona who can use fire spells, is weak to ice spells, and has a high strength stat, then equipping that Persona will give you all those attributes as well. In a way, Personas are spell and stat granting weapons that can be swapped during battle. You can initially only carry a few Personas, but that later increases to a maximum of twelve later on in the game. Worth mentioning is that only the protagonist you control can swap Personas. Your party members only have one Persona and unlock spells and stats as they level.

The other way to unlock abilities is through the cultivation of relationships. While one activity you can choose is the infiltration of palaces and combat, another activity is simply hanging out with a friend. As you hang out with friends, you can increase the level of your relationship, which then unlocks abilities that are useful in combat. Some abilities are the obtaining of recovery items, gaining experience for party members who aren’t in combat, and gun related spells that can be used in combat.

Increasing relationships also grants bonus experience when you fuse Personas. Personas can not only be caught during combat, but they can be fused into new, usually more powerful Personas. Think of it like breeding and evolving Pokemon. Fusing takes two or more Personas and combining them into one new Persona. That Persona usually has new abilities an attributes. Personas can also level, which unlocks spells and abilities as well.

There are sixteen confidants you can form relationships with in Persona 5, each one representing one of sixteen Tarot cards. All Personas belong to a related confidant/Tarot card. Fusing a Persona aligned with a confidant of the same Tarot will give bonus experience to that Persona, giving that Persona bonus levels and unlocking more stats and abilities. In essence, every aspect of this game you progress in will likely assist in other parts of the game, though mainly through unlocking abilities you can use in combat.

With that said, progressing through these confidant relationships is rewarding in and of itself. The confidants all have their own story lines that progress as you progress through the relationship. These bits of narrative are satisfying just to see how they play out.

The single, most obviously unique aspect of this game is the STYLE. Visually, Persona 5 is one of the most unique games on the market. Using Japanese anime as a base, the art utilizes bright, vibrant colors throughout. The actual design of characters, enemies, and locations are super stylish and beautiful to see. That visual style seeps into every aspect of the game, from its in game menus to combat animations.

Moreover, the game takes place in Tokyo and depicts real places that you can actually visit if you go to Tokyo. Playing through this game allows the player to play tourist and visit a stylized version of real places in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

On a technical level, this game was clearly originally designed for the Playstation 3. I’ve seen videos comparing the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4 versions and they are mostly the same. The Playstation 4 version has crisper edges and obviously looks better, but not by much. They didn’t redo all the textures or anything, they just improved the anti-aliasing.

With that said, the highly stylized, animated nature of the this game creates a timeless, classic look that overcomes technical limitations. Like many classic Nintendo games, Persona 5’s style is what matters and what will likely guarantee this game’s playability in the years to come.

Along with the visuals, the soundtrack in this game is one of the best I’ve ever heard. It’s something that I’d gladly listen to on my own time. The music is a combination of pop, disco, and electronic music. It’s a high energy mix of instrumentals and a number of originally composed and sung music.

Worth mentioning is that while the game isn’t entirely voiced, all the important parts are. For the parts that are not fully voiced, the characters usually just offer a sound bite a la Zelda where the character just says a word or two instead of saying everything in the dialogue box. I played the game with English dubs and I was impressed with the voice acting and the translations.

Overall, Persona 5 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Your enjoyment of the game depends largely on your appreciation of Japanese RPG’s and anime. As I love both, this game was easily a favorite of mine.

The best part of this game is the one thing that I cannot talk about: the story. Persona 5 is a game where everything — from the visual style to its gameplay — all mesh together to contribute to a satisfying story. There are few games that can tell a story that is mature, dark and heavy while also being light, fun and high energy at the same time. Persona 5 succeeds at this.

Score: 8.8/10

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