Youth In Revolt
HIGH Fixing the laptop results in a wonderful surprise.
LOW Certain sequences drag on for way, way too long.
WTF I’ll go to bed when I bloody well feel like it, Morgana.
Adults, huh? What a bunch of malodorous bastards they are, according to Persona 5. It’s a game that seems to delight in making everyone over twenty seem like complete dickheads who stomp on the dreams of children and abuse grownup power in nefarious ways. However, all is not lost!
A teenage hero nicknamed Joker appears at Shujin Academy, sent to probation for a crime he sort-of-committed-but-didn’t-really. Spurned by the foolish masses for his supposed offenses, our hero must make new friends and save the day from evildoers skulking around modern Tokyo. How does he accomplish this? By using a smartphone app to delve into an alternate world known as the Metaverse. This dimension holds twisted psyches that take the shape of sprawling dungeons (known as Palaces) waiting to be infiltrated. By doing so, Joker will steal their evil hearts out from under them.
If this sounds a bit familiar, it should — Persona 5 sets itself up in the structure of its immediate predecessors. Much like Persona 3 and 4, the protagonist is tasked with the dual responsibilities of appearing to be an average high school student (albeit one with a criminal past hanging over his head) and also becoming the leader of a shadowy organization. This time, the player’s group are honorable bandits known as The Phantom Thieves, stealing away the wickedness of wrongdoers and forcing them to reveal their filthy misdeeds to the largely oblivious public.
The basic ssetup of the game is also similar to previous Persona titles because the play is split into two halves – combat in dungeons and schooling or social outings the rest of the time, all set against a constantly ticking in-game calendar.
When they’re ready to fight, the Thieves infiltrate the aforementioned mental Palaces to battle monsters, level up skills, and eventually swipe the ‘treasure’ from whichever bad guy is currently being targeted — doing so breaks them down into a blubbering heap and they confess their crimes before they’re able to complete whichever nefarious plan catches the Phantom Thieves’ attention. Failure to do so in the time allotted results in an immediate game over, so there’s a certain urgency behind each task.
The downtime is spent as a seemingly ordinary student in Tokyo. This entails studying for exams, attending class, sharpening various skills, exploring the city, and otherwise socializing with various characters known as Confidants to improve their relationships for bonuses that getting close to them confers. Assuming that Joker’s talking cat Morgana allows him to, that is — the bugger has a nasty habit of arbitrarily deciding what players are allowed to do on any given day.
Needless to say, the meat of play involves dungeon crawling through Palaces and battling enemies, each with a unique theme reflecting the target’s mind. What’s more, the party have a number of supernatural movement options at their disposal – they can stick to walls to remain undetected, zip into vents or quickly scale small walls and other objects to stay out of sight.
These stealth options are awkwardly implemented, however. Without full 360-degree camera control when hiding pressed-up against a wall, it can be difficult to pull off ambushes or flit from one piece of cover to the next without stumbling around until the camera angle plays nice — it got me killed a few times after accidentally detaching from cover and getting chewed on by the nearest monster.
These ambushes are important because most enemies (as well as the player’s team themselves) are weak to certain attacks. If one’s weak to flame, for example, chucking a fireball will bowl them off their feet and allow the aggressor an additional free attack. If all enemies are knocked to the floor in this manner, it’s possible to perform a ‘hold up’ at gunpoint, then extort money off them or smash them to bits with a team attack. It also goes the other way, though, and if the party is ambushed then it’s possible to be killed before getting a turn to strike back. This is every bit as enjoyable as it sounds.
It’s also pretty irritating how the main character is so invaluable to the team that everyone else will spontaneously commit suicide if anything happens to him. When supporting characters drop in battle they can be revived, but if the main character snuffs it… well, that’s an instant game over on anything but the easiest difficulty. There’s nothing quite like spending half an hour exploring a dungeon only to have all progress wiped because every enemy focused solely on Joker. This reliance on the leader is admittedly a series tradition, but it sticks in my craw to lose when the rest of the team is still in good health and could easily revive him.
The playable cast, unfortunately, are rather two-dimensional overall. Ryuji’s a dumbass with a heart of gold who gets mad at pointless things before mouthing off. Ann’s pretty and seemingly exists primarily to get leered at by any men in the vicinity. Makoto’s a likeable but otherwise boring honor student… and so it goes. It’s not like they’re awful, exactly, but there’s a level of blandness to everyone other than quirky tech geek Futaba that killed my emotional investment in their cause. It doesn’t help that so much of the dialogue and interaction involves the same core ideas and personality quirks repeated ad nauseum. From never giving up on friends to not letting those rotten adults get away with things, the script in Persona 5 hammers the same points home with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the skull, over and over again. For hours.
Amazingly, the bad guys are even less interesting. In Persona 4, many of the dungeons were about delving into the minds of the player’s teammates to uncover hidden insecurities and learn just who they really were — usually in surprising and touching ways. Persona 5, on the other hand, involves going up against enemies that are so dementedly evil that they border on being parodies. They’re little more than malicious roadblocks in the Phantom Thieves’ way, and the villains have almost no character development before each one is discarded in favor of the next.
While Persona 5 is one of the most slickly-presented games I’ve seen and it’s absolutely dripping with style, the main story, cast, and dungeon mechanics teeter on the edge of mediocrity. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of excellent moments and setpieces strewn throughout its sizable running time — there are many — but it’s more that this hundred-hour adventure has far too many drawn-out, life-sappingly dull sequences holding it back. From the monotony of visiting a cafe and watching the same brief, pointless cutscene every day for a week straight to trudging through the final stages of a dungeon that’s long since worn out its welcome, it all too often railroads players into extended sequences where they’re repeating the same actions for excessive periods of time without enough variety to break it up in a palatable manner. The final few Palaces in particular felt like they took a lifetime to complete and almost destroyed my will to keep playing even as I neared the finish line.
Persona 5 is periodically fascinating, but it’s unable to maintain the required level of interest and energy over such an extended running time. If it were half as long and cut out most of the repetition, it’d be a much tighter, more enjoyable experience. As it stands, adventuring with the Phantom Thieves sags way too often to be a heartfelt recommendation.
Disclosures: This game is developed by P Studio and published by Atlus. It is currently available on Playstation 4 and Playstation 3. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 115 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains blood, drug reference, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language and violence. It’s a weird one. While it’s all about hopes and dreams and child friendly morals, there is some some assorted swearing, murder and references to prostitution and the like. Also, one of the random enemies is literally an erect penis with a great big gaping mouth and tentacles thrashing around it. Hmm.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Not a huge amount to worry about here. It’s subtitled throughout, doesn’t rely on audio cues and can be played in its native Japanese audio following a DLC patch. No audio cues are relevant to gameplay.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.