PERSONA 5 (PS3, PS4)
Atlus, Atlus USA, Deep Silver
Genre: Role-playing, social simulation
Release Date: September 15, 2016 (JP), April 4, 2017 (WW)
Trying to rescue a woman being attacked on the street lands a young Japanese student on probation for assault, and as a stranger in a new school. His flame of rebellion leads to even greater danger, as he discovers the power to infiltrate the minds of evil adults as leader of the Phantom Thieves, under the code name ‘Joker’.
“I am thou… Thou art I… From the sea of thy soul, I come…” – your first Persona creature, Arsene, as it is summoned to aid you.
The term ‘millennial’ is a trite and reductive term, like most labels. Linguistically, the generation currently in power seemingly strives to exert some degree of oversight over a more youthful culture it doesn’t understand. Persona 5 fits this outlook well, dealing with those themes capably via its young protagonist – ‘Joker‘.
In brief, P5 casts the player as a young man who attempted to stop an incidence of abuse against a young woman by some powerful individual, and wound up being on the wrong side of the law. Moved away from his parents and taken in by a surly café owner, he starts in a new school with teachers and students that have heard about his criminal record. Your early tasks would have you find new friends in other outcasts and downtrodden kids, while navigating a city seemingly distanced from you at each turn – and then your dreams start to become nightmarish reality, permitting you and new friends access to a meta-world. This alternate reality is moulded by the depraved imaginings of adults who abuse their power over the young, and you seek to steal mental treasures that will cause the adults to stop such behaviour in reality.
Starting from the moment you hit ‘X’ on ‘new game’, you are thrust into a flash-forward showing you escaping a warped casino full of strange creatures as part of group called The Phantom Thieves. It is an exhilarating and promising intro, capturing a flavour of fantastical cat-burglary that combines elements of Final Fantasy with the visual flair of anime shows/movies like Mob Psycho 100 and Redline, over a structure that feels a little like heist sequences from Ocean’s Eleven by way of Inception. Then you get caught and try to deal with the probing of prosecutor who could or could not be on your side, creating a frame by which to play out preceding events leading to your capture. Playing the game knowing what’s coming, but not how you got there is refreshing for any crime narrative.
Persona 5 has a completely sumptuous look and feel. Every menu is laid out like a digital cut-out ransom note mixed with graffiti, thief costumes epitomise a stylish visual design and the jazz/funk soundtrack abounds with energy that matches the ‘doing wrong to do right’ aesthetic to the core. It is impossible to fault the intention and impressive consistency of the game world throughout, from every shop stall on the road you call home to the putrid zoo of creatures existing in the collective unconscious we visit to do battle. In-game characters are nicely supplanted by traditional animated faces during conversation and full-blown anime footage is used for most important cutscenes. You can feel the production values oozing from every pixel and note, and it is enough to surely hold many through entire playthroughs, without noticing flaws that may put off players coming to the series for the first time. But seriously, any older players that wonder why game soundtracks stopped being catchy once consoles left the cartridge era need to hear the music for this game – one rare instance of a soundtrack purchase being essential.
You and your friends angry punk sportsman Ruiji, beautiful volleyball teamster Ann and sentient cat Morgana (yes, seriously) venture into said alternate reality in downtime between classes, part-time jobs and social lives with new team additions over the course of a whole school year. They infiltrate fortresses created within the minds of adults who prey on young people in their care – exposing some pretty dark and socially relevant themes around corruption and collective denial of it’s presence, as the antagonists get nastier and wield increasingly larger seats of authority. Your character’s battle is filled with constant tensions at every turn, but fresh players to Persona may find the promise overshadowed by gameplay that, perhaps unintentionally at times, exerts strong controls over your experience to the point it mirrors the adult enemies themselves.
A gym teacher may have threatened you with expulsion and you may have been unable to find students willing to testify about his crimes, but equally you are held in check by mechanics. You will have been told that you can train in various ways to increase your rate of success against enemies both real or meta, and find the game only lets you read books for knowledge or physically train for better fighting performance in specific circumstances between story sequences – then isn’t clear as to which of those scenarios will result from your actions, so you have to roll with punches.
Story is THE key focus of P5, so for those without expansive time required by strict day-by-day unfolding and school/relationship cycles, it is a shame the tight story and exciting infiltration game-play are rendered frustratingly slow. Half-hour segments of twitching ‘X’ constantly to get through scenes of dialogue, then buying HP-replenishing Katsu Buns from a train station because today it’s raining, require only scant challenge and interactivity. Imagine being given a ticket to some amazing power trip experience fighting ‘the man’ (a la Total Recall), but then turning up to find it’s actually an over-written choose-your-adventure movie. You sit next to a twitchy kid holding some remote control, who keeps pausing the action every fifteen seconds meaning you have to keep prompting the story forward, throughout the mandatory 70-80 hour+ run time.
Ludicrously hum-able tunes and thrilling heist sequences cannot entirely mask the repetition found in the insane number of time/resource management sinks that shout to be noticed in the cramped space of your UI. Persona 5 clearly has all the features and content that will have JRPG and anime fans overcome by the sheer volume of content they love, and it is an impressive achievement on those terms, being on the same vast narrative scale of titles like Skyrim. However, in trying to incorporate even the more mundane aspects of modern student life into its RPG matrix, the pace seems artificially padded for persistent grinding in an endless array of stats. This is not a title for casual pick-up-and-play sessions, designed as it is with hardcore gamers in mind.
The game is a deep experience but may put off anyone wanting to find out what all the fuss is about, but longtime fans will blush from the love heaped on them by ambitious developers. Any game that speaks of the struggle of people against power is to be commended for being timely and brave – if only such a tale could be have been made accessible to a wider proportion of the young audience for which it was intended.
Rating: 7 out of 10
P.S. nice Totoro reference, I saw what you did there, Altus.