Persona 5 was released in Japan on September 15th, 2016 as a way to celebrate the “Shin Megami Tensei: Persona” franchise’s 20 year anniversary. Since the release of the first game on September 20th, 1996, the Persona series has improved with each new entry and Persona 5 is no exception. As Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 was a critically acclaimed title, fans had high hopes for Persona 5 before its release and thankfully it does not let these fans down. Persona 5 is proof that turn-based JRPGs can still hold their own against other genres and that reliving high school as a Japanese schoolboy is much more entertaining than it may sound.
After a brief animated sequence depicting the game’s characters, the player is dropped straight into control of the main character (who from this point on will be referred to as Akira Kurusu, which is the name the manga authors gave this character; although he can be named by the player and is commonly referred to in-game as ‘Joker’). The introductory scene involving an escape from a casino’s security officers provides context for a quick battle to establish the game’s combat system, and a moment to showcase the stealth elements the game has to offer as well. No matter the player’s actions, Akira ends up being captured by the police, who inform him that he was ratted out by one of his teammates, and is then incarcerated. From this point on, the majority of the game is played in the past before Akira’s arrest, starting in the month of April of the year 20XX.
Unfortunately, in spite of Persona 5’s many successes, the most notable problem with the game actually appears very early on in the form of an overly long hand-holding session into the primary gameplay and how the player spends their free time during the day. This takes between three to five hours depending on the player’s speed, and freedom to make decisions should have been given to the player sooner. Ironically enough, the game’s central theme is that of freedom and rebellion as it centers around a group of high school students who see the adults in their lives as being corrupt and abusive. This starts with an Olympic medal winning volleyball coach who is physically abusing his students and goes all the way up to Masayoshi Shido, a powerful politician who will stop at nothing to become the Prime Minister of Japan.
Every step of the way, the player is introduced to new and interesting characters who each have their own personal issues which can be explored in detail, depending on how invested the player becomes over time. Interacting with a majority of these characters results in the creation of a ‘confidant’ system which can be leveled up with future interactions, and these confidants greatly aid the player in and outside of battle. Leveling up a confidant relationship with a teammate will allow them to take mortal blows for Akira, along with other benefits including the ability to heal each other of status ailments. Leveling up a confidant relationship with those outside of battle also yields useful benefits, which range from the ability to buy items at lower prices to receiving a larger amount of experience from each battle. Each confidant relationship also corresponds to specific Arcana, which are classes of Tarot Cards (Fool, Magician, Hierophant, etc). The higher the level of a confidant, the more experience a Persona is given upon creation, which then ties into the titular Persona mechanic which is vital to understanding and succeeding at playing Persona 5.
Persona are summoned entities that are representative of their user’s personality and desires, and while most characters are limited to only being able to use the one Persona they sign a contract with, Akira has the unique ability to be able to use multiple Persona. New Persona can either be granted to the player through the process of negotiating with an enemy through verbal prompts when they have low health, or when they are fused together in the Velvet Room. The Velvet Room being a recurring element in games in the “Persona” franchise, which is home to Igor, a strange older man with bloodshot eyes and a long pointy nose. In Persona 5 Igor is accompanied by Caroline and Justine, who assist Akira with the Velvet Room’s functionalities. As the game progresses and the confidant relationship between Akira and Igor is upgraded, the ways in which to create and train Persona grow tremendously. These processes range from placing two Persona into individual guillotines to create one, or placing one into an electric chair to turn the Persona into a helpful item.
Persona are able to carry out special attacks (elemental and more severe physical attacks) and are a large part of the game’s turn-based battle system. Aside from using their Persona, characters also have the option of attacking enemies either with a melee weapon or a gun, each weapon inflicting a different type of physical damage. While the SP (skill points) used in combat can be regenerated using items from vending machines and other locations, gun ammo is limited and is refilled when leaving the Palace for the day and coming back the next. All of these elements culminate in an extremely well done battle system that will punish the player for mindlessly selecting moves or mashing buttons without thought. Players are not given the luxury to only perform skills with their Persona due to the limited amount of SP each character has, and not all Shadows (untrained Persona) encountered in the game are susceptible to physical damage. That being said, as the player does progress through the game they can press the Options button on their controller, which fast-forwards through the battle (as well as conversations) to make quick work of lower-level enemies through a series of melee-only attacks.
Palaces (the equivalent of dungeons in other games) exist within the Metaverse, a universe similar to that of everyday citizens but with the inclusion of Shadows and other supernatural characters. These Palaces are larger-than-life manifestations of someone’s twisted desires, leading to the creation of a fully-formed castle which is home to volleyball coach Kamoshida, who sees himself as being the King of the school. This Palace is equipped with jail cells filled with high school students at the bottom, while the top of Kamoshida’s Palace has a special room dedicated to his treasure. Once this treasure is stolen from the Palace and brought into the real world, the owner of the Palace suffers a change of heart and confesses to all of their crimes. In his Palace, Kamoshida also takes on a different appearance, changing from his workout gear into nothing more than pink underwear and a regal robe. Akira and his friends also change their outfits once they are recognized as threats within the Palace and adorn sleek and stylish costumes.
As Akira and company traverse through the Palace, they must hide in the darkness behind furniture and other large objects in order to get an advantage on Shadows that monitor the halls. If executed correctly, pressing the X button will allow the player to ambush the enemy, giving them the first turn, and in some instances if the party is of a much higher level than the enemy, it will be an insta-kill and the Persona will automatically be bestowed upon Akira. However, if the player is unsuccessful in their attempts to hide the enemy will be able to attack the player in the Palace which translates to the team of Shadows having the first turn instead. In addition, when a Shadow sees Akira not in cover they will begin to chase after him and the security level in the Palace will rise. If the security level in the Palace raises to 100%, everyone is instructed by their cat-friend Morgana to leave the Palace as more Shadows will soon be approaching otherwise. Thankfully, the stealth mechanic in the game is very generous in how close Akira can be to the enemies while covered in darkness. Also, when the player is done with school for the day, they can also choose to craft items which let them escape from battles, Palaces, and lower the overall security level so they are not forcibly removed from the Palace.
Crafting items is just one option for players finished with their school-work, as they can also hang out with friends to raise their confidant rank, train at the local gym to raise their HP and SP, go to the batting cages in hopes of hitting a home run, or players can pursue a pastime like studying in the library, playing video games, or watching rental DVDS as each of these tasks will raise one of Akira’s five social stats. These stats are: Guts, Proficiency, Charm, Knowledge, and Kindness. Each of these social stats help Akira forge new confidant relationships as some characters are inaccessible without a certain level in an individual social stat (ex. Makoto is a very smart student so Akira has to have a high level of Knowledge to interact with her). Depending on the player’s level of planning before the playing the game, they may be able to max out every single one of these social stats on their first run through the game, but it is very unlikely if not impossible that they could do this and also max out every single confidant relationship as well. This is why social stats are carried over to the game’s New Game Plus mode after beating it the first time, which makes it much easier to max out every single confidant relationship on their second try.
Another after-school activity available to the player is the ability to explore the area known as Mementos. As the game progresses, Akira and his friends decide to name themselves the Phantom Thieves and find out about a much larger area in the Metaverse that is not quite a Palace but something entirely new to the team. Certain areas of Mementos will be blocked off only to be unlocked as the story progresses and other Palaces are destroyed, letting the characters delve deeper in order to hopefully find the truth as to what Mementos truly is and why Morgana is so eager to find what is at the bottom. As the Phantom Thieves soar in popularity, a fan-site (nicknamed in the game as being a Phan-site) is created and hosted by one of Akira’s classmates at Shujin Academy. Eventually, requests for the Phantom Thieves help are then sent into the website which are received by Akira and enacted by the Phantom Thieves in Mementos. These requests can range from someone as small as a high-school bully to the “Head Honcho in Showbiz,” and Mementos is always open up until the end of the game if the player feels as if the Phantom Thieves are too under-leveled.
Overall, Persona 5 is an excellent game. The gameplay proves that turn-based JRPGS are not a dying breed and can be revitalized if the right amount of care is put into them. The story is much darker than the previous Persona titles, and appropriate as the game takes on heavy subject matters such as sexual abuse, suicide, the true nature of mankind, and (a whole lot of) death. The areas and characters look beautiful when paired with the PlayStation 4’s graphical power, and the game’s user interface oozes with charm thanks to the spectacular font used, along with other creative choices made to spice up what would in many games be rather bland. The music heard in and outside of battle ranges from welcoming to blood-pumping, and makes the game that much better as a result. Despite an overly long introduction, Persona 5 is one of the best games available on the PlayStation 4, and due to its timeless nature it will continue to be so.