After an eight year break the Persona series is finally back. The latest installment, Persona 5, is well worth the long wait. It is by far the best entry in the series, boasting the best gameplay and art style of all the Persona titles, while continuing the series’ excellent characters and story. While there are blemishes here and there, they do little to detract from the fantastic experience of Persona 5.
Persona 5 places its protagonist in Tokyo after having been falsely accused of a crime and put on probation. He soon discovers that he has the power to travel inside the hearts of corrupted adults and to force them to confess their crimes. He teams up with a crew of lovable misfits (including a talking cat named Morgana) and they form the Phantom Thieves, a ragtag group of rebels bent on reforming society. The plot generally follows the typical structure of Persona games and of Shin Megami Tensei games in particular (especially toward the end). What sets Persona 5 apart are the serious issues it addresses in its plot. Sexual harassment, suicide, the meaning of art, the nature of justice and the impact of social media are all discussed in the game with varying levels of success; for example I think the game does a decent job of exploring sexual harassment and the meaning of art but drops the ball on the nature of justice. Despite some mishaps, the fact that the game even tries to address issues like these is commendable. Persona 5 unflinchingly confronts dark topics even if it isn’t well-equipped to do so.
The characters of a Persona game can make it or break it. Fortunately Persona 5 features a great cast, each of them compelling in their own way. Of special note are the protagonist himself, Yusuke and Futaba, who all overcome serious challenges in a believable and well-executed way. The Phantom Thieves as a whole are very well-written and they interact with each other in a believable and entertaining way. Little mundane moments like watching Futaba argue with Yusuke or Ryuji with Morgana are some of the game’s highlights, thanks to just how likable all the characters are. The Phantom Thieves seem like real people and you walk away from Persona 5 with the feeling that you’ve made a new group of friends.
Persona 5 introduces some much-needed changes to the series’ gameplay. The game is divided into two parts: dungeon crawling and simulation. In the simulation sections you live the life of a typical high school student: you go to school, study, text in class, get a part time job, hang out with friends, play video games. Each action you take in the simulation portion impacts the dudgeon crawling: each bond you make with a friend allows you to summon more powerful personas or grants you special abilities in battle. The wide variety of activities available, interesting side characters and stories, and the one to one correlation between simulation and dudgeon crawling make life in Tokyo fun and exciting.
The dudgeon crawling has received vast improvements in Persona 5. Instead of randomly generated dungeons with nothing to do but fight battle after battle, each of Persona 5’s dungeons (which they call Palaces, or manifestations of the corruption in people’s hearts) contain puzzles, traps and surprises that make each feel distinct and refreshing. Gone are the days when you just wandered hallway after hallway with nothing to break the monotony. Each of Persona 5’s Palaces is bursting with color, style, and various challenges unique to that Palace–for example, you have to critically examine paintings in one Palace, rearrange broken Ancient Egyptian art in another, sneak in the shadows to gain enemy intel in still another.
In addition to improved dungeons the game has also improved its combat. Persona 5 still uses the element and turned-based RPG combat that the series is famous for but has introduced some changes. Each character now wields a gun in addition to their main weapon, giving the player more combat options. Players can hide behind cover to ambush enemies, giving them a stylish way to gain the upper hand. One of the most important changes is the new Baton Pass ability. If the player has formed a bond with a particular teammate in the simulation part of the game they can hand over the protagonists’ turn to them, boosting their attack power in the process. This ability has countless tactical applications and was my trump card in many difficult battles. The last major change is the enemy negotiation system. The protagonist gains new personas by convincing enemies to join him. Many have criticized this system but I found it refreshing and fairly easy to use. It makes gaining new persons feel like an accomplishment to be proud of, each of them a badge of pride. With these major changes the gameplay of Persona 5 is the best of the series.
Not everything in Persona 5 is great. There are some flaws that blemish this otherwise excellent game. Its localization and translation are its biggest flaws. Many lines in Persona 5 are stilted or too obviously a word-for-word translation from Japanese. Certain phrases like “don’t say anything unnecessary” appear over and over again regardless of whether or not their usage makes sense in English. I don’t know what these phrases are in Japanese but they are obviously much more versatile than their literal English translation. It’s a shame that a game that so heavily emphasizes plot and character has such a shoddy translation.
Another flaw that tarnishes the experience is Ann’s characters arc. As one of the original Phantom Thieves you spend a lot of time with, her flaws are unavoidable. Ann is a model who uses her beauty and sex appeal as a means of self-empowerment and inspiration to others. While this plotline could be written well, as it appears in Persona 5 it falls victim to the many sexist stereotypes that accrue to a story of this sort. Because of her falling victim to tired and problematic tropes, Ann’s plotline tarnishes the game’s overall writing.
Despite a few hiccups here and there Persona 5 offers a stylish, emotional and just plain fun experience. It shows that traditional turn-based RPGs still have a place in the current market and that after so many years the Persona series is still at the top of its game.