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25th Jan 2020 | 1,879 views
Game: Persona 5.
Well, it has been a while since I’ve reviewed a major game release. I usually try to focus on smaller, more obscure games to review since I do feel I can say more about those without being redundant. I either find games that I played long ago to see if they still hold any value or much more recent titles that went under the radar, or people just forgot about. Still, from time to time it’s good to come out of your comfort zone a talk about something different. And considering I’ve talked about this game a lot already, I feel like it’s the correct thing to finally give you my opinion about it after all.
But first, a bit of backstory to this. My experiences with the Shin Megami Tensei series, Atlus’ flagship series, is superficial at best, and those titles I’ve played are hit or miss. The staple complexity of the series mixed with a relatively slow progression was in full effect in games such as in Devil Survivor Overclocked, Devil Summoner Soul Hackers and Shin Megami Tensei IV, which means I’ve not really enjoyed playing them that much, even if I have to admit I have dumped quite a lot of hours in Devil Survivor Overclocked. Its main spinoff, however, is quite a different story. As many of you know already, the Persona series is much lighthearted and accessible than the rest of the franchise, which has allowed it to garner a lot more popularity than the original series (though it would’ve been hard to say if Persona 1 were the only one, because it barely moves that much from the original template). It would be Persona 3 and especially Persona 4 that would actually break the mold, reinforcing the story and characters and keeping the gameplay simpler than in other SMT games. Those two were great, especially Persona 4 with its colorful designs, interesting characters and an overall upbeat tune for a game about uncovering a series of murders. They also made the franchise very popular, spawning quite a lot of spinoffs. So, as you can imagine, there were quite a lot of expectations for the next game in the series, which would come out for the PS3 and the PS4 between 2016 and 2017 for the Japanese and overseas releases respectively. Its popularity only rose after its release and after Joker’s announcement in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, which made many think it would come to the Switch, something that would prove to be false, at least at the time of writing. Needless to say, I had heard a lot about it, so my expectations were quite high, and after much waiting for a Switch version, I gave up and went looking for the one version I could play, the PS3 one.
Now, it’s important to remark that I’ve played the vanilla PS3 version. Thus, I can’t comment on the myriad of downloadable content this game has, like the Japanese voice acting (for some reason DLC instead of it being part of the core package), or all of the extra suits. I can’t comment on the internet functionality of the game, since I’ve played it offline. Nor I can really include the content from Persona 5 Royal, because it’s an updated re-release and not an expansion, and besides the game is neither on the PS3 nor it has released yet.
The plot of Persona 5 is immediately clear, especially if you have already played Persona 3 or 4 before. You are a regular teenager that suddenly finds himself in a supernatural ordeal, finding friends to fight the disturbances with, helping the community around you and trying to solve a certain mystery. The difference with the other games, however, is that P5 is much bolder with its themes and its storytelling. The game takes advantage of the new hardware’s power since the PS2 days to dazzle you from the very beginning with what’s probably the flashiest level in the game, the casino, while also giving the player a quick tease of what the combat’s going to be, as well as the new exploration and movement mechanics. It also throws you right in the middle of the story, with the character ending up imprisoned and beaten up by the authorities. Most of the game is told as a flashback, as the player character tells how everything came to be. Usually I find this “how did this happen?” scenarios tiresome, as they pretty much spoil quite a lot of things from the very beginning. However, the storytelling actually manages to make this work splendidly. Not only it helps to tell the story, but it gets incorporated into the gameplay rather well, getting frequent reminders of what happened and how everyone is trying to puzzle all of the mysteries of the game together. The story also has a very clear theme all throughout the game: rebellion. All the characters have been, or are being, threatened and abused by horrible people who abuse the system for their own benefit, and as the phantom thieves, their job is to change their hearts. They do this by entering their cognitive worlds, called palaces, and beating the personification of all their warped and tainted desires until it repents. This all happens while a certain string of strange accidents is lurking over the city, seemingly connected to this supernatural events… I love the fact that the game doesn’t shy away from very harsh and tough scenarios, some of them downright revolting. You are constantly rooting for the protagonists, though at a certain point the amount of people that need a change of heart might make you somewhat apathetic, and may make you think “just how many awful people are in this city?”, though it never becomes overly distracting, just a little distracting. Still, outside of the main story, you will have enough slice of life moments to just relax from all of the madness around you. This has been one of the great strengths of the modern Persona games, and this is no exception.
The side characters are also interesting, albeit some of them might be a bit too eccentric and cliché, but that’s a matter of personal taste. As one of the selling points of the game, the people you interact with must be interesting, and on that regard, they succeeded. Each character has his or her own story to tell, and you can interact with them to gain certain bonuses and abilities through friendship and bonding. Though the team dynamics are not quite as solid as in Persona 4, each one of the members of the Phantom Thieves are still interesting and fun to interact with in their own right. Again, pretty much all of them have a problem related to people taking advantage of them or their loved ones, and it’s your job to help them if necessary.
The presentation of the game is top notch, absolutely gorgeous attention to detail. Every single place is dripping with style that comes from an excellent choice of color palette and stylish designs. As a result, every location just pops, and this goes even further when you enter the cognitive worlds. This is where the artists have all the room they need to flex their artistic inclinations, and they did. Every palace is different than the last, all their own unique theme and style, with their own exclusive trials, puzzles and the like. You can feel they went all the way with the designs in here, and as such, it’s a pleasure to the eyes every time. Hell, I would say that the menus have more style and flair on them than other games have in their entirety. Combining that with the typical animesque design of the world and the characters, and it makes Persona 5 the most visual striking game of this generation, with very few games really coming anywhere close. The music is great as well, many catchy tunes, though it could use more variety at certain points in the game.
Once we leave the story and the presentation, we get to the actual gameplay. And it’s great too, though not as great as the previous aspects. The combat is pretty much identical to Persona 4, although smoothed somewhat to eliminate certain inconveniences (for example. that annoying card game after a victory to win personas is gone). You go through the palaces fighting shadows, creatures born from humanity’s subconscious, using an elemental system. Each one of your four squad team has a persona (minus the main character, who can have quite a lot of those). Choose an elemental attack your enemy is weak against, and you will do extra damage and incapacitate it. If you make a critical hit against your enemy, you can attack again and vice versa, and if you manage to incapacitate all of the enemies, you can do a special move, an All Out Attack, which will deal massive damage and show a cool animation. This system leaves most combat scenarios to follow the same pattern: sneak up on your enemies and use your priority to take down enemies through an All Out Attack, which is simply much more effective than just brawling them the normal way. As such, the combat can become quite slow and repetitive, which slows down the game, as you will need certain level of grinding to advance safely from level to level (though thankfully it’s much less grind-dependent than some other JRPGs out there). It also has the problem that the music theme playing while fighting mooks is always the same, adding to the monotone. It’s a great song, don’t give me wrong, but even the best songs can’t survive constant repetition without becoming annoying. The combat is easy to understand and to play, with the extra addition of a gun mechanic, which overall makes nothing but add another elemental variable, but hey, it’s something. The blocking mechanic is seldom used against anything but those “one hit kill” moves some bosses use, otherwise it’s just better to keep the attack going. During bosses, you have the chance of doing special actions, which will leave you without a member of the team, but will pull off something special after a while. They are pretty much mandatory, as certain bosses will be night unbeatable without those bonus moves.
There’s also a “Catch’em All” element to the game, as the main character can capture the shadows and turn them into his own personas. This is done either through just asking them to join you when they are down, or talking with them during certain moments. The talking part is reminiscent of other SMT games, and just like in them, it’s rather unintuitive. A bad choice of words will make the wounded persona suddenly get aggressive, or even get the jump on you. And the dialogue in this is weird. Maybe it’s just me not getting it, but I feel I can’t never reliably talk a shadow into joining me once the diplomatic process starts. The game encourages you to get as many shadows as possible, and use them as quickly as possible, since once a palace is done, the shadows that inhabit it will disappear, never to be used again in the walkthrough. You can also fuse them to create even better personas, but you’ll need to be on a higher level to make certain ones, so the process might be slow, and once you can make a certain fusion, you might find a shadow that serves the same purpose on the next palace, making it pointless. And you need to pay attention to the palaces, since the game doesn’t allow you much flexibility when it comes to time.
You see, Persona 5 has this calendar mechanic that will limit the amount of time to develop things such as social stats, confidant ranks and other sidequests. This means the game won’t ever let you just enjoy all of the activities it offers you, because you simply won’t have enough time to do them all. Many sidequests also have a time limit, and if you don’t beat them by the chosen time, they are gone. The pace of the game is, thus, completely out of your control. You are driven at the speed the game wants, never leaving you enough room to try to maximize everything you might want at your own pace. The game might not need that much grinding, but it would be nice if we had access to the certain confidant levels without ludicrous amounts of social stats. And that’s another thing, to continue some of the confidant ranks (the conversations with the side characters) you sometimes need to max out on one or two of the social stats. Which is frustrating to no end, because if you want to talk to three characters that each need to maximize their own social stat, someone is going to end up left out. The only way to prevent this problem is through a really early plan of the game, which is not really possible to do without external help and ending up spoiling everything. I swear I still don’t understand the point of this system. I get they are trying to make every moment count, but it feels like an attempt of railroading the player from early on. There is no need for this system, most JRPGs have anything of the sort.
Once you beat the game, you have the option of starting a New Game +, which allows you to start a new game to try and see what you’ve missed out, carrying over social stats, list of personas, items and money. It’s a shame you can’t carry over your level, but I guess the game is not that much grindy already, and you have access to many skills that speed up the leveling up process by the end of the game, so there’s that. Still, the option would be nice.
When I heard about Persona 5 for the first time, I thought I would find the game of the generation. But what we have here is just an excellent game, but nothing revolutionary. It’s Persona 4 with a really shinny coat of paint and new toys to play with, but it’s not a complete change for the series. As it is, though, it’s still one of the best JRPG around, and its sheer self-confidence is going to inspire many other games for years to come.