Persona 5 Review

Persona 5 is a game overflowing with style. From bold black and red menus that leap off the screen to the pop-and-lock of scene transitions that carry the player from one colorful corner of Tokyo to the next, it’s a game about youthful exuberance and the power that lies within it. But its beauty isn’t just skin deep. Persona 5’s gameplay systems evolve and coalesce over its 80+ hours to deliver a confidently executed role-playing experience that is not only satisfying, but worth the almost decade-long wait since Persona 4.

Like its predecessors, it’s part social simulator, part dungeon crawler. By day, you’re a high school student–busy taking classes, visiting cafes, watching movies, and hanging out with friends. But by night you are the leader of the Phantom Thieves, a ragtag troupe of idealistic teenagers that infiltrate a parallel reality called the Metaverse. Here, the corrupted hearts of adults have manifested as Palaces, and the Phantom Thieves must find and steal Treasures within them to reform their marks, and by extension, society. Think Lupin the Third, but with a socially conscious supernatural twist.

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Together with your friends, you infiltrate the Metaverse. Here lie physical representations of people’s personalities, called Personas–angels, demons, and monsters of all shapes and sizes that you battle using elemental attacks. Physical moves can be used to chip away at health points incrementally, but exploiting an elemental weakness elevates battles from turn-based slapsies to a flurry of crushing combos. Hit an enemy weak to fire with Agi and it will crumple, giving you an additional turn to exploit another enemy’s vulnerability, either by switching Persona to adopt a different elemental alignment or by passing the baton onto a teammate who can pick up where you left off. Once they’ve all keeled over, you can launch an All-Out Attack and watch as black silhouettes of your team dance across a striking red background, slicing and dicing enemies until they burst into a shower of blood. This triumphant animation calls to mind The Bride’s iconic blue room battle against the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, and even though you’ll see it hundreds of times it never stops being cool.

Improvements to the battle system mean that if you’ve already identified an enemy’s weakness, instead of trawling through menus to locate the specific ability, tapping R1 takes you straight to the move you need. When combined with the baton passing, streamline the turn-based fights into pacy experiences that maintain forward momentum with ease. There’s nothing more satisfying than firing off Persona spells, tagging in teammates, and wiping out waves of Shadows without them even getting a look in. Persona 5’s combat pulls together some of the best elements from previous games–and it’s borderline addictive as a result.

Persona 5’s combat pulls together some of the best elements from previous games–and it’s borderline addictive as a result.

Negotiations from early Shin Megami Tensei and Persona titles also make a return, but the system is much improved. If you knock down a Shadow, you’ll surround it with guns drawn and can commence an All-Out Attack or simply talk to them. The conversation becomes a weird Q&A about your character or society a whole, and it often throws up some hilarious dialogue. There’s nothing quite like winning over a succubus by playing hard to get or gaining the favour of a giant demon sitting on a toilet by telling him you, too, are a pretty easy going kinda guy.

Whether you’re successful or not, negotiating will get you something. You can demand items, money, or a monster’s allegiance, but whether your request is granted depends on your gift of the gab. I found negotiation to be a much more useful reward system than the random pickings offered by Shuffle Time in Persona 3 and 4. When filling my Persona compendium or trying to fuse a specific Persona I’d ask them to join my cause. While grinding I’d use an All-Out Attack to earn more XP. In a pinch I’d demand an item. The new system let me reap the benefits I needed at that point in my playthrough.

Palaces are areas given form by the distorted desires of powerful, corrupted individuals, while the process of infiltrating is akin to pulling off a heist. You need to identify your target by conducting investigations in the real world, then enter the Palace to explore it and secure an infiltration route. Once you’ve located the corrupted heart of the individual–represented as an ethereal Treasure–you send a calling card to the target in the real world. This act of showmanship not only alerts the world to the target’s misdeeds but also gives physical form to the Treasure in the Palace so it can be stolen.

And those Palaces are the best dungeons the series has ever had. No longer are you climbing through levels of procedurally generated corridors to reach a boss at the top. Instead, each Palace contains a myriad of puzzles to crack, traps to avoid, and of course, Shadows to defeat. They are intricate, striking locations that unravel as you explore them, each varying in size, scope, and gameplay opportunities. One is a rat maze filled with locked doors and looping hallways, another is a giant safe that you need to crack, and one is a crumbling pyramid filled with walking mummies. They feel almost like different worlds from a Mario game, each uniquely themed and cycling through gameplay ideas like cards in a rolodex.

As Phantom Thieves, you sneak through halls, darting between cover and jumping over obstacles. As you slink into the shadows and ambush an unsuspecting enemy, getting in that crucial first shot, you realize that these Palaces are designed for you to be sneaky. And it feels really satisfying to bounce between coverpoints and ambush an enemy … when it works. Although you’re encouraged to take enemies out sneakily, doing so is made difficult by the game’s uncooperative camera, which often restricts your view. Similarly, clambering over obstacles doesn’t quite feel as good as it should. There are specific spots that you can climb up to access more areas and I often missed these because I wasn’t standing in the pixel perfect point to get the prompt needed to jump.

But honestly, this is nitpicking. I loved my time in each of the Palaces, wandering around using my Third Eye Ability to uncover secrets and steal treasures, feeling like Batman on Opposite Day. Its puzzles never became too taxing, even in later dungeons that required backtracking to find a specific item, enemy, or switch using the Third Eye. In these areas the game mercifully opens up shortcuts for you, so you don’t feel like you’re wasting too much time.

Persona 5 has a hefty run time and while the story remains engaging until its final moments, the gameplay has some pacing issues towards the end.

Balance in such a huge game is tricky. I played on Normal difficulty, and for the vast majority of the game enemies felt well-matched to my level. Persona 5 has a hefty run time and while the story remains engaging until its final moments, the gameplay has some pacing issues towards the end. Instakill attacks, a short supply of elemental power-refuelling SP items, and going long stretches of miniboss after miniboss without a save point mean the latter stages can sometimes feel more frustrating than enjoyable. I’ve been wiped out half an hour into a fight on multiple occasions, and I’m still a bit bitter.

But Palaces are just one part of the Metaverse. Once you take a Treasure, Palaces collapse, so they’re not really the place to grind for levels. For those that enjoy the grind-heavy areas of P3’s Tartarus and P4’s randomly generated dungeons there’s Mementos–society’s joint Palace, which takes the form of the depths of Tokyo’s subway system. This area is long, with many procedurally generated levels spiralling down towards a mysterious, seemingly unreachable core. It would feel like a monotonous job were it not for the Phansite. One of your Confidants believes so much in the plight of the Phantom Thieves that he sets up a website where members of the public can leave messages of support (or memes).

More importantly, Phansite users can suggest people they think deserve a change of heart. These are figures that aren’t quite evil enough to have their own Palace, but who are still misbehaving enough to spawn a demi-boss within Mementos. These side stories of abusive boyfriends, scammers, and thieves are mere tasters–bite size chunks of justice that you can dole out at your leisure while grinding for experience. Infiltrating Palaces can sometimes take hours, so quickly dealing with a few Phansite Requests in one go is a satisfying microcosm of the larger gameplay loop in Persona 5. Plus it made me feel like Judge Dredd, dishing out justice as I saw fit to clean up the city.

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Persona 5 creates a rewarding synergy between its social simulator and dungeon crawling by making everyday activities in the former empower you in the latter. With limited time in each day and a constant deadline to steal Treasures by, it’s up to the player to prioritize after-school and weekend activities. Attributes such as Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, and Guts can be improved by studying, working in part-time jobs, crafting tools, or watching DVDs. In turn, these enable you to build deeper bonds with other characters to strengthen yourself and your cause.

Persona games live and die on characterisation as much as they do on the RPG mechanics that underpin the gameplay, and in that respect the latest entry delivers a cast that is loveable, quirky, and nuanced in equal measure. Although the main group neatly fits into classic anime archetypes initially, over time everyone reveals the baggage they carry and, as you solidify your bonds, they start to show their complexities, creating emotional moments where you work through their pain together.

Sometimes their goals will align with yours and sometimes they won’t, so the group can be a little rowdier than previous Persona teams–but that only adds to the experience. I loved that you really had to invest time and effort into each character to crack their personality and unlock how they truly felt. Morgana the amnesic talking cat (it is a Japanese game, after all) is shrouded in mystery, determined to learn about his forgotten past. The quirky Futaba, despite suffering from extreme social anxiety, is the strategic genius behind the group’s Metaverse adventures. Ryuji’s boisterousness is both the energy the team needs to push forward and the powder keg that could be its undoing. And Ann deals with issues of self-doubt in the competitive field of modelling. These characters grow and change as you spend more time with them: They go from being mechanical tools that you engage with to strengthen their Personas, to real people you can identify and sympathize with. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I was leaving behind friends I had known for years.

Building these relationships with teammates is key to success in the Metaverse. Increasing Confidant Ranks (a rebrand of the Social Link system from Persona 4) by spending time with each of your friends not only affords you deeper insight into their personalities, but also provides bonuses and special moves in battle. A teammate who initially was closed off and distant in the real world can end up literally taking a bullet for you in the Metaverse. Similarly, by improving your personal traits through daily activities you can meet a variety of side-characters that teach you new abilities or offer bonuses that feed back into the battle system.

More than any entry in the series before it, Persona 5 manages to make the mundane not only fit into its gameplay loop but be essential to it. Atlus has perfected the back and forth investment and reward dynamic between the game’s two parts to point where even doing laundry is gratifying–and how many games can you say that about?

While there are moments of levity in Persona 5, the actions of the Phantom Thieves are important and often have much bigger implications than even they intended. Persona 5 deals with complex subject matter and really doesn’t shy away from dark, even uncomfortable, story beats. A constant theme of the game is oppression and injustice, specifically how people can be suffering them in silence. It uses personal hardships and the pressures of modern day society to explore how the actions of the older generation affect the future of the youth. But there’s also an optimism to it all. Its cast approaches complex issues and takes on overwhelming odds with a clarity and gusto that can only be born from teenage naivety, and there’s a refreshing, cathartic quality to being part of that. But of course, just like in the real world, things aren’t always black and white, and the game does an excellent job of showing how even well-meaning actions can have adverse consequences.

Narratively and thematically, Persona 5 has the potential to overwhelm–particularly once it starts digging into Jungian theories of psychology. Thankfully, however, the writing does a fantastic job of eliminating unnecessary exposition, which ensures the important storylines are clear and everyone–especially series newcomers–is on the same page. It means the first ten hours are a little slow, and may make a lot of surface level observations, but not to the detriment of the story or its characters. Even with the heavy subject matter, it doesn’t become overbearing and in fact is filled with little jokes and easter eggs to lighten the mood where appropriate. The localisation team has done a superb job of translating the comedy for a Western audience, too. I’m a big fan of the DVDs you can rent–spoofs of popular Western media like ‘The X-Folders‘ or ‘Bubbly Hills, 90210.’

Within Persona 5 is a complex set of interconnected gameplay mechanics, and in almost every aspect Atlus has executed on its vision exceptionally, barring the pacing issues towards the end. At every turn, it presents something to marvel at, whether it’s the fluid combat, vibrant world, or the many memorable characters. It’s a game I could talk about for hours; I haven’t mentioned the ability to connect to the Thieves Guild, which lets you see how other players spent their day or ask them for help answering questions at school. Or the thumping acid-jazz-infused soundtrack that I’ve not been able to get out of my head. Or even just the joy of seeing how it stylishly transitions between menus. But that encapsulates why Persona 5 is a game that shouldn’t be missed. It’s stuffed to bursting point with gameplay ideas and presentation flourishes–there’s an overwhelming level of artistry in every part of Persona 5, making it a truly standout entry in the series. It’s a refined, effortlessly stylish RPG that will be talked about for years to come.

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