N.B : Pictures for this review were taken from the trailers and by taking photos of my screen (see last paragraph). Sorry for the lesser quality.
“You have been betrayed“. Here’s how Persona 5 starts : roughly ¾ of the game is a flashback telling how the main character, whose code-name is Joker, falls in the dire situation he’s in immediately when the game starts. The tension hence rises from the very start, foreseeing the mastery in which this fifth tale will be told.
The main character in Persona 5 is originally a quiet young man, but gets himself involved in a criminal assault case and gets the blame pinned on him. Released on bail, he must pursue its studies at Shujin high school without crossing the red line again to clear his record. He lives in resentment until being magically warped at night in the Velvet Room, supernatural place where a fishy character called Igor gives him superpowers. Joker can now jump in the unconscious of the most dangerous villains and force them to confess their crimes. Driven by the hatred of the man who had him wrongly accused, Joker establishes with his classmates Ann and Ryûji the kokoro no kaitôdan, a group of thieves who steal the unconscious to bring justice.
In Persona 5, the time is limited : the story lasts for 1 year in the game or so, and every dungeon will have to be cleared within 2 or 3 weeks, one day passing each time your enter a dungeon. Your target’s unconscious takes the form of themed dungeons, such as a casino, a museum, a castle… the goal being to steal the treasure hidden at its center in order to make the criminal spill the beans. You’ll therefore have to progress in the dungeon little by little, one day after another, taking advantage of safe rooms which work as checkpoints where you can teleport once you’ve unlocked them. SP (skills points required to use magic or various capacities) are the limiting factor : when you run of it, you can’t attack efficiently nor can you heal yourself. That would be the time you go back to reality and aim for a fresh start another day. There are items to recover SP while in a dungeon, but they’re extremely rare and believe me, you’d prefer saving them for the last battles.
The level design of those dungeons is quite good, especially the museum where in one sector you need to find your way from painting to painting, or also the casino which makes a clever use of the theme of gambling. Moreover, you’ll come across various puzzles, switches, slots machines… lots of original ways to keep high interest and enjoyable brainstorming in exploring the places. A small word on stealth : the game system will ask you to take ennemies by surprise. If you don’t, the alert level of the dungeon will rise and shadows (name of the monsters in Persona) will become stronger. Persona 5 being no Metal Gear Solid, this aspect is fairly minor as shadows can’t see very far. There are plenty of hiding spots so taking your foes by surprise is never difficult. In my walkthrough, alert level has never been a problem.
Fights are turn-based in a classic way. The point is to make the best use of your skills and magic to strike the enemy’s weak point, and support magic is also key to victory. There are a dozen of different elements to choose from and when you strike with the right one, it’s stunned and your character can play again immediately : that’s called the “one more”. With that system, you can end the fight more quickly and therefore save your precious SP. Better still, when all enemies are stunned, your enter the “negotiation” phase. One shadow will ask you a series of stupid questions (like “my girlfriend is waiting, can I go now?”). If you find the series of answers that pleases it, it will either abandon the fight or join you as a new persona.
While Joker’s companions have a set persona of their own, himself actually has access to a set of personas. He can welcome the shadows obtained by negotiation, and those can be merged to give birth to even more powerful personas in to keep Joker strong. Personas have their own weaknesses so your characters can be victim of a “one more” from an opponent. Then you must carefully choose the personas you will equip Joker with, because any KO of him means game over. Joker must have a range of varied personas in order to strike every possible weakness or withstand difficult encounters. You can also strengthen an existing persona, which makes it possible to keep your favorite ones (I did the whole game with Genbu, a shadow showing up in the very first dungeon), or even merging via internet to get personas that you might miss. There are dozens of different personas in the game, and their management is a tactical choice that makes Persona 5 rich in terms of battle strategy. It’s almost like Persona 5 was including a whole Pokemon game in itself.
As for secondary activities, Persona 5 here again is insanely rich. Base-ball, fishing, retro gaming, small jobs, fitness and even a series of crosswords (very hard in Japanese, trust me). That of course isn’t the full list, but every of those activities serves one purpose : increasing Joker’s human qualities : dexterousness, kindness, intelligence, charisma, guts. Those statistics will allow you to deepen the bonds with other characters, playable or not. Persona 5 indeed makes you meet numerous NPCs with their own substory. Elegantly represented by tarot cards, those partners will bestow you useful passive skills : pre-emptive gunfire, negotiation assist, cover, healing bad status, allowing a ally to play one more turn… Those cooperations are of critical importance to your adventure : I think the game would have been 3 times harder without Hifumi or Kawakami.
Persona 5 regularly features school part, where Joker is unlucky enough to be tested by the teacher every single morning! Teachers who are absolutely remarkable characters with their exuberant design and their hilarious behavior. That’s where Persona 5 turns into a gold mine of general knowledge, because you’re asked cranky but yet very interesting questions. Which quantity of gold has been extracted since its discovery? Where in Japan can you see the sun first? Which is the density of stars in the universe? All those are of course trick questions but you’ll amazed at the number of astonishing truths they bring ! Geography, history, biology, technology, etymology… everything’s there and the game will test your memory in written test that deal with the same topics from a different angle. A game within the game, another one.
Contrary to others JRPG far less polished (or not finished at all), Persona 5 takes geat care in managing its characters and the balance of the narrative. The formation of the party is very progressive, with one new character every 10-15 hours or so. Each of the 8 playable characters has thus ample time to be well introduced with a whole chapter to know their past and goals. You come to know them all, and reject none. The members of the kaitôdan show strong cohesion and draws the player’s sympathy like few RPGs do. All that is of course illustrated by numerous cut-scenes and dialogs that create a strong bond between the character, hence a growing emotion until the beautiful ending.
NPCs also have a story of their own, with here again the same eagerness to know more and the tension when it unfolds. The only disappointment in terms of characters is Futaba being locked the traditional “navigator” role, so not playable. I think this artificial role should be removed because it leads only to the misuse of a excellent character. By the way, her commentary is far less good than Morgana’s.
But Persona 5’s true genius is its ability to handle humor and suspense at the same level of awesomeness. Atlus has cooked us a real treasure of humor with loads of hilarious exchanges between the characters, surprise effects like in Futaba’s chapter. Let’s also mention the negotiations with the shadows, because Joker’s scathing answers are truly delicious. Dubbing, while far from being extensive, is lively. Voice actors and actresses inspire an original personality to each character : Morgana’s tone is over-the-top, Futaba speaks real fast which gives away her otaku life bent on her computer, and Joker rarely speaks but his lines in combat mark his strength as leader. Atlus did a critically right choice in snatching those original voices.
But Persona 5 is also the master of suspense thanks to an increasing tension in its main story. The kaitôdan‘s breakings happen as cases of dementia and suspect deaths become a major worry for the country. You come to understand fairly quickly that high-ranked individual are acting behind the scenes are plotting nasty stuff and the heroes will have to deal with increasingly formidable opponents. The game has a strong Death Note taste in itself with Akechi Gôrô, a young and brilliant detective that appears to have strong leads in its investigation against you. The story parts involving this character are almost as good as Takeshi Obata’s manga. Atlus won’t even hesitate to place bad endings, or scenes that are false endings the keep the pressure on the player, whose feelings become mixed between passion and fear of what can happen. Persona 5, it’s also equally tricky and epic fights, boss streaks that will drive either to madness or ecstasy, challenges as unexpected as exhilarating, and of final boss of a magnitude and complexity you’ve not seen since a while. Impossible to fully translate in words what came into my head while experiencing such memorable, such perfectly designed direction and challenge.
Persona 5’s main scenario has also a moral sense in the way it illustrates a generation gap : the one of the post-war economic boom and Japan’s Lost Generation, where greatly enriched adults, blinded by power and money, looks down and the young and refuse to pass the baton. The kaitôdan symbolizes the will of young people to break outdated rules and rebuild a fair society. There’s indeed between the lines a criticism on a disillusioned society, people unwilling to take a stand and hiding in the comfort of bestowing the power to unscrupulous elites. The heart of the problem raised by the story is about the capacity of mankind to fulfill its destiny… or not, and Persona 5 has some brilliant allegories.
From a technical and artistic point of view, the game is still very good, but uneven. Let’s say it straight, Persona 5 on PS4 doesn’t seem to look any different from a PS3 game, the character modeling for example being mediocre at best. A close sight to the main characters clearly show 3D models far below what we could see in Tales of Berseria one month earlier. The dungeons fare better but aren’t ultimately impressive, despite some cool style, especially in the casino where cards are litterally raining around you. Animations on the other hand feel much richer and more detailed, like critical blows and other funny gestures.
No objection still on the general design, which is the most groundbreaking in ages of JRPGs : high-end menus make it pleasure just to open them, personas are very cool too, character design almost always finds the right tone… Music is divided between somewhat bland melodies in the real world (the theme in Joker’s room is downright annoying), vigorous themes in dungeons and fantastic battle music. The tracks called Big Boss and Will Power are masterpiece and should be treasured for eternity. In the end, Persona 55 has only one true drawback : it’s hostile to freedom. No PS4share, no screenshot is allowed to come out of your adventure. Atlus denies the fundamental principle of the PS4, and the players’ freedom to share their experience. If the kaitôdan really existed, surely would they visit its totalitarian publisher.
Persona 5 lasted me 134 hours, it is the longest solo game in my carrier. Better still, those are 134 hours without any artificial filler, because many shortcuts prevents the waste of time. 134 hours of fully dense and intense JRPG, with always a whole range of possibilities. Persona 5 is a JRPG like you don’t see every year.