Very few games can deliver a long story that continually surprises, introducing new plotlines, characters, and complexities that add depth to the narrative. Even fewer can do it while sneaking in a satisfying combat system. With style and elegance, Persona 5 manages to do both. The turn-based RPG is a sublime collection of gameplay systems which tie together in elaborate and rewarding ways. Refreshingly unusual in both its structure and storylines, Persona 5 slowly reveals its many gameplay mechanics and the numerous story arcs surrounding them, resulting in a game that is biblical in its length and masterful in its design.
Persona 5 puts the player in the role of a Japanese high school student who is moving to a new school and town after being wrongfully accused of a crime. The gameplay follows the same formula as past Persona games: half dungeon crawling RPG, half social simulator, with a dash of Pokemon-like collecting thrown in. The crime motif is found throughout the story, with the main plot involving you and your friends masquerading as The Phantom Thieves who enter an alternate reality in order to change the hearts of criminals and despots alike. Each target has a dungeon whose artistic theme represents the way they see the world. An early example is an abusive high school volleyball coach who sees himself as king of a castle. These dungeons supply the combat in Persona while the social simulation side grants players rewards and more powerful personas through the levelling up of social links with certain people, termed confidants in the game. As the story progresses, The Phantom Thieves popularity grows, bringing with it both positive attention and negative, and presenting a narrative that is satisfying in its moral ambiguity and the way that it portrays its many characters.
How you choose to spend your time is a large part of Persona 5. Free time can be spent levelling up and collecting personas (think Pokemon, essentially) in dungeons, spending time with companions in order to increase social links, or improving aspects of yourself such as charm or knowledge. No matter what activity you choose, you’ll improve in some way, and the systems are tied together so that investing your time in one area often leads to rewards in others. For example, spending time studying will increase your knowledge, allowing you to converse with an equally intelligent companion, whose social link rewards allow you new advantages in battle, in turn allowing you to last longer in dungeons and ultimately increasing your experience points and cash on hand.
Persona 5 constantly rewards the player with one carrot while dangling another two or three in front of them. There is always something to be done, some social link to improve, some new personas to fuse, and this variety of small tasks to complete, and in turn small rewards to earn, make for a game that is difficult to put down. The main story is huge, taking about 70 to 100+ hours to complete, but doesn’t rely on the exploration of an open world like so many other lengthy games do. Instead, Persona 5’s actual story itself is 70+ hours long, continually introducing new aspects to the gameplay as well as new party members. On top of that, the game successfully tells many small and satisfying story arcs at the same time, all underneath the main plot’s overarching one. The game unfolds slowly but rarely feels like it is dragging, with every aspect of it being a source of enjoyment.
Better than any Persona before it, the fifth entry’s social links reward the player with significantly helpful abilities, while still delivering the interesting story lines that the series is known for. Social links take a number of hang out sessions to fully level up, each one a more and more revealing vignette into the life of the confidant. The short lengths of these sessions lend themselves well to the quality of the stories being told by not allowing dialogue to extrapolate to the point of melodrama, which is a common result when video games try to tackle mature topics such as child abuse or suicide. Persona 5 handles these topics with grace, never preaching a certain type of morality. Instead, the game presents its characters and their obstacles with a sense of realism, owing mostly to how they are cast not in black-and-white or good-and-bad terms. The dialogue is natural and does a great job at characterizing the different personalities found within the game, although certain scenes go on for quite some time.
The one major knock against the writing in Persona 5 is that fans of the series will have some moments of deja vu when it comes to certain characters. Most are unique and surprising, but a few specific party members are strikingly similar to characters in past games. While this was likely done as an ode to the series’ past, it’s disappointing when a character’s story beats hit all the same notes as before. However, the supporting cast of non-party members is the best the series has ever seen, and their new stories make up for those that seem a bit too familiar.
The combat in the Persona series is turn-based and Persona 5 introduces new aspects to the series’ formula. The gameplay in dungeons is much like other turn-based games in that your party walks around, finds an enemy, and enters a battle sequence. Persona 5 adds a stealth mechanic, letting you hide from enemies and ambush them for an advantage, but this addition is only a slight improvement over the usual walking. In contrast, the ability to pass turns to allies as well as the addition of guns do make the combat feel somewhat different from other Personas. Another new addition is the ability to converse with enemies and demand that they join your side or gift you an item or money. While whether the demand is met basically comes down to luck, it’s nice to have the choice between gaining experience, money, or an item. Certain social links increase your success rate in these conversations with enemies, furthering the usefulness of your confidants. There is room for further complexity in Persona 5’s combat system, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be better for it. Boss fights are the best combat scenarios, offering up unique enemies who often have to be beaten in a way that differs from regular enemies, and while Persona 5’s combat is satisfying, the game would have benefitted from a few more of these special fights.
Whether fighting, or increasing social links, or really doing anything at all, Persona 5 does it with style. If art is defined as something that exists only for the appreciation of its beauty, then Persona 5 is a filled to the brim with it. The shape and style of menus, the ransom-letter font through the game, and the unique transition between locations and scenes are all examples of small details that combine to define the game’s art style. Persona 5’s in game graphics are actually unimpressive, but its beautiful handmade drawings and stylized user interface more than make up for it. Hand drawings of characters pop-up on screen during certain dialogue, sometimes tearing through the screen like a piece of paper, as well as on each persona’s card, and are highly detailed and colourful. The art style feels whole and the developers went above and beyond to make every aspect of the game’s menus look slick and shiny. Battles end with streaks of red and pulsating stars dancing across your screen, the upbeat music only making it that much better aesthetically. In fact, the music for the entire game is fantastic. A major challenge for composers of video game music is creating pieces that can be heard over and over again without becoming annoying. Persona 5 achieves this while adding in a few excellent pieces that are worth listening to while not playing the game. The music in the game falls somewhere in between the jazz and lounge genres, with complex basslines, clever backbeats, and toe-tapping rhythm guitar rewarding those who play the game with a good set of headphones on. From music to menus, style drips from every one of Persona 5’s pores.
Style isn’t Persona 5’s only success, however, as the game has more than enough substance in the form of combat and story. The game is long, and it’s a slow burn, but the moderate pace allows for the different plotlines to grow in scale and for characters to be fully fleshed out in their personality and motif. Unique gameplay, artistic style, and strong writing help make Persona 5 a satisfying experience, but it’s the game’s ability to pull the player into its world which makes the complex and stylized RPG a game to remember.