Persona 5 is top of its class
Thus far, 2017 has been a phenomenal year for PS4 exclusives. From Horizon Zero Dawn, to Nioh, to Yakuza 0, to Nier: Automata, the hits just keep on coming. The trend continues in April with the release of Persona 5, the next big entry in Atlus’ acclaimed social sim and JRPG mash-up franchise.
I know many fans (myself included) were disappointed by the game’s delay from February to April, but wait has been more than worth it. Not only is Persona 5 my favourite entry of the entire series, it’s also the best PS4 game I’ve played this year—in both regards that’s saying a lot.
Your school year begins at Shujin Academy
Following series tradition, in Persona 5 you play as a young, silent protagonist about to embark on another year of school. This time you’ll step into the shoes of the Joker, a transfer student to Shujin Academy who moonlights as a demon-fighting thief. Why the Joker? Well, it’s the codename assigned to him as part of his vigilant student group known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts.
We discover early on that life hasn’t been so smooth for our protagonist. Following a recent run-in with the law, he’s been handed a one-year probation sentence. As part of this, you’re sent to Tokyo to live under the care of a new parental guardian, who happens to be the owner of a local café. Perhaps as extra punishment, your assigned living quarters is the dirty, dingy, cluttered attic of this coffee shop.
If it sounds a bit bleak to start, it sure is, but Persona has never shied away from tackling tough topics head on. In fact, the bulk of this 80+ hour adventure focuses on disaffected youth who spend their free time battling the corrupted hearts of adults. And by corruption, I’m talking about serious topics such as abuse, sexual harassment, suicide, and ruthless corporate greed. Don’t worry though, these delicate subjects are explored thoughtfully with all the seriousness and dignity they deserve.
Balancing homework and heists
Persona 5, like other entries in the series, is virtually two games in one. During the day, you’ll spend most of your time doing typical high school student stuff: going to class, meeting with friends, and studying for your next big test. Nights couldn’t be more opposite: you’ll explore dangerous, demon-filled palaces in attempt to steal the hearts of corrupted adults. It’s basically a teenage social simulation and a deep JRPG all wrapped into a unified experience.
Underpinning both aspects of the game is some of the best writing ever in a video game. Whether you’re answering a teacher’s question at your desk, or roaming the next labyrinthine palace, the dialogue is consistently entertaining. Quite a lot of it is voice acted too, and the actors do a tremendous job of hitting exactly the right emotional notes. This is especially true for the depraved adults whose patronizing talk can make you genuinely loathe them, and your squad of teenage heroes who always have impassioned responses.
Like most high schools, life at Shujin Academy is full of drama, politics, and surprises. You’ll meet plenty of larger than life characters that cross the spectrum from antagonistic and mean-spirited, to stubbornly neutral, to warm-hearted and welcoming. Over the school year you’ll pick and choose who to develop bonds with, and this can affect the story in many ways.
Certain characters, including a troubled teen model, a disgraced ex-track and field star, and the student council president will join your Phantom Thieves club. Others, like your homeroom teacher and volleyball player classmate, will become your “Confidants,” which replaces the Social Link mechanic found in Persona 3 and 4. Essentially, as you hangout with your confidants, your bond will grow stronger and more perks will get unlocked.
For example, Sojiro Sakura the café owner can teach you how to brew coffee and cook curry, great for creating recovery items to use in dungeons. Other confidants might sell you items at a discount, or improve your attack power in battle. There are tons of unique characters to interact with, each benefiting you in various ways. Your time each day is limited though, so it’s up to you to decide who’s bond you wish to strengthen.
Most nights you and your crew will venture into alternate realities, known as the Metaverse. These take the shape of beautifully-designed palaces that serve as the home base of corrupted adults the group wants to set straight. Whereas past Persona games feature randomly-generated dungeons, the ones here are meticulously created room by room.
The amount of detail in each palace is astounding, as is their unique designs that require thoughtful exploration. Palaces have secret rooms, hidden paths, chests to discover, and fun puzzles to unravel. Usually, you’re given a couple in-game weeks to complete each dungeon, which is more than sufficient time. With that said, you can’t dilly-dally either because once the time limit is up, it’s game over. And I mean that literally—your game actually ends.
The glorious turn-based combat system from previous Persona games returns, and it’s better than ever. This time, combat is flashier, more stylish, and deeper than ever. You can strike with melee attacks, shoot rapid-fire guns, or channel the power of Personas for devastating damage.
Going back to the series’ roots, negotiating with demons during battle returns. By striking enemies with their elemental weakness, you can initiate a “Hold Up” and begin negotiations. From there, three options are available: ask for money, ask for an item, or try and persuade them to lend you their Persona power.
Getting demons on your side is often hilarious since they ask ridiculous questions and only join when you answer correctly. Complicating the matter is how demons have specific personalities, and may prefer responses that are joking, serious, vague, or kind. It’s well worth the effort though, as gaining Personas adds new attack, healing, and buff/defuff skills to your repertoire.
I’ve touched upon this throughout my review, but I want to emphasize the stellar presentation that permeates Persona 5. The character designs, dungeons, and Tokyo areas you visit look phenomenal. It won’t blow you away like say the gorgeous 4K graphics found in Horizon Zero Dawn, but Persona 5 oozes style and flair. Many of the key moments in the game transitions to full-on anime sequences, and they are real highlights of this adventure.
The music is also praise-worthy. Legendary composer Shoji Meguro is back with some of his greatest arranged music ever. This is a game full of emotional ups and downs, and the jazzy music by Meguro greatly enhances the mood, be it happy or sad.
Persona 5 is a JRPG/social sim gamers’ paradise. In all regards, Persona 5 makes the grade—it’s the total package. Incredible story, check. Top-notch graphics, check. Innovative and deep gameplay, check. Massive adventure with reasons for replay, check. Very few games this console generation will draw you in like this instant classic. It’s one of the best games to ever grace the PS4, and among the greatest RPGs of all-time.
+ Wonderful and emotional story
+ Breathtaking presentation
+ Fast, exciting, and deep combat
+ Characters are full of personality
+ One of the most stylish games of all time
– 80+ hours can be a huge commitment
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 5/5
Overall Rating: 4.8/5 (96%)
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