I grew up in an era where JRPG’s dominated the gaming space. It was a genre I fell in love with from the moment I was introduced to it. But as time passed I found myself being drawn to their more westernised counterparts and thus my relationship with JRPG’s sort of just dissolved. So, when I got my hands on Persona 5 I couldn’t help but wonder if this would be the JRPG that would lure me back into the genre’s warm embrace.
Persona 5 is an intriguing amalgamation of a life simulator and a classic JRPG dungeon crawler. It’s a combination that, in my opinion, shouldn’t work, but strangely it just does and does so really well. It is clear from the get go that Persona 5 is something special. It’s unique and stylish visual art style combined with a wonderful Acid Jazz soundtrack grabbed my attention from the moment I booted up the game.
The game places players in the shoes of a teenager who, after being found guilty of a crime under dubious circumstances, is forced to go and live in Tokyo with a guardian, in hopes that this will prevent him from further becoming a delinquent. After being introduced to his new school’s principal, and being told in no uncertain terms that any misstep will get him expelled, the protagonist is left up to his own devices under the watchful eyes of his guardian. It’s quite a depressing and jarring start and one that becomes even more so as you discover that most of your fellow classmates and teachers want nothing to do with you (cue childhood flashbacks).
Taking its cue from the much used ‘outcast teenager discovers he has a special gift’ cliché, it doesn’t take long for the main protagonist to discover that he has the ability to manifest his inner-self as a Persona. These Persona’s are otherworldly beings that grant their wielders wonderful new abilities. With this new found power, and the help of some flawed but loyal friends, the main protagonist, now codenamed ‘Joker’, sets out to reform society by changing the hearts of the city’s most despicable characters. You see one thing becomes quite apparent from the moment you start playing the game, most adults (and some kids) in Tokyo are a bunch of bastards, with each hiding a dirty and unmentionable secret. From a perverted teacher to a corrupt politician (which in today’s world actually seems the norm) each of these twisted individuals become a target for the protagonist and his group dubbed the ‘Phantom Thieves’. By entering an antagonist’s corrupted consciousness called a ‘Palace’ (basically a dungeon) the Phantom Thieves are able to steal the treasure that is housed deep within it thereby changing the person’s heart.
What differentiates the narrative from many other games, books, and films that have made use of similar plot points (super powered teenagers being one of them) is the way in which it incorporates more sensitive subject matter. As with previous Persona games, the narrative doesn’t shy away from exploring more delicate subjects such as suicide and physical abuse. What I did appreciate is that each of these problems, while being approached in a way that forces you to think about them, are still handled with great care and sensitivity. It’s this continuous balancing act that made the narrative in Persona 5 so engrossing and fascinating.
While the game and its mechanics may seem daunting at first the game does an admiral job of slowly introducing them without overwhelming you. It teaches you the basics before easing you into some of the more advanced mechanics. Thereby making sure that players are able to fully make use of all the options open to them.
Although the game does have it’s fair share of dungeon crawling, there are also loads of other things to see and do in Tokyo. Being part life simulator means that prioritising what to do when becomes quite an important exercise, with the game encouraging players to find balance in their day-to-day life. Players need to carefully weigh up their options and plan their activities for each day.
By taking part in various activities players are able to level up their different stats and even earn some cash to spend at the movie theatre or to buy that shiny new sword you wanted. It’s an intricate balance but one that ends up feeling rewarding.
Because of the limited time available to you, each choice you make feels like it carries a lot of weight. And although I never found myself being punished for my choices, I did notice that some activities benefited me more than others under specific circumstances. Figuring out how to best maximise these benefits can become quite addicting.
Throughout their play through players will be meeting unique and quirky characters, each with their own motivations and personalities. I quickly found myself being drawn to many of them and becoming more and more curious about their dreams, fears and what made them tick. And while forming bonds with these characters do afford the player new skills and abilities to use during combat I mostly found myself strengthening these bonds because I cared for the characters and not because they benefitted me (although this is a bonus). It’s quite a feat getting players to care so much about characters in a game, but Persona 5 does it effortlessly.
Along with building relationships with various characters, increasing your stats and exploring the city players will also be partaking in quite a few battles.
When infiltrating the above-mentioned palaces, players and their team of thieves will be tasked with exploring every nook and cranny until they discover the palace’ hidden treasure. Along the way, they will be faced with various foes to battle and puzzles to solve. Combat consists of all the elements one would expect in a JRPG including physical attacks, ranged attacks, items and of course magic. Defeating the various foes that stalk the dungeon corridors hinges on successfully exploiting their weaknesses. It boils down to a rock, paper, scissors mechanic that sees certain enemies having weaknesses to specific element based attacks. For example attacking an opponent who is weak against fire with a fire based attack knocks them to the ground, which in turn results in the player gaining an extra turn.
Knocking back foes can also cause the ‘Hold Up’ mechanic to activate. This mechanic allows the player to either unleash a devastating attack on the downed foe or negotiate with them.
Negotiating with enemies opens up new options such as requesting that they give you money/items or convincing them to give you their power. Giving you their power allows you to summon them as Personas or fuse them with other Personas creating new ones. Collecting these different Personas became a bit of an obsession for me. It actually reminded me a lot of another franchise as I found myself wanting to ‘catch them all’.
Infiltrating places doesn’t always have to end up in combat, as a group of thieves, players are able to hide behind items and sneak around enemies, negating the need to face more powerful foes head on.
Chatting to characters, eliminating foes and exploring in itself is quite an enjoyable task, one that is made even more enjoyable by the game’s distinct visual style and it’s sublime soundtrack. From the way it’s menus shift in combat to its gorgeous cutscenes, Persona 5 is a game that confidently revels in its visual style.
Persona 5 has set a new benchmark for what modern day JRPG’s (and games in general) should be. It’s a game that takes pleasure in assaulting your sense, from it’s striking visual style to its beautifully composed Acid Jazz soundtrack, the game has a polish that many AAA games nowadays sorely lack. Each character, no matter how irrelevant, oozes charm and personality and the combat system never became repetitive or mundane. There is no doubt in my mind that Persona 5 is a masterpiece, a masterpiece that stole my heart from the moment I started playing.