So I wrote a review of Persona 5 the other day, and it was vague at best. While that was done to avoid any and all spoilers for what I consider to be a genuine masterpiece, I will admit it perhaps didn’t lead to the most interesting reading experience. So this is my solution: if you’ve not played the game, read the spoiler-free review I wrote. If you’re in a position to not worry about spoilers, feel free to have a look at this, which I’m thinking of as a sort of Spoilercast in text form. My more in-depth thoughts on one of the best games I’ve ever played, with no restraint on spoilers.
Characters, interactions and their developments:
I felt something of a personal connection to the phantom thieves, due in part to some of them being akin to people I knew when I was their age, as well as being people I would have liked to know. The combination of music and voice acting really does boost the experience; for example every trip to the Velvet Room is given an added weight by that chilling piano and lone female wail, and personally I really like the new voice actor for Igor, even though it’s only temporary, until he’s no longer possessed. I like the shift from a foreboding atmosphere filled with unease, punctuated by the angry twins and sinister Igor, to a more hopeful but still somewhat dire tone when the real Igor and Lavenza regain control of the room. As for the Phantom Thieves themselves, the quest to help Futaba deal with the outside world resonated with me personally for reasons I’d rather not go into, but I love her character; her arc from shut-in on the brink of suicide to survivor doing everything she can to take her life back with the help of her new friends and, in my playthough, boyfriend. She was the heart of the game for me, once she was introduced. I spent time with her above everyone else, and I would have put her in my party if the game’d let me. I didn’t manage to max out relationships with any other non-mandatory confidant, though on my next playthrough I’m planning to focus on Makoto once she joins the team; her mixture of fastidiousness, tactical prowess and strength mixed with a vulnerability brought on due to her living situation and relationship with her sister made her really stand out. Every character in the game has multiple layers, often defy expectations established by early moments, and their traumas are treated respectfully, as is the process of dealing with them. Ryuji is advertised as a delinquent with authority issues, but in actuality was given that label by an abusive, paedophile teacher, and is really a loyal, kind person with a strong sense of justice, who reveals himself to be a stand-up guy in his opening scenes. Outside of the core cast of thieves, I took a shine to Hifumi Togo, whose confidant I intended to max-out, but I ran out of time. I was going to have Joker enter a relationship with her actually, back when I thought Futaba couldn’t be romanced. I also really like Tae Takemi’s story of a promising young Doctor turned into a pariah after being blamed for malpractice she didn’t commit. While I’m on the subject though, I’m not a fan of Joker being able to romance adult women. You don’t have to do so, in fact in order to romance said women you have to actually go out of your way to interact with them and then make a final choice, but it’s still weird, particularly when the game implies a sexual nature to said relationships, and Joker is, after all, a child by Japanese law. Personally, factoring in the onus being on the player it’s not a huge deal, but it’s still an unfortunate niggle at the back of my mind. My biggest problem with the social side of the game was Joker’s dialogue options, though this was largely due to them often not reflecting what I personally thought he should say. Most of the time it offered suggestions I hadn’t thought of, which worked a treat. Other times, however, what I considered to be the best or at least a good option wasn’t available, often times Joker wouldn’t even get to say anything, which given how invested I was in the game didn’t exactly do wonders for me. Case in point: partway through the game, when Morgana runs off on his own, attempts to start his own two-thief team in opposition to Joker’s group, then eventually rejoins with his new apprentice. I was desperate for a dialogue option along the lines of “What you did really worried me, and I’m still angry, but you’re still an important member of the team and a good friend”. Hell, even the last part of that sentence would have done the job, but no such option exists. Joker’s lack of dialogue usually fits his strong silent type, man of action image but there were several times when I really needed him to say something and he didn’t. Most of this can be put down to him having quite an established character and personality that can only be lightly changed by player interaction, but it can definitely be frustrating at times.
The overarching plot of Masyoshi Shido rising to power on a tidal wave of mental shutdowns, murders and framing Joker for unprovoked assault is a solid backbone to all the day-to-day social activities and exploring palaces. He’s a decent villain, though as it turns out he isn’t the main threat, as a malevolent god is responsible for everything bad that happens. It’s quite a sudden reveal, but it’s given time to sink in, due to a supposed-to-lose fight and a rousing scene in the Velvet Room. I did try my best to like Goro Akechi: I shunned and sassed him every time he tried to talk to Joker before blackmailing his way onto the team, at which point I really did think maybe he wasn’t going to turn out to be a main villain, but I was mistaken. The reveal that he’s actually just as damaged as the people opposing him was good, and I liked how he went out, but any cool stuff he got to do in his not-Berserker Armour outfit was downplayed by the whole floppy-haired kid detective angle. Also worth mentioning briefly is the game’s framing device: Joker being interrogated by prosecutor, target and sister to Makoto: Sae Nijima. These scenes didn’t really do much other than signal the start of each “Chapter” (though they’re not actually split up as such) of the game and lampshade Joker making new confidants, but they added to the atmosphere, and set up a foreboding present-day situation for the game to ominously creep towards. Anyway, this section is getting rather long now, so I’ll sum it up thusly: I love the characters in this game. As much as I enjoyed the combat and exploration I’ll be talking about shortly, for me the most rewarding part of the game was everything in between; the quiet moments where I had Joker work out with Ryuji, chat with Ann about her best friend’s recovery, teach Makoto about what kids their age find fun, and help Futaba get used to the outside world, among other things.
Soundtrack and presentation:
I touched on this a little in the review, but not to the extent it deserves. The game’s presentation is a key part of what makes it so appealing; it’s what draws you in, in a “Come for how cool it looks, stay for the depth” kind of way. The menus use a contrast of bold, single colours like white and red, contrasted against thick, dark black outlines and shading. Everything that can be made elaborate and stylish is; even things like status screen menus have Joker moving between different poses. Moving between rooms in palaces shows Joker leaping across the screen, exiting a palace shows Joker leap through a glass window, fall to the ground, recover and run off, an animation shared with the results screen for most battles. Even the cutaways to the game’s framing device are handled this way; with an outline of a battered, handcuffed Joker acting as a scene transition as events wildly leap forward in time. In the hands of a lesser development team this would just be a load of flashy images to distract from a shallow gameplay experience, but here it enhances every other aspect of the game. It ties into the whole heist flick tone, feeling like an extended anime about a group of students moonlighting as thieves, but never breaks stride when moving between interactive and non-interactive scenes. Equally important is the soundtrack; whatever the situation, the game has a piece of absolutely fitting musical accompaniment that makes what you’re doing infinitely more engaging. Besides the more obvious, active tracks like “Last Surprise”, “Rivers in the Desert” and “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There” are things like “Tokyo Daylight”/”Tokyo Emergency” when you’ve got time on your hands and you’re out and about in town, “The Days When My Mother Was Here”; the slightly odd, almost hypnotic soundtrack to Futaba’s palace, and the utterly fantastic “Beneath the Mask”, for more contemplative moments.
Palaces, thievery and throwing down
I started the game on normal, turned it down to easy about halfway through Kamoshida’s palace, then eventually had to turn it down to “safe” at the start of Qliphoth, after getting repeatedly ground to dust by the final mini-boss and wanting to see the ending of the story. This means I can’t really speak to how the balance of combat is affected by difficulty, but in my experience the weakness system for both sides of the conflict is fair, but purely in terms of fighting certain party members are vastly superior to others. Once Makoto turned up I had no real use for Yusuke or Ann, whose high HP costs and low HP respectively couldn’t compare with Makoto’s high damage and healing spells. I rotated Morgana back into the mix after the whole incident with him running away, which turned out to be the right move given his healing spells, and kept Ryuji close by for his immense damage. It’s not an issue, as my team generally steamrolled anything that dared oppose us, but it does render different skills and element moves somewhat moot. Haru was rendered completely useless once Joker learned a Psi attack, which didn’t take long. Combat itself is satisfying though, somewhat surprising given that it’s turn-based. I tended to use melee attacks primarily, using Persona skills and gunshots to attack weaknesses. Part of me wishes that running past/away from enemies was a more viable option, especially en route to the depths of Mementos, which turned into an absolute nightmare for a while, but for the most part it wasn’t an issue really. Speaking of mementos, they’re fine, and I did go down there several times, but if they didn’t have sidequest-related hearts to change, it’s unlikely I would have bothered. The palaces on the other hand, I’m well into. They manage to tweak them just enough each time to keep things interesting, mainly through different progression-dictating puzzles and the like.
Finally, a brief quick-fire round of random things I really like:
Turning into a mouse, especially the animation when you flee from a battle in that form. Also Yuskue’s excellent and terrible mouse puns, and how silently furious Futaba is with them
Morgana’s legs when he runs
Carrying Morgana everywhere in a bag, with his little face poking out the back
Sojiro wiping away tears just after Joker leaves
The reveal that the Phantom Thieves’ big plan to free Joker from Juvie was to mount an air-tight legal case
The way the calendar shows what date it is by sticking a knife into the number
“Putting some love into it” when making coffee for people, which just makes them spit it out because it’s too bitter
The awkward, quiet “MREEH” sound effect that plays whenever Morgana turns into a bus, and whenever said bus rams into enemies
How much mileage the game gets out of the same exact clip of Ryuji saying “FOR REAL?!”
The “Take your time” loading screens, and how they change depending on the situation
I’m going to end this piece here, to stop it being too long; it’s already twice the length I intended it to be when I started, and I could write at least another two or three thousand words easy. Maybe one day I will. I do hope this sheds some light on what I liked about Persona 5 though, and goes at least some way to explaining why it’s now one of my very favourite games; one I’d mention in the same sentence as Red Dead Redemption, which I consider to be the best game ever made. I spent several weeks playing it; taking in what it had to offer, loving every minute of it, and I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had such a strong connection to a game, and so quickly. When I have some free time I fully intend to play through it again and try and do as much as I can: try and max out as many confidants as I can for a start. I imagine I’ll be replaying it a whole lot throughout my life, it’s just that kind of game. Anyway, I’ve taken enough of your time. See you when Persona 5: Dancing All Night comes out, which obviously I’ll be all over.
By James Lambert