Sometimes it’s good to take risks. I have very little experience with JRPGs as a genre, or the Persona series specifically. After trying and failing to get into P4 Golden, I heard some interesting things about the then-new P5 (Luke Westaway talking about it on Outside Xtra, specifically), listened to the song “Last Surprise” and deemed the game worthy of a go, hopefully for longer than I did its predecessor. As I said, sometimes it’s good to take risks: sometimes you try something new and everything magically falls into place. Persona 5 is one of those games. You know; one of THOSE games. It’s been a long time.
You play as a high school student forced to move town and school after saving a woman from a drunken harasser/probable rapist, the event being spun to paint you as an aggressive youth who attacked someone for no reason. Just so it’s clear, the high school student has no canon name, though his code name (more on that later) is “Joker” so I’ll be referring to him as such. After discovering the existence of another world giving corporeal form to the distorted desires of twisted individuals, Joker teams up with an increasingly large cabal of fellow students to “Take the hearts” of those who prey on the weak, forcing them to cease their ill deeds and confess their crimes. Taking influence from lady and gentleman thieves they become “The Phantom Thieves”; vigilantes who literally force scumbags to have a crisis of conscience- stealing mental treasure and looking damn good doing it. The story goes to some pretty interesting places from here, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Each member of The Phantom Thieves has suffered some kind of abuse, injustice or otherwise had a rough time of things; the game deals with tonal shifts towards surprisingly dark, serious subject matter well. This is helped immensely by every member being likeable, well-written and their issues being given time to be addressed alongside the necessary weight. The phantom thievery drives the plot forward and takes up a fair amount of time, but when you’re not cutting about nicking things you spend your time at school, wandering around Tokyo and hanging out with various confidants, the interactions granting stat boots and special skills. The game strikes a good balance between the two story halves; exploring palaces as The Phantom Thieves is exciting and deeply satisfying, going shopping/to school and hanging out with Joker’s friends offers a welcome change of pace, and feels comforting. I don’t want to go into any more detail on the story because it’s best enjoyed without any prior knowledge besides the basics I’ve outlined here, but I will say that it’s gripping literally from start to finish; whatever’s happening it’s handled with the same care and attention, and with a cast of characters this enjoyable to interact with it never gets boring or stale. This is doubly impressive when you factor in how long the game is; the main story took me eighty six hours to finish, and it never got old. That’s longer than most television series and it managed to keep me engaged for the duration.
Gameplay wise, it’s a mixture of exploration, social interaction and turn-based combat. What sets it apart is its presentation; put simply it’s stylish on a level every other game wishes it could one day hope to attain, but never will. Everything, from larger elements like the soundtrack, which is an always-fitting mix of rock, acid jazz and smooth, more reserved pieces depending on the situation, to smaller things like the pause screen and scene transitions, is elaborate without feeling overdone and, put simply; really cool. The in-game graphics are full of vibrant colour and imaginative art design; cases in point being the Phantom Thieves’ elaborate heist outfits, and the game’s broad, extensive bestiary of enemies drawing from a wide range of influences and styles. Each of the game’s palaces (representations of each target’s mind) has a completely different visual theme (again drawing on a range of influences and styles) and gameplay elements, outside of the mainstay turn-based combat. Combat revolves around the use of titular Personas, which are, simply put: Stands from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. If you’re unfamiliar with Stands, they and Personas are corporeal representations of their user’s psyche and fighting spirit, though in this case they’re directly tied to the Thieves’ rebellious spirit and desire for justice. Unlike stands, Personas have access to various elemental magic-style attacks and do not use melee attacks; something each Thief can do instead, as well as use a firearm. Combat is surprisingly satisfying considering it’s turn-based, due in part to the aforementioned outstanding presentation and music. Unique to Joker is the ability to possess multiple Personas and switch between them at will; downing enemies in combat will result in a hold-up situation, during which you can coerce assistance out of the enemy in question, or just team up with your party members to kick their heads in. The social interaction side of the game is all set to a limited time frame: the game moves forward a day at a time, and each day is split into time slots during which you can see people or engage in activities that increase one or more of Joker’s five main stats. There are free actions, namely shopping, but for the most part you can only do one thing per slot. This works fine for the most part, but the game will often decide that you can’t do anything today, either because you’re all tuckered out, or the day will be filled with important story events that will advance time for you. This doesn’t end up being a problem given the length of the game, but it does take some getting used to.
Persona 5 is one of those rare games that comes around once in a blue moon that’s so engrossing, so deeply engaging and immensely satisfying to play and just generally experience that finishing it leaves a massive hole nothing else can fill. I have not played a better game this year and doubt I will. I cannot remember the last time I felt this kind of connection to a game; I will remember it always, return to it often, and hold it aloft as a new personal benchmark for the medium. This review has been vague, but that’s entirely in the service of letting you go into the game blind. If you value my opinion at all, trust me when I say that Persona 5 is an amazing video game deserving of any and all praise it gets, and if you only buy one game this year, this is the one to get.
By James Lambert