Spoiler note: Care has been taken to avoid spoilers as much as possible throughout this review, but in order to properly discuss what players should expect, a few gameplay-related elements will need to be brought up that some may consider minor spoilers.
A short time into my first real job as a writer about video games, I got to take an early look at the English build of a Japanese RPG called Revelations: Persona—and from the moment I played it, I fell in love. Compared to other efforts of the time, it was crude in some places, obtuse in others, and pretty darn difficult all of the way through. And yet, it felt so unlike everything else out there that I’d played, giving me settings, characters, and mechanics that I hadn’t found in any RPG before it.
When Persona 5 first starts up, players are presented with a screen honoring the franchise’s 20th anniversary, and there’s a lot of emotion held in that simple animation for me. We’ve both grown up and changed so much in those twenty years, the Persona series and I, and I can’t fully explain how much these games have meant to me both as a gamer and simply as a person.
There’s a lot I have to say about Persona 5, and while it might not be the best place to start for a review, I’m going to begin with the thing that first really hit home for me: the game’s visuals. Back in 2011, the Persona team released Catherine, an intriguing side project that turned out to be a testing ground for what was to come in the next major Persona chapter. There’s a lot of influence felt here from that game, but none more so—or with such impact—as the overall style and graphics. Gone are the more cartoony-proportioned character models from the previous games, the more two-dimensional style of town areas, and the simpler presentation of other elements that could at times make the games feel more limited in scope or budget. Here, the cast comes off as more realistic-looking, the streets of Tokyo—the first time a Persona game has been set in a real-world place—come to life like never before, and even the smaller details have a care and artistry put into them. Atlus has long been known for having menus and user interfaces that ooze class and cool, but now every detail of Persona 5 shows off that flair to an amazing degree. What Atlus was able to craft here is completely beyond almost every other JRPG that has come in recent years, and now that the entire game is dripping with that style, the series has been elevated to a class all its own in the genre.
The reason all of that is so important is that Persona 5 is an example of how looks can then have a deeper effect on attitude. The game’s presentation sets up a more mature and serious tone for what’s to follow, which of course includes the main story. Unlike the previous two chapters, things kick off pretty quickly here, and it’s not long before the stakes are raised for our main character. I don’t want to fully spoil how that’s all set up, because it’s a fantastic twist that both gives us foreshadowing for what’s to come while also making us want to see how we’ll get there. For the story itself, it starts with a familiar theme: people are suddenly becoming shells of their former selves, falling into an apathetic or even catatonic state, and nobody can figure out why that’s happening.
Those events begin right around the time that our main character—who I’ll refer to by his in-game nickname Joker to avoid confusion, given he has no set real name—is sent to live under the care of a cafe owner named Sojiro Sakura. After an attempt to be a good samaritan goes wrong, he’s branded as a delinquent, and the only school that will now accept him is Shujin Academy in Tokyo’s Minato ward. The set-up is simple: be a good student and stay out of trouble for a year, and he won’t be sent to juvenile detention.
Unfortunately, Joker’s plan gets thrown into chaos pretty much right away. After befriending fellow “problem child” Ryuji Sakamoto, the duo somehow find themselves in a strange, distorted castle on their way to school one day. The place is overrun with bizarre monsters controlled by a distorted doppleganger of one of their teachers, and none of it makes any sense until the guys meet a talking cat-like creature named Morgana. Morgana explains that when people’s hearts get too corrupted, Palaces can manifest around them, and the only way to destroy those aberrations of the Metaverse (the alternate dimension in which they exist) and return the people back to normal is to steal that person’s “heart” from their Palace.
After another student, Ann Takamaki, accidentally gets involved, the three form the Phantom Thieves—a group determined to find people whose hearts have become corrupted and then “steal” those hearts away. Of course, being a Persona game, that is neither a short nor easy task. Along the way, the group grows in size, with additions such as the student council president Makoto to the eccentric hacker wunderkind Futaba. So, too, does the responsibility the Phantom Thieves find placed upon their shoulders, as the team evolves from one that simply wanted to fix a situation at school to a force for change that encounters ever-growing popularity. Persona 5’s story is definitely heavier and more serious at times than the last game—which some fans have lovingly dubbed “Scooby-Doo and friends”—but don’t take that to mean that this is a return to the early days of the series; I’d put it somewhere between the more light-hearted fun of Persona 4 and the gloominess of Persona 3. There’s some legitimately interesting situations and twists found all throughout the story, and though the “Phantom Thieves” idea initially seemed a bit cheesy, it grows into something that offers up both moments of smile-inducing silliness and more complicated contemplation, mostly to success.
“Mostly successful” is also how I’d describe Persona 5’s cast. The characters you’ll be spending the game with are essential in a Persona game, and while I became far more endeared to the team here than the one in Persona 3, they didn’t win me over quite as much as who we got in Persona 4. There wasn’t a main character I didn’t like in the previous game, and as opposed to the P3 crew, P4’s cast felt like regular, everyday people. Here, every character slightly falls back into that “anime trope” mentality in terms of their personality and development, and I wish that hadn’t been the case. However, by the end, I had grown much closer to this cast than I had initially expected—especially the talking feline mascot Morgana, a character type I usually loathe in JRPGs. Well, everyone except Ryuji, who was kicked off of my main roster as soon as I was able. I’m actually a little surprised by the lack of growth that he shows, especially given he’s around for pretty much all of the game. At the beginning, Ryuji is a loud-mouthed moron who keeps causing trouble due to his quick temper; by the end, he’s a loud-mouthed moron who keeps… well, you know. Then again, I also hated Junpei from P3, so it could be that I just have zero tolerance for these kinds of characters.
One of the biggest twists that Persona 3 brought with it was Social Links, which return once again in the form of Confidants. By spending time with specific characters, you can build up your relationship rank with them, which results in a variety of support benefits the higher you go. While persona-fusion buffs still exist according to the tarot arcana each character falls under, the “other” benefits you get from maxing out relationships are particularly important this time—especially when it comes to non-teammates. For example, becoming closer to doctor Takami will open up a bigger selection of healing items at better prices, while your teacher, Miss Kawakami, can help you with chores or let you slack off in class. Though Persona 4 flirted with the idea of Social Link bonuses, the system is far more robust here, and it’s a pretty great addition to the game—especially in how those bonuses are logically tailored to who they’re coming from. Just, be warned: if you’ve played the previous Persona titles, Persona 5 comes to an end before you’d expect it to. The game is still plenty long—my playtime clocked in at over 105 hours—but you won’t have the amount of in-world time that you may think that you would. I was kind of shocked when I learned this, and a number of Confidant relationships I had meant to finish up went unresolved.
Really, though, we all know what’s most important in those relationships: finding a sweetheart. Romance has felt a tad shallow in Persona, because the process has always broken down into “help girl with problem/situation -> get far enough to choose between staying friends or becoming more -> have a scene or two of being a couple.” Persona 5 thankfully expands things somewhat by offering a variety of date spots around town, and while they can also be visited with other Confidants to help improve relationships, they do at least offer some options for a little extra time with your girl of choice. However, there’s plenty that Atlus could do to help make it feel like you’re in a relationship with only minimal effort. Why not have your girlfriend waiting with you for the train on some mornings, or change up team meetings so that they’re sitting next to you? Why not use the new text-messaging system to engage in more non plotline-focused conversations with them—especially given that the team made a game built around people in a relationship texting each other right before this? And what’s up with not being able to give presents to our loved ones on those holidays when we receive them, even if there’s no in-game benefit to doing so? (Look, I’m bitter that I bought a $880 necklace that I never got to give.) I appreciate that Persona 5 does give us more than we’ve had before, but come on Atlus—BioWare at least offers up naked-rolling-around-together time. I cared more about the girlfriend I ended up with here than any previous game’s choices, so I wanted a little more, you know?
There’s something else I need to bring up on the topic of characters, and it’s a subject I often try to avoid. There are two homosexual NPCs that appear throughout the game, and I was taken aback by their portrayal. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think gay characters always have to be “good” characters, and giving such NPCs negative qualities isn’t instantly a cause for protest. However, the pair were overbearingly stereotypical in design and portrayal, and more importantly, their conversations repeatedly centered around their attraction to the game’s teenage boys. Japan has some complex cultural opinions on LGBT issues, but how a company like Atlus—a studio known for putting care into more “fringe” types of characters—could so blatantly portray gay men as child predators bothered me. It’s especially disappointing because Persona 5 features one other prominent LGBT character, and I found them not only to be a fun foil for another NPC, but also pretty spot-on for people I’ve actually met in Japan. Atlus is the Japanese company I look to the most with hope for some well-written and developed LGBT characters, and yet, this is now three games in a row where we’ve gotten examples of queerbaiting and/or gay panic from the studio.
Under all of the story and the visuals and characters, of course, is the core gameplay, and Persona 5 is probably the freshest and most polished that the last 10-plus years of the new era of Persona could have felt. The basic gameplay is still the same—balance a life of being both a student and a persona-wielding warrior—but there’s a number of improvements in ways both big and small.
Even the “small” really isn’t when you consider what it means for the game, as there’s a ton of new convenience features now integrated to make things smoother and more enjoyable. One example is the return of the locational quick-jump from Persona 4, but now, you can scan across a map of Tokyo, select a new area of the city, and even hone down to a specific spot there all in just a few menu clicks—and even get indicators for which Confidants are where and who is ready to rank up with you in the process. (However, don’t always use this option: the dev team has really built up some of the smaller elements of the city, so it’s nice sometimes to appreciate that effort as you weave through Shibuya station to get to your platform.) Meanwhile, if you’re ever lost on what you should be doing, you can poll other players via the internet to get a breakdown of what percent of players challenged dungeons, hung out with other characters, or worked on building up their social stats that day. Speaking of improving yourself, there’s a far bigger variety of things to do to spruce up your charm or make you smarter, so that you aren’t always doing the same thing over and over at a specific time of day. Also, if you’ve already figured out a particular demon’s elemental weakness, a simple button press will instantly cue up that skill—and once you’re done with battle, another button will use any available Skills to heal your party back up to full.
While on combat, the past few Persona games weren’t at all broken in that regard, offering a simple-yet-deep battle system that remained enjoyable across hours and hours. So, that core isn’t heavily changed here, but it does have a few new twists. Standard melee slashes have been joined by gun-based projectile attacks (in a nod to the earlier days of the series). As well, two new elementals join the fray: Psio, or psychic skills, last seen in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner, and Frei, nuclear attacks that were previously in the two-part Persona 2. For the most part, the game seems good about balancing out demons so that they have multiple weaknesses, so having two extra elements to worry about isn’t the headache that it could have been—plus, it’s nice that every team member gets their own unique element to specialize in, instead of having to share. If you do strike an enemy’s weak point, you can now do a “Baton Pass,” giving you the chance to switch out to someone who might be better for following up. As per usual, get every enemy into a weakened state, and you’ll be able to perform an all-out attack by first “holding up” the enemies with your firearms. Now, however, not only can you instead demand they give you money or items, but even engage in demon negotiation. Yes, after both Persona 3 and Persona 4 did away with the tradition of talking to demons in order to get them on your side, it’s back in Persona 5—and I’m glad that it is. Negotiations were a part of the original Persona, they’re a part of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, and while they can be a little frustrating when you just can’t figure a particular demon out, they’re way more enjoyable than the more random-focused methods we’d gotten in previous chapters.
Once you’ve got a handful of demons, it’s off to the Velvet Room to have Igor and his new assistants Caroline and Justine help you fuse them into more powerful personas. At first, the options available will feel a bit sparse, because the complicated multi-demon fusions are gone save for a select list of special choices. However, instead of just making the process more complicated, Persona 5 gives us a wider variety of choices. You can now sacrifice one demon to power up another or craft a specialty item, or hold a public execution through a special online-powered procedure that causes them to be reborn as a completely different persona. Playing with the theme of being prisoners trying to escape from their bonds, you can put one of your personas into lockdown, where after a while they’ll learn a new resistance. Oh, and since the Velvet Room is a perfect place to appreciate this aspect, mention has to go to how fantastic all of the game’s demons—both new and old—now look. The team at Atlus had to go through and completely remake them all, and between the bump in resolution and the updated models, it’s almost like meeting some of those names and faces you’ve known for years again for the first time.
Above all other changes that Persona 5 has implemented over its predecessors sits its dungeons. When Persona 4 went with separate randomized dungeons that each had a specific theme to them, it was a welcome change from Persona 3’s generic one-tower-for-everything Tartarus. And yet, that was nothing compared to what we get here: fully-developed Palaces that trade the randomization for specially-designed locales that tie into each of the corrupted people you’re trying to reform. From the very first dungeon that you enter, this change felt almost unbelievable as someone who had gone through the last two games, and only really falters in the final two dungeons, when it feels like the imagination train is starting to run out of steam. For us long-time fans, it’s nice to finally get dungeons that feel as if they have reason and purpose, and the little extras like being able to sneak around foes or solve simple puzzles add an extra layer of enjoyment. The bigger winner, however, will be more casual players. The hardcore dungeon-crawling could get boring and overbearing for some, so these more “standard” dungeons will be much more inviting for those types of players. If you do enjoy exploring level after level of dynamically-generated catacombs, Persona 5 offers up a second option in Mementos. Basically the game’s take on Tartarus, you can head in and just grind or hunt down treasure chests, but that’ll also be the place where you’ll accomplish most of the game’s sidequests.
In so many ways, Persona 5 is a fantastic game—but it’s also an incredibly safe one, and that makes me a little sad. Both as a fan and as a reviewer, when I take the game we’ve been given and consider it in terms of what the Persona team tried to do, they were absolutely successful. I’ve got a list of minor gripes a mile long—some of which I’ve expressed here—because it’s inevitable that the better a game is, and the more that you like it, the more that the flaws will bug you. If we look at what Persona 3 and Persona 4 tried to accomplish, it’s not even a question that this is in most ways the better experience. However, when I fell in love with the first Persona all those years ago, I did so because if offered me something new. When Persona 3 came along ten years later, it was a fresh take on what we’d had before. Now, another ten years gone, Persona 5 is evolution, not revolution. Part of the problem, really, is Catherine—it was hard to come out of that not hoping that some of its daring ideas and attitudes would be part of the next Persona. I kind of fear that the series is now going to be “stuck” as something that too many fans won’t let change, and I’m not happy about that thought. There’s almost nothing broken about where Persona 5 has taken the ideas that were first presented in Persona 3, but we didn’t get here in the first place by thinking that things don’t sometimes need fixing. (Speaking of fixing, it’s really time that we either get a main character with more personality, or we players get more customization options for them—the wishy-washy in-between just doesn’t work as well anymore.)
There’s one other major criticism I have about Persona 5, but this one is something that I think can legitimately be levied against the game. Once again showing the bouts of paranoia that Atlus Japan can sometimes suffer from, the PlayStation 4’s Share button is completely non-functional throughout the entire game—no screenshots can be taken, no video can be recorded. I can only imagine this was done to “protect” the story from being revealed right after release, but that’s a pointless step to take given the ample amount of streams that have the equipment needed to get around such blocks. What we’re left with is a game that stops the majority of people who are playing from saving any of their favorite moments, and that’s an unbelievable insult to Persona fans on Atlus’ part. There were so many screenshots I wanted to take of characters or locations or scenes, so many relationship-building meet-ups that I wanted to record as Joker’s friendships or love life blossomed. Atlus, your choice here was disgusting, it was appalling, and it’s shocking how little you think of your fanbase to do something like this to them.
If a broken Share button and the wish for more ambition are the biggest complaints I can levy against Persona 5, then that seems like a pretty good outcome. Atlus’ revival of one of its lesser-popular MegaTen branches back in 2006 has grown into something bigger than any of us could have imagined, and this latest iteration offers up those engrossing ideas and situations with the best presentation and polish that the series has ever seen. Returning fans will find more of what they loved before made even better, and new players will find a perfect jumping-off point for the series even if they have no prior franchise experience. I still worry for where the franchise is going to go from here, but I also know that I just sat through a 100-plus hour RPG and kept wanting “just one more hour” the entire time.
It's hard not to wish that Persona 5 had taken more influence from Catherine than it did, but as the culmination of the past ten years of the Persona series, it still stands as one of the best Japanese RPGs to exist—and a visual masterpiece whose style has no equal.
M - Mature
|Persona 5 is available on PS4, PS3. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.