Persona 5 is a Japanese role playing game with elements of social simulation; it was published and developed by Atlus for the Sony Playstation 3 and 4 in 2016 (JP) and 2017 (WW). The game was directed and produced by Katsura Hashino, musically directed and composed by Shoji Meguro, and its characters were designed by Shigenori Soejima — Hashino, Meguro, and Soejima are veterans of the Persona series, as well as prominent figures among the fanbase. This review will be of my experience on the Playstation 4.

 

Prior to Persona 5’s Japanese release, I was extremely concerned about the game’s ability to live up to its predecessors. There are multiple facets to this fear.

In one area, I worried that the characters of Persona 5 would not be as endearing as those of Persona 4. Of course, there is always an internal bias against replacement of beloved characters, so I was hoping that P5’s would be unmatchable. With the teasers and trailers we had been shown, I understood what they were going for, but none of them particularly excited me. Additionally, looking at the Social Links (now called “Confidants” in the West and “Co-Op” in Japan), I wasn’t especially riled up by the new cast of characters to meet. In Persona 3 Portable, I was only interested in about six Social Links; the rest bored me. Persona 4 Golden had Social Links I loved, but there was still a great amount I was underwhelmed by.

In another area, despite my trust for Atlus, I was concerned that the beautiful graphics presented to us in the teasers and trailers would not be in the game at all. The immense beauty of the interface, models, and art scared me into believing I was going to be deceived on release day. Time and time again have fans’ expectations from reveals been betrayed; the legendary example of this is Watch Dogs’s significant drop in graphical quality from its E3 trailer to the full release.

More mechanically, I was expecting the battle mechanics of the Persona series to stagnate or decline in P5. I felt that, from P3 to P4 to P3P to P4G, the best possible course of action was taken, and that the formula could not be further improved. This has been a worry of mine with my experience in Ace Attorney.

The game mechanics of AA1 are good, but, from AA2 to AA5, all that’s added is gimmicks — no improvements on existing mechanics or the addition of non-gimmicky mechanics. To be fair, Ace Attorney 6 finally got better mechanically, but it took a decade and a half for it to happen.

Alternatively, Danganronpa, from its first to its second game, improves its existing mechanics and adds new ones that are as interesting and challenging as previous ones. Danganronpa 2 also saw the loss of mechanics that were unneeded or disliked. (This makes me excited for Danganronpa 3 in September of this year, but also makes me worry like I did for Persona 5.)

The story of Persona 5 also kept me worrying. Persona 3 was dark and brooding, and offered a bittersweet ending. Persona 4 was bright and lively, and offered speed bumps throughout the story to contrast those positive feelings, putting the player through a rollercoaster of emotions. It was only until I actually played Persona 5 when I understood what was going on. Leading up to its release, the game’s marketing was oddly vague and told me little about what the game is in terms of story. I had originally thought that Shujin (“Criminal” in English) Academy was a high school for teenage convicts, and every party member was some kind of criminal. Also, the extended prevalence of the Velvet Room in the story was confusing; never before has Igor and his assistants been this involved in the protagonist’s journey.

Before its release, Shoji Meguro, the composer, said he wanted to experiment with a new music style: acid jazz. I have a great of trust in Atlus and the Persona team’s judgement, but I could not help but worry that the music in the game would not be enjoyable. The original teaser trailer had really laid back jazz that did not complement the action shown on screen. Additionally, comparing it to the music of Persona 3 and 4, I was expecting a soundtrack that would top its predecessors in mere size and pure enjoyment. If this wasn’t enough, I worried further when I downloaded the Persona 20th Anniversary All Time Best Album, and found only 20 tracks from Persona 5. I thought the entire game would be confined to only those 20 tracks.

 

Now, after almost 200 hours of gameplay over two full playthroughs and with 82% trophy completion, how does the game stack up to my expectations?

Firstly, however, I would like to provide a bit of a “meta-analysis” of this review. I had originally started this review after my first 100 hour playthrough in May. It began with the same structure as my Persona 4 Golden review, but I’d like to expand my analysis from the mechanics, story, and whatnot to the theme and give a little more insight as to how the game achieves its goal. I feel my past reviews have been a bit lacking, so I hope to improve with this one, especially after a long hiatus of writing.

 

How I perceive the Persona games (and Persona 5, more specifically) is as an experience, and not as games. This is similar to how I see games like Firewatch and Undertale. They’re more experiences than they are games, because they focus on teaching the audience something through the story, the characters, the mechanics, etc. rather than on a wide variety of activities in the game itself. What makes it special, however, is that the medium is a video game — an interactive medium. This allows the audience to make decisions, which provides a more immersive experience.

Though by different means from those aforementioned games, Persona 5 achieves that immersion and conveyance of a lesson.

For the sake of succinctness, I will forgo a summary of the story. You’ll be here, reading this if you’ve played the game already. If you haven’t, but wish to read this, buy Persona 5 and play it or read the Wikipedia or Shin Megami Tensei Wiki synopses.

The Phantom Thieves announce their intentions to “steal the hearts” of the corrupt adults in their world. Each person they steal the heart of is representative of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Suguru Kamoshida, the sexually harassing and abusive P.E. teacher, represents Lust with his eliciting of sexual favors from his female students.

Ichiryusai Madarame, the plagiarizing “artist”, represents Vanity with his enamoration of himself and the works of art the public incorrectly attributes to him.

Junya Kaneshiro, the child-exploiting gangster, represents Gluttony with his accumulation of wealth and intentions to merely sit atop it.

Futaba Sakura, the outcasted and despondent hacker, represents Apathy with her inability to move past her mother’s death, for which she takes responsibility.

Kunikazu Okumura, the heartless food chain CEO, represents Greed with his unrelenting determination to use his money and power to monopolize all aspects of society.

Sae Niijima, the manipulative and victory-focused prosecutor, represents Envy with her coveting the power of those who rule the unfair world she herself has been hurt by.

Masayoshi Shido, the ruthless and supercilious politician, represents Pride with his objective of becoming Prime Minister of Japan, believing he is superior to all.

Finally, the Public, the masses of unthinking, submissive people, represents Sloth with its forfeiture of individual thought and agency.

 

Each of these representatives are used in the context of the story to mirror behavior in reality.

Kamoshida harasses his students believing that it’s his right, considering the massive expectations placed on him as an Olympian gold medalist.

Madarame continually claims his pupils’ works as his own so as to keep up with society’s demands of a new, hot art piece to talk about.

Kaneshiro inflates his wealth by swindling high schoolers due to his own insecurities he himself experienced as he grew up; he used any means necessary to climb up and maintain his place on the socioeconomic ladder to compensate for his own past as a poor, average person.

Futaba secludes herself as a result of those attributing her mother’s death to her, despite knowing deep down that she was not responsible for her mother’s death.

Okumura launches an aggressive campaign to expand his company and eventually make a debut in the political world in order to erase the Okumura family name’s past incompetence in business as established by his own father.

Sae subjects others to the same manipulation and corruption she and her father tried fighting against, convinced that victory was the only way she would achieve true “Justice”.

Shido assumes control of Japanese legislation without regard for anyone he injured in his path under the impression that those who surrendered their will to influence the direction of their country were encouraging politicians like him to guide their lives for them.

 

An underlying theme with all of the people the Phantom Thieves stole the hearts of was that their actions were in some way influenced by society at large.

The Public idolizes athletic heroes and expects them to produce nothing but victories.

The Public cares not about the artistic value of an individual painting, but rather the perks of seeming introspective or articulate for following a particular artist and their work.

The Public imposes high standards for individuals: beauty, wealth, style, and a host of other superficial qualities that not one person can possess wholly; as a result, those who do not have enough of those qualities are exiled from society.

The Public enjoys sensational and incomplex stories to gossip about and use to stay relevant in a fast-moving social sphere (an example of such stories is a child murdering her renowned scientist mother).

The Public lazily applies labels and generalizations to families and communities based on unfavorable actions or circumstances in the past.

The Public shirks responsibility in upholding civic duties such as holding governmental figures accountable, thus allowing corrupt individuals in power to continue their wrongdoing, as well as withholding the power required to fight those same corrupt individuals. This causes unscrupulous politicians to seize control of the government and causes those fighting back to lose their way.

 

You might be beginning to see the pattern here. It is the masses’ refusal to think for themselves that is the root of these problems. The Deadly Sin of Sloth may be written off as the least harmful. “It’s just laziness! How bad could it be?” The understatement of its power is what gives Sloth the amount of prevalence it has in Persona 5. There is nothing inherently wrong with not getting involved in politics or refraining from reading more closely into news stories. However, after enough of these sentiments have built up from so many people over time, it is no longer the shortcoming of each individual person; it is now a foundation for all other societal issues.

As is the case with the individuals the Phantom Thieves steal the hearts of, the Public has its own Palace: Mementos. It is an endless subway system that goes deeper and deeper into the core of the Earth. Doors that block the path to its core are chained closed. People can be seen boarding trains going toward the core of Mementos. What the Phantom Thieves eventually discover is that these people’s destination at the core of Mementos is a prison. Hordes of people are locked in cells by their own volition, enjoying the comfort of a cell — it’s secure and consistent; there is no variation or change to be afraid of. They even find their past adversaries in these cells, admitting that their ambitions, albeit distorted and misguided ones, were too much effort, and that simply submitting is an easier way to live.

The genius of Mementos is not confined to the cells and its occupants. The background music of Mementos is a relaxed jazz that leads up to a restrained climax of a plethora of instruments. Its style matches the thematic tone of Mementos in that Sloth is a “laidback” Sin, yet holds immense potential, and this is reflected by the smooth jazz that restricts the power of a strong orchestral piece. This track was aptly named “Freedom and Security”.

Mementos is brilliantly designed to characterize the kind of society that exists in Japan. This secure, unthinking echo chamber that is Mementos is represented by the underground rail system in Japan — the bloodlines of the Japanese culture. Japan is known for its very strict work ethic, and the train system is centric to the Japanese working lifestyle, so it makes sense that this hivemind of conformity is paralleled by a real-life example of the culture.

 

The Sloth seen in Persona 5 is fueled by each participant’s distorted desire to not think for themselves or make decisions. This great mass of people sharing the same desire manifests a god to grant their wish for conformity and security: the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is biblically known for its holy connection to Jesus Christ and granting immortality to anyone who drinks from it. In the context of Persona 5, the Holy Grail is granting those who wish for it “social immortality”. By thinking, feeling, and acting as any other person, by discussing the same sensationalist stories, they are remaining socially relevant — forever.

The Holy Grail (eventually revealing itself as Yaldabaoth) is more than just a final boss in the game. This desire of society at large characterized as a god illustrates how gigantic of a task the Phantom Thieves are taking up. They’re attempting to change society’s heart — it’s about as difficult as challenging a god.

In fact, as the Phantom Thieves approach this task, the hearts of the masses completely forget about the Phantom Thieves as just another hot, juicy story of the past. The Public has moved on from them and is ready for their next story.

 

Though what I have described may seem insurmountable, the Phantom Thieves come out victorious, defeating Yaldabaoth and ultimately changing the heart of society. However, with such a grand and all-encompassing theme as I have just described, its resolution needs to be connected to reality, as well. The conclusion needs to be “grounded”, so to speak. There is no weight to the analogy if it cannot be applied to real life. That is a component most fictional and fictitious stories lack. Persona 5 does not lack this.

Many of the audience may note that they cannot change society, because they don’t have the power of Persona or the ability to enter the Metaverse and steal someone’s distorted desire from their Palace. And they would be correct! However, two instances in the story indicate that the means by which society is changed is not limited to some supernatural phenomenon like the Metaverse. One of those instances is that the Phantom Thieves did not successfully steal Sae Niijima’s treasure, yet she ultimately sided with them and assisted in prosecuting Masayoshi Shido. It was the Protagonist’s honesty and wit that convinced Niijima that her perception of Justice was misguided.

The other instance is a bit more pronounced. After the Protagonist is arrested, the Phantom Thieves fret about the loss of their leader, and ask, “How are we supposed to do anything without the Metaverse?” They find their resolve and dedicate their efforts over the next two months to get Joker’s name cleared. All of the people Joker had met along the way and strengthened his bonds with went to great lengths to fight for what they believed was True Justice.

 

These instances keep the moral of the story grounded, that Life Will Change. With enough effort, anything can be achieved.

Ryuji and Ann felt defeated by Kamoshida, unable to do anything to fight back. Ryuji became at peace with himself and his track friends, and Ann saved her friend Shiho from further abuse.

Yusuke thought he was unconditionally indebted to Madarame, bound to acquiescence. He found what it truly meant to be an artist, after his previous perceptions were muddied by Madarame’s influence.

Makoto was subjected to the same unfair system her sister Sae was enslaved to. She came to realize her Justice and became aware of the mistakes Sae made that she needed to avoid.

Futaba was branded a murderer and lost sight of her feelings and memories of her mother. She reintegrated into society after moving on from this past trauma.

Haru acknowledged her father used others solely for political advantage, not caring about who he may hurt. She dispelled her anxieties, undertook great responsibilities, and regained control of her life.

This development is, of course, shown throughout the events of their Social Link interactions, but nearing the end of the game, as well. After being initially defeated by the Holy Grail, each individual Phantom Thief frets about how they wouldn’t be in this situation, poised in an unwinnable battle against a god, if they had not rebelled against the system. They soon come to realize that continuing to live the way they had been was not an option. The Phantom Thieves know what they stand for, and will die trying to preserve it.

Persona 5 stands as a great story to empower the disenfranchised — to tell them to persist. Never give up. Fight for those ideals you wholeheartedly believe in. You have the potential to change the world. The first step to do so is acknowledging the problem. In many cases, each individual’s problem may be a product of issues with society itself. It may be a daunting task, but everyone is entitled to fighting for better circumstances.

 

~

 

With that, I would like to allow myself to gush about this game. Persona 5 is undoubtedly my favorite game of all time.

I mentioned earlier each aspect I worried about with its release. Its characters, graphics, mechanics, story, and music were all unknowns, and I couldn’t help but agonize about my favorite video game franchise being ruined with this new installment.

The Social Links mechanic of the Persona games are my favorite aspect of the game. It incorporates an in-game component that expounds on each character’s backstory. Many films, books, and video games fail to explain their characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and goals. Persona’s Social Links have always been able to provide that development that other mediums of entertainment are lacking. Persona 5 is no exception from its franchise’s excellence in character depth. Each individual Confidant (Social Link character) is written so well that their dynamic nature almost reflects that of a real person. I have already went over the beauty of Social Links in my Persona 4 review, so what I will say about Persona 5 is that I enjoyed pretty much every single Social Link interaction. Each Confidant’s SL events had some overarching theme that made a comment about society not already covered by the main plotline. (More importantly, pretty much all of the female Confidants are good waifu material!)

A universally appealing characteristic of Persona 5 is its beautiful graphics and intricately styled UI. Even if you don’t like anime or Shin Megami Tensei or Persona or JRPGs, you cannot deny that Persona 5 is a magnificent display of new generation graphical capabilities, particularly on such a powerful console like the Playstation 4. The team behind Persona 5’s development was dedicated to its presentation to the degree that they developed an entire engine specifically for use in Persona 5 to handle its unique graphical requirements. One might notice, too, that there are a lot of bells and whistles involved with the UI alone, so it may also be assumed that the flashy graphics of Persona 5 get in the way of those who are speeding through it, whether it be for achievements or Expert-level JRPG playthroughs. You will be surprised that, after playing it enough, one will develop muscle memory in operating the menus to quickly access whatever submenu is needed. Aside from its environments and UI, the character models are meticulously created to demonstrate a more “mature” take on the body types of the characters. Additionally, their facial expressions and animations are so masterfully matched to real life that in-engine cutscenes are indistinguishable from pre-rendered ones.

Loosely related to the graphics is the demons’ design. I think it was a very smart decision to revert to fighting demons rather than shadows. The shadow enemies of Persona 3 and 4 had unbelievably boring design. Alternatively, each Persona/Demon is designed a deliberate way, as well as having unique personalities and histories, making the return of negotiations drive home how much more interesting battles are. Dividing attacks into Physical and Gun diversifies the choices from which players can choose in battle; this is also achieved with the addition of Psychological and Nuclear attacks. Furthermore, the introduction of damage-based Light and Dark attacks makes those elements of attack more relevant. Insta-kill Light and Dark attacks were useless against many common enemies and all bosses.What’s more is that party members who are Light/Dark centric had less utility, since their attacks had less versatility in most battles.

Some mechanical improvements I noticed were the increase in price for summoning Personas from the Velvet Room; this discourages purchasing high-level Personas early game in new playthroughs. Special orders intensify boss battles by removing a party member from battle temporarily, which puts the player in a position to choose. Palaces have much more to do in them than Tartarus and Midnight Channel dungeons. One would expect the puzzles in these Palaces would just be a pain, but I felt they were not particularly tedious. This separated Palaces from past dungeons, which I always saw as bland and uninspired.

Issues I had with the game mechanically, though, were the cover system and a Confidant’s Social Link reward. The cover mechanics definitely made Palace infiltration more fun and matched the suave movements of Phantom Thieves, but the shadows’ detection failed to notice the player very well anyway, so it doesn’t seem narratively necessary to hide from them. The reward for completing Mishima’s Social Link is that back-up party members receive 100% experience points. I feel as though this made leveling allies way too easy. Part of the challenge of past Persona games was having to switch out higher level party members with lower level ones to even out your party. This forces the player to decide between leaving and recovering to later continue grinding for EXP or continuing on and risking a Game Over or erroneous usage of items in emergencies.

An issue critics found with Persona 4 was the time between completing a dungeon and the deadline, which left great amounts of time for the player to do things; they felt that this was too much free time. I did not feel that way at all about Persona 4. Every single day was crammed with Social Link interactions and other pastimes that earned me achievements. However, with Persona 5 I do feel that way. As a player who carefully plans his schedule around getting as many achievements as possible, I should be rewarded for good time management (which is exactly what the game suggests you exercise), not prevented by restriction. Long stretches of time would drag on with me struggling to find something to do. This issue was particularly prevalent early game due to there being fewer Social Links to work on then. To be fair, though, this issue did not detract from my experience.

Though, there are a couple aspects of the story that made me a bit unsatisfied, I will admit. But first, other strengths of the story I have yet to mention: the expanded role of the Velvet Room and focus on non-Protagonist-related social interactions.

The Velvet Room is such an interesting and mysterious component of the Persona series, yet we have not learned too much about it. My friend, who I started on Persona 4 Golden, asked if the Velvet Room would have more of a role in Persona 5; he wanted to learn more about it! The relationship between reality and the Velvet Room, its master, and its residents is explored much more through Persona 5 and this addition was exactly what I had hoped for such an elusive part of the Persona series.

I also liked that the game highlighted the Phantom Thieves’ relationship with one another. Joker brought the group together, and one would expect that his departure would cause the gang to fall apart. In completely independent cutscenes, however, the Phantom Thieves will be talking to each other and opening up as though they are not merely coworkers in the Phantom Thieves, but friends in reality.

 

Something I am trying to realize is that real appreciation of a work of art is not limited to praising its good qualities, but also acknowledging its shortcomings. Persona 5 is by no means a perfect game. From my experience, I believe that this is rooted in the story. Problems I found were the dialogue options, the character Goro Akechi, and the complexity of the story.

The simplicity of Persona 4’s story lent itself to extended focus on gameplay and Social Link interaction. The intricacy of Persona 5’s plot slightly convolutes the game more than necessary, and rather than covering more bases, it merely brings up more questions. The choices given to the player in Persona 4 vary greatly with some being kind, and others being cruel. I felt as though the options in Persona 5 are pretty much the same as one another, and choosing one does not produce a significantly different path of conversation or plot, which is disappointing, to say the least.

Finally, my biggest issue with the game’s story was Goro Akechi. For some inexplicable reason, I absolutely love Goro Akechi. His sudden disappearance from the story upset me in a way I cannot explain. I think that the small glimpse we were given into his past, motivations, and goals could have been expanded upon so much more significantly. Akechi is the foil to Joker; they are two sides of the same coin. Just as Yuu and Adachi were endowed with the power of Persona and ended up on opposite sides of the story, Joker and Akechi found themselves on opposing sides, despite sharing a common goal. I believe that this dynamic could have been explored more, not just as a self-contained interaction between the protagonist and an antagonist, but as a consistent theme throughout the Persona series. The parallels between Yuu/Adachi and Joker/Akechi are striking, and it’s upsetting to see how little the latter differed from the former.

I felt that Akechi’s large role in the game would have given him a more significant impact on the story, even after he was gone. I still look for secrets that unlock some ending with him in it. The ending cutscenes of the game don’t include him in any way, and this felt so jarring to me. It seemed to me as though the ending was not all encompassing, that it was incomplete. Even in one of the final cutscenes, Sae Niijima notes how there must be something deeper than what has already been uncovered. This influenced me to walk around for an hour on the last day, looking for some secret that unlocks a final, final, final boss, just as Izanami’s reveal had been hidden. Finding nothing, I was just… disappointed again.

With all of this, it might seem I’m actually really upset with how the story turned out, which is not true at all! I just want to be more honest with myself (and by extension, with others). Persona 5 is undeniably my favorite game of all time, so I think it would be appropriate to acknowledge its faults just as I have its achievements.

The last strength of the Persona series I have yet to mention is the music. As I had mentioned before, I mistook the Persona series anniversary album as the Persona 5 OST. Additionally, prior to Persona 5’s worldwide release, I had the Japanese version. Playing past the first Palace, I noticed that the same few tracks would play over and over again. These two factors led me to believe that Atlus seriously downgraded their attention to music. Oh, how wrong I was.

This deliberate restraint on using all of the music in the beginning is meant to thematically match the development of the Phantom Thieves. As time goes on, they become more prominent and their problems become more challenging. Not to mention, the individual tracks on their own are amazing pieces of music. Not a day goes by without me singing a song from Persona 5.

 

Overall, this game makes me feel like I won’t play anything like it for another decade, which is essentially the wait people have been forced to have from 2008’s Persona 4 to 2017’s Persona 5. It will be a nail-biting, teeth-gritting decade wait for the next best game of all time for me, but with my strengthened trust in Atlus, I know they will make good use of those years of development. That much has been shown by their existing work. Additionally, Persona series veterans like Hashino, Soejima, and Meguro have branched off into a new studio: Studio Zero. I’m looking forward to the new fantasy game Katsura Hashino is planning for his following he’s amassed.

Of course, I will also be anticipating Persona 5: Crimson and Persona 5: Dancing All Day — games that will make the next decade seem a little less long… hopefully.