“I am thou. Thou art I” is quite an unsettling thing to be told by a cartoonish demon sitting on a toilet, but after a deep and honest look at my own life, I find it harder and harder to refute that claim. Indeed, Persona 5 is just the type of game that gets us to fight those inner demons of ours, even when we have no idea where they come from.
Platform: PlayStation 3; PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Release: April 4, 2017 (September 15, 2016 in Japan)
(Disclaimer: Atlus apparently does not like video sharing or image sharing as far as Persona 5 is concerned, so I will be using pictures of chickens from now on)
Persona 5 is a refreshingly unique blend of the classic JRPG and the somewhat less classic dating sim styles. It features a well-paced turn-based combat system, a modern-day Japan setting, and almost as many waifu’s as classically-inspired demons.
Honestly, Persona 5 is a mishmash of so many awesome things, that it feels like it should be horrifying, like mixing tacos and ice cream in one bowl. Instead, it pairs everything perfectly, leaving one huge satisfying experience that leaves you wanting more, like tacos and ice cream in two bowls.
As the “5” ins Persona 5 suggests, this game is the fifth iteration of the Persona series. This series takes the monster-collecting idea from Pokémon and makes it super occult and creepy like by using real-world myths and legends as inspiration for the monsters, which are called personas. The series is also set in mostly real-world Japan and features life-simulation in between all the bouts of demon-hunting.
Unlike Pokémon, you recruit your demonic friends by talking to them and convincing them to join you, rather than throwing a cage at them. It’s almost more humane if you ignore the part where you brutally murder them if they refuse. When they do agree to join you, though, they become a part of your repertoire of spell-casting slaves until their usefulness runs dry and you capitally punish them into becoming stronger spell-slaves.
Persona 5, being the JRPG that it is, does not have you demon-hunting alone. As the story progresses, you acquire a band of friends to help you fight, each with their own persona. Not only are they great in helping you fight, but you can bond with each of them in your off time. Doing so gradually unlocks new abilities and makes your personas stronger on top of the added benefit of making you feel like you actually have friends.
Alright, maybe that last part’s just me.
The gameplay systems are totally unique, and so are the ways that they are integrated together, but the real draw of Persona games, P5 included, are the stories.
Persona 5 features one hell of a heavy story, made more so by the fact that it takes place in a mostly real-world setting. Theft, murder, rape, suicide – this game has it all, and at times, it can be hard to watch, despite its cartoony/anime art style. Persona’s development team must have sacrificed a few dozen small animals, because this series touches themes that would give any game bad press while avoiding it entirely.
I’m not just edging out about how dark this game is, though. Persona 5 uses these dark themes for immersive plot development and character motivation, not as edge lord porn. And those gruesome themes are juxtaposed against a campy audio-visual style that makes everything easier to swallow and eerie all at once. I mean at one point early in the game, you invade the mind of a rapist-pedophile teacher and find the representation of his libido as at one point a giant cartoon goblin slurping a girls’ legs cocktail and at another point a giant green penis.
So yeah, this game is absolutely outlandish in its portrayal of very serious vices.
Where Persona 5’s story fails somewhat, though, is in its weak attempt to portray the protagonists as anti-heroes. The story revolves around the main cast acting as “phantom thieves,” roguishly stealing the treasure within the hearts of their victims. It portrays the main cast as a group of misfits and outcasts well enough, but their “victims” are so cartoonishly evil that any sense of the internal conflict that any anti-hero should have just vanishes. There is almost never a moment where either the main characters or the players question the ethical consequences of their actions. The villains are clearly pieces of shit, so we never feel guilty for effectively lobotomizing them, even though that is clearly something we should very much be at least a little hesitant about.
Despite that one somewhat significant flaw, Persona 5’s story leads its players through a grand progression of events, each “arc” bigger than the last, until it gets to ludicrous, almost jaw-dropping proportions. The story also utilizes an impressive amount of literary references, and by the end, it leaves you thinking – questioning your assumptions in a way usually reserved for literature itself.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this game is in its aesthetics. Persona 5 adheres to a campy, jazzy style in both its art and musical directions.
The heavy use of black and red in both the menus and the character/level design conveys an immediate sense of danger that supersedes even the storytelling itself. Everything looks as elegant as it does evil, which I think is exactly what they were going for.
Meanwhile, composer Shoji Meguro’s choice of acid jazz and Lyn Inaizumi’s vocal execution within that jazz create moments of eerie calm and exciting rush exactly as appropriate. The calm, rainy-day sadness of “Beneath the Mask” is just as perfect inside the café as the exciting, roguish rush of “Life Will Change” is during the climax of a heist.
Finally, the voice-overs were absolutely spot on. I’m currently running my second play-through with the Japanese voice-acting. Despite the Japanese version’s impressive cast of A-list voice actors, I find myself missing the familiar companionship of the English cast that I’ve grown to know and love during those 150+ hours of my first play-through. I mean, as much as I love Tomokazu Sugita as a voice actor, I can’t help but prefer Matthew Mercer’s version of Yusuke.
That said, the number of voice lines is dreadfully low, particularly in repeated voice lines. I quickly learned to dread selling any of my loot due to the constant loop of “This’ll be fine” and “You should be grateful.” I also had to take Morgana out of my party a few times after getting sick of hearing “It’s almost scary how good I am” sixteen times in a row.
Overall, Persona 5 is a masterpiece of a game. The story can feel naïve at the time, but it always left me excited to see what’s next. The way it handled its dark themes and its use of literary referencing made Persona feel like more than just a game. It felt like a literary experience the likes of which I could see being seriously studied in the future. The art and musical direction was cohesive in a way that felt adhesive. Best of all, the combat and exploration was fun – so much so that I find it genuinely hard to put down. There is a reason it has taken me so long to finally get this review out, after all.
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Enticing story
+ Fun art style
+ Beautiful music
– Naïve moments in story
– One-dimensional villains
– Repetitive voice-lines
Score: 5 / 5