REVIEW: PERSONA 5
Battle demons and fall in love with fake Japanese schoolgirls.
Posted on 2017-04-15 by CiaoCiao

Like most gamers and fans of anime, I was bullied throughout high school. Oh, I still have vivid memories of Monday mornings when the kids would launch spitballs at me. Or how on Tuesday, they would trip me if they saw me in the hallway. Then there was Wedgie Wednesday, Towel-Whipping Thursday, Sexual Harassment Sunday, and the rest. Due to this relentless bullying, my inferiority complex and suicidal tendencies were subconsciously distorted into an unreasonable hatred towards American culture and a delusional, almost unhealthy, obsession with Japan. Oh, how I dreamed of living in Japan. Eating ramen with my tomodachis. Practicing aikido or bushido. As such, I've anxiously awaited the release of Persona 5. I see the game as a means of redeeming myself: not only would I be able to experience high school free from persecution, but I would be able to do so while living out my own slice-of-life harem anime.

Or so I hoped. Not only did Persona 5 shatter my unrealistic, utopian view of Japan, but it actually made me proud to be an American. The Japan depicted in Persona 5 is not the one you came to know and love; this Japan is a dystopia filled to the brim with murder, sex trafficking, and political corruption. Like, fuck, I thought studying for calculus was hard. Between avoiding being kidnapped by the yakuza and battling the occasional evil god, it's no wonder the suicide rates are so high for Japanese high school students.

In Persona 5, the main character is one such high school student. The story begins when our hero is unjustly wronged: after trying to prevent an attempted rape, he is framed for a crime that he did not commit. Our protagonist is forced to transfer to a different school while on a year-long probation and must stay out of trouble else he faces going to juvenile hall. Sounds easy, right? Just don't fucking commit any crimes. Well, this wouldn't be that interesting of a game if all you had to do was not do anything illegal. In order to get revenge on the corrupt adults who are abusing society for their own selfish desires (such as the one who framed him), the hero forms the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a vigilante group dedicated to the reformation of this corrupt society. As with the other main characters in the series, The Phantoms have the power of the titular Persona: a daemonic manifestation of their psyche. Unique to the Phantoms, however, is the ability to access the Metaverse, an dreamworld-like dimension based on the collective unconscious of mankind.

If a person has a strong enough desire, they have their own pocket dimension within the Metaverse called a Palace, where their shadow self rules over. The Phantoms specifically target a series of evil, powerful adult individuals whose evil desires are strong enough that they own their own palace within the Metaverse. The Phantoms infiltrate these palaces Inception-styled in order to steal the palace's "treasure", the source of the palace ruler's desire. By stealing this treasure, the palace ruler's desires are also removed, effectively removing their criminal behavior and turning them into guilt-ridden, law-abiding citizens, albeit through means which can be summarized as 'fantasy lobotomies.' The Phantoms' vigilante activities quickly catch the eye of the Tokyo police force and a teenage detective hot on their trail.

Persona 5 chooses to tell its already unconventional tale in a hyperstylized manner, fusing together the best that anime, film noir, and pulp comics have to offer. From the jazzy opening movie to the highly animated pop art menus, Persona 5 oozes style and charm. Speed lines and onomatopoeias explode onto and fill the screen at every corner; the soundtrack ranges from J-Pop to jazz; and the noir-styled lighting of the interrogation room, which acts as our framing device, sets the stage for a tale of law, justice, crime, and vigilantism.

The majority of Persona 5 plays out as a dungeon-crawling JRPG in which the Palaces act as the main dungeons. Palaces are swarming with monsters called "Shadows", evil beings created from humanity's negative emotions. Shadows make up the main enemies of the game. As a thief, you can attempt to avoid these shadows by sneaking through the palace, or you can engage them in combat. Combat is your traditional turn-based JRPG. You can attack, use items, ect., but as with the other Megami Tensei games, the real focus of the battle is on an elemental rock-paper-scissors combat system.

Combat may appear basic basic at first. If an enemy is weak to fire, you use fire attacks on them. If an enemy is strong against ice, don't use ice attacks on them. If you end up hitting an enemy with a spell they are weak to, the enemy is knocked over into an immobile state until they can take their next turn. Additionally, the one who casts the spell may take an extra turn. Persona 5 has the new feature called "baton pass" where the spell caster can choose to give their extra turn to a different teammate, allowing for easier weakness exploitation as each character has their own signature element they excel in. Of course, the same rules applies to your opponents as well. All of the party members also have their own weakness. A shadow may also exploit these weaknesses in order to immobilize your party members and take an extra turn themselves.

To most, the elemental RPS system will come off as lazy, and admittedly, in many ways, it is. There really isn't too much thought behind a majority of the combat in the game—that is, the majority of non-boss enemies. However, as the game progresses, the combat system strives away from element-focused simplicity into an increasingly more complex and brutal battle system involving stat boosts, debuffs, and auto-kill moves, among various other spells. The boss battles in particular show how wonderful Megami Tensei's iconic battle system can be. They are exceptionally designed, making the most of the battle system, and make up for slogging through the long dungeons full of cannon fodder enemies.

In addition to stealth and combat, there is also a third option on how to deal with shadows: negotiation. In order to spark up a conversation with a shadow, you must first knock them down by exploiting their weakness. Once all shadows are knocked down, you can "hold them up." You can let the shadow run free in exchange for money or rare items. However, the main character is a special type of Persona user called a "wild card" meaning he can use any number of Personas instead of just one. Due to his special ability, he can ask Shadows to become one of his Personas. Unlike the previous two options, you need to convince the shadow to become a new ally by engaging with them in conversation.

Talking to enemies is a staple of the Megami Tensei series. However, I've always felt like this mechanic was always executed poorly. After initiating a conversation with a demon, you usually get three dialogue options to respond with, but it's never been very clear on what the results will be. Each demon has its own wildly different yet ambiguous temperament, so you often feel like you're playing Russian roulette with dialogue options rather than actually using any kind of persuasive techniques. What may seem like the correct choice can often lead to a demon getting a free attack on you. Persona remedies this by improving negotiations a number of ways, such as defining the shadow's temperament beforehand, giving you a second tree of dialogue choices in case you fail the first one, and a number of other secondary negotiation abilities you gain along the way.

The Seven Deadly Sins
One of the stand-out features of Persona's story has always been fantastic blend of tarot card symbolism, Gnosticism, and Jungian philosophy. Since the very first installment, each of these elements have been woven together elegantly to create the unique and surreal atmosphere the series is known for. Persona 5 builds on this by incorporating a new theme: the Seven Deadly Sins. There are seven main villains the Phantoms target through the course of the game and each of the villain's palaces reflect one of the seven sins they respectively represent. These bizarrely surreal and highly imaginative dungeons makes you feel as though you travelling through a post-modern, internet-era version of Hell.
In addition to combat, dungeons are hugely improved from previous installments. Whereas the dungeons in Persona 3 and 4 were randomly generated, the dungeons in Persona 5 are all hand-crafted, and as a result: they are way more exciting and inventive than the uninspired labyrinth of corridors that made up the dungeons in the previous two games. Almost all of the palaces have a unique mechanic or puzzle to spruce up the monotony of dungeon crawling. Unfortunately, most of these puzzles feel like an afterthought. They never challenge the player and long overstay their welcome, feeling more like inconveniences thrown in as padding to increase the game's length.

One interesting gimmick that is featured in all the dungeons is Cognitive Beings. A new element to the Persona mythos, Cognitive Beings are quite similar to Shadow Selves. A palace is its ruler's twisted cognition of the world. This means that, in addition to how they perceive locations and themselves, a palace includes how they perceive other people. For example, one of the main characters is your classmate Ann. The starter villain, your gym teacher Kamoshida, views Ann as a sex object. When you enter Kamoshida's palace, the Ann that exists within Kamoshida's mind appears, behaving completely different from the actual Ann. The dynamic between the party and Cognitive Beings provide a unique storytelling device unseen in any media. There are many times within Persona 5 where you converse with Cognitive Beings, such as getting new information on the villain in order to proceed within a palace. This in turn makes the palaces feel more like an original fusion of both RPG town and RPG dungeon.

Staying true to its noir and pulp comic origins, the palaces are all set pieces you'd expect to find in one of these stories. One of the levels is a high security bank, another is a yacht full of rich partygoers. There's even a pyramid complete with Indiana Jones-styled boulder traps. But, considering the nature of Persona, these locations are anything but simple, taking advantage of the dreamlike and surreal elements of the Metaverse. The bank is not just a bank, but a UFO carrying anthropomorphic ATM machines. The yacht is sailing through the apocalyptic Japan straight out of End of Evangelion. And the pyramid is full of alien technology.

While not pulling off heists in the Metaverse, the Phantoms are ordinary high school students. They need to go to school, study for exams, and sleep. However, that doesn't mean the game stops being fun once you leave the Metaverse. Like the previous two installments, the dungeon-crawling JRPG portion makes up only one half of the entire game. The other half is a life simulation visual novel in which you must juggle between going to school, hanging out with friends, and spending time doing recreational activities, all in the real world. Although these activities may seem minute in the grand scheme of things, how you choose to spend you day and who you choose to befriend greatly affects your performance in the Metaverse.

Another feature unique to "wild card"-type Persona users is their ability to acquire new Personas by forming bonds with others. I often cringe at "the power of friendship" that seeps its way into many shonen anime, but here the concept is both literalized and so closely ingrained into Persona's many mechanics that, in this context, the "power of friendship" trope works brilliantly. You spend a majority of the in-game year befriending and hanging out with a number of NPCs referred to as "Confidants" (called "Social Links" in the previous installments). But forming bonds isn't always the easiest task. Many of the NPCs you come across will only befriend you if you have a high enough life sim-stat, such as intelligence or charm, all of which you can only improve by doing everyday tasks such as studying, gardening, or working at part-time jobs. Some recreational activities, such as fishing and going to the batting cages, come in the form of minigames, but outside of these few, the life sim half of the game doesn't require much input from the player and makes you feel like you're watching an anime rather than playing a game. The game does no attempt to hide the fact it is railroading you. This becomes very evident when dialogue options are involved. When an NPC asks the main character a question, whether it be during a story cutscene or a social link event, the options all lead to the exact same outcome. Your dialogue options usually come down to responding with "yes" or responding with "yes" but slightly more sarcastically.

While I like to play the occasional Animal Crossing or Sims, I find that I never get as engaged in those games as I do with a game like Persona, mainly for the fact those games do not have an endgame I am driven towards. I don't gain powers from pulling weeds out of the ground in Animal Crossing, but in Persona 5, I'm excited to water to paint in order to improve my kindness stat, so that I may impress and befriend a confidant, who will eventually teach me new ways on how to deal with the many enemies I come across in the Metaverse. Despite being two vastly different genres, the fusion of elements from both JRPGs and life sims is superbly executed.

Persona 5 is a sequel done right, improving nearly every single aspect of the previous games, and doing it with style. While the combat, dungeons, and life sim elements can still be individually improved, they flow together in a closely-knit, mechanically-heavy package that works marvelously. We give Persona 5 an eight out of ten.