The Persona series’ Velvet Room has always defined each game. In Persona 3, the room appeared as an elevator representing one of the game’s core story themes. In Persona 4, it is a limousine shrouded in fog signifying our protagonist’s current transient state. Persona 5 ups the symbolism a notch by making the Velvet Room the prison that is meant to be a window into the lead character’s current peril.
Within the first hour of your time with Persona 5, you’ll come to the realization that the story here is not light-hearted. For all that the music is extremely up-beat, what we’re dealing with her is a story of misfits ground down by the world and trying to strike back – to reclaim some sense of life for their lives. In Persona 5, our protagonist – known by the code name Joker – forms a group of thieves known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts and seeks to right the wrongs of the society that has failed him by stealing the twisted hearts of the wicked who are preying upon the innocent. Sounds simple, right?
A Queen, An Oracle, a Skull, and a… Panther?
Not gonna beat around the bush, Persona 5 has one of the best core casts of any game I’ve played. Much like classic JRPGs, only the protagonists, villains and a few key side characters even have names… but they put so much effort into the history, personality, and design of these characters that it more than makes up for it. The core cast contains some of my favourite characters in gaming and each character has a solid, well written story that gives you great insight into their past and helps you to understand who they are and why they do what they do. It’s well enough handled that I even found myself appreciating facets of characters I dislike – like Ryuji. Even the characters who were unlikeable were well-developed and well-written, so you couldn’t help but enjoy their character even as you hated them.
I really enjoyed the way the game tied the side characters into the story without making them mandatory for the plot. They had little moments here and their where them being a part of your story mattered, but for the most part they were simply extra. The one thing I will say is that I wish they’d made a better effort to accommodate the sidestories around the story. There are several moments where when you choose to do the sidestory can determine whether it makes sense at all, which leads to some conversations that should be very awkward. This is not a new issue with the series, mind you, but given the time spent on Persona 5 and the strength of current generation consoles, it is an issue that should have been avoidable nowadays.
Misdirection and Foreshadowing
The story is not a mystery, at least not mostly. You will predict a lot of the game’s events, and the game even goes out of its way to give you info about what is next. A large portion of the story is told in flashbacks with the protagonist reciting his memories of the events and you living through those flashbacks. These segments start with the game telling you who your group’s next target is, which frames the events nicely. What is interesting is that this particular story-telling method explains how, during the flashbacks, neither the player nor the protagonist have information that the other characters are privy to. It’s an interesting device that removes one of the continuity problems games often suffer from.
One of the things I found the most interesting about Persona 5’s story is the way it misdirects you. Every facet of the story ties together, and there are virtually no story elements within it that are not foreshadowed in some form or another. However, the game makes a few elements obvious to try to distract you from exploring other elements too deeply, so that once you get past the plot twists you predicted there’s still one that you most likely won’t have seen coming. It’s not the first game to try this, but it’s the first one to have succeeded at making the unexpected plot twists still foreshadowed without making them too obvious.
Regardless of the specifics of the story, the format and storytelling methods Atlus utilizes are beyond reproach in my eyes. The opening is one of the best intros to a game I’ve seen in a while. It gives you a bit of foreshadowing, just enough of a tutorial, and a fantastic taste of the style this game embodies. The game’s enormous ending segment, from the start of the penultimate dungeon until the end of the final boss fight, is so perfect. They break down a lot of the illusions the game has given you, make you realize the reality of what has been happening, and tie everything all together right at the end. It all works to create a fantastic sense of closure, even if the actual final scene after the end boss is a bit of a disappointment.
Cool, Cooler, Coolest!
Persona 5 is a pretty game. Its graphics are not up to the par of modern giants, but it still catches your eye in a very good way. It has this unique colour palette and design aesthetic that just stands out in the crowd. So much so that the combat menu has become the subject of many memes and its character designs have been repurposed in many different ways. It also possesses one of the most spectacular soundtracks of modern gaming. The music has this way of tying dark themes into up-beat pieces to create a dynamic that helps keep you in touch with the game’s mood while also livening up the slow pace typical of this genre.
Probably the most impressive aspect of this game is how well every facet of the game ties together. Whether we’re talking character art, ability animations, music, story thematics – hell even the menus – it doesn’t matter, every single component shares the same sense of style. You rarely see games this completely cohesive, and it’s a pity because it the entire 120 hour experience feel so very well connected. It’s an elegant, sophisticated style that just oozes into your soul as you play the game. I just wanted to take a moment right here to appreciate this game’s menus. The transitions, the backgrounds, even the layout and button styles… they’re all so perfect for what this game is offering.
While that may be the most impressive thing, my favourite elements of the game were its dungeons, known as ‘palaces’. These palaces exist within an alternate reality known as the metaverse, and are twisted parodies of the real world space they occupy, bent by the perspective of their ruler. Each one has an extremely unique aesthetic… and the reveal when you step in to each palace that first time is so incredibly memorable. They kept outdoing themselves with each dungeon. To avoid specific spoilers, the bank was unquestionably my favourite reveal moment, while the pyramid was my favourite dungeon overall. Each palace truly reflects the story it was intending to tell in a way that is hard to put into words without spoiling you all.
The one other thing I wanted to really give the developer credit for was their attention to detail. In Persona 5, they have lovingly recreated several districts of Tokyo for you to walk around in. I’ve seen side-by-side shots, and damn they did a fantastic job. It must be such a weird feeling to live there and look around and just think ‘that’s the train station I catch the train at’… especially when you view it through the lenses that each region of the metaverse grants.
Excitement and Mystery
Much like most JRPGs, Persona 5 features a turn based combat system. It uses a combination of in-combat dialogue, lively music, and an interesting visual style to make the combat never feel dry. Atlus has some of the most incredible battle music JRPGs have ever seen, and the characters move seemingly in tune to it, giving a sense of cohesion and liveliness that is simply infectious. Fortunately, the combat contains a lot of experimentation and a refreshing sense of challenge – even on the game’s normal difficulty – that will ensure you always have to be on your toes. Recognizing weaknesses and exploiting them is the key to success, as the game gives you access to special follow-up attacks. They even give you bonus effects for pursuing the characters’ sidestories, for both the main and the side characters. It’s a great way to reward you for putting your time into building these relationships, and it is masterfully handled.
The game also features the series standard Persona system, where your protagonist is able to ‘recruit’ a number of Persona to offer him different skillsets, strengths, and weaknesses. The rest of the cast are much more fixed in their abilities, making the party you surround yourself with as important to your success as the main character’s Persona set. They give you a variety of tools to help you empower your Persona and build new ones. The system is deep enough that it is not uncommon to spend an hour combining to get new Persona with the combinations of abilities you’re after. You don’t have to spend that much time as it is fairly easy to build effective Persona to utilize, but if you’re after that ideal combination? Experimentation is the key.
However, that’s not to say all is perfect. The game has a tendency to make certain mechanics needlessly obtuse and mysterious. Most notable is the game’s leveling system. You gain experience points at the end of each battle, yet… you don’t exactly gain the amount they tell you. After a lot of experimentation, the nearest I could figure was that the difference in level between each character and the enemies affected the experience you gained, yet they chose to not show that visibly. So if you’re 1000 experience away from a level, and you gain 500 from a fight… you might find yourself fighting a lot more than the 2 fights you’re expecting to hit your level. This isn’t the first game to do this type of adjustments, other games that do it just make it clear upfront. The game also has a very unusual turn speed/initiative system that occasionally grants double turns to enemies for no reason. Well, no reason I could figure out anyways. Overall it’s not usually terribly impactful… except when you suddenly die because a hard enemy got two consecutive turns out of nowhere.
I do wish they’d given more thought to the common people. Not in the sense of developing them as individuals or anything, but in making them not simply background images. Our protagonists are frequently having conversations in loud voices in public, not at all concerned about the random people standing around who might overhear. Ryuji was particularly bad about this, but he was hardly alone as a problem.
As is the standard for the series, you have a limited amount of time in the game, but more than enough to do most of the game’s sidestories. However, it never quite feels like you have enough time, leading to you always feeling a bit rushed. This is actually a good thing, because it makes your decisions feel like they matter without necessarily actually punishing you for screwing up a couple times. Unfortunately, there are a few points where there’re some unspoken restrictions on some of the storylines that can lead to you wasting a lot of time. You see, certain character stories require you to perform obscure actions, but don’t stop you from wasting your time spending time with them fruitlessly. It was a little annoying when I realized the many ways I was wasting time, but it’s a minor gripe overall.
It is extremely rare that we get a game whose developers have this clear of an idea of what they wanted to build. In the end, you won’t find many games that offer the type of cohesive, well-defined experience that Atlus has created here. The game’s incredible sense of class and style makes it easy to look past what few flaws the game has and keeps your attention focused on this game’s strongest assets: its audio, visuals, and writing.