I’m not a weeb – the lack of anime body pillows and busty mouse pads in my bedroom can attest to that. This is why I never bothered to play a Persona game before, although I have played a couple of the Shin Megami Tensei games, which is the base franchise Persona is a spin off from. As such I was always vaguely aware of their existence, like I’m vaguely aware that my diet of cornettos and deep fried chicken wings is slowly killing me. So Persona 5 is my entry into the series, and holy shit – I’ve put 22 hours into this game in one weekend.
Players take the role of a Japanese high school student, who is placed on probation after injuring a rapist while intervening in an attempted sexual assault. Already it’s clear that this is darker than your average Japanese slice of life anime. As such, you’re sent to live in a grumpy old man’s attic while you attend the only high school that will take you, Shinju Academy.
Rumors about your criminal record have already spread amongst the students, so you’re forced to be an outcast from day one. Players will need to forge friendships with other outcasts, keep their nose clean, and generally try to avoid trouble for their next year on probation. Oh yeah, and also master their power to summon demons in a hidden world formed out of people’s subconscious desires.
Yeah, in addition to managing your everyday relationships and responsibilities, the player and their ragtag group of friends regularly delve into a world between dreams and reality, where they are granted the supernatural powers of their Persona, the rebellious spirit that dwells in their heart underneath the mask they wear in reality. In addition to facing the demons of this world, the player character and friends form the phantom thieves, a group dedicated to changing evil people’s hearts in reality by infiltrating the palace formed from their most twisted desires in the hidden world.
This delightfully outlandish premise sets the stage for a uniquely divergent kind of gameplay. During the day, the game focuses on a sort of time management visual novel. Players head to school, build relationships with various friends, and meet obligations like meetings and events. Later on this can include working a part time job, and studying to improve your day to day skills.
The rest of the game is a dungeon crawling RPG not unlike my beloved SMT series. At certain points in the story this will involve infiltrating one of the aforementioned palaces of an evil heart, usually in anticipation of a date driven deadline in the real world. The rest of the time players can explore a dungeon formed from people’s collective subconscious known as mementos, which includes side quests that can also be picked up in the real world.
One of the things that I enjoy most about the game is that it is absolutely brimming with grace and style, and a strong visual aesthetic that underlines everything else in the game. Less of a cherry on top and more like the icing on the cake, this aesthetic extends to the UI, the screen border, the battle system, and even the music. There’s a good reason why everyone who’s played Persona 5 harps on about how good the OST is, because it’s amazing, and fits the game like a glove. The jazzy tones and high energy disco feel in the main battle theme alone compliments the visuals nicely and makes it absolutely addictive to listen to.
The battle system will be familiar to anyone who’s played a turn based RPG before, although the game does add its own unique elements. The mechanic where using a move type that’s effective against an enemy grants an extra turn has been borrowed from Shin Megami Tensei IV, although I like it a lot more in this game thanks to baton pass, which allows you to pass the extra turn to another party member. As well as this, the gun attack works slightly differently in that you can unload up to one full clip per turn, although each party member has a different stash of ammo that only replenishes when leaving the dungeon. This gives gun attacks a more supplementary role alongside physical and special attacks, rather than being an alternative, which I feel adds to the strategy side of combat.
When the dual gameplay styles come together, they compliment each other nicely, both in a mechanical and narrative point of view. Strengthening your relationships and improving your social stats has a direct effect on the dungeon crawling gameplay, which is good motivation for someone like me who is bored to death by traditional VNs. Bonding with friendly characters will unlock new perks and skills, sometimes in battle and some times in the real world, and will allow the player’s Personas to become even stronger when you fuse them. In terms of narrative, this allows significant dungeons and battles to be built up over the course of the story, adding a wealth of context and motive to the dungeon crawling segments.
Besides a few issues I have around pacing, which I find common for JRPGs, Persona 5 is a game that’s hard to find flaws in. In the end it was worth all of the delays that the game suffered (it was originally announced for a 2013 release) because the end result is a highly polished and addictive experience, with incredible care put into the audio and visual details. Whether you own several Persona body pillows or you’ve never stepped foot into the wacky world of JRPGs, Persona 5 has a lot to offer to anyone, no weeb status required.
Also published on Medium.