Review: Persona 5 (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4
  • PlayStation 3

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
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Title: Persona 5
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (20.28 GB)
Release Date: April 4, 2017
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus / P Studio
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
PEGI: 12
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 11 of the Side Quest podcast (coming soon).

The last few months have been great for games that have been in development for a long time and Persona 5 is just the latest.

Rumored to be in the works starting shortly after Persona 4 shipped back on the PS2, the game was relegated to the sidelines as P4 got spinoff after spinoff.

Finally announced in 2014, Persona 5 was originally going to release in Winter of that year but slipped several times.

As I don’t want to spoil, here’s the thirty thousand foot level story overview: a group of High School students discover that they have the ability to travel to a strange metaworld. This world is the reflection of cognition of certain people and how they see the world.

For most of the antagonists of the game, this is a part of their psyche that enables them to do horrible things. However, by stealing that individual’s “treasure,” the source of their desires, the protagonists can trigger a change of heart in the individual. A series of events forces the students to form the Phantom Thieves to find and change the hearts of those with twisted desires.

Gameplay:
Coming from the slightly more optimistic world of Persona 4, the story in Persona 5 really tries to darken the tone. The two games aren’t related, minus a few hidden references to P4.

The protagonist’s backstory is a big part of this and a particularly shocking scene only a few hours into the game really cements the tone. The story can especially dig deep into the villains that pop up in the game, not only on the kinds of terrible things they do, but the downward spiral that got them there.

The rest of the cast have backstories similar to the protagonist and a major theme of the game is rebellion: rebellion against an unjust world or against power-hungry adults. While some of this could be chalked up to teenagers in a rebellious phase, most of the main cast has a reason to rebel and they’re well fleshed out characters I could empathize with.

That said, the game walks a fine line between trying to portray the player’s party as both the “good guys” who are helping those in need but also as roguish thieves. Ultimately, I think the story wants the player to root for them so it never takes them too far.

For all the ways it tries to keep a dark tone, it can also be very optimistic, with at least a few small doses of the anime trope of the power of friendship.

In addition to the actual characters who play a part in the story, the world plays a big part in the game. The cognition of the public ties into a few parts of the game and ends up being a driving force in parts of the story. The loading screen that pops up to transition between days even includes a faux-poll telling the player what the general public thinks of the Phantom Thieves at the time.

… ultimately the player can’t really steer the story off course in any meaningful way …
This is part role playing game, part daily life simulator. The unique intersection means one hour could be spent crawling through a palace, the game’s term for a dungeon, using mystical powers to fight monsters, while the next hour is spent going to school, working a part time job, and finding time to hang out with friends.

Though the latter probably sounds mundane and uninteresting, the game does a good job of investing the player in the life of the protagonist.

Really, the main way it gets the player to invest in the protagonist is by having him be a self-insert. Sure, he has a backstory but between naming him and playing as him, players are meant to put themselves in his shoes. Even in the story, the protagonist rarely speaks and almost anytime he offers input the player gets to choose between a few options of what to say.

The odd thing about the game is how it can vary wildly between feeling like it gives the player a lot of options and feeling very on-rails. The aforementioned text options definitely play into that. In terms of the protagonist’s personality, having dialogue options for nearly every line let me feel like I was playing the character as I wanted.

However, ultimately the player can’t really steer the story off course in any meaningful way even when presented with dialogue options. They often include a couple variations of the same thing with different tones and when they do include something off the wall or wildly different from the other options, it usually ends up being the joke answer that the other characters laugh off.

The daily life parts of the game certainly vary between giving the player options and feeling on-rails. For sections of the game, the player gets chunks of free time after school and in the evenings to do whatever they want.

There’s a lot to choose from and they all offer different advantages. Choosing to go try out the batting cages will boost the proficiency stat or working at the flower shop will boost the kindness stat and give the player some cash, for example.

Hanging out with other characters is a big part of the protagonist’s daily life. Getting to know others better will level up the protagonist’s trust or understanding of them, referred to as a confidant level, the equivalent of social links in Persona 4.

… occasionally the story will really take over the game …
These offer wildly different bonuses depending on which character it is. For example raising the confidant level with a party member gives that member new abilities in battle while raising the level of the politician makes it easier to reason with foes.

Also, raising confidant level with the women in the game will eventually allow the player to enter a relationship with that girl. Because, of course. There are, unfortunately, no gay relationships with the male confidants.

On the flip side of these open sections, occasionally the story will really take over the game. For a week or two of in game time, the player will have few opportunities to spend free time how they want and instead will just follow along with the plot.

On one hand I really enjoyed the story so I didn’t mind getting more of it, but on the other it was occasionally frustrating having to wait to take care of that one thing I wanted to do. Also, don’t rent a DVD if you think one of these sections will happen soon…

Usually the story sections are all about leading the player to their next targets who are the sources of the game’s palaces. Once the story has established the target, the stakes, and a little bit of setup it will open up again and give the player time to do what they wish for a few weeks.

The main task will be to fight through the palace and secure a route to the target’s treasure so the player can steal their heart, but there is ample time to do that and work on the all the other daily life stuff.

Palaces are where the game becomes a traditional JRPG. These dungeons are rather large and often designed to be tackled in multiple smaller sessions. This is especially true early on in the game, where the player has access to fewer healing skills and very little SP recovery.

Fortunately the palaces also have some safe rooms that double as warp points so if the party gets low on resources, they can leave to recover and come back another day.

… being able to talk to the demons is pretty interesting …
For the most part I think the palaces are pretty well designed. There are some light puzzle solving elements to help spice up the dungeon crawling. It’s also nice that there are some very simple stealth mechanics, making it easier to avoid battles by slipping past enemies when you want.

There are only seven palaces which is probably why they are as large as they are but there’s also a randomly generated dungeon with something like eighty floors for when the player isn’t exploring palaces.

Combat is turn-based with a few extra mechanics, the most important of which comes by hitting foes with an element to which they are weak. Doing so will knock the enemy down and give the character an extra attack.

This is a pretty fun mechanic, particularly once the confidant levels of the other party members have been raised. Once they hit a certain confidant rank, party members can pass off this extra action to another character while powering up that next action as well.

Knocking down all of the foes is super important too, as it gives the player a chance to either perform a powerful All-Out attack or talk to the enemies. While not ultimately all that deep, being able to talk to the demons is pretty interesting.

The player can try to extort them for money or items or try to convince them to join the party. Choosing the wrong options or asking for too much though can anger the enemies and they’ll call in reinforcements.

Though most of the playable cast only has a single persona, the protagonist can actually have multiple personas and getting foes to join up is only one way he can gather them. There’s also a pretty robust system of fusing and training those personas.

A fused persona can inherit skills from their composite persona, giving the player options for what kind of persona they want to use in battle. And any persona that has been a part of the party can be re-summoned, for a fee.

… Time rarely feels wasted …
There are a few aspects of the game I took issue with. The fact that there is an instant game over if the main character, and only the main character, dies is a little annoying. Any other character can be revived with the myriad revival spells or items on hand but not the main character.

Some enemies having instant-kill spells makes it even more annoying. A game over means going back the last safe room or reloading a save file, potentially killing a couple hours of progress.

Bosses can be well designed but some of them are also huge damage sponges. The final few bosses in particular can take quite a while to grind down, in typical JRPG fashion. Fortunately dying in a boss fight lets the player restart from the beginning of that fight but again it can be annoying to die forty-five minutes into a boss fight and have to start over.

The combat and the daily life aspects of the game actually end up melding pretty well into a very enjoyable experience. Time rarely feels wasted as most things tied into one another in some way. Even when the game was railroading me between story events I was enjoying the characters and story. And when it would slow down and give me options, I liked that too. The occasional progress-killing annoyances are a small blemish on an otherwise fantastic JRPG.

Visuals:
Visually, Persona 5 is a stunning game though not necessarily from a technical standpoint. While the game is certainly competent in that regard, it was designed for PS3 and mostly just ported to PS4.

Anything it lacks in pure horsepower it more than makes up for in style and aesthetics. Everything in the game oozes style and pizzazz and that’s the main source of the game’s stunning visuals. The overall style is very cel-shaded, going for a pretty typical anime look.

The character designs are incredibly striking however, well designed to fit into the Tokyo setting. When in the palace, the main cast all have cool costumes and even the enemies and personas all look great. These are a lot of the same demons that the previous Persona games have had, but they’ve never looked quite this good.

The real world locations are generally pretty small and unimpressive compared to other game representations of Tokyo though they’ve manage to work in a lot of different parts of the city.

… the game has a very dynamic system of menus that interact directly with elements of the battle …
Palaces are the big meat of the environment and are well designed both functionally and visually. The way they tie into the palace owner’s cognition while also providing varied styles of dungeons to explore is a great touch.

There are several different methods of storytelling the game employs. Most is told through simple text box dialogue which is serviceable. But the really cool parts of the game toss in either cutscenes rendered in-engine or full anime cutscenes.

Both of these are used to great effect for the important parts of the story and in particular I loved the cutscenes for the first time each new party member summons their persona.

The incredible style even permeates down into the traditionally mundane parts of the game. Things like the menus are all meticulously designed to not only be functional but also visually interesting. In combat especially, rather than some humdrum text box at the bottom of the screen, the game has a very dynamic system of menus that interact directly with elements of the battle.

Audio:
The soundtrack is fantastic and I loved pretty much every part of it. Each time I got to a new palace with a new theme song, I would think to myself that it was the best theme only to then be blown away by the next palace. Most of the music is a jazzy-pop fusion that’s very upbeat and easy to tap along to. The music is also often vocalized, which is an unusual choice but one that works very well.

Voice acting comes in both English and Japanese through free DLC, a first for the series if I’m not mistaken. Both are generally pretty solid though they have a few issues. On the English side, the way they pronounce some of the names is odd.

For a dub that includes some Japanese honorifics, not using Japanese pronunciations of the names is off-putting. Even “Ann” is pronounced odd, in a way that seems like neither the way it would be pronounced in English or Japanese.

On the Japanese audio side, issues arise in some of the anime cutscenes where lines are inexplicably not subtitled. Usually the case is that the named character dialogue is translated while a TV or background character isn’t.

Some of the important dialogue is told through a newscaster or background character talking and that is missed out. It’s very odd when the subtitles have a character responding to a line that was not subtitled.

… I was absolutely obsessed with it for several weeks …
Online/Multiplayer:
Persona 5 is almost entirely a single player affair but there are a couple of online features. The one that I used the most was the ability to check to see what other players did at certain points.

Clicking the touchpad while in the real world will bring up a list of how other players spent their time on that day. Usually almost every possible action is accounted for so it’s not particularly useful on its own but it’s fun to look at and did make me aware of a few confidants I didn’t realize I could have as confidants.

The more useful part is during the school day. When called upon by a teacher to answer a question in class, pressing the touchpad will bring up the percentage of players who picked each response. And at this point all of the correct answers are the highest percentage responses. This option goes away during mid-term and final exams though so you’d better study.

In combat, there are a few ways to call on other online players to help indirectly. The situations that this can be used in are very uncommon though, so it’s not a particularly impactful use of online features. Still it can be helpful when those situations arise.

Conclusion:
To steal a joke from our other RPG writer Jason Honaker, “instead of the Take You Heart edition, they should have called the LE the ‘Take Your Sleep’ Edition.” Persona 5 sunk its teeth into me like few games can and I was absolutely obsessed with it for several weeks.

I’m secretly pretty bad at finishing games, particularly those that take more than fifty or sixty hours, but I not only spent almost a hundred in Persona 5, I would have started up New Game Plus immediately if not for my growing backlog.

Though not without a few faults, it is overall a fantastic game. The characters are wonderful and easy to fall in love with, Makoto is best girl, and the story is fun and interesting. The crazy style and wonderful soundtrack make even turn-based combat or piddling around as a High School student a joy. It’s just so easy to fall into the “one more day” trap and suddenly find it is 2AM in real life.

Even better, Persona 5 is fantastic for newcomers. I’ve often recommended Persona 4 Golden to those who are interested in trying JRPGs, but that game has a very slow start. The first couple hours are entirely setup, which can be a hard hook for many of today’s gamers.

Persona 5 does a fantastic job from start to finish, both in grabbing the player’s attention and keeping it. Now I can only hope we don’t have to wait until the PlayStation 6 to get Persona 6.

Score:
9.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Elgato Game Capture HD Pro screen capture feature.

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