I’m not joking. Persona 5 needs to be in your game library, not because its a good JRPG, but because it is the JRPG. The definitive example of what a JRPG can be at its absolute best, and I’d even go as far as to say the one game you could open up the genre to newcomers with. This is a game where the hype that went around it was completely deserved, and it lived up to its expectations and then some.
As far as story, background and characters go, its pretty much familiar Persona fare: high school students trying to make sense of the world and all of the personal issues that come with it (family, individuality, the trials and tribulations of being a j-pop star (in one case)), while you control what your main protagonist does on a day by day basis. The normal Persona fare of the double life also pervades, with your ragtag group diving into surreal dungeons in other worlds, more often than not the creation of which coming from the cognition of mankind. So far, so familiar. However, Persona 5 changes up the formula a little bit by concentrating on characters considered to be on the periphery of society – the rebels, troublemakers and outcasts. “Problem children” if you will. Okay, that might not seem like a massive change, but given that the double life that your team takes part in is actually running around stealing the distorted hearts of people, it makes a little more sense why outcasts were chosen to be the major characters. The Phantom Thieves of Heart, or also known as The Phantoms (or indeed whatever you want to choose to call the group), are modern day Robin Hoods, but instead of robbing the wealth to give back to the poor, they instead enter ‘Palaces’ -a sort of surreal reflection on either an individual or the public’s psyche- to take the hearts of the rulers, thus forcing a change in the behaviour of the target in the real world.
As a result of this storyline of being thieves, gameplay has altered in a few ways. Now the main dungeons, or Palaces as they’re called, have set maps; not much of a departure for the series where dungeons had fluid and constantly changing maps, but the decision to have set maps in the unique Palaces lends itself to the first preparatory work for a heist: finding and securing a route to the ruler’s heart. If the Palace’s topography kept changing, performing the heist would be difficult, especially given that the difficulty level will spike during the heist as the Shadows patrolling the Palace will be on high alert. However, the addition of a stealth element in Persona 5 helps not only to sneak past Shadows if you don’t particularly feel like battling them, or indeed to get a guaranteed ambush on any enemy Shadow. New additions to the classic turn-based combat system include the Baton Pass ability, which hands over your turn to another member of the team and boosts their power when you’ve knocked an enemy down, and the reintroduction of negotiating with the enemy which can either net you a new Persona to use, an item or money.
One other thing that has been given a makeover in Persona 5 are the Social Links, or Confidant Cooperation as its called in-game. In the past, bettering your relationships with other characters in the game usually just meant that you could create stronger Personas later down the line, with the main benefit of bettering your relationships with your party members giving you bonuses in combat situation. Now all of your Confidants give your different bonuses and abilities during gameplay, ranging from making better weapons and medicines available, to making sure everyone on the team gets experience points even if they haven’t participated in battle, to useful skills and abilities that can trigger during combat. In short, there is more reason to take your time and cultivate all of the relationships you make; ignoring one Confidant that could help you out will make the game more difficult in the long run.
But of course, Persona 5 is a marathon, not a sprint. With an entire game year (reportedly to last 100 hours in real time) to cover, and a total of seven Palaces that you will have to navigate through, it is all about pacing and time management; doing activities that increase your social stats or your stats for combat will pass time, also giving you the benefits of helping you to either make new Confidants or deepen bonds with others. Likewise, spending time with your Confidants is beneficial. Of course, there is also a huge amount of stuff to do the city; the batting cages, the cinemas, part-time jobs, food challenges and diners where you can study is just scratching the surface of what you can do in your spare time, though another huge part of what you can do during your spare time or between individual Palaces is to delve into Mementos, the shared Palace of the general public.
Mementos acts like a dungeon from previous entries; the map changes constantly, affected by bad weather and the collective conscious of the masses -meaning that certain Shadows are available at any time and may even be effected by status effects. For example, on a day where there’s a high pollen count, some Shadows on the map can appear to be asleep, leaving themselves open to ambush. However, even though reaching the depths of Mementos is important to the story, it is basically where you’ll be training up between major Palaces and the location of ‘Phan-site’ requests left on the Phantoms website; completing these can be a chore, especially since this is the only way to rank up your Moon Arcana Confidant, but as previous Palaces are destroyed after you’ve completed them, this is the only way you can get any training in before the next major heist. Mostly though what makes Mementos a real chore is the fact that you have to control what I can only describe as the Morgana-mobile… the van that team member and resident curiosity Morgana transform into can be quite tricky to control. More often than not I’ve been the one getting ambushed by Shadows rather than me ambushing them since the stealth element in individual Palaces aren’t available here.
Of course, a lot of this I can’t actually show proper English gameplay screenshots because Atlus has issued a ban on the game getting shared on the Internet. Now unless you’re tech savvy like most modern YouTubers, the result is that if you have a cool kill shot of the protagonist getting rid of some sort of horse-like nightmare fuel, you have to either quickly capture it with your phone’s camera (more often than not bad quality) or bemoan the fact that you’ll never get a chance like that ever again. Hell, I’d even wonder if banning media sharing is a good idea; in a world where everyone is connected to each other now more than ever, wouldn’t it be a better business model to let gamers share images and videos of your product just to showcase just how bloody cool it is? Wouldn’t that mean that people would be more likely to buy your game if a friend recommended it to them via sharing a screenshot or video of them playing the game? And YouTube, effectively a free advertising platform for your product if placed in the right hands of a YouTuber with a huge following, would be a huge resource to turn down just for the sake of keeping people spoiler free for your product. (No I’m not bitter about the fact that I can’t for the life of me figure out a way to take a good screenshot without having to resort to my phone’s camera…) For a game that really is so stylish you want to take photos and share with your friends, it seems like a huge blow to gamers and almost shooting yourself in the foot for denying them this.
And that is why you need to play Persona 5: the game is amazing. You need to play it. If you will ever play one JRPG in your entire lifetime, make it this one. If you need an introduction to the JRPG genre, this is the best modern example of what one can be like. You won’t regret it. Promise.
This post is a day late due to a late delivery of the game and the inability to pull away from it for ages. See you next Friday for a review of Yooka-Laylee!!