TL; DR(eview) - Persona 5 expands on nearly every idea from Persona 4 in bigger and better ways and absolutely oozes style. The game expertly balances its JRPG dungeon crawling and social simulation aspects with aplomb and kept me engaged throughout my 200 hundred hours over two playthroughs of the game. It probably could have cut out a dungeon and/or party member to even out pacing without disrupting the endgame but overall, the title is a great turn-based JRPG filled with compelling characters dealing with difficult, adult issues.
Like many people, I fell into the Persona series with the PlayStation Vita update of Persona 4 Golden. It filled a long-dormant void in my life that Final Fantasy had once ruled above all others: a turn-based JRPG with a great cast of characters I could invest in over the course of a hundred hours. Final Fantasy has consistently gone toward action RPG and away from characters I’ve been able to connect with so Persona’s deep narrative and vibrant teen heroes checked all my boxes. The announcement of Persona 5 at the original PlayStation experience was probably one of my favorite moments of that initial show, even if it would be delayed time and time again afterward.
Persona 5 is the first new numbered entry in the series in two console generations (the original Persona 4 launched in 2008 on PlayStation 2 - a couple years into the PlayStation 3’s life cycle). And it takes advantage of its extra graphical kick. Launched on both PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, it doesn’t push the limits of the latter’s capabilities but it does present an incredibly stylized art design and puts the player in a bustling Tokyo sprawl that feels leaps and bounds ahead of the tiny by comparison Inaba of Persona 4.
Persona 5 puts you in the role of a young man wrongly convicted of assaulting a high-profile politician (when you were in fact trying to save a woman he was harassing). This has you sent to live with Sojiro Sakura for a year on probation where you’ll also attend Shujin Academy. Right off the bat, Persona 5 presents that there might be a darker, more sinister tone to this game, as you are immediately introduced to the first villain of the game: a high school teacher abusing his male students and lusting after his female ones.
Throughout the course of the story, you lead a team of Phantom Thieves, who use their Personas (effectively personal spiritual manifestations that give your characters magical powers and abilities) to hunt after a series of villains like this and “steal their hearts,” forcing the corrupted individual to be so overwhelmed by their own heinous actions that they mentally shut down and confess their crimes. It’s a bit tough to describe in a brief summary outside the context of the game but this is all basically the dungeon-crawling JRPG aspect of the game.
So by night, you are the leader of the Phantom Thieves, but by day, you are a high school student juggling school, work, and your personal relationships, all of which can help increase your performance as you battle foes in the shadow world. Most days will afford you a couple distinct blocks where you can choose an activity to spend your time: after school and evening. Different activities and relationships will be cordoned off to different times. For example, you might only be able to build up your relationship with your party member Ann in the afternoon, while you can only work a part-time job at a bar in the evening to boost your character's personality statistics (charisma, guts, kindness, etc.).
Leveling up a relationship with these Confidantes can lead to special abilities for party members (like the ability to randomly cure another character’s status ailment) or other perks and benefits like store discounts or access to special items. Further restrictions to building these bonds might also be in place like only being able to progress a relationship with somebody once you’ve reached a certain Guts level. In many ways, for a completionist looking to see it all, the social management simulation part of the game may elicit more stress than the dungeon crawling. The game allows certain elements like your personality characteristics to carry over in a New Game Plus which can make maximizing every relationship significantly easier when you don’t have to devote as much time to building them up beforehand.
The characters in Persona 5 admittedly don’t feel as immediately memorable as the cast from Persona 4 but I also recognize that I’ve played through that first title at least one more time that Persona 5 and I’ve also had further exposure to them in the forms of Persona Dancing All Night and a little bit of Persona Q so it doesn’t feel fair to completely compare the two quite yet. This cast is still plenty interesting taken in a vacuum though.
As is somewhat the series’ standard, each of your confidants will progress through their own journey of personal growth as you build up their social levels: party members and non-party members alike. Ryuji, for example, is saddled with the guilt of letting his temper get the best of him in an act which led to the dissolution of his old track team - an act his former teammates resent. Over the course of the game, as you spend time with him, he begins coming to terms with his life with the Phantom Thieves as an improvement over his track team and even comes to a realization that he viewed track as an individual sport rather than a team one but through the Phantom Thieves, he has discovered what it means to be a team player.
Some of these character stories certainly resonate better than others. I often found myself a bit more personally invested in the storylines of my party members if for no other reason than the fact that I also had to be responsible for them as we battled through the dungeons together. As a result, I wasn’t too beat up during my first playthrough about not maximizing some of those paths. Many of the scenarios are admittedly a bit archetypal so I could frequently get a good sense of the direction of the character arc even if I only made it through a few levels of their story.
In that same vein, I also wasn’t overly broken up about barely spending any time with the final team member in my initial playthrough. I’d already spend so much time working through so many other social links that by the time this last one rolled around it felt a bit too much of a chore to start up a brand new link and I chose to devote the time maximizing some of the other ones instead. I ultimately saw them all in my second playthrough and I think there are probably a couple characters that, as a result of when they are introduced into the narrative and/or the general usefulness of their skills, might have been better left out of the game.
Lastly, I was conflicted on the villains. On the one hand, they fulfill their purpose. They are often so cartoonishly evil (sexual predator, underground crime lord, abusive corporate CEO, etc.) that you are, of course, going to hate them and want to bring them down. But perhaps a little subtlety or a few shades of grey could have gone a long way. In particular, I can think of one specific example where I was initially moved because I could sort of see why, in a given scenario, one of the villains might act the way he did. But then he straight-up confessed to standing by and watching a woman die when he could have saved her and I thought, “welp, yeah, that’s just a bad dude.”
While Persona 4’s dungeons more or less followed a standard set of procedurally-generated guidelines with different coats of paint, Persona 5 creates a series of unique Palaces for its dungeon crawling. So instead of traversing through a handful of levels that all kind of look the same save some different window dressing, here you will progress through a castle, bank, and a casino to name a few. Each of these Palaces have their own simple puzzles to solve to progress through them and they are also finite: once you steal the Palace owner’s heart, the Palace is closed off to you (wherein Persona 4 Golden’s dungeons could be revisited at any time).
So in order to still afford players the often much-needed opportunity to grind through enemies collecting materials, money, or new Personas, Persona 5 presents Mementos: an extra dungeon that is procedurally generated, with new levels unlocking as you progress deeper and deeper into the game. In addition to being a useful area for leveling up, you’ll receive certain requests throughout the game that can be fulfilled here. There are a lot of corrupted souls in Tokyo but not all of them warrant a full-blown Palace so here you’ll steal the hearts of smaller mini-boss-type enemies. Some of these requests will be unlocked through natural progression of the game while others will be tied to specific Confidants in their journeys to personal fulfillment.
Ultimately, much like with characters, I felt like the game might have had one dungeon more than it really had the storyline to engagingly support. It’s not quite as simple as saying “oh just cut dungeon X” though, as I get why - for the sake of the game’s overall narrative arc each one has it’s place. But ultimately I imagine a couple of them - and their respective narrative beats - might have been able to be combined into one without completely derailing the overall game. It all came down to feeling a bit of fatigue in the game’s closing hours. And sure, a part of that probably comes from having played a couple hundred hours over two runs in the span of about a month. But that second time through served to reinforce the idea that I think the game could have improved its overall pacing with a few cuts here and there.
Like every other area of the game, Persona 5 has added new elements to its combat structure over its predecessor, while still feeling like a natural progression rather than a completely new system. Battles are initiated when you interact with an enemy in a dungeon. This means you can get the drop on them or they might get the drop on you, leading to one side getting an early advantage in the fight. In combat, you’ll have three basic methods of attack: your primary melee weapon, your ranged gun weapon, or utilizing your Persona for an elemental magic attack or status attack (using SP) or a heightened physical attack (using HP).
As is standard in the genre, enemies will often have weaknesses or resistances to one or more elements (or the melee or ranged physical attacks). And fortunately, the game will automatically categorize these strengths or weaknesses once they are discovered to cut down on the tedium of information you might otherwise have to keep in your head. Each of your party members’ Personas will be strong in one of the games various elements while you, as the protagonist, can wield multiple Personas and switch among them in battle. As Persona level up, they will gain new active and passive abilities and, like Pokemon, there is a limit to the number of moves a Persona can have at any given time. Once you have eight moves and try to learn a ninth, you’ll have to determine one to give up. This mechanic, as well as the ability to fuse Persona together to create stronger ones that can inherit moves allow for a wide variety of options in combat.
Replacing Persona 4 Golden’s tarot card roulette following battles is the ability to Negotiate with your enemies. Once weakened and/or knocked down in combat, you can engage in a conversation with an enemy. Here, you might be able to squeeze some extra money or an item out of them in exchange for their life. Or you can try answering a series of prompts that might lead them to joining your collection of Personas, allowing you to then incorporate their strengths and weaknesses into new strategies. I appreciated this new take on the battle system but I will admit that I wish there were a way to turn it off when grinding through enemies I had already collected. Even using the game’s auto-battle Rush Mode (where the characters just rapidly melee automatically), these Negotiations would trigger and bring the battle to a halt when I often just wanted to kill the things and move on to the next fight.
Overall, Persona 5 is a bigger and in virtually every way, better experience than my initial outing Persona 4 Golden. Nearly every element of the series has been upgraded in the return to console and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game, even when I found myself thinking that the characters didn’t seem as fresh and new as the last title or that it might have gone on a tiny bit too long. Still, it is very much what I was looking for from a turn-based JRPG so those complaints pale in comparison to the amount of fun I had with this title. The two dungeon crawling and social simulation halves of the game weave together expertly and often one will give you a reprieve from the other at precisely the right time pacing-wise.
If you are a fan of turn-based RPGs, Persona 5 is definitely worth checking out, even if you’ve never played another entry in the series. It will feel a bit slow to start as it introduces you to its various elements throughout the game’s early hours, but once it has it’s hooks in you, the 70-100-hour campaign will fly by.