If you've ever wanted to live the double life of an ordinary high school student and a masked rogue who fights for justice, then the Phantom Thieves are looking for members.
PERSONA 5 is a uniquely Japanese JRPG with a tightly-scripted, superbly evocative story and well-written, fully realised characters. It’s as stylish as all hell, with a cool, devil-may-care punk/rebel aesthetic that permeates everything from the battle visuals to the menu screens. It’s pretty amazing, but is has one key problem: I couldn’t for the life of me enjoy the game.
This is shocking to admit, because this is a game where a tight-knit group of high school misfits don the mask of Phantom Thieves after class to enact justice by committing heists in an alternate shadow world formed by people’s corrupted psyches. The game is as awesome as the premise sounds, so to understand my issue with it, we’ll need a deeper analysis.
Three to five
A bit of a background: the modern Persona series (Persona 3 onwards) has carved out a special niche in the gaming mindscape, existing as an amazing blend of a visually expressive anime with hidden philosophical depths, a high school dating sim/visual novel with memorable characters and a JRPG with familiar turn-based battles.
Half of a Persona game involves living the life of a Japanese high school student: attending classes, studying for exams, hanging out with friends, working part time jobs and even finding love. The other half involves delving into twisted dungeons in an alternate shadowy world, where you and your group of friends can summon Personas – physical manifestations/avatars of your subconscious mind – to battle monstrous Shadows.
Juggling your limited time between your supernatural and normal life is often the key tension in the gameplay, as you only have so many hours in a day – and so many days in a high school year – to pursue what you want and whom you love.
That said, the Persona series’ strength lies in it characters and stories more so than its gameplay. (This may explain why the franchise can happily adapt to other forms of media, like an anime or even a dancing game.) So to understand my issue with Persona 5, we need to talk how each Persona game makes you feel.
Persona 3, themed a mysterious blue, is the story of teenagers who go to high school in the day and save the world from supernatural nightmare monsters at night. The game feels like an introspective drama with moments of human warmth, and the narrative is about courage in the face of mortality.
Persona 4, coloured sunshine yellow, is the story of a group of high school friends who solve mysteries and help people in a small Japanese town. The game feels like spending a fun summer vacation with your best buddies, and the narrative is about accepting your true self and the power of frrriiieeendshiiip!
Persona 5 is the story of teenage outcasts working together as masked vigilantes who delve into the mindscapes of cruel people to tear out their metaphorical black hearts and right the injustices inflicted by an uncaring society. The game feels furious, burning with a righteous anger, like the rebel yell of disaffected youth fighting for a better future. Which is apt, given the narrative is about rebellion against oppression and abuse.
Oh, and its theme colour is a murderous and bloody – yet undeniably stylish – red.
Coming from the sunshine and rainbows of Persona 4 into the heartless streets of Persona 5’s Tokyo – which is lovingly recreated and incredibly detailed here – gave me severe mood whiplash. It didn’t help that the game started its first few hours by hitting me with (unfortunately realistic) issues such as police brutality, abuse, sexual harassment and suicide.
(Note: the story presents some very dark subject matter, but rest assured it handles such matters very maturely.)
Persona 5 made me very, very angry, but don’t get me wrong: it’s designed that way. After the game’s hours-long introduction finishes punching you in the gut, it feels absolutely cathartic when you actually gain the power to manifest your Personas and actually fight back against those that abused the innocent. Say it with me: Righteous! Vengeance!
Appropriately, the otherworldly Personas (for simplicity: consider them your magic spirit self) that you summon are all based on anti-authoritarian outlaws and rebels – the main hero can call upon Arsene Lupin’s powers, your boisterous teammate has Captain Kidd, and your talking cat (sorry, forgot to mention – this series is super weird) can summon Zorro.
The game makes you feel like absolutely awesome badasses once you start becoming the Phantom Thieves, but my issue is that it takes such a long time to get there (you might take eight hours just to clear the first dungeon, if you’re lucky) that it’s extremely emotionally draining. The stakes in this game are also very specific and personal, so there’s a consistent pressure that made me feel like I was playing with a gun to my head.
Speaking of guns to heads, the dungeon- crawling JRPG aspect mounts just as much pressure as pressure as Persona 5’s storyline. First, time is precious – going into a dungeon to advance the story takes up a full day of your schedule, so every day you perform heists to is a day you’re not making friends or exploring the game’s many extremely engaging side stories.
Second, resources are scarce – battles reward very little money or experience and restoring your health or “mana” requires items that are very expensive or limited in supply. (Tip: befriend the shady doctor until the “Death” relationship goes to Rank 5, then buy some SP-recovering accessories.)
This means maximising your time in dungeons becomes a high stakes affair, as you try to push as far as you can into the dungeon in a single day – often with under-levelled characters – until you find a safe point or completely run out of supplies. Alternatively, there’s a super-easy mode you can switch to if you just want to focus on the story, but strangely, you can never revert back to a higher difficulty setting afterwards.
Persona 5 also introduces a new stealth mechanic, and this is the only element that I can objectively say isn’t great. Unlike standard JRPGs with random encounters, the Phantom Thieves can see where their enemies are and then sneak up on them. Catching them off guard will let you pull off an advantageous ambush, but get caught by enemies and you’re in for an absolute world of pain. A game over is the least of your worries – you might even get locked out of a dungeon as the days tick by towards a deadline.
The problem is that – if you’re used to good stealth games – Persona 5’s stealth mechanics don’t always make sense or seem fair. The camera isn’t suited for observing enemy movement in the game’s creatively architectured dungeons and the “hide behind cover” mechanic feels inappropriately “sticky” – it’s like playing with magnets in a knife factory. Basically, every now and then, expect to see your slick Phantom Thieves to accidentally bumble their way into a nest of enemies that you couldn’t see.
That said, the stealth does feel appropriate given the Phantom Thieves vibe the story is aiming for. Plus, it’s absolutely satisfying when you can properly ambush enemies then knock them down by strategically exploiting the elemental rock-paper-scissors dynamic. Get your opponents on the ground and you can actually rob them at gunpoint or convince these monsters to join your cause – and, come on, that’s a pretty badass rebel thing to do.
Persona 5 is a slick, well-designed game with well-written stories and characters. It can feel angry at times, but more often it’s just radiating with the passion and energy of youth. In fact, the only reason I didn’t actually love this great game is simply a matter of personal taste. Objectively, I’ll give this game an excellent rating of 4.5 out of 5, but can I give a personal recommendation?
If you’re new to the Persona series, or if you (like me) prefer your anime to be cheerful and bright, I’d recommend Persona 4 (or Persona 4 Golden) to start off with.
However, if you’re a fan of more mature, darker anime; or if you’re looking for a story that gets your blood boiling so you’re primed to shove your boot far up evil’s butt; or if you’re looking for a game that’s simply soaked with style and attitude; then get ready – because the Phantom Thieves of Persona 5 are about to take your heart.
Pros: Stylish as all heck; excellent writing; engaging cast of misfits and outcasts; very detailed recreation of life as a high schooler in Tokyo.
Cons: Excellent writing will make you feel every punch to the gut.
Japanese role-playing game for PS4, PS3
Rating: 4.5 stars
Price: RM219 on PSN