A few years ago, if you asked me about the Persona series, or, well, Shin Megami Tensei in general, I probably would have gone “What?”. Sure, I had heard mention of these series before, but I never had any opportunity or desire to play them. It wouldn’t be until I watched the Super Gaming Brother’s playthrough of Revelations: Persona, and hearing Matt go on about how Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was his personal favorite game that I would actually go out on give that entry of the series, in particular, a shot.
I was sold.
Since then, I’ve given the other games in the series a shot. While I wasn’t really able to get into Persona 1 the same way I got into Eternal Punishment, I did manage to complete Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden to form a more solid opinion on the series. I’ll take about these games another time, though. This was also around the time where Persona 5 would be announced, and would become the unfortunate target of delays and other mishaps that would push it back past the original Winter 2014 window it was intended for. Now it’s May 2017, and it was released stateside early April, being released in Japan back in September 2016. It’s an event nearly a decade in the making, so did it live up to everyone’s expectations?
I’d save a bit of time giving my opinion of “Yes it does!”, but hold up. Let’s wind back a little bit…
At the time of this writing, however, Atlus has a strict “anti-spoiler” thing going on in terms of videos or streams. It was pretty bad to the point that they were taking down simple videos consisting of nothing but a music track and a static generic image. So while I can’t go too in-depth into the story, I actually find that, at least for this, it makes it easier for me to write. While it’s not the most masterfully written in the thing, it’s written in such a way that makes it extremely difficult to discuss without going in depth with the twists and nuances it provides. Even though this game was spoiled Day One of it’s Japanese release, if, by some strange fortune, you still don’t know a lot about the game’s story, do yourself a favor and play the game straight with no foresight. It’s way more enjoyable to try to connect things yourself. However, despite the fact that I, in particular, knew the gist of the endgame plot, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. Persona is typically more about the journey than the destination, and the ride is a pretty entertaining one.
Let’s get to the main driving force here, the gameplay. I’m going to talk about the battle system first, because this is where I’m left with good impressions first. While it is the usual turn-based affair using Persona 4 as a base, it does a lot more with it. For starters, the elements. I used Persona 4 as my basis because in that game, you only had Physical, Fire, Ice, Electric, Wind, Light and Dark to work with, compared to my first experience with the series, Eternal Punishment, which had Slash, Shot, Throw, Punch, Fire, Water, Ice, Wind, Earth, Electric, Nuclear, Holy, Dark and Mind/Nerve (the status elements). Persona 5 harkens a bit back to the Shin Megami Tensei roots here. Each character has two weapons, their melee weapon, and a gun, which has limited ammo (to some dismay), but they not only pack more of a punch than your melee weapons, each member also gets a different gun type with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Fire/Ice/Electric/Wind make a return, as expected, but Nuclear makes a return to the scene, along with the rarely seen Psychokinesis element. Seriously, watch a casting a Psiodyne, and tell me you don’t get a color-overload the likes of which can only be rivaled by Earthbound’s PSI Rockin’ Omega. Nuclear spells also get a damage bonus against enemies that have been Burned, Shocked, or Frozen, while Psychokinesis lays the smack down on enemies suffering from mental status, such as Brainjack (a renamed Charm status), Forgetfulness, and the like. Light and Dark have also been renamed to Bless and Curse, and along with a “fresh” new name (though I’m pretty sure these were used in the PSP rerelease of Persona 1), they have also gotten their damage spells back. That’s right, these are no longer relegated to mere instant death elements, but are now fully capable of laying direct damage onto enemies. All in all, this gives you ten elements to work with, which is a larger difference than you’d expect. First off, it opens a little more variety in how you deal with enemies, but more importantly, and this was a complaint I had with 3 and 4, each party member now specializes in a particular element. While not a huge issue, the lack of elemental variety didn’t really do much to promote party member diversity, as there would be no real reason to, say, use Kanji over Chie because not only did they overlap, but Kanji also overlapped too much with the protagonist, since they both started with Electric. In this game, your protagonist starts with Curse skills, and while he can use any element because he’s “the goddamn protagonist”, the other party members all specialize in one of the other elements. This means that everyone is useful in some battle or another, a change I approve, since that is one of the few things that actually stuck out to me about Final Fantasy X.
Before moving on with the battle system, let’s talk Confidants. Social Links are back with a vengeance, and renamed as such because, aside from your party members and even that’s sketchy at best, you’re not initially out to make friends with these people. You do things for them, and they will teach you specific things. These “deals” are the basis of this game’s Social Links, and they are a much bigger thing than in 3 and 4. Advancing them not only gives you experience bonuses for fusion, but special perks as well. In example, one Confidant helps you get better at gunplay, which grants such things as doubling the ammo you hold in your guns, to letting you get the drop on enemies during an Ambush to lower their health by up to 50% before you even take an action by unleashing a hail of bullets upon them. Another Confidant improves your Tactics options, letting you switch in party members mid fight (another new thing for this series), to letting you run away even when you’re surrounded. These new perks make building your Confidant ranks more rewarding than ever, and are a welcome addition to the Social Link system. And most of these perks help you in battle, one of the biggest ones being Baton Pass. Your party member Confidants learn this really early on in the ranks (typically Rank 2), and once you start using it, you’ll probably wonder how you lived without it. Hitting R2 after you knock down an enemy lets you pass your action to another party member that has also learned Baton Pass. This does two things, it spreads the amount of HP/SP required to knock down all the enemies among multiple people, and it boosts the power of both your attacks and recovery magic by a significant margin. You can Baton Pass multiple times during a single volley of knockdowns to increase the bonus even further. This flow of chaining and linking actions between party members is very satisfying and helps cement the fact that this people, regardless of differences, work as a team to accomplish their goal. These two things, Baton Pass and Confidant perks, are probably my two most additions in this series, and there’s a lot of potential in them that I would love to see them return in future installments.
As I mentioned knocking down enemies, the Once More system is back to play, with a slight twist. Once you knock down all the enemies, instead of just unleashing all your might, you move into position around the enemies and put them in a Hold Up. Once in place, you can, of course, use an All-Out Attack to blow them around (and it’s a lot better looking than 3 and 4’s dust clouds), or you can negotiate with the demon-turned-Shadows.
Now before you begin crying out in despair and fear, negotiation is handled far simpler than even it’s Persona 2 counterpart. You do not have to bargain if you just want an item or money from them (you don’t get any money from the battle if you don’t ask for it though, and you get far less experience than if you just outright killed the Shadows), but the true value to negotiation is that you can turn the Shadows into Persona masks. This is the main way you add new Personae to your Compendium for fusion. You will have to answer a couple simple questions, but even if you fail to get them as a mask, you’ll still probably walk away with an item unless you royally tick them. Adding to this, your party members, through building their Confidant ranks, can step in if you mess up and reset the conversation, giving you another chance. Joker himself can even learn the ability to fire off a warning shot to steer things back to where you want them. However, if you feel that you can’t figure out how to win over a Shadow, you can cancel the negotiation at any time with an All-Out Attack, so you shouldn’t be at a loss.
Or if you really don’t want to talk to the Shadows, you can beat them within an inch of their life and coheres them into becoming your mask that way.
The battle system is all well and good, but the Palaces are where the other half of your combat gameplay will be. While Mementos is quite literally a re-skinned Tartarus (right down to the weird as hell block names), the entirely of your side requests (required if you want to get most of your Confidants past a certain rank) take place. While they are nothing more than extra mid-boss fights, you get nice rewards out of them, as well as combat experience, sellable loot, and other things, so it’s worth going out of your way to get them since you’ll be heading into Mementos at least once a month anyway.
However, the main plot Palaces are all distinct, and incorporate some stealth into them. Since you are thieves, you can take advantage of hiding behind cover to avoid detection, allowing you to ambush patrolling enemies. Getting discovered by enemies builds up an awareness gauge that, if it fills up, leads you getting forced to leave the Palace. However, there is a reward to that risk, as a higher awareness also increases the chances of running into Treasure Demons (this game’s version of the Treasure Hands) from breaking environmental objects. You can also, before raiding a Palace, spend your nights crafting various tools to help your endeavors, from simple lockpicks to crack open locked chests, to things that reduce the awareness gauge, make it harder for enemies to detect you, and simple elemental item sets. You also have the ability to climb certain objects and shelves, ambush enemies from said high places, crawling through ventilation shafts and other tight spaces, a context-sensitive jump action for getting across pits. The Palaces are way more involved than 3 and 4’s randomly generated floors, which is a huge advantage for design. It took me about three hours just to get to the end of the first Palace, and the time will probably remain around that two-three hour mark for the rest of the plot Palaces. Because of this, you are more than likely encouraged to make multiple trips to a Palace to get through it (you’re even given an infiltration log when you leave to summarize what you’ve done in your trip.), but you can go through the whole thing in one trip, as I managed to do so. However, you are given multiple Safe Rooms throughout the Palace that you can quick travel to should you ever have to leave in the event that you run out of resources, so backtracking is not so big an issue. For plot reasons, you are required to spend at least three days to fully complete a Palace, so that’s also something you have to keep in mind when planning your free time.
One thing I also enjoy is that you’re not doing the exact same thing in each Palace. While your ultimate goal is securing a route to the Treasure at the end of the Palace, it’s typically not a straight line to get there. You may be deciphering codes in one Palace, while another Palace might throw color-coded gate puzzles at you. It’s just different enough to break up the monotony of moving down hallways and dispatching Shadows, but it’s never so outlandish to break away from the whole infiltration feel.
Graphically, the game is about what I expect. The Palaces are varied, the various districts of Shibuya are rendered nicely, and it’s overall pleasant to take in without burning your eyes. The menu, however, is really stylized, a big departure from 3 and 4. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the additional animation to what would otherwise be, yet another RPG menu system.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the Velvet Room. It’s back with a vengeance, and it’s not messing around with how you fuse new Personae to use in battle.
I’ll put it bluntly: You’re quite literally killing them off in order to meld their spirit energy into a new form.
Fusion in this game takes the form of “Execution”. You sentence two or more Personae to death via a guillotine, and the leftover power comes together into a new form. It’s definitely more intensive to watch than shuffling cards together, but part of me wonders if it was really necessary. Yes, it ties to the overall theme that the game is trying to set up (I mean, the Velvet Room takes the form of a prison), but it can also come off as trying too hard. Later on, you also unlock the ability to hang a Persona in order to build up another one’s experience, hooking them up to an electric chair and frying them to create Skill Cards and other unique items, and locking them up in solitary confinement in order to get resistance skills to counter their weaknesses. It’s really over edge, all taken into consideration, and, like everything, there is a reason behind it, but it’s one of those “They also could have done something else instead” moments. It doesn’t bother me, on a personal note, but I can imagine someone walking into this game blind may have their jaw drop a bit first witnessing it.
Music is, of course, a big factor for a compelling experience. Shoji Meguro returns to head up composing the over hundred tracks in this game. Handling the vocals this time around is a Korean singer professionally known as Lyn, and I think these are some of my favorite vocal themes in the series. Right when you start the game, and Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There hits you in the face during the opening animation, it puts you in the right mindset to enjoy the game as it was meant to. Last Surprise is, in my opinion, probably the best composed random battle theme next to Wiping All Out, and the other vocal tracks as you’ll hear them all fit the mood quite well.
But my absolute favorite has to be Beneath The Mask.
This has both a vocal and two instrumental variants that’ll play as you wander the streets of Shibuya, and it is the most laid back, relaxing theme I’ve heard in sometime. Town themes are usually something that fly under my radar, but this one has me captivated. This has become my go-to theme heading home from work.
The other tracks are also good for the places you hear them in. I like both the clinic and the Airsoft shop themes as well.
My overall opinion is that, if you’re looking to get into the Persona experience, 5 is the place to start. It might spoil you a little on some mechanics that don’t exist in previous entries, but it is an absolute solid experience that doesn’t require any back knowledge on the series to enjoy. If you haven’t picked up any Persona game at this point, you wouldn’t be disappointed in this one.