After 90 hours of Persona 5 I am still not quite finished with the game, but I feel like I am near enough the end to finally deliver my review on this game. The review has been a long time coming now and I am a little bit sour that it took so long; but better late than never, right? So let’s start.
Back in the old SNES days, JRPGs were some of my favourite genres. After all, Secret of Mana was the game that brought me to game development in general and spawned my interest in programming. You could say my whole “career” started with the words “DARKNESS SWEEPS THE TROUBLED LAND, …”. But later on, I lost interest in most of them. Among the JRPGs I started but never finished were Final Fantasy X, Lost Odyseey, Blue Dragon, Tales of Symphonia, Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XV and even the wonderful Ni No Kuni. But I kept coming back to Persona 5 even after weeks of not playing it due to shortages of free time and the thought of not finishing it never crossed my mind once which is partly due to the fact that the art style of this game fulfills a very important function that most JRPGs lack: it makes the menus and the way the game is to be played easy to remember. That is the first of many strengths of the game and I can’t stress enough how important this is. Regardless how little I remembered about my last steps in the game after a longer period of time, the menu navigation was always an anchor point that I could use to get back into the game and in this regard Persona 5 really changed my perception of UI design. I knew that P5 would be a very stylish game before thanks to all the trailers, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about a topic that before was merely an afterthought I wanted to minimize as much as possible in my own designs.
The style of the game also helps disguising the game’s PS3 origin although its technical simplicity becomes obvious if you look close enough. Thankfully this never became a concern and it speaks volumes about P5‘s ability to be regarded as a timeless classic that the overall style negates its technical debility already. The next thing I need to praise in volumes is its soundtrack which is absolutely stunning. The last time I was blown away by a game soundtrack was probably when Bayonetta got released but P5 easily tops it. Sometimes I would just lay the gamepad aside to listen for a very specific song. Overall the audiovisual design fascinated me so much that I’m using a Persona 5 style theme on my smartphone and every alarm sound is a song from the OST. And it’s great that the design is so good because otherwise the fights would probably get tiresome very quickly despite the fighting system being the best shot at turn based battle systems that I have seen so far. Now I know people might disagree on that and would prefer a more time based approach but I love the fact that I can really take my time in battles if I want to without pressure (well, most of the time; there are one or two exceptions to this in the whole
The overarching narrative of Persona 5 is that of a pupil being sued by someone for essentially stopping an imminent rape. The protagonist gets transferred to a different school for rehabilitation and this is when things slowly start to get weird as the protagonist awakes to the power of his Persona and starts changing the hearts of bad people. The game doesn’t start with that though; it actually starts at the last quarter of the game, the protagonist gets captured and interrogated and the interrogation itself is what the player experiences and plays through up until past and present sync back and the endgame starts. The structure of Persona 5‘s storytelling – at least as far as the main story is concerned – is to get a new “big” target. Those persons’ twisted desires have created palaces in the metaverse that the player needs to infiltrate, steal the treasure of the target and change the target’s heart by doing so. If this sounds complicated, let me break it down for you: you need to play through a dungeon and defeat the dungeons boss. The thing about those dungeons is that they must be completed until a certain deadline. Within this timeframe, you are pretty much free to spent your time as you want to. Don’t want to proceed the palace but instead go learning at the diner on a rainy day? Do it. Time management is one of the mechanics that I first thought would really annoy me; but I quickly figured out that it solves a problem for me that I often have with open world games or other games with loads of side activities: it keeps my focus in check. Most side activities cause one half of the day to pass, so you could fill one day with two side activities. Exploring a dungeon however will cause the whole day to pass. So if – for example – you want to go fishing at night (because it’s cheaper) you can’t go to the dungeon that day. The time management only gets more complex as you gather more and more confidants (more on that in a moment) that you want to build a relationship with in addition to the protagonist’s own skills that you want to enhance by taking part in certain activities. You can even lend DVDs to watch at home that you need to return within two weeks. That all might sound annoying but it really isn’t; it actually helps the player prioritizing instead of getting lost in all the possible activities.
It’s worth pointing out that the topics that Persona 5 attends to are often heavy. The game – as lighthearted as it can be at times – deals with sexual harassment, physical and psychological abuse, working conditions, drugs, blackmailing and even rabble-rousing and murder. Games are often a way to escape reality and the problems we face in reality for a bit, but while many games chose to offer a more abstract or even ridiculous way of relieving stress (sometimes even by building a different type of stress) Persona 5 lets the player stand against those real life problems, solving them with supernatural powers and even explains that bad people are not born bad but fall victim to their own desires which are often created by defining experiences in their past. It’s unusual to find this in a game and even though monologues and dialogues are mostly delivered in a very anime, over-the-top style, I feel like Persona 5 never falls flat on the severity of its topics.
Of course the protagonist doesn’t fight alone. You will meet a certain number of confidants – supporters if you will – that can roughly be seperated into two types: party members and supporting characters. Party members will fight with you, you can change their equipment, chose skills of their Persona when they level up and even tell them what to do in rush more – some sort of fast forward for easy fights. Supporting characters will sell you stuff or help you enhance your skills and while party members are not missable and tied to the main story, supporting characters can be missed. I know for a fact that I didn’t forge a bond with at least one confidant and another one I didn’t get until the last story dungeon (which means I played through the game without the ability to change fighting party members in-fight; yes, those kind of abilities can come with confidants). You can strengthen your bond with every confidant by spending time with them and with some you can even enter a love relationship (you can even have more than one love relationship at the same time) but it’s not always as easy as approaching a confidant and pressing a button. Sometimes they don’t have time for you, sometimes you need to reach a certain level with a skill (Angelic Kindness is till haunting me) which means you’ll first need to spend your time on activities increasing your skills like watching movies, reading books, caring about your plant or eating fast food (sic!). With all of that the game develops a totally different kind of dynamic compared to other JRPGs and it’s this dynamic that helps countering the problem of pacing that many games in the genre often have. It creates a nice back and forth between engaging exploration with frantic fighting and interesting interaction with NPCs and more mundane activities and although the beginning of the game is very slow, this slowness is what helps emphasise the drama once shit hits the fan and the wheels start to spin faster.
I already wrote that to me P5‘s fighting is the best iteration of turn based JRPG combat so far and that has a lot to do with the way Personas work. While other party members stick to one specific Persona, the protagonist can hold more than one and Personas are acquired by negotiating with enemy Personas, trying to recruit them. You will also learn the skill to fuse two (and later more) Personas into one new Persona and it’s this variety and freedom that truly brings Persona 5′s fighting system to life especially since the combinations of elemental strengths and weaknesses, passive skills, buffs and debuffs and other special abilities like drain and reflect create a complexity that I would consider good complexity. Many games introduce complexity to their mechanics just for the sake of having said complexity but in P5 this complexity is an optional toolset that is evolves naturally but can also be largely ignored if the player wants to pull through the game by brute force. It’s another way of keeping the fights interesting throughout the game.
All of this doesn’t mean P5 is a perfect game however. I already wrote how the game is technically a PS3 game but it doesn’t ran smoothly on my PS4 Pro all the time either. Hickups were rare but they did occur which seems strange. Also the game takes a bit to get up to speed and the beginning hours can feel sluggish. Probably my biggest point of criticism is the way the camera behaves when using the stealth mechanic. Being a phantom thief means you will sneak through the palaces and try to ambush enemies to get an advantage in combat. This advantage combined with clever execution on the enemies’ weaknesses is what enables the player to overcome enemies that are much stronger which feels great and empowering no matter how often you do it. On the other side, being ambushed by lower level enemies can quickly result in a game over if the weaknesses of your party are exploited. This happened to me 2 times in my whole playthrough but every time it made me stop playing the game. Not because I had lost but because the ambush was only possible due to the way the games’ stealth mechanic work. As long as you’re not detected by an enemy, you can go into stealth mode at specific points in the environment and you can also swiftly jump to new cover positions without being seen and also ambush enemies that come within reach. However, the camera tries to avoid solid obstacles, forcing you to try and get an enemy into your viewport and then hitting “X” to ambush. However, if the enemy turns in the meantime or the distance changes slightly you will ambush into the empty space right beneath the enemy and if you’re seen the enemy will likely ambush you faster than you can react. It’s weird because every other aspect of the game is so well polished.
Conclusion: 5 (on a -5 to 5 scale). I really had a hard time coming up with a score for Persona 5. I didn’t expect to play a game like Breath of the Wild that feels genre defining to me again so soon. And I certainly don’t want to be part of the score inflation of the recent decades although my review is merely an amateur one. But every time I picked up the gamepad to lead the Phantom Thieves to their next target, every time I chose to go learning at the diner for upcoming exams, every time I had to decide between multiple confidants asking for my time to discuss topics or simply spend time together I overdrew my videogame time limit; hard. I also know there are multiple positive points I wanted to address when I started writing this review but forgot by now; but it doesn’t matter. Persona 5 is the type of game you can enjoy on a hot summer evening with a cold Gin & Tonic as well as on a cold winter day with a cup of hot chocolate. It stole my heart, how could I not give it the best possible score?
+, +, +, +, + My favorite thing about the whole game was the world that it brought to life. Maybe i wouldn’t have gone with the same sepia/desaturated look at all times, but i gotta admit it worked, this being just one on top of a million other things that made this world/period/location incredibly real feeling. Even after finishing the game, as many times before I just started the game just to be in this world, the whole atmosphere, the houses, the streets, the people, the cars… everything seems to work so wonderfully together… A great world to simply BE in.
+, +, -, + I came into this game with high story expectations from Mafia 2, particularly in the story department, and this game totally managed to live up to them. There were little bumps where it felt a bit stretched but the overall story, atmosphere and world it creates is spectacular
+, +, +, + Amazing soundtrack. Full of old classic period songs of the highest calibre. Not all my favourite but it definitely adds and keeps a lot of mood, from the great menu music to the wonderfully responsive moody action music which adapts based on player actions and even performance, and down to pleasant background things.
+, +, – I didn’t particularly love the radios/presenters/shows, felt a bit too much of the propaganda views of our times projected into those, however it was great to have them there and a delight to hear the abundance of content, weather while driving or while walking past radios
-, + i can’t fully object to the people who called the gameplay structure a bit repetitive, but yet for some reason it never really upset me, never dragged on for too long and it was generally enjoyable.
-, – I had a section around 70% through where i just didn’t figure out what to do next… i can’t remember weather it was because some objective was not seen on the map or it had to do with taking over missions… Still, i passed it and it was okay. Still, those icons and the way you choose them, how they’re still there after being completed and not super clear when they’re selected… gave me a bit of trouble.
+, +, +, -, + the story itself, as in the main cinematics was quite good, written with twists greys and nuances, I quite enjoyed it. Where it fell a bit short, not in content but in presentation were the dialogues with some characters where they weren’t animated/they were rigid, ingame and static, in those moments i felt it broke a bit the immersion because they were so stiff, but then there were superb cinematics both ingame and prerendered which more than made up for it. And the story overall dripped with believability.
– although i thought Lincoln was a very cool character and his story a great gangster story there was something that kept bothering me about it, this feeling of “positive racism”… like it’s all good and okay when a black guy kills self justified white people with some hints of race, but of course such a movie would be buried alive if a white guy would kill black people in these ways. In this this, the game follows the typical mainstream of our times, with branding of southerners as religious fanatics whites (there’s for example a mission like that where they have a union flag and in a church and they sell slaves). I mean I find it’s totally okay for a story, just saying that it plays to the prejudices and tabus of our times… but then again if it didn’t it wouldn’t have been allowed to come out… so I’m happy they did if this was the only way to make this game/world/story.
+ A lot of interesting characters
+, +, – the retrospective/storytelling mechanic i might not like as much as i would’ve liked a “we’re there/then” approach, but as it is it still works great to create a strong atmosphere.
+, +, +, + While (maybe through the filter of nostalgia?) i still think there was “more story” in Mafia 2 (something that probably isn’t true neither in time length or subtleties), this game does something more remarcable in making the world open, so interesting and full. of so many lovingly crafted corners.
– , +, +, + while i felt a few moments that some content was a bit “stretched thin”… in fact there was SO MUCH content, not just the amazing world but a story that kept on giving, and giving and giving… that overall I’m very impressed with the length and quantity of this game, to tell such a great story/world and to keep it up for so long… i didn’t expect that.
Overall I was very very impressed with this game, even more so than I expected, and I still wonder at some of the subtleties of storytelling, in characters, in developments, and find this world one which i enjoyed every moment breathing it and I probably will find myself starting the game in years to come too just to “be there” again. In fact the game was so good that although I might not have expected with such a long and meaty game, I look forward to buying the DLC expansions, which afaik are all story oriented and i look forward to seeing their story and through their excuses to see the world again. So, despite the occasional thinness, and a world not super decorative, my impression still is a spectacular 4 (on a -5 to 5 scale) because of it’s great story, lengthy story and great realized open world.
He makes some very interesting points. Interesting design choices analysis. Also in terms of the story, including the impressive intro movie. Personally I have some mixed feelings towards DS2. On one hand I really value the variety of locations, and DS2 was a unique memorable experience, but on the other hand I find the atmosphere of DS1 is to much much more admiration worthy, as well as some things in Demon’s Souls. To me personally the big impact that DS2 had was also a lot about it giving me the courage to go back to DS1 & Demon’s Souls. And yet DS2 was something special in it’s own, and made a unique impression and series of memories… And indeed like he points out to me too Bloodborne felt not so radical in it’s gameplay because in many ways as a weak mage in DS2 I often ended up playing Bloodborne style in a dynamic fast way. But I digress, I I found the design analysis very interesting and he makes some very interesting arguments.
An amazingly rich lore, fantastic world building, interweaving of the story through time (and even time loops), fascinating protagonists with tension and individual motivations… I remember when I played this game, I think it was in college before an exam, it was the one and only time I finished the game in a night and went straight to the exam finishing the game at 6:30am but being so very fulfilled and happy with my choice whatever happened because I knew I had just experienced something once in a lifetime with such a storyline/world. So many original ideas and so many of the things that I like in a story: pre-thought world background where you feel you’re always getting just the skimmed top, of what is much deeper underneath and the brain is always working to figure out more of the hidden stuff beneath.
PS: i have to mention that the world feels much much richer than the video presents, not just due to the dept of seeing it and exploring it, but the great abundance of other story moments told via protagonist dialogue during gameplay or when seeing objects in the environment such as murals/statues.
PS2: Maybe one of the reasons the world ended up exactly how i want a rich world to feel is captured in this development commentary:
As indeed it seems that due to development particularities all the planets were aligned for creating the kind of world i like: the kind that has a lot more world in it than is actually shown, as well as one in which in the end a lot of stuff was discarded but remains in the minds of the creators making what is left feel much more real/dense/with history of all the things that could’ve been but were abandoned/closed/changed. It also helped I suspect that it started from a different heritage and then was mounted on another one leading to many wonderful mutations.
Congratulations Jaco for reaching legendary 100 gameSketch points! Hoard or spend? that is za eternal question :D