Persona 5 is well on track to being the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG ever made.
How’s that for a sensational opening? Still, subjective though it may be, it’s quite close to how I feel on the matter. In the four days I’ve had access to it, the first three of those saw me put in twelve hours of gameplay per day. I didn’t touch any other games during those initial three days save for forcing myself to play a few rounds of Heroes just for variety and to avoid burnout. The burnout wasn’t inflicted by anything about the game, however — I was literally getting physically uncomfortable from being in front of the PS4 for so long, no matter how I arranged myself.
Today, the fourth day, I didn’t play nearly as much of the game by design… instead, I wrote guides on it (and shall shamelessly plug them over on GameSkinny, be sure to check that for more of my work). I also dreamed about it, and woke up with the battle theme stuck in my head. During my other gameplay time, I was talking to people about the game and shooting messages back and forth helping friends who are behind me with it. Now that I’ve finished playing it for the night, I’m here writing about it. So yes, to say I’ve been enjoying it and that it has captivated me are gross understatements.
I went in to Persona 5 with a lot of very high expectations. I’ve liked the Shin Megami Tensei series for as long as I’ve known about it, always enjoying the more strategic and challenging battles on offer over other JRPG series. I loved that they were willing to go to more mature concepts and plots that dabbled in all sorts of mythologies beyond the usual Greek/Roman or Norse ones seen most video games. Persona 4 was one of my favourite games ever, and I’ve followed the series back through its shaky past and into the sea of spinoffs P4 generated.
I was hyped as hell about the announcement for 5 and watched the trailers continue to please me, though never let myself dive too deep into speculation or details because I wanted to experience it for myself. The game came out in Japanese six months ago, and my Japanese friends who played it spoke highly of it. I even had the chance to play the Japanese version for a time, and was absolutely blown away by the sheer stylish look and feel of the game. I waited patiently through delays and worries about translation issues, biding my time.
I don’t know if I’ve had such high expectations for a game before, but it has thoroughly destroyed them and gone beyond them.
At its core, this is still a modern post-P3 Persona game. It still starts you in April and progresses along a calendar system, juggling aspects of time management dating sims for social activities that improve your skills and relationships, then using those to strengthen your Personas for use in a number of otherworldly dungeons. The battle system is your standard turn-based JRPG with the elemental affinity system that the SMT series is known for, which rewards you for playing smartly and utilising even the buffs and status afflictions that many series keep only for tradition and filler. If you’ve played P3 and P4, you won’t find that much that’s brand new here.
What Persona 5 has, then, is polish. Absolutely every facet of this game has been polished until it gleams. Every feature and gameplay element is well thought out and handled well. The design of the locations is fantastically detailed. The soundtrack is phenomenal and diverse, with solid voice acting to back it up (despite some questionable pronunciation of Japanese names at times). More than anything is the constant and consistent visual style, which incorporates everything that the developers have learned from previous games — including Catherine, interestingly — and presents a world that is utterly gorgeous and completely unmistakable. The real world elements blend with the supernatural ones to create a visual spectacle that is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The most impressive thing for me is the narrative, though, as if often the case with my gaming experiences. Persona 5 is especially striking because everything and everyone involved in the game world is unified under a central theme: Rebellion. Now this isn’t new to the franchise, as P3 had Death and P4 had Truth as the central unifying theme, but neither of them took it to this level.
At the heart of P5’s narrative is this central motif that branches into literally everything around it. You are the Phantom Thieves, a group of outcasts and societal rejects (often for reasons that are either unfair or beyond your control) that have discovered the power of Personas and are now using it to rebel against a corrupt and broken system. The Thieves are the quintessential Robin Hoods, striving to bring justice to a system that has failed its people. They strike against the targets that are abusing their power and causing other people to suffer, whether it be due to abuse, manipulation, theft, and blackmail; even rape and suicide are themes brought into the game quite quickly, and Persona 5 has absolutely no qualms about confronting such mature themes with an equally mature outlook.
Literally every notable character in this game, whether part of the Thieves, supporting them, or opposing them ties into this central theme incredibly strongly. The Phantom Thieves are promoting their own sense of justice against modern society, and even while they target the worst, most vile and corrupt creatures, they also end up discussing (and serve as discussion points of) serious conversations about morality and society.
But there’s more. What really makes the Phantom Thieves relatable is, again, the fact that they are outcasts and rejects. Every member has a reason for not being liked or not fitting in with their surroundings, and it’s not just because they’re delinquents or criminals — some are foreign, some are introverted, some feel like they lack purpose within society’s structures, or some have an almost savant-like behaviour that makes it hard to fit in. Beyond that, the Phantom Thieves have Confidants which serve as the Social Links of previous Persona titles, but all of them tie back into this central theme as well. All of them are trying to do the right thing in a society that doesn’t value them, and even as they strive for social reform they find opposition from those who abuse the system for their own gain in twisted manners.
It’s a topic that can very quickly bleed into edgy teenage ideals of “fuck the system” for the sake of a perceived sense of anarchy, yet Persona 5 has thus far managed to steer away from this… which is in itself an incredible accomplishment, because the Thieves are teenagers. But they’re all believable, fully-fleshed out characters and their struggles and situations are fantastic and compelling to watch. And when you realise that it all just keeps threading back into that central theme, it really becomes clear how much of a masterfully written tapestry you’re witnessing.
There are so many ways this could fall into traps and tropes, but it somehow skirts them all. It presents questions about society and humanity, and then rather than bluntly answer them, it chooses to explore both sides and often sees characters on either side discussing them without a real “right” answer. It’s really fascinating to watch people clash with the Thieves, and not even bad guys — some are honestly good people both within and without society that nonetheless question the manner in which they work, discussing concepts such as law and justice and whether or not they should be observed.
But beyond all these grandiose themes and complicated webs… it’s a very human story. You really do end up feeling for the main cast, because they’re not bad people at all, they just for whatever reason don’t fit in. Anybody who has ever been bullied or feels like they’ve been ostracised or discriminated against will probably find something to relate to in the cast. But at its core, these people are just teenagers trying to make their way in a very strange, confusing, and difficult world. It touches on so many struggles we all face, especially in the arguably complicated and increasingly hard times we live in nowadays. And all throughout, it presents it in a very respectful and well thought out manner.
And if you don’t find all that as compelling as I do, well, there’s no questioning how well done all the game mechanics and gameplay systems are. I haven’t even spoken about how the previously pseudo-random dungeons of the Persona series are now replaced by massive and vivid set piece Palaces that the Thieves literally infiltrate and explore in the hopes of stealing the “treasure” within. I’ve even completely glossed over the motif of masks from this post title that the Personas have taken on that also serves as a consistent narrative device. That, I think, will have to wait for a proper write-up later.
To think that I’m still perhaps only halfway through this game… it’s utterly mind blowing. Perhaps now the sensational statement I opened with sounds far more reasonable. But all throughout, I’ve been quietly weighing the merits of Persona 5 against its predecessors, then more classic genre-defining JRPGs like Chrono Trigger or certain Final Fantasy titles, then against my personal favourite stand out JRPGs such as Trails of Cold Steel or Golden Sun. Yet even the most treasured of those that Persona 5 has lovingly built itself upon is struggling to compare.
I’ll close this by sharing a final epiphany I had yesterday. I don’t want to give true judgement on Persona 5 just yet because I keep telling myself “wait and see if it maintains this level of quality and narrative to the very end”. Amazing things and fantastic events occur in the game and I still keep thinking those same things. And then, when saying that same thing, I abruptly felt sad and depressed at the very consideration not that the ending might not live up to it… but that there must be an ending at all.
I don’t want Persona 5 to end. As much as I want to see closure and the resolution of the many plot threads I’m gradually following, I dread the feeling that this sublime experience will one day reach a conclusion. No matter how good or bad it might actually be, the fact that there will be an ending is honestly saddening.
If that’s how I feel about the game, well… seems safe to say that Persona 5 just might be the greatest, most genre-defining JRPG I’ve ever played then, huh?
I’ll leave you with a piece of the diverse soundtrack, which serves as a reminder of how much I treasure Shoji Meguro’s work as a composer.