Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 5 unmasks the rebellious youth in us all
It’s been almost nine years and countless spinoffs since the initial release of Persona 4, which allowed many to dip their toes in the world of Shin Megami Tensei without diving too deep into the long-standing franchise. Since then, anticipation has been building for the release of Persona 5, a title that transcends its genre for many people. Thankfully for them, it was worth the long wait.
Following an intro that is considerably darker than prior games in the series, Persona 5 follows the adventures of a high school student forced to leave his home after being put on probation due to some questionable legal trouble. Along the way, he meets several high schoolers who all have a troubled past or have expressed their frustrations with Japan’s societal norms in some way. This is one of the main aspects of the game’s narrative that is explored mostly thoughtfully. It turns what may have been a clichéd “stick it to the man” story into something unique.
Once you get into the meat of the story, you form a group known as “The Phantom Thieves of Hearts” whose sole mission is to change the hearts of those adults who have wronged others. As your group of thieves grows in both size and popularity, this sparks a social revolution of sorts. Thanks to the power of social media, your exploits are held up on a pedestal by the people of Tokyo, many of whom have their own wrongdoers in their lives that need a change of heart. Many of the villains in the story have their own warped justification for doing what they do, and while it can be cartoonish at times, it never strays too far from speaking on issues that are not uncommon in today’s society.
While I found myself occasionally struggling with the game’s lack of social awareness despite being all about, well, social awareness, I still found the cast of characters undeniably charming.
At its core, Persona 5 is about a younger generation fighting back against the tyranny of its older counterparts. It’s socially conscious in a way that is mostly respectful to the generation it is attempting to inspire, although its handling (or lack thereof) of LGBTQ issues is troubling considering the game’s central themes. It’s not as overtly homophobic as Persona 4 was, but there are cringe-worthy moments that completely took me out of the experience. These are few and far between, but seriously, do we really need scenes with stereotypical gay men included just for comedic relief in 2017?
While I found myself occasionally struggling with the game’s lack of social awareness despite being all about, well, social awareness, I still found the cast of characters undeniably charming. They manage to avoid the pitfalls found with some of Persona 4’s main cast, and as a result, are more relatable.
Many of the game’s best moments come not from the main story’s twists and turns, but the interactions between the characters. The game’s central narrative is often riveting, but the events all about the characters enjoying their time together on the beach or a class trip were always my favorites. Alongside those memorable story moments, you will form bonds with your compatriots called “Confidants.” These are basically the social links you form in previous Persona games, with each one providing new tales of its cast of misfits. They also introduce you to a variety of side characters, each with their own troubled past and problems that need to be solved. These characters range from a washed-up politician attempting to save his reputation to a reporter knee-deep in an cold case in order to prove her friend’s innocence. To give too much away about how these side stories unfold would ruin the surprises they have in store, but every one of them is well worth experiencing for yourself.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Persona game without the ability to have a relationship with one of the game’s many female characters. This is an aspect of the game that is mostly handled with care, although some of these potential relationships veer on the side of being creepy. For example, if you are so inclined, you can explore a relationship with your homeroom instructor. As someone who was role-playing as a second year high schooler, I couldn’t help but find this, and some similar relationship options, kind of gross. It’s unfortunate you can’t pursue potential relationships with your male classmates, yet the game’s all too eager to let you date your teacher.
Outside of the Confidant system, Persona 5 operates pretty similarly to P4 before it. With the exception of days related to specific story events, you are free to explore the many districts of Tokyo to complete activities to raise your social stats. These stats are crucial when it comes to making progress in, or in some cases even starting, certain Confidants. And it’s fun to discover which activities develop which stats. You can read books, go to movies, spend time studying in a restaurant or even play games in an arcade. As you explore each area in Tokyo, you’ll quickly gain an understanding of which activities benefit you the most.
I eventually developed a routine, which was comforting and rewarding after spending so many hours understanding the system behind everything.
In a way, it becomes a game all about time management. You have to balance spending time with Confidants, many of whom are only available on certain days, and also raising your stats. I love this element of the game, and I often found myself taking notes on when specific events occur or who is available on which days of the week. I eventually developed a routine, which was comforting and rewarding after spending so many hours understanding the system behind everything.
Now that I’ve touched on just about everything Persona 5 has to offer, let’s dig into the meat of the game: the dungeon crawling. As you would expect from the series, a lot of your time will be spent exploring story dungeons and gaining new Personas. This time around, the dungeons are not randomly generated, presenting you with areas filled with specifically placed enemies and puzzles. This was honestly a relief. While I admired the approach Persona 3 and 4 took with their dungeons, I was able to appreciate the aesthetics and design of each dungeon more this time around.
Combat is as you come to expect from the series. Each party member has their own specifically assigned Persona, but the main character can swap Personas on the fly, including ones you find in battle. As you battle Shadows, the game’s primary enemies, you will learn the strengths and weaknesses of each. Hitting an enemy with its weakness will knock it down and give that character an extra move. It’s all what you would expect from Persona, and it’s just as engaging as it has been in previous games.
If you happen to knock all of your opponents down, you activate a “Hold Up”, which gives you an opportunity to either perform an All-Out Attack or talk with one of the shadows. This is where an element of Shin Megami Tensei that is near and dear to my heart makes a return: demon negotiation. You can talk with a Shadow in order to gain an item or money, or convince them to join your party. This system is simplified compared to games like SMT IV and it’s quite easy to master how these conversations should go, so those frustrated with the occasional randomness found in this element of SMT series will feel relieved.
This system inherently makes battles more strategic. Should you just focus on killing the enemies to gain experience, should you negotiate for money (which can be harder to come by compared to previous titles), or is it worth risking them fleeing in order to gain a new Persona? The battle system on its own is fine and what you would expect from the series, but this mechanic really adds a new layer of depth to the combat that elevates it beyond your standard turn-based RPG and even previous Persona games.
Persona fusion is back as well, giving you even more options to fuse your current roster and also power them up using some of your weaker allies. Related to fusion is a Confidant you gain through the Twin Warden characters, with each rank presenting you with a new challenge to complete. In short, you must present them a Persona they requested with a specific skill. This requires you to combine specific Personas in order for the desired result to occur with the right inherited skill. This is a smart way to teach you about the fusion system as you progress while also providing you new abilities via the Confidant bonuses.
Everything great in Persona 5 is made even better by its gorgeous presentation.
For those fans of the randomly-generated dungeons from the last two Persona games, fear not! P5 has a dungeon called Mementos which changes every time you enter it. This is where you complete the game’s side quests, which have also gone through a major change. Instead of completing basic activities for random NPCs, you now explore Mementos to defeat mini-boss Shadows that are related to requests from the citizens of Tokyo. This is also the best place to grind for more experience and money, as the story dungeons disappear once you clear them.
Everything great in Persona 5 is made even better by its gorgeous presentation. From the design to the dungeons to scene transitions and loading screens, the game screams style. The visuals make even browsing menus seem exciting. It’s made all the more amazing thanks to Shoji Meguro’s earworm-inducing soundtrack than can be easily summed up in one word: funky.
Even if it sometimes falls flat on its face in its attempts to be more socially aware, Persona 5 is a delight and lives up to the high expectations set by Persona 4. It features one of my favorite casts of characters in any JRPG, an improved battle system and a story that takes many surprising turns along this 80-plus-hour adventure. Although it may take nine more years for an inevitable sequel, if Persona 5 is any indication, it will be worth the long wait.
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