Persona 5 Review — The Japanese High Schooler Simulator of Your Dreams
Atlus' Persona 5 on PlayStation 3 and 4 is the kind of game that puts a smile on your face, if you're fine with a ton of anime tropes.
This review has been a long time coming. We’re over three weeks past the release of Persona 5 in North America. The reason for the delay is simple: it’s a really, really long game, and to experience everything it has to offer will easily take you over 150 hours for a single playthrough.
If you’re bothered by the current trend of games that launch with limited content, I can guarantee that you won’t have that problem with Persona 5. It’s definitely a massive game.
The story starts with a interesting premise: one fateful evening, the young hero runs into an unknown man molesting a lady on the public street. He intervenes, and accidentally injures the aggressor, who manages to strong-arm his victim into testifying against her savior. Suddenly, the hero finds himself with a criminal record, forced to submit to a year of probation while being hosted in the dusty attic of a cafe in the old, fictional district of Yongenjaya, Tokyo.
As the protagonist attempts to rebuild a somewhat normal life, he finds himself thrown into an alternate world where the warped desires of adults can take form, expanding their ominous influence on those around them. Yet, this alternate world (named the “Metaverse”) also becomes the source of his newfound power — a power he decides to use in order to fight those warped adults.
Gradually, he surrounds himself with like-minded young men and women (and a mysterious mascot named Morgana) which forms the vigilante group, the”Phantom Thieves.” Their mission is to steal the distorted hearts of adults, forcing them to confess their crimes. Yet, what initially started as a contingency plan to fight back against an abusive teacher soon becomes something much, much bigger and more sinister.
The story is certainly one of the strong points of Persona 5 and, while I’ll steer clear of spoilers, I can definitely say that it’s one of the few recent games I played that didn’t miss a beat from the beginning to its epic ending.
Characters are another large plus: while some are more charming than others, all of their story arcs and personalities evolve throughout the story, and they’re all positively likable. Even quite a few villains, despite their distorted and warped nature, still have angles with which the player can relate.
The cast has a lot of depth, and every character has been carefully crafted in order to be a piece in a big and complex tapestry creating an overall picture. A picture that is even more beautiful, largely because it has intentionally ugly and often grotesque sides, mixed together with the intriguing, the weird, the funny and the lovely.
That said, both the story and the cast include an absolute metric ton of anime tropes. If those don’t tickle your fancy, you’ll probably resent them all the way through the game. On the other hand, if anime tropes don’t bother you, or even better, if you love them, you’ll fall in love with Persona 5 and enjoy every tasty bit of it.
Characters, story and setting contribute to creating an extremely solid atmosphere, which is one of the best depictions (albeit heavily stylized) of current day Japan that I’ve seen in a long while. Every location is easily recognizable, especially if you’ve been there, not only in the way it looks, but even in the way it feels.
A relevant element you should be warned about is that Persona 5 is massively politically incorrect. Certain aspects of it would be considered controversial even in Japan, but Persona 5 shows absolutely no restraints in pretty literally flying in the face of the average western sensibility. While I find it absolutely refreshing, and I’m sure many among our readers will feel exactly the same about it, if you’re easily offended you may need to put on some thick skin or steer clear.
Social interaction with many of the characters in the game is a very important part of both story and gameplay, Players will be able to gradually cultivate their relationships, at the same time gaining supporters to their cause and empowering their personas. The various encounters with each NPC are a great way to delve deeper into their motivations and background, and they’re all engaging and interesting.
Romance also plays a rather major role in the story and, while it can be entirely skipped, it’s definitely nice to be able to interact with one or more of the ladies in a deeper way. The romance-specific interactions are actually very pleasant and rewarding, making pursuing them worth your time. As a matter of fact, the romance options are so good that this is literally the first time in my gaming history in which I actually felt conflicted between almost all of them.
Funnily, romance is one of the politically incorrect elements I mentioned above, even if it’s presented in a very tasteful way. Of the nine ladies available, four are adults, including a teacher with an “interesting” part-time job. Given that our protagonist is a high school student, that’s a pretty big taboo, even more so in Japan. As an additional detail, you can romance as many as you want. You can be a loyal boyfriend or a total player, but I would advise to learn from The Witcher 3.
These kind of themes tie-in with localization because no specific effort has been made (at least to my knowledge) to make the game more palatable to the general western audience, and that is definitely very positive.
One of the inevitable consequences of posting a review this late, is that I had plenty of time to read a lot of extremely weird comments and forum posts, echoed by whole media articles exclusively dedicated to savagely bash this game’s localization.
Persona 5‘s localization distinguishes itself from most because it retains a lot more of the original Japanese way of speaking in the characters’ lines. This results in both wording and sentences structured in ways that would not be used by your average westerner, and might take a bit of time to get used to.
On the other hand, it definitely feels more authentic to the setting and the characters themselves. They’re Japanese high schoolers talking among themselves and with other Japanese characters. They aren’t American or British, so it’s pretty natural and appropriate that they don’t talk like American and British kids.
For instance, an American high schooler would certainly never say “please take care of me,” but a Japanese one would (if they are a polite kid). It’s not just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of culture. The way most characters talk in Persona 5 is much more appropriate to both Japanese culture and the nature of the characters themselves; a characteristic that isn’t seen in the vast majority of the heavily westernized adaptations we usually get nowadays.
That said, the localization is not perfect. There are quite a few lines that could have used more polish and thought in balancing authenticity with legibility. However, the effort towards a more authentic representation of the Japanese way of speaking, that is very much linked with the setting’s culture, is laudable. Hopefully Atlus will preserve the positive intention and pile in more polish for upcoming localizations.
Voice acting comes in two versions: while “out of the box” you’ll only get the English localization, the Japanese voice track is available as a free DLC.
The English one isn’t terrible (and I mean not as terrible as most low-budget English voice tracks that we often find in Japanese games), but it isn’t great either. Some characters are reasonably well acted, while others are very mediocre, with a couple of voices that simply don’t fit their characters nearly as well as their original counterparts.
On the other hand, unsurprisingly, the Japanese voice acting is absolutely top-notch, with plenty of star-level talent involved. If you don’t have issues reading subtitles, you simply can’t go wrong with it.
There is, though, a relevant flaw: Atlus USA did not subtitle all the lines, especially for dialogue that is considered background chatter. The problem is that, at times, that’s not “just” background chatter. It provides important context information that goes completely lost if you don’t understand any Japanese.
For instance, there is an extremely important plot moment in which a TV program in the background explains what happened. It’s very relevant, and missing out on what is said confounds the plotline. Yet, there are absolutely no subtitles for it. This can only be defined a shoddy job.
Speaking of audio, the soundtrack is also absolutely fantastic. The Atlus Sound Team led by Shoji Meguro did the usual masterful work, keeping up the Persona tradition of mixing in vocals in a way that you normally wouldn’t see in JRPGs or RPGs in general. I don’t remember a single song or track in the game that wasn’t perfectly appropriate to the scene and very enjoyable. If I had to choose the best soundtrack of this first third of 2017, I’d definitely select Persona 5‘s.
While the game is cross-generation, visuals are very nice. This certainly isn’t a tech masterpiece, but the art style is what really sets Persona 5 aside, proving charming in every situation, while fitting the need to accommodate an underpowered console like the PlayStation 3.
The 3D models are simple but well defined, and textures are crisp and suitable to recreating a pleasing anime-like style. As a matter of fact, playing Persona 5 is probably one of the closest experiences to playing an anime series, and I’m not just talking about the graphics.
Character design is another high point, with Shigenori Soejima performing at his best. Every character is interesting and distinctive, and the attention to detail is among the best in the Persona series, which is already excellent in itself among this kind of games.
Fashion choices are also interesting, adding personality to each protagonist and many of the secondary characters, from the way they wear their already rather unique uniforms, to more personal styles like those worn by Futaba or Sae.
While in most games the user interface is designed to be as invisible as possible, in Persona 5 we get menus that are intentionally crafted to be very visible and stylish, and they’re absolutely successful in that. Normally I’m a fan of more minimalist UIs, but in this case I have to admit that I found its ever-visible in-your-face presence extremely pleasing, adding to the beauty of the game instead of detracting from it, or feeling like clutter.
A note of praise also needs to be extended towards the many anime cutscenes, that definitely carry the mark of excellence of Production I.G. The cutscenes are up there with a high-budget anime series, and feel very rewarding whenever you get to see a new one to underline an important point in the story.
While Persona 5‘s presentation is basically spotless, gameplay is the only element that includes relevant flaws, even if those issues will feel more or less prominent to you depending on how familiar you are to JRPGs and Persona games in general. Hardcore fans of the genre and of the series will probably find them to be rather bearable, while those who normally prefer other kinds of games might have their experience impacted in more serious ways.
The game is structured with a calendar system, in which the protagonist normally attends school in the morning, then selects two activities to perform in the afternoon and in the evening. This system follows the traditional Japanese dating sim structure, allowing the player to build up his social skills by performing actions like studying or working part-time, and to meet friends to deepen the character’s relationships.
This is normally a good way to represent the life of a Japanese high school student, and it’s for the most part very workable. However, it does has a couple of issues: first of all there are a ton of days in which Morgana (the cat-like talking mascot) will force the protagonist the go to bed early, basically wasting the evening. I can’t count the times in which I really wanted to strangle the accursed furball.
Secondly, the time you have to complete the game is finite: Persona 5 lasts exactly one year, so if you don’t organize your activities, encounters and dates correctly, you’ll end up missing on quite a few events. In my first playthrough, I painstakingly planned every single time slot I had, but I still ended up falling short by a couple of days, preventing me from maximizing the relationship with the last of my friends (Yusuke), and that felt very frustrating.
You can basically choose between planning every day extremely carefully, possibly impacting your enjoyment of the game negatively, because you can’t just relax and enjoy your virtual high school life, or miss out on content. The “new game +” on second playthrough definitely makes things much easier and more relaxed, but not everyone has the time to play a rather linear 100+ hour-long game twice.
This issue is made worse by the fact that the game surprises the player with a whole lot of days in which you have basically no control. In these cases, you can’t improve your skills or social link in any way, basically throwing off your planning unless you play while reading a guide.
Add to that the fact that some friends require disproportionately high levels of this or that social skill even at low levels of interaction. For instance, to go past early stages with Makoto, you’ll need to have maxed your charm, only to completely waste all the many charm bonuses you’ll receive for the whole rest of the game. Trying to make everything work can become a nightmare, unless you enjoy playing the calendar like a strategy game that occasionally cheats.
To be fair, almost none of this is mandatory, and you can still get the best ending without maximizing everything. However, if you’re a completionist, you can expect the game to be very demanding on your planning skills, and possibly even a bit stressful as you see several days axed off the calendar completely out of your control.
Such a heavy emphasis on time management also impacts social links in an indirect way, turning confidants that help with giving you more time (for instance by giving you a relaxing massage that removes your exhaustion, letting you defy that pesky Morgana, and perform an activity in the evening after a dungeon run), or have effects on how fast you can improve your social skills or social links, into absolute must haves, regardless of whether you actually like them or not.
If you happen to not like Chihaya, who is a bit of a ditz (I would certainly define her an acquired taste), you’ll probably find yourself spending a load of time with her anyway, because she can do an affinity test that automatically brings you close to other characters. If you want to maximize as much as possible your playthrough, be prepared to spend a lot of time (and money) getting your fortune read once a day, which feels a bit weird.
This isn’t to say that the whole “school life simulator” part of the game isn’t enjoyable: as a matter of fact, the idea is absolutely charming and, if you’re not a completionist or you’re willing to play the game twice to see everything, it’s a whole lot of fun. That said, it would have been better to give players more leeway to enjoy the game at their own pace, without penalizing completion as much as the game does.
Of course, Persona 5 isn’t just a Tokimeki Memorial-style dating simulator, and there is plenty of turn-based RPG gameplay to enjoy during your Tokyo boy life. There are several dungeons with very defined themes and quite a few puzzle-like elements thrown into the mix.
Combat is normally enjoyable, and dungeons themselves are typically nice examples of solid JRPG design. However, even here there are a couple of elements that stop the game a step or two short of perfection.
The battle system is extremely rooted into the concept of hitting the weak elements of your adversaries with the right spells, allowing you to basically kill them in one turn on the normal difficulty level.
This means that a disproportionately large part of battles will follow this script: you take the enemy by surprise (which is extremely easy), earning the first strike. You use the spells appropriate to the weaknesses of your targets, dealing a large amount of damage and stunning the whole enemy party. Then you end with an all-out attack killing everyone, or negotiation causing the battle to end anyway, without receiving a single hit. This can get a bit repetitive, and at times it feels unchallenging.
The game does try to throw a few curveballs at you, with a handful of enemies with no specific weaknesses, and with some status aliments like ‘brainwash’ that can turn your whole party against you if you’re not prepared. However, these moments of diversity are rather rare occurrences.
The way dungeons are designed can also contribute to making them feel repetitive, simply because they’re very long. At times they feel like they are overstaying their welcome, especially when they keep throwing at you the same puzzle over and over.
The real heart of the gameplay is growing and evolving your rich arsenal of Personas. Those are basically summoned demons that execute the bulk of your battle actions. The system is extremely deep and truly enjoyable, letting you fuse Personas in pairs or groups to give birth to increasingly powerful ones, min-maxing inherited skills to hunt for the more powerful combos, and ultimately providing a very welcome element of variety and enjoyment to the battle system.
And yes, there is a Persona shaped like a penis with tentacles on a chariot… Because it’s Persona.
Ultimately, Persona 5 isn’t a perfect game, but while it comes with a few flaws, those are absolutely overwhelmed by its perks, including a fantastic story, charming, likable characters, the deep Persona summoning and evolution system, and a monstrous amount of style across every single one of its production values.
Persona 5 is certainly one of the sleekest and most polished JRPGs I’ve played in years, crowned by intriguing themes, enjoyable plot twists and uplifting moments that will make you smile. While the formula did not change that much since Persona 4: Golden, this is an instant classic that I’ll remember for a long, long time.
Persona 5 made me fume, cry, smile and laugh all the way through the 166 hours I played it, and that is doubtlessly a testament to the exceptional experience this ultimate Japanese high schooler simulator provides.