Persona 5 is the latest in a franchise that has exponentially increased its fan base over the years. This cult series has been released on different PlayStation hardware over the years and now it’s finally the turn for the PlayStation 4 to have its own Persona 4 title – albeit not one that is exclusive to the hardware.
As usual, the main protagonists are a group of teenagers who are often ridiculed by adults. The main character and those he recruits as “confidants” are given mysterious powers that let them invade the innermost twisted desires of those around them. The most twisted individuals have their own fantasy palaces (dungeons) which the characters must invade and steal a prized possession to cause a change of heart in the individual in the real world – thus resulting in the confession of his/her crimes.
It’s interesting to note that Persona 5’s endurance challenge like longevity is both a virtue and a weakness. Whilst the dungeons themselves are compelling places that involve jumping in and out of them to progress deeper until finding a route and planning the heist of the prized possession, it’s not exactly the same when it comes to the action outside of the heists. Complete a palace too soon and it’s necessary to go through days filled with mostly optional less interesting activities which help to deepen the bonds with other characters or just pass the time.
There is also a place called “Mementos” where the characters can dive in to complete requests by defeating certain characters. There are many areas and levels within them in this place and it gets harder as the characters go in deeper. It’s a novel idea and one that at least has a more functional use in terms of what can be done outside of tackling the palaces, but this place is definitely not as interesting to explore.
Whilst long time fans will no doubt lap up these extra curricular activities, it can feel forced for those who are more keen on getting on with exploring more palaces and discovering the many twists that lie within. Automatically receiving phone messages from other characters often feels like emotional blackmail since players will no doubt feel guilty if they don’t take part in most of these extra curricular activities. After all, it’s difficult to turn down an ally’s request for help or just to hang out rather than just going straight to bed each day and await the advancement of the main story. Besides, it takes some effort to even try to quickly move on to the next section of the main story.
Despite all this, getting to know other characters better by spending time together results in earning bonuses that might come in handy in battle. It definitely helps to know that spending time with some of the less interesting characters will help to make life easier when facing tougher enemies.
The stylish battle system, albeit somewhat more flashy than functional, sees the characters take on bodyguards and even distorted versions of those who have been overtaken by their dark desires. It’s all done via turn based combat and being able to easily find weaknesses by making use of an ability possessed by the characters is a handy feature. What is unique however is the chance to befriend normal enemies or even just get them to give items and money. Those that join the main character become “personas”, which are beings that he can use to perform different special abilities.
Regardless of the various options presented throughout the story, it’s often the case that choice is but an illusion and any actions taken will often lead to the same conclusion – albeit how characters perceive the main characters might change based on choices taken. If there is any lesson to be taken from playing Persona 5 is that humans love to gossip. Some of the dialogue options are not even accessible until the character builds up certain attributes – such as “guts”. Persona 5’s willingness to portray just about every adult as a flawed individual is relentless. No adult seems to be immune to using vulnerable teenagers for their own good in some way. Even the meek teacher who is in charge of keeping an eye on the main character is often clueless of what is going on around her and at one point uses the teenagers to help hide a certain activity, that she gets up to outside of the school.
Albeit the game does some impressive legwork of dealing with serious offences where powerful grown ups abuse their authority to harm vulnerable teenagers, it’s also jarring to witness what some of the characters get away with. Perhaps it’s down to the somewhat stilted dialogue, but one of the characters makes several remarks, that could easily be perceived as thinly disguised homophobic, regarding not having numbers of men in his phone book list and so on. It’s a shame to see a title that attempts to deal with such serious issues as physical abuse of minors by those responsible for their well being often being let down by its dialogue. It might even make players wonder if this is what Japanese culture is like.
At least the connection between the main cast is strengthened and it makes it more endearing to care about them after their stories have been more fleshed out around the time the second palace heist takes place. Even so, the lack of proper development of secondary characters means that what would usually be shocking developments don’t quite have the same impact. In fact, similar events are far better explored in titles such as Life is Strange.
Although it has some high moments, there is no doubt that Persona 5 could benefit from having the kind of script that titles such as Life is Strange are popular for or even the recent JRPG Tales of Besteria. Sometimes Persona 5’s quirky nature doesn’t quite work in practice. The player’s character is often quizzed in class about random subjects that players usually have no chance of knowing about without searching on the Internet.
Those who were fortunate enough to visit Tokyo will no doubt enjoy the nostalgia ride that Persona 5’s detailed representation of iconic locations provides. Even if the number of areas available to explore outside of palaces feels somewhat limited. As expected, palaces are far more flashier affairs than real world locations and it’s where Persona 5 is looking its best. Even if the use of fancy animations that can’t usually be skipped can feel like overkill.
Dialogue can be amusing in a sarcastic manner though. Teachers for example will often try to relate to students by cracking jokes, such as one about not liking June since it means spending longer time styling her hair.
For a title about oppression of those usually labelled as outsiders, it’s surprising to notice just how often it fails most of the same minorities that tend to be shunned by society. Whilst it’s lovely to get closer to certain characters players identify with, or even just have a crush on, it’s odd to see how strict it is regarding how it limits any potential relationships to female characters. Being able to help these characters overcome their struggles just makes it harder to realise how narrow minded it feels to not include same sex relationships in the title, or even other serious social issues that it could have tackled.
What is clear is that the real highlight of Persona 5 for most players are the fantastic palace heists and getting to experience everything that they have to offer. The very notion of changing someone’s personality and essentially getting them to admit their own twisted acts raises some ethical questions, that the title often explores in an effective manner. It might just require some patience to get through sections where not much happens that directly advances the main story.