PS4 (reviewed), PS3 - Atlus - £54.99
When you switch on Persona 5 for the first time, it puts its cards on the table, wasting zero time pointing out we’re here to have fun and tell an awesome story while doing it. You’re immediately thrown into the tail-end of a casino heist, leaping from balconies and scaffolding, beating up enemies while the upbeat score throbs in the background. This is a far cry from the slower more sedate starts of previous Persona games, and it sets you up perfectly for the next 100+ hours of masterfully produced gameplay.
I won’t go into the plot too deeply because that’s one of the most important aspects of the game - plus it would be almost impossible to sum up the intricacies, quirks, and all the enormously enjoyable aspects of this excellently written game in a brief review. In short, you are a high-school student who, due to unfortunate circumstances, has been forced to transfer schools. You do all the regular activities a teenager might undertake - make connections with new people, answer quiz questions, take a part-time job - but by night, you battle corruption, take down criminals and avenge the innocent all by infiltrating people’s minds with a group of 'Phantom Thieves'.
The easiest way to describe it would be to compare it to an anime Inception. You enter disturbed individuals’ minds - known as palaces - which are geographically linked to certain locations. These sprawling dungeons feature a gargantuan number of interesting and fun enemies, puzzles, traps and spectacles, which very rarely grate on you or repeat themselves. While you’re making your way around, Leonardo DiCaprio style with your team of ‘Phantom Thieves,’ you’re figuring out the quickest route to your target’s treasure: the thing that will change their heart in the real world and stop their nefarious ways for good. The palaces themselves are stunning - ranging from alien spaceships to pyramids and castles - while the sneaking around them, ambushing enemies and securing safe rooms is insanely fun.
The combat can seem complicated at first but becomes accessible and most importantly enjoyable. It’s base level is your regular melee, guard and ranged attack structure, with magic and healing included thanks to each character’s personas. These mystical summonings from within offer a range of elemental advantages and disadvantages against numerous interesting and unique enemies. Each party member has their own singular persona which grows as they do while you, the protagonist, have the added skill of being able to collect additional personas to gain advantage on your enemies. These additional personas can be swapped out mid battle and added to at the end of each battle, much like catching Pokemon.
The act of capturing the personas from the palaces is another nice touch, with each 'shadow' having its own distinct personality and ambitions. Simply sweet talking them all won’t do, you have to learn which dialogue will work to get them on your side. The capturing of a persona is made available during the ‘Hold Up’ part of the fight - this is the ideal moment where you have perfectly disabled or reduced the health of your opponent to it’s absolute minimum without destroying them. It allows you to bring the persona to your side, demand money from them or a useful item.
This style of combat - praising and rewarding the fewest hits, focusing on weaknesses and strategy - keeps things fresh. It also gives you an incentive to constantly update, upgrade and tinker with your personas to match the play style that suits you. This can be done at the beginning of palaces or in the real-world (in the same way you would upgrade your equipment load-out or inventory). I accidently killed my original persona first time round and had to reload, so always check before you click.
Once you defeat a palace, which is no easy task, you still have plenty of opportunities to increase your battle stats and collect more personas thanks to a dark, occasionally terrifying, world known as Momentos. Once unlocked, this constantly changing location allows you to take on minor contracts (jilted lovers, high school bullies a mugger or two that kind of thing), grind levels and test out new battle strategies for later palaces, all while slowly increasing your presence in the in-game world. There’s also a lovely Studio Ghibli reference thrown in there which will make fans of the movies smile.
Time is used perfectly as a choice system and turns the rest of the game (when you’re not fighting) into an overwhelmingly addictive life-management simulator. While infiltrating a palace will typically take an entire evening (leaving you too knackered to do anything else but sleep), deciding to take on activities like studying to increase your stats or working a part time job for cash are conscious decisions that the player must weigh up and make every single day. Do you put off infiltrating the next palace in order to increase your negotiating skills or your guts? But in doing so, risk not achieving your task by the time the deadline runs out?
The always changing and stunningly constructed world also influences your decisions as well: studying in the cafe while it’s raining will give you an extra knowledge bonus while studying in the library while surrounded by students who don’t like you will only marginally increase knowledge but boost guts. Fortunately, despite the loading icon telling you to ‘Take your time,’ the game knows that you don’t want to be sat commuting round the map or dealing with the nitty gritty slog back and forth to top up medicine or offload your treasure - the fast travel system typically comes with no time penalties and the loading screens are pleasingly short for a game with so much going on in it.
In addition to managing your skills, your personas and your time, you also have 20 confidants to meet and develop bonds with throughout Tokyo. Conversing with these allies provides unique and exceedingly useful perks, furthers the story and simply adds to the rich tapestry of the game. The perks they assist with can be everything from earning more experience during the creation of your new personas, increasing your negotiating skills or simply coming up with new ways to take down enemies in battle. For example: Once you achieve the perk ‘baton pass’ with teammates through increasing your confident rank, you are able to switch characters mid-battle, pulling off insane combos, maximising your damage over elemental weaknesses and increasing your attack and health while doing so.
Obviously, investing your time in these confidants is important for your overall ability in the game, but this doesn’t feel like a chore in the slightest as each character is brilliantly voiced and all have an interesting story to discover. Throw in the fact that certain confidants can only be spoken to on certain days, or when you have achieved certain levels of knowledge, guts or kindnesses and the entire management structure of the game knits together like a perfect puzzle - with each aspect supporting and contributing to the other.
This excellently (and presumably painstakingly built) system is housed within a stunning and beautifully visual game. From the backstreets of Shibuya to the underground walkways and malls, every aspect of Tokyo is a joy to explore. With each location having a very specific vibe (depending on the time of day you visit it,) the simple act of going to school or tracking down a confident is a treat. Throw in excellently animated cutscenes, little touches like your character putting up or taking down his umbrella as he enters and exits the train station or the fact that even the weather affects Momentos (high-pollen count = sleepy shadows) and it feels like you’re playing in a living breathing metropolis.
Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is also brilliant. The moment the game begins with a highly stylised animation and the main theme Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There playing the tone of the rest of your playthrough has been set. It’s playfulness comes across in lighthearted scenes, the crescendos in the battles make you feel like a badass and the touching moments are all perfectly scored.
Persona 5 is a work of art and one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in a long time. The combat is stupendous, the characters are fantastic and the plot is second-to-none. Whether you’re infiltrating the place of a pervert, grinding levels or raising your stats the satisfaction of achieving your goals never wavers. The art of growing closer to confidants and unearthing each intricate layer of world-building plot is divine and the look and feel of the game is simply gorgeous. It’s a world-class addition to the franchise and it’s set the bar for JRPGs everywhere. I will be playing this game (and most likely replaying) for a long time to come.