Content of the article: "Persona 5 From a Noob"
When I played Persona 4 Golden earlier this year, I fell in love with some aspects (the characters, the atmosphere, the music), and tolerated others at best. With the advent of Persona 5 Royal, and my cousin letting me borrow his PS4, I found myself swept up in the hype of a game that blew my expectations away and then some. It truly felt like someone at Atlus had been looking over my shoulder while I played the previous game and took detailed notes about what to improve in the sequel. I can honestly say that it’s an upgrade across the board in just about every way that matters to me, and I can wholeheartedly, without any caveats, recommend it to anyone with an interest in this series. If you like anime, if you want to get into JRPGs and don’t know where to start, or maybe you’re like me and you just thought the memes and fanart were cute, you owe it to yourself to give this game a shot.
It’s enough for me to want to go back and retroactively make this my game of the year for 2017, which was a pretty stacked roster in itself. Everything seemed to come together, the right team at the right time with the right idea, to catapult what was a pretty niche franchise into AAA stardom to rub shoulders with the Zeldas and Marios as among the best in its class. Even now, with the release of Royal, it’s easily my GOTY now, due in some part to the anemic list of releases, but that’s another topic altogether. I’ll try to keep this review/essay focused on the game itself rather than just comparing it to 4, but given that it was my primary entry point to the series, I will make frequent references to that game, so SPOILERS for both ensue.
What I found most immediately charming about Inaba was its sense of time and place. The shuttered businesses, the barren main street, the anxious town with the specter of death over it while a group of carefree teens made plans to go to the mall on their clamshell flip phones captured a dichotomy that I hadn’t felt explored in other games. Whether the developers intended to or not, they created a late 00s period piece that resonated with me quite strongly as someone who was roughly the same age as the protagonist in that time. I would imagine sentiment would follow for those younger than I, as 5 is much more proactive and hyperactive in its presentation. The game is a feast for the eyes, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that a cohesive style and aesthetic will far outlast the shiniest graphics, as it makes the most of its visuals to draw the player in. The UI itself is a masterclass in action, there are entire games with budgets and teams that dwarf Persona 5 that don’t have as much personality as the pause menu in this one, the way the icons jiggle and pop practically begging you to click on them next.
The other pillar holding up its remarkable sense of style is the music, and between 4 and 5 I’m genuinely torn as to which I like better. 5 definitely has the edge when it comes to production value, but the jazzy, upbeat soundtrack is also more content to sit in the background and provide an accompaniment to the city living, in contrast to 4’s loud, gaudy pop earworms, each one an anime opening in the making. While it takes center stage during key moments, most of the time, the soundtrack is this constantly undulating rhythm in the back of the player’s mind, rising and falling with the action, keeping the pulse going like the click clack of wheels upon the train tracks. Undoubtedly, my favorite song is Beneath the Mask, a melancholy tune that sounds like a rainy night and a dying cigarette in an ashtray, the perfect soundtrack to a place of sanctuary after a long day. The nebulous subject of its lyrics leaves it open to many different interpretations: a well-deserved rest after great triumph, or crushing loss and setback; a private moment shared between two lovers, or a reflection on the emptiness of the room itself, alone with one’s thoughts. It’s hard to compare soundtracks in a year with Nier Automata on the roster, but 5 absolutely passes the “would I listen to this outside of the game willingly” test. Just as Heartbreak, Heartbreak became synonymous with me doing laundry and other chores over the summer, I came to associate Beneath the Mask with my commute in the fall, under cover of darkness. I think it’s special when you can tie a game to a certain moment in your life, and this one certainly did it for me. Overall, it was the slower paced, more moody tracks like this and Sunset Bridge that stuck with me, proving that music does not have to be a spectacular front and center banger to play an essential role in the drama, though the game has its fair share of those (Life Will Change, Last Surprise, and Rivers in the Desert being standouts).
The change in setting is not limited to the audiovisual aspects, however, as the game itself feels faster and more anxious, almost oppressively so, as moving to the city from the middle of nowhere would feel. Gone is the lackadaisical, laid back intro of the prior game. Here, you are thrust into the driver’s seat immediately, before the game splashes water in your face and asks you where you were on the night of the 12th between the hours of such and such. I thought the opening hours of the game were a fantastic way of setting the stage, as we’re wowed by the prospect of Ocean’s Eleven but anime and then brought back down to Earth via the interrogation as a framing device for the story. I like it because it splits the story into neat chunks, each Palace its own arc. Coming out of Persona 4, my two biggest questions were A: If adults like Adachi are aware of and can manipulate the Shadow World, why have there been no formal attempts to study it? And B: What if the Investigation Team didn’t stop after uncovering the killer?
I was delighted to discover that not only does 5 address these topics, but the latter defines the conceit of the whole game, placing the Thieves’ idealism for a better world against bigger and bigger targets, a fitting escalation for a big name sequel. The former question is a major subplot in the story, though the answers I came up with in my head were grander than what ended up being presented. I appreciated how this turn of events resulted in the gang being more proactive, i.e. seeking out targets to punish them for their misdeeds, rather than purely reactive like the kids in 4, who had to wait for each kidnapping to happen in turn before acting. Persona 5 is a much harsher world in comparison, one that demands that its protagonist hit the ground running and get going fast. You’ve been sent to juvie on trumped up charges, nobody wants you around, you’re shoved into an old, dusty attic as a ward of the state, and everyone is looking for an excuse to get you expelled or worse. Even walking down the hallway invites comments from onlookers and rubberneckers who aren’t sure yet if they want to look down on or admire you. All this set dressing contributes to a city that feels just alive enough to allow your imagination to color in the margins and give a much better impression of a cramped metropolis with a beating heart than a big open world would.
It’s natural, then, that the protagonist would come to identify with others who fell through the cracks like he did, others who people judged by the masks they wore other than their true character. With Yu it seemed like he immediately formed lifelong bonds with the first three kids he met on the way to class. Ryuji’s and Ann’s friendships feel like they develop more naturally, first as a result of being backed into a corner together with nowhere to go, and gradually getting to know each other as people. It’s as if Atlus took a good look at the broad archetypes they established with Yosuke, Yukiko, Rise, etc and realized them into more fully fledged characters. I loved hanging out with all of the Thieves, getting to know their inner lives and it pained me that I couldn’t max them all in the allotted time. It’s impressive that they managed to build up such a strong portfolio of confidants with their own storylines and character moments without stepping on each other or retreading old ground. I even liked hanging out with Mishima, probably because he’s the one closest in spirit to what fans of this game are actually like, as opposed to Joker’s more aspirational mystique.
For the longest time, I thought that the first Palace was the game’s high point. At no other point in the base game did I feel like the player motivations and the character’s motivations were so intertwined on a base level. Kamoshida is such an excellent starting point because right away, you hate him on multiple different fronts: for antagonizing you (and by extension, the player), for being an abusive monster to your friends and classmates, and because of the corrupt authority he represents and the power structures that enable him, nurturing the seed of rebellion planted within Joker and his friends. It’s not a coincidence that all of the Thieves are latchkey kids with absent/aloof parents. That neglect, intentional or otherwise, fostered a lingering sense of ennui and discontent that lets them get wrapped up in the Thieves’ romantic struggle against societal norms. It’s an adventure, and you want to get carried away in it just as much as they do, that investment feeling all the more bittersweet when it comes crashing down around them. It does a brilliant job of selling the illusion of putting the player in the driver’s seat and letting them dictate the pacing of the plot, all by changing a few of the circumstances around how the Palaces are tackled, and though you are given an abundance of activities to dedicate your time towards, I never felt confused about what I should do, because they were all equally viable methods of advancing the player’s goals.
Since I brought up the Palaces, I should mention perhaps the single biggest improvement over the previous entry, and that is the way this game handles the dungeon crawling aspect of the game. For starters, Palaces/Dungeons are actual discrete spaces now with proper level design (!) that draws upon the chosen theme in a meaningful way to make them all distinct from one another. It’s a huge step up from ten floors of the same randomly generated slog with different wallpaper every single time. Traversal is overhauled, and the quarter-assed stealth mechanics from 4 are realized into the ambush system here that makes entering combat feel like a tactical decision on your part rather than having Yu swing his bat in the vague direction of an enemy. Joker and the Thieves move at a brisk, animated pace, zipping around between hiding spots and looking for an angle of attack rather than blundering through a bunch of copy pasted hallways. Other big, big pluses include: not having to fight every single enemy to squeeze out the xp needed to fight the boss, not having to fight trash mobs at all with Ryuji’s level 7 perk, having more items and perks to mitigate the war of attrition on your SP early on, there being an actual reason to go out of your way to explore in the form of Will Seeds. The list goes on. And if you do want that down home grind, there’s always Mementos, which I actually enjoyed my time in, largely because of the aforementioned reasons. Side quests in 4 always amounted to talk to this random guy who asks for a vendor trash item you probably got rid of when mashing sell all at the ironworks shop. Now they manifest as minibosses in Mementos, which ties into the whole vigilante justice hero of the people angle that the Thieves thrive on. Again, taking something that kinda worked before and improving it by marrying the themes and the gameplay. Also, everyone gets guns, which would be great on its own, but is amplified by the fact that they actually do work.
Not all of the Palaces are bangers, I think the 2nd and 3rd suffer the most from lackluster villains but they do their job as a sort of training arc showing how the Thieves escalate in terms of targets and notoriety as well as expanding their own roster. Futaba’s Palace is a highlight and one of the better story dungeons, and I appreciate how it broadened the scope of the setting by showing that people had indeed attempted to research the Metaverse in an academic fashion, but were struck down by some shadowy force. This is where my brain took over and started imagining much wider implications that the game ultimately didn’t explore, like the government having access to a black ops unit of Persona users who could change hearts and inflict mental shutdowns at will, but I’ll come back to that later. Suffice it to say that Sae’s Palace is another excellent addition with a dope theme, but what follows immediately after doesn’t so much bring the story to a halt as much as it gets t-boned by a mile long train of awkward, clunky exposition.
You ever play an action game, and right in the middle of it, the game stops and shows you a cutscene of your character doing all these badass choreographed moves for minutes on end, that you would never be able to do in the game itself, that’s just this long, laborious display that leaves you thinking “wow, that looks cool, I wish I was playing that instead of just watching”?
This is the narrative equivalent of that.
All along, we’ve stuck by Joker’s side. Very occasionally, the game will shift perspective to a fly on the wall of the villains so they can twirl their mustaches for a few but by and large, the player and protagonist are one in the same from beginning to end. They even go through the trouble of giving him amnesia at the start so that your Joker can retell the story as he remembers it. This is important because it establishes that the player knows what the protagonist knows, and vice versa. This whole segment throws that all out the window and reveals that Joker and the rest of the Thieves colluded in a secret gambit to expose Akechi that the player had no knowledge of and could not contribute to even if they wanted it. It’s like the devs rip the controller out of your hands and tell you to keep all limbs inside the car because you’re on their ride now and you’re going to experience it exactly as we intended even if it completely divorces the player from the shared experience of the protagonist by shoehorning all this shit that supposedly happened offscreen into what is supposed to be the emotional climax of the story. It feels like an overcorrection of the equivalent moment in 4, except in that one you had to choose the exact string of responses the devs wanted lest you be booted to the credits. Here, it’s just flashback after flashback crowbarred into the story, sometimes in succession to such a degree that I began to feel like it was losing the all important emotional investment built up. Narratively, it’s supposed to be a moment of triumph as everyone congratulates Joker on pulling off his masterstroke idea of faking his death flawlessly but in practice it feels like that meme of Michael from the Office shaking hands with his old boss, the player taking credit for something they had no part in, but would have liked to be in on. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is annoying considering how closely intertwined the journey of player and protagonist had been up to that point
Another nitpick before we move on from here, I really thought that Joker’s constant flashbacks to the inciting event where he punched Shido but was unable to remember him were building to something. I legitimately thought that Shido had masterminded this scheme where he got Joker enrolled into Shujin and purposefully nudged him towards radicalization and forming the Thieves so that he could have a crew of fall guys to take down in his ascent to the top. I expected that Joker’s amnesia was a by-product of this mind tampering, but apparently he’s just an idiot who has this chip on his shoulder when it comes to authority but for some reason is unable to put a name to the face of the man who first put him behind bars. I also thought it was a bit cheesy that Shido had ties to literally every major villain they had faced up to that point. By the end I was half expecting him to reveal that he was the one driving the car that ran over Kawakami’s favorite student back in the day. Some real Reverse Flash “IT WAS ME BARRY” shit going on there, but I digress. Shido’s a good villain, and a fitting end to the escalation that the Thieves had going. I also loved the development that even though Shido had a change of heart, the movement behind him was still going, because the systems of power that allowed him to get where he was and exercise his will ran deeper than any of the Thieves knew, and it would take more than changing one heart to turn things around this time.
What follows is pretty iffy for me. I’m a firm believer that all the supernatural Metaverse stuff should take a backseat to or be a vehicle for the interpersonal drama between the characters we’ve come to know. It’s flavor text and set dressing, important to the story and atmosphere, but not its focus. When you try to put backstory and worldbuilding into the foreground, especially in the drama first storytelling that Persona is going for, you end up with Yaldaboath, a boring ass cup in the basement of Mementos who speaks in riddles and soaks up damage like a sponge. Nothing about this fight feels as climactic as the last because the player had no idea they existed until about 15-20 minutes ago. I liked the reveal with Igor and the conversations with the crew in the Velvet Room, but beyond that a confrontation with a shiny god of Some Abstract Proper Noun just feels really lame without any requisite emotional context. Capping him in the face with a three story Glock was pretty cool though, so props for that. And, it sets the stage for the Royal content, the single best arc in the game.
I’d heard the third semester in this game hyped up before I got into the series, and it deserves every bit of praise. Again, it’s like someone at Atlus predicted my comments on the previous final boss and tailor made an arc full of closure and emotional resonance because the characters coming into conflict with each other are people with complex relationships and not just jumbles of polygons with a health bar and an ominous monologue. I love the It’s a Wonderful Life AU aspect of the dream world, making it genuinely difficult to try and turn people like Ann away from this place where they could forget their awful traumas and just be regular teens. I loved seeing Kasumi go from a pretty bland and boring confidant to literally rediscovering herself and becoming a wholly realized person for it. Akechi’s presence in this arc is my favorite in the game and his snide comments and deliciously over the top ferocity in combat shot him up the charts of best characters now that he was able to comfortably go mask off. It’s fantastic hearing him address the Thieves with previously barely concealed and now open contempt, but he reserves the worst barbs for Maruki, who’s so kind and affable that it almost makes you forget how crazy his plan is. Instead of lecturing you to death or getting too heady, he appeals to the same ideals that Joker did in forming the Thieves, creating an interesting foil with motivations that are arguably more noble than the main characters, but that alone cannot justify what he’s done. It’s a tricky situation to unpack, but I think it’s easily the best written part of the game, and left me feeling whole and satisfied by the end.
As exhaustive as this may seem, there are still things left I haven’t even touched on, like that one honestly fucked up scene where Joker leave Ryuji to be assaulted for now reaons, or how much better Akechi is than Adachi even though they fill the same role of cop who's actually a secret incel, or the hundreds of smaller quality of life improvements that make the game less of a chore and more of an addictive rush as you get swept up in this other world. My total playtime clocked in at just under 130 hours, an absolutely massive jump from the 75 or so I’d spent with 4, after foolishly assuming I’d knock the sequel out in about a month or so. When I finished the game, I was exhausted, I was ready for it to be over, and wanted to move onto something else, but I was also wistful. I carried within myself the knowledge that I would never play it for the first time again, and consciously or unconsciously I would spend the next few weeks looking for something to fill the Phantom Thief shaped hole in my chest. I had so thoroughly been engrossed in this world and its characters that I don’t quite feel ready to say goodbye, even if the prospect of NG+ still seems daunting. As in some of the best games, like Nier Automata or Red Dead Redemption 2, this first full playthrough feels so complete to me, that it almost seems wrong to go back and disturb the world as I left it, because I played my part, and it’s at peace now.
I had assumed that I would hate an ending where, after everything, Joker moves away. Why, after so much investment and time spent building friendships that would last a lifetime, would he simply go back to nothing? I wasn’t prepared for how natural it would feel. How everyone expressed their desire to grow as people, first beyond the labels others ascribed to them, and then the label of Thief they applied to themselves, to become men and women who could affect society in their own way, wholly distinct from any god given supernatural power. It felt surprisingly mature for the series to advocate for a break from escapism, and instilled within me a desire to move on as well. I have no idea what Persona 6 will look like, but it’s going to be hard to replicate the leap in quality, as they’ve outdone themselves to create what’s become one of my favorite games.
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