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Persona 5 Royal – A brilliant game that often overstays its welcome

After no less than 140 hours of joy and frustration, of smiles and tears, and of equally amazing and disappointing moments, I have finally done it. I have finally beaten Persona 5 Royal, and now I feel obligated to talk about the things I loved and didn't love about it. Just to be clear, this post is not really meant as a review, but think of it more as a long, detailed discussion about my personal experience with the game, made for those who have already played it. Still, I will be going into some relatively spoilery spoilers.

So, as a big fan of JRPGs, jazz and the colour red, I have been very interested in Persona 5 for a while, but it wasn't until last September that I bought a PS4 along with P5R as my first game. I had high expectations and fortunately, I really enjoyed the game, at least for the most part.


The Gameplay

As you probably know, Persona 5 is a modern JRPG, and it leans heavily into anime tropes. The best way to describe the core gameplay loop is if you mixed social sim, dungeon crawling and Pokémon. You live the life as an ordinary high-school student, and have to build relationships and hone your social skills in order to gain an advantage in combat. While I wasn't personally a fan of the social sim element, the confidant stories were generally very good, and touched on some mature and personal themes like forced marriage and suicide. I also appreciate how helpful the confidant abilites were, not just being a slight damage boost or something. My problem with the confidants was that they became so similar towards the end. You could have the same minute-long conversations with people telling you how much you mean to them, and how you've changed their life. They all kind of blend together at the end. At the beginning of the game, the sheer amount of things to do in Tokyo is a little overwhelming, but with the insane amount of downtime between the palaces (dungeons), it gets a little stale and repetitive towards the end.

Linearity is at the core of Persona 5, with it being a calendar based game. New players may feel inclined to micromanage their limited time to gain the biggest advantage in combat. But honestly, I just played blindly, and I'm really happy I did. I still managed to do every confidant story (except Lavenza's, Futaba's and Ohya's). Figuring out what to do with your time really made me live into the role of the new kid in the big city, and I honestly liked how linear the game was for that reason.

When infiltrating palaces to steal an evil person's distorted desires, you come across shadows (the enemies), whom you fight with with traditional turn-based combat. The combat itself was balanced, fun and mostly challenging when it needed to be. It consists of finding your enemy's weakness and exploiting it, and there are some fun and flashy (though slightly too long) animations as well as some banging music to accompany it. I generally enjoyed the combat a lot, even if it got a bit stale towards the end. The boss fights all have a nice amount of challenge, with one exception being the horrible and needlessly frustrating Okumura fight.

The palaces consist of puzzles and combat. Personally, I wasn't a big fan of the puzzles. They were ususally way too easy, or removed any kind of challenge by having the party tell me exactly what to do. That said, the palaces all have a unique setting, symbolising the ruler's distorted desires, and I think that was very well done. I did feel that a lot of them were too long for my liking, though (especially Okumura and Shido's palaces). There is also the randomly generated dungeon, Mementos, where you do smaller side stories. These stories were never really that interesting, but they offered a nice change of pace. Exploring Mementos was fine (and some of the dialogue was hilarious), but I'm very glad that it was only a small portion of the game, since it often got very repetitive and mindless.

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Another big part of the game is creating new Personas (the "monsters" you fight with, à la Jojo's Bizarre Adventure). And I have to admit, fusing new Personas was one of my favourite things about the game, since their designs are so awesome and creative (seriously, one is a giant penis in a cart), and figuring out how to get the best abilities was very satisfying.


The Presentation

Persona 5 is set in urban Tokyo, and you play as a high school student. It has a typical anime artstyle, but everything in the menu and UI is beautifully animated with a consistent colour scheme. The graphics themeselves aren't that impressive. It's very clear that this was originally a PS3 game, with the worst offender being the stiff animations for the overworld models. But I'll forgive them since the artstyle direction is so good, and one of the things that immediately caught my eye. The music is absolutely amazing, and composer Shoji Meguro has created of my favourite video game soundtracks ever, which also works so well with the setting and theme. It's a mix of acid jazz and funk with heavy emphasis on lyrical songs. There are too many great bangers that I still listen to outside of the game. I especially like listening to the powerful Life Will Change when going for a run and the chill Beneath the Mask when going for an evening stroll.

Most dialogue in P5 is voice acted, and I think the voice acting and especially direction is really good. The voice actors do a great job of living into their respective roles. I particularly like Morgana's and Ryuji's voice actors, but the rest of the cast are also solid. Now, I don't know if this is just a Japanese trope or what, but I don't understand why so many of the female characters have to have ridiculously high-pitched voices. It got pretty jarring at times, but I'll look over it, since the voice work is otherwise well done.


The Problem

Persona 5 has what I would consider the best prologue and beginning chapter I've ever seen in a JRPG. Instead of the typical 15 hour long tutorial before the story begins, you're directly thrusted into an exciting heist. The music is so hype, the colours are so bright and flashy, and you just feel like you're in this awesome action movie. You get arrested shortly afterwards, and then the main character tells the public prosecutor, Sae, what happened up until that point. I really love that way of storytelling, it gets you hooked immediately, and slowly figuring out everything is unbelievably satisfying. The first palace is extremely fun with so many ideas crammed into it, and the disgusting but great villain, Kamoshida.

However, after you beat Kamoshida, the game just gradually goes downhill, and has some major imbalances in its quality and pacing. And that's what I'd consider P5's biggest flaw – its length and pacing. It falls into the unfortunate JRPG curse of having too much filler, and they could have trimmed so much fat. The text conversations were especially bad, since they didn't add much to the game and usually just explained something obvious. I already mentioned some of the palaces being too long, but also just the amount of time between them was often unbearable. A month where nothing really happened: you woke up, answered some dumb trivia at the school, maybe you hung out with a friend or ate a burger, rinse and repeat. I felt extremely burned out multiple times while playing, and I don't think I would have ever beaten it if I hadn't taken several breaks. Now, it's understandable that a 140 hour long game can't be perfect throughout its entire runtime. But that simply begs the question: why is this game 140 hours long?

The game just loses its momentum – all that flashiness is gone after ~40 hours when I find myself doing the same things over and over again. The same all-out attack animation, Sojiro saying "Ah, you're back" for the 1000th time, the pointless SIU director twirling his imaginary evil mustache over a phone call, and having your friends tell you how amazing you are, even though you've only said like 10 sentences throughout the entire game. Ugh.

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The Story and Characters

In its essense, Persona 5 is a superhero story – a tale of a group of teens standing up to the injustices of modern society. If that sounds edgy and cringeworthy to you, that's because it often is (I did find myself getting tired of Ryuji constantly saying "rotten adults"). But I must admit that the social commentary element of Persona 5 was one of my favourite things about the game. The game is not afraid to stray away from the typical, safe JRPG stories (with one glaring exception being the final boss which I'll talk about later), and it touches on the issues of misogyny, labour, cancel culture, and the constant threat of fascism. Of course there's a limit to how much you can explore these themes without people labeling the game as being "too political", and I have some problems with how these were handled (like with how Ann, a victim of sexual harassment, is used as the obligatory "haha boobs" fanservice character). But overall, I truly appreciate how Persona 5 is not afraid to comment on these problems.

The story starts out really strong, but I feel that there are some major imbalances in the quality and pacing of it. I've already talked about how there's too much time between the palaces where nothing really happens, and then other times you just sit there and watch a 2 hour long cutscene. While Kaneshiro's story was a bit uninteresting, Futaba's was incredibly touching and well written. After that, Okumura's arc was just a big mess in every way possible (both in terms of gameplay, Haru's late introduction and Morgana's dumb, overexaggerated, bitchy mini-episode). And like I previously mentioned, the story builds up to this big interrogation with Sae, but after that, it just kind of falls flat. The game loses the focus on relatable, societal problems around the 7th and 8th palace when it turns out the big baddie was an evil god controlling everyone all along. Now, I know people love to point out that it's a tradition in the Persona franchise to fight a god with the power of friendship, but it really felt out of place in the more modern, grounded Persona 5. In my opinion, the main game should have ended with Shido as the final boss.

HOWEVER, the third semester made up for this, and delivered an ending that stuck with the game's core theme, all while rounding up the story in a meaningful, satisfying and emotional way. Although Kasumi felt kind of forced and tacked on throughout most of the game, she really shined in the third semester. Her story was very touching, and it fit very well into Maruki's, who by the way is my favourite antagonist in the game. And that's because a lot of the villains kind of blend together, since they're all just cartoonishly evil douchbags with no relatable qualities at all. That's not neccesarily bad, but Maruki was a breath of fresh air, and ultimately an amazing villain. His story posed the tried-and-true philosophical question of whether or not you would want to live in a world of eternal prosperity if it meant you had little free will. They also successfully expanded upon Akechi's character, and I never really liked the guy before the third semester. All in all, I'm very glad that I played Royal, since the original ending just wouldn't have done it for me.

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Persona 5 is an extremely character-focused game, and luckily, the characters often kept me going when I felt the most burned out. Firstly, the main character: Joker. I'm not typically a fan of silent, self-insert protagonists, but this is one of the better ones. Joker has a lot of voiced lines, and while the dialogue options were often pointless (like when I had the choice between saying "yes" and "of course"), he often has some snarky lines that were well worth sacrificing the extra confidant points for.

As for the rest of the characters, I personally found them to generally be well-written and interesting. The phantom thieves all lean heavily into anime tropes, but aside from Ryuji and Morgana's constant quarrels, I didn't really mind that. Their confidant stories are all very good, but as a team, it's often a hit or a miss. I would have liked more casual moments and events, instead of everything just constantly being about the phantom thieves. But aside from Ohya, Makoto and Kawakami, I found every confidant story to be engaging and moving in their own way, with my favourites being Yoshida, Iwai, Sojiro and Takemi. The characters were definitely one of the stronger aspects of Persona 5, at least in my opinion.


The Conclusion

Phew, I didn't expect this post to become this long. I apologise if I sounded overly critical, but the truth is that I thoroughly enjoyed Persona 5 Royal (otherwise I would never have played it for 140 hours). And in my experience, when I see people mention this game, it often just goes "best game ever , amazing graphics, amazing story, amazing combat etc". There's nothing wrong with loving the game – I do too – but I wanted to go into more details, since such an ambitious game like Persona 5 deserves that.

However, I'm not really sure if I want to play any of the older Persona games. They seem to gain just as much, if not more love than 5, but Persona is just such a massive and often exhausting time commitment. But who knows, maybe I'll check them out later. Nevertheless, thank you for taking the time to read my post.

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