Megami Tensei was first released in September of 1987, beginning what later became a collection of many spin-off series in the decades to follow: Devil Summoner, Shin Megami Tensei, Strange Journey, Digital Devil Saga, and most renowned, Persona.
The original titles, Persona and Persona 2: Innocent Sin, had a quiet following that kept the franchise under the radar for quite some time. When Persona 3 released on the PlayStation 2 in 2006, it broke out of its original isometric design and into the hearts of a larger audience, kickstarting an exceptionally successful run. The third and forth installments in the JRPG series both saw multiple releases Persona 3, Persona 3:FES, Persona 4, and Persona 4: Golden; followed by two arcade style fighters, Persona 4: Arena, and its follow up Persona 4:Arena Ultrimax. With plenty of content and enough fans of the series to justify all of these previous releases, it’s no wonder Persona 5 was so highly anticipated.
But was it worth the wait? With a Metacritic score of 93 it seems that most would believe so. Persona 5 is most certainly a worthy heir to the Persona name, but I strongly contest the reputation it earned.
Boot up your s***-posting keyboards, because here we go:
While the story’s premise is excellent and individual side stories are told wonderfully, the sum of its parts is subpar at best.
The premise of Persona 5 focuses around a group of high school students who are pulled into a cognitive world called the Metaverse. Here they discover the rebellious nature of their personalities, awakening their personas, figures from history and folklore that represent facets of the character’s personality, granting them access to magic. Led through the Metaverse by Morgana, a mysterious talking cat, this band of teens becomes known as The Phantom Thieves and set out to to steal the hearts of criminals, changing their behavior and making the world a better place.
The game is divided into several dungeons, each with its own storyline introducing a new playable character. These dungeons all represent how The Phantom Thieves’ targets have distorted perceptions of the world around them.
**Spoilers for the first dungeon ahead**
Focusing on Shujin Academy’s high school coach Kamoshida, who physically abuses under-performing male athletes, and sexually harasses the female athletes, the first dungeon gets right into the heart of darkness. Kamoshida’s students were so fearful of the repercussions of reporting this harassment that they remained silent about the abuses, only reaching a breaking point after a student attempted suicide by throwing themselves off the school’s roof in front of the rest of the student body.
Unsettled and enraged by events, The Phantom Thieves enter Kamoshida’s Palace (distorted world) to steal his heart in order to make him more empathetic and commit to his crimes.
Before I go on, let me first say how much I love this concept. I think it’s an incredible premise that takes situations that are all too plausible in reality, throws in some magic and determination, and turns a dark situation into a hopeful story of redemption. But that’s where I stop liking the story.
Each dungeon has its own story centralized around The Phantom Thieves’ target, how they ruined the lives of the newest playable character, and the playable character’s eventual rebellion against the target, discovering their own Persona’s ability. By the start of the second Palace, Persona 5‘s formula becomes evident, and it isn’t until the end game dungeons that the formula changes. It really makes for a predictable and boring experience. To top it off, I found the first dungeon to have the best story of them all, leaving it all downhill from there.
There’s an abundance of other plotlines to follow that water down the impact of the game. There are subplots with each Confidant (detailed later in gameplay), the quest to discover whether or not Morgana is a cat or human (yes, this is somehow a question that spans 100+ hours of gameplay), and a long, yet superficial, history to discover. While each can be interesting in their own right, the quality of Persona 5 suffers tremendously from simply having too much content.
Let me explain further.
As The Phantom Thieves steal the hearts of increasingly prolific villains, they gain public popularity through their Phan-Site, a fan forum created by a super-fan side character that ultimately has a large impact on the story. As the Phan-Site grows in popularity, so too grows the Phantom Thieves’ obsession with being recognized. With each successful mission, they seek greater fame and a more challenging target, all in the name of improving society. Mid-way through the game, it’s suggested that there are other forces at play, but it’s not until the climax that these forces reveal themselves, feeling too much like a deus ex machina.
There was little to drive me through the game except for my curious nature and desire to find a Palace that topped the first one. Even so, I felt that my intent to continue the game was clearer than the protagonists’ own intent to change the world. A large percentage of the game, perhaps four or five Palaces worth, felt more like a quest for fame and glory than a story worth my attention. The one redeeming factor was that as more of the population grew to believe in the existence of The Phantom Thieves, more areas of Mementos became available.
I’ve been putting off talking about Mementos until now because I find it so frustrating, but it can no longer be avoided. Like the villains’ Palaces, Mementos is a part of the cognitive world where strong perceptions and beliefs shape the physical existence of this alternate reality. While Palaces are areas of the world that are shaped by an individual’s distorted desires and perceptions of reality, Mementos is the representation of the collective population’s world view, thusly abstract and existing in one of the most traveled areas of a city: the subway. Mementos is a procedurally generated area that’s perfect for killing time, collecting new personas, and doing the typical JRPG level grinding.
But it does serve another purpose. The game is littered with opportunities to take requests that come in from the Phan-Site. These serve as side missions that are great opportunities to pick up some valuable experience, rare items, and force another lowlife to confess their crimes against humanity (usually some form of bullying).
What irks me about Mementos is how little purpose it serves to the story. It serves as little more than a method of providing side quests and an area to explore that’s more in line with traditional Persona architecture. Quite frankly, I gave it very little attention during my playthrough. It’s not until the endgame that its role in the story becomes clear. Lacking hints of Memento’s plot significance throughout 100+ hours of gameplay left me feeling like the writers simply needed to meet a deadline at the 11th hour of development.
Let’s move away from story and into gameplay now as we’re treading dangerously close to spoiler territory.
Persona 5‘s gameplay is divided into two primary sections: the real world, and the cognitive world.
The cognitive world is where all of the action takes place. Both Palaces and Mementos offer a huge variety of enemies, locations, and tools to discover. Unlike many other JRPGs, the enemies in Persona 5 appear in the environment, giving the option to fight or flee from most fights. However, just like any other heist, if you’re spotted, enemies will become alert to your presence and hunt you down. Your best strategy is to proceed with caution and ambush your opponent, giving you the upper hand in combat. Should your opponent ambush you, your party will become surrounded and you’ll have to wait for the enemy to give you a first strike smackdown before you can respond.
Even if you’re outnumbered, you can easily turn the tide of battle by learning your enemy’s elemental affinities and using their weakness to your advantage. Striking an enemy with an elemental attack that they are weak against will knock them down and give you an extra turn. The same strategy applies to physical attacks and critical hits. If all of the targets in your opponent’s party get knocked down, you have the chance for an “all out attack,” which will send your whole party rushing in at once to kick ‘em while they’re down, dealing massive damage. As you move through each new area, you’ll become familiar with the region’s set of enemies and fall into rhythm, becoming a repetitive pattern until the region’s boss area.
With the exception of the main protagonist, your self-named character, your party members only hold one persona that is exclusive to them. But as the player, you’re special. You can obtain more powerful personas throughout the game, varying your elemental affinities, and becoming a one man army. There are two ways to obtain new personas. The first is through talking to enemy Shadows and persuading them to join you as Personas. Instead of performing an all out attack against downed combatants, you can hold them at gun point and persuade them to join your cause. Your success depends on your character’s level, as well as how you choose to address the Shadow in a short series of dialogue options. The other method is referred to as The Velvet Room.
The Velvet Room is a location that only the main character can enter, or even see. Run by the mysterious warden, Igor, and his two jailers, you find yourself locked in a cell for the duration of your rehabilitation. Like Mementos, The Velvet Room has little story purpose until the climax with deus ex machina revelations that I find so loathsome. Though it’s here that you can manage your large collection of personas, a vital game mechanic. As you can only carry a set number of personas at a time, you can register them in a compendium to be summoned again at a later time. More importantly, you can fuse two of your existing personas together, creating a new persona with more powerful combat skills. Each persona falls into one of twelve tarot arcanas; lovers, hanged man, hermit, fool, etc. with an ultimate persona that sits atop each arcana hierarchy. Fusing several personas together in the latter half of the game will give you access to the real heavy hitters that will help you coast along.
But let’s not forget about the real world. Here’s where the game really falls short. Consisting of long dialogue scenes, high school classes, and plenty of impromptu naps that ran my playthrough clock to astronomical highs, these sections are long, repetitive and significantly slow plot progression.
Your success in the real world is pivotal to your progress in the cognitive world, so you can’t just write it off. Confidants impact the strength of your personas, social skills impact confidant relationships, and tasks such as studying, watching DVDs, and getting naked in a bathhouse with a bunch of old men impacts your social skills. Additionally, the game operates on a calendar system with certain confidants and events only being available on certain days of the week, forcing you to maintain an efficient schedule. While I can’t speak for you, dear reader, I certainly expect to have more game than professional time management in my JRPGs.
At the foundation of this tangled web of mundane tasks is the social skills, which is the first thing we’ll unpack. There are five social skills included in this game: Guts, Knowledge, Charm, Kindness, and Proficiency, each one with its own rewards. Knowledge can be gained by studying, answering classroom questions correctly, and reading about new subjects. Charm can be gained by reading certain books, seeing romantic movies, and relaxing in the bathhouse with older men on certain nights of the week. These social skills will allow you to form new relationships with side characters to enhance your performance in the cognitive world. For example, once you get your Kindness skill high enough, you can spend your after school free time building a relationship with the shyest party member, granting you EXP and stat bonuses to personas in a specific arcana. These stat bonuses are applied during Velvet Room fusions and are vital to success in Palaces and Mementos.
There’s plenty of content to discover, and while I do find that there’s no shortage of challenge for the completionist, Persona 5 sure does spend a lot of time talking down to the player of an M rated game. As if an ever present countdown clock wasn’t enough to keep you on track, confidants will constantly remind you that you shouldn’t be wasting time talking to them with a deadline coming up, even when boosting your confidant ranking is part of your strategy. Redundant conversations almost made me give up on this game halfway through. I told myself, “If one more person asks if the cat just spoke, I’m turning this off forever.” Sure enough, happened only a few moments later. I would have turned it off, but I had a review to write, so I begrudgingly continued anyway.
There are a lot of great things to be said about Persona 5‘s design so let’s start at the top and work our way down.
It’s rare to see menu design that is so heavily stylized, perfectly balancing chaotic appearance with intuitive usability. JRPGs often become monotonous as battles keep players scrolling through layers of options like office software, looking for the best selection. But something as simple as adding button hotkeys to the menu really does a great deal to increase the pace of battles. It takes little time to commit battle commands to muscle memory and slay your way through Mementos and the Palaces.
Combat variations and new options (Baton Pass, weakness scans, etc.) are regularly added to the menu without compromising the efficiency of the button commands or overcrowding the menus. Even in other great JRPGs, Lost Odyssey specifically, combat menus can get overwhelmingly crowded in the game’s late stages, but Persona 5‘s design foresight spares players the trouble of the end-game-scroll-blues that so many other JRPGs suffer from.
Side note: the menu inspired more memes and cosplay than the characters did.
The voice work in the franchise has always been fairly solid. But Persona 5 has some inconsistencies for sure. Where the protagonist, your character, is primarily silent, he is given a voice in a couple of the anime cutscenes, highlighting a grossly missed opportunity of voicing the character throughout the full game.
Color schemes have always been a defining design characteristic in the Persona franchise. The 3rd game was largely designed around muted, almost smog-like greens, against crimson reds; a brilliantly effective way to suggest a dark and violent mystery. Menus were blue, working as a good contrast to separate from the rest of the color palette, without compromising the melancholy theme of fastball apathy. The 4th game consisted primarily of black and yellow (cue music), and an assortment of other overly saturated accent colors. I’m lead to believe by circumstantial evidence that the color palette was chosen in reference to technicolor television, as the game takes place in a world found inside your tv screen.
But Persona 5‘s color choice of red and black, feels a bit too on-the-nose for my tastes. Rebellion is an overarching theme from start to finish, and the palette reminds me a little too much of the typical punk rock anarchist movement. While the gameplay focuses around heists better compared to a classic caper, I sense a missed opportunity to insert some class into what is otherwise an angsty design.
I have saved my favorite part of the game for last. It was really the only thing that kept me writing this long. If you would please provide a drumroll, because it doesn’t get better (or worse) than this.
The design of the personas is genius. As someone who is fascinated by world religions, myths, and folklore, it’s fascinating to see so many recognizable figures make appearances with so many creative interpretations of their design. One of my favorites is Dionysus.
For those who aren’t familiar, Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, fertility, and theater. He’s known for being a bit of a party animal, and bestowing Midas with the ability to turn anything he touched into gold. So why is this Greek god colored so strangely? Well, that’s what alcohol looks like under a microscope. For reference, here’s a picture of rum:
However, there are a few, less than great designs in the game. For example, there’s Mara. Mara is a demon of seduction in Buddhism. But I’d like you to meet the Mara of Persona 5, aka the “throbbing king of desire.”
In case you were wondering, yes, that is a giant penis. Also, it goes flaccid when its health is low. Thanks Persona, it’s been a very long and…. unusual ride.