Per­sona 5



And we thought western games were made to tem­plates. Per­sona 5 marches to the beat of a prac­ti­cally iden­ti­cal drum as Per­sona 4, which in turn was struc­turally in­dis­tin­guish­able from Per­sona 3. This, in fair­ness, is a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of set­ting a game across the span of the aca­demic year; each new in­stal­ment can­not help but hit the same beats – the fear of be­ing the new kid, the dread of be­ing called on in class, the panic of ex­ams, the ec­static re­lease of hol­i­days and fes­ti­vals – as the game that came be­fore it. If it’s in­tended as com­men­tary on the stoic rhythm so­ci­ety im­poses on the young, then fair enough, but it also re­moves much of the game’s abil­ity to sur­prise you.

Still, within that frame­work are plenty of vari­a­tions on the Per­sona theme, though some will sim­ply evoke a dif­fer­ent twinge of déjà vu. If you’ve played bizarre J-pop cross­over Tokyo Mi­rage Ses­sions #FE you’ll not be sur­prised to learn that Per­sona 5 con­tin­ues that game’s theme of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with dun­geon de­sign; gone are Per­sona 4’ s drab end­less cor­ri­dors, re­placed with multi-lay­ered puz­zle dun­geons (styled as ‘palaces’), each built around a dif­fer­ent cen­tral me­chanic. None of it is par­tic­u­larly tax­ing – as be­fore, sim­ply cov­er­ing all avail­able ground on each floor will lead you to the so­lu­tion – but there is, at least, more to think about than sim­ply find­ing the stair­case to the next area.

The story casts the cen­tral group as the Phantom Thieves and, as that name im­plies, there’s a heavy em­pha­sis on stealth. A new cover sys­tem is an es­sen­tial tool; en­e­mies pa­trol set paths, and am­bush­ing them from out of sight lets your party draw first blood in the turn-based bat­tle that fol­lows. If you’re spot­ted, the en­emy force goes first, and the palace’s se­cu­rity level raises, in­creas­ing the num­ber of guards on pa­trol. The re­sult is a slower pace to dun­geon crawl­ing than we’ve come to ex­pect from the se­ries; there’s a dash but­ton, but you’ll rarely feel like us­ing it.

As in pre­vi­ous in­stal­ments, the key to a bat­tle is iden­ti­fy­ing an en­emy’s el­e­men­tal weak­ness, since hit­ting them where it most hurts knocks them to the floor, let­ting you at­tack again. Put the en­tire en­emy party down, and you can un­leash an All-Out At­tack, where your group piles on to deal heavy dam­age. It’s a smart way of sub­vert­ing the nor­mal rhythm of turn­based com­bat, and means many bat­tles against the rank and file are over be­fore they can even take a turn. Yet here, there’s a twist; put an en­tire group on the floor and, in­stead of sim­ply smash­ing them to pieces, you can en­ter a ne­go­ti­a­tion. Through a se­ries of mul­ti­ple-choice dia­logue ex­changes, you can ex­tort cash or an item, or re­cruit a foe to join your cause as a per­sona, giv­ing the main char­ac­ter more abil­i­ties in bat­tle. There’s a trade­off, of course: you’ll get less XP for not killing them, and if you fail to im­press in the con­ver­sa­tion, you may get noth­ing at all.

Yet it’s a fine twist on the for­mula that fits with the tone of the game. You are, af­ter all, a band of thieves, in­fil­trat­ing the dis­torted mind palaces of a se­ries of ne’er-do-wells, de­feat­ing their fi­nal form and steal­ing a trea­sure that, in the real world, causes them to have a change of heart and con­fess their sins. Whereas Per­sona 4 was about a group of kids de­feat­ing their per­sonal demons, be­com­ing stronger and kinder, Per­sona 5 fo­cuses on the rebel spirit. Every mem­ber of your steadily ex­pand­ing party strug­gles with their oth­er­ness, with the way they don’t fit in. A track star who’s been cast out by his team­mates; a half-Ja­panese girl with blonde hair; a school president who’s closer to the staff than she is her class­mates. It’s an ef­fec­tive theme for a game about high-school kids, to whom con­form­ity is ev­ery­thing. A creep­ing sub­text about the im­por­tance of a sta­ble fam­ily life – most of the group have lost at least one par­ent, be that to death, di­vorce or the de­mands of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness – is less suc­cess­ful, mak­ing a stuffily old-fash­ioned point about the nu­clear fam­ily that seems at odds with the game’s at­tempt to cel­e­brate, rather than de­mean, those who stand out from the crowd. Still, it brings the group to­gether and, as is tra­di­tion, as the party grows in num­ber, so its mem­bers grow in self-con­fi­dence and strength.

That strength helps in com­bat, of course, but for all the changes on the field of bat­tle, Per­sona 5, like its pre­de­ces­sors, shines in its qui­eter mo­ments. Away from the meta­verse, back in the real world the ob­sta­cles of real teenage life must also be nav­i­gated. As ever, your every ac­tiv­ity raises one stat or an­other. Hang­ing out with a friend strength­ens the bond be­tween you, let­ting you cre­ate more pow­er­ful per­sonas. Study­ing raises your Knowl­edge stat, the bonus dou­bled if it’s rain­ing out­side, since it helps you fo­cus on your work. Do so in a diner, and you’ll raise other stats de­pend­ing on what you or­der: choose cof­fee and your Guts will rise, in recog­ni­tion of the chutz­pah it takes to sit in a booth by your­self and drink free re­fills all evening. Ev­ery­thing has value, and there’s a won­der­ful free­dom to the hand­ful of days it takes for a tar­get to change their ways af­ter you clear out a dun­geon – when, with no pres­sure, you’re free to do as you please, hang­ing out with friends across a steadily ex­pand­ing map of Tokyo.

The fo­cus on the re­bel­lious, non-con­form­ist side of youth has its drawbacks, but means Per­sona 5 is some­thing to which its pre­de­ces­sors could never lay claim. It is, sim­ply put, cool. Ev­ery­thing, from the in­tro movie’s disco house to the bat­tle-mode cut­aways and even the ba­sic UI, is achingly, con­fi­dently stylish. Crim­i­nally, the DualShock 4’s Share but­ton func­tion­al­ity is blocked for the du­ra­tion, but this is one of few true blem­ishes on a game that, while at times a bit too fa­mil­iar, never comes close to breed­ing con­tempt.

Put an en­tire group on the floor and, in­stead of sim­ply smash­ing them to pieces, you can en­ter a ne­go­ti­a­tion

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