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