Persona 5, the biggest JRPG release of 2017, has been out for weeks. Clear of the game’s launch hype, is it deserving of stealing the public’s heart or is it merely a bombastic masked pretender that needs exposing?
Art design is aces
Bold red, black, and white serve as its visual foundation. This arresting palette kip-ups to life and sweeps you off your feet with the gentleman thief/punk rock/latex fetish design of the main cast. It bumps and bounces in the menus, shaking up the UI when you button through. All-out attacks culminate in wallpaper-worthy graphics, and it’s never not satisfying.
There’s elegance to every transition. From winning battles to navigating between areas, the colors slink and slide across the screen, and you can’t help but smile at every context-sensitive swipe of the display.
Pressing O or X to cancel or confirm actions gives a satisfying squee. That precision glass shatter of a critical hit jolts of excitement. Every gunshot crackles staccato.
Series composer Shoji Meguro matches the rebel imagery with a super-slick soundtrack. The music effortlessly switches from sweeping jazzy strings and keys to grinding hard guitar riffs, all the while riding funky bass licks and finger-snapping percussion.
Criminally good opening animation:
Rebellious spirit restricted
It’s technically not part of Persona 5’s overall design, and I wrote about it in an earlier article, but the irrationality of Atlus in restricting capturing footage of the game bears repeating. I enjoy archiving my playthroughs on the PS4 with screenshots and videos. Atlus denies me and millions of other players that simple pleasure of keeping our own memories of an enjoyable experience. It’s harsh and petty, and I pray that future installments aren’t shackled by this backwards mentality.
Atlus has softened its stance on streaming since the game’s release, but the restrictions on the sharing features of the PS4 still stand.
Persona 4 took on the issue of gender identity head on with two of its main characters, shining a light on the struggles teens go through when reconciling their sexuality with society’s expectations on masculinity and femininity. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it had some nuance.
Persona 5’s “contribution” to the issue? A homophobic scene showing an age old stereotype of gay men as predatory pedophiles played solely for laughs. It’s one moment in a 100+ hour journey, and that might make it easy for some to wave off, but it only stands out even more to me as an inexcusable stain on an otherwise inspiring epic adventure of resistance.
Heavy topics done halfway right
While previous titles focused on personal turmoil, this latest entry serves up larger social issues like institutionalized abuse, labor exploitation, and political corruption for the good guys to take down.
It’s admirable and reflective of the large-scale “wokeness” we’re seeing in the youth now, but the shonen anime trappings, which Persona 5 indulges a little too much in, hamper the serious messages with long-winded exposition and, at times, clunky English translations from the original Japanese text. The always impressive voice acting performances do manage to carry most scenes, but not all of them.
The old-school, turn-based battles are now layered with shooting, enemy negotiation, and more team synergy that allow you to combo more attacks for quicker ends to fights. The year-long slice of high school life where you bond with schoolmates and strangers is as rewarding as ever with its weird, wacky, and intimate tales, while also being more exploratory as you can hang out with your friends all over Tokyo, too.
The most significant improvement is in the dungeons, or as the game calls them, the Palaces, that your gang of Phantom Thieves have to infiltrate and steal the treasures within to overcome the main antagonists. Each one is a fantastical psychological tableau that comes alive through unique puzzles and ways of navigation. What felt like a chore in the earlier Personas plays like a dream in Persona 5.
That is until you hit the last couple of areas that feel like they just go on forever for no reason other than to pad length and difficulty, which is especially egregious in the last couple of dungeons.
Supreme style and stunted substance
If you’re up for committing around 70 to 120 hours to complete one game, I do think Persona 5 is worth the time for its cool creativity, thematic ambitions, and irresistible gameplay hooks. Just steel your heart for the obnoxious narrative failings, and don’t expect to have much of a shared experience with your friends.