Persona 5 – Refined to Near Perfection

The wait for Persona 5 was long. I still remember asking myself how the sequel to Persona 4 would turn out, and whether it would arrive in the next two or three years following that game. Turns out I’d have to wait nearly a decade, and the wait was well worth it.

This isn’t a traditional review. I’m no good at writing those. This is merely one gamer’s blog on why I liked Persona 5, what I didn’t like about the game, and how overall it hopes to stand against my existing Top 5 Games of All Time.

Both its predecessors suffered from the same issues at the onset of the journey: long periods of build-up before we are allowed to dive headfirst into the combat of the game. P3 was especially bad about this, while P4 made an effort to hasten the process. P5 starts with the aftermath of a casino heist, letting you taste the movement, combat and stealth mechanics a bit before going back to the usual build-up. At first I thought I’d be in for a few days of regular school life before being allowed to get back into the combat, but P5 throws you right into the meat of the game from your very first day of school.

And that’s what I think P5’s greatest strength is. The story moves along at a brisk pace, rarely slowing down so much that you question “when will I get back to the Metaverse?”

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have periods of complete inactivity. Every single story milestone is buffered with a week or so of story cutscenes that severely limit your daily activity. At first this really upset me, as I felt that time was slipping away which I could be using to talk to my social links or beef up my character’s persona stats. But as the game progressed, I realized that there would be enough time to do everything in a single run if I so desired, even if I chose not to in favor of a New Game Plus run.

So by the end of the first palace you fall into a routine. A week or so of build-up that leads to the discovery of the next palace, about three weeks to tackle that palace and enjoy your school life, a few days to watch the efforts of your spelunking pay out, and repeat. Written out in this fashion, it’s easy to label the game as repetitive and dismiss it.

Persona 4 did something just like this, held together by its cast of characters who were just happy to hang around each other. Persona 5’s cast is just as tight-knit, this time bound by a shared distrust or outright hatred of the injustices they witness on a daily basis. It’s a bit on the nose how they blame “adults” for all the problems, rather than people in general, but it could just be me being one of the very same adults these high school kids distrust. I can’t exactly fault the story for viewing the world through the eyes of teenagers.

What I am at odds with is the framing of the plot. It begins with the aftermath of a casino heist that results in the capture of the main character (hereafter referred to as Akira Kurusu, the name I borrowed from the official manga adaptation). The story plays out in flashback as he’s interrogated by public prosecutor Sae Niijima, and it cuts back to this interrogation after every major plot development. Not a bad approach, but the fact that Niijima lays out the target for we the audience before every flashback  dulls the impact a bit. We the audience know ahead of time who the party will be targeting next, rendering a lot of the build-up to the heist superfluous if not outright frustrating. A better approach would have been to cut back to the interrogation after we unlock the palace, so that Niijima could reveal the folder with the target’s picture.

This is ultimately a minor issue, as the only time this approach makes the story feel contrived is with the second palace. The lead in to each new palace feels natural overall, just a group of kids that shift from one target to the next with no real semblance of design outside chance. This ultimately pays off with the fifth and sixth palaces, which turn out to be traps for the party that tie into the interrogation we’ve been viewing since the outset of the game.

Which takes us into the palaces and combat of the game proper.

Gone are the series “staples” of randomly generated dungeon fare. Except for Mementos, but we’ll discuss that later. Now, each palace is designed with forward progression in mind, feeling more robust and worthwhile as a result. The downside here is that each dungeon also feels much shorter than those found in P4, but one could easily make the argument that P4’s dungeons weren’t long so much as they were just padded and tedious. Hand crafted palaces are also a necessity given the stealth approach to exploration P5 has donned. The party act as thieves in the night, so sneaking around demands something other than randomly generated dungeons. It’s also quite thrilling to sneak up on shadows, and the animation of Akira ripping the shadow’s mask off to reveal the demons within never gets old.

Mementos, which acts a lot like Tartarus from P3, shows just how poor the randomly generated approach feels compared to palaces. Its place in P5 is central to an endgame story development, but also acts as the player’s means to grind for EXP or cash as revisiting palaces becomes impossible after completing them.

The streamlined combat is also a welcome change from previous games, assigning actions to specific buttons as to save the player a press or two here and there. Over time this equates to tens of thousands of button presses so its quite a welcome feature. The far more powerful hardware also allows the combat to look far more stylish than its predecessors, and Atlus poured lots of time and effort into the little details. From transitions to loading screens, everything oozes style and production value, to the point that it’ll be hard to ever go back to P3 or P4 and feel impressed ever again.

Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to slip up for me. While the return of demons as foes is welcome, as is the negotiation aspect from P1, P2 and the main series Shin Megami Tensei, the game overall feels considerably easier than its predecessors. P4 was notorious for its first main boss being a brick wall many inexperienced players ran into head first, so I was honestly expecting that with P5. While the first palace (a castle) is oddly similar to P4, it was much harder than P4 at first. But the boss turned out to be a pushover, and after that point the game never quite reached that same level of challenge again. Part of it stems from lack of options and resources which nags at you throughout the first palace, but becomes a non-issue after that. With the exception of the second palace’s boss, the challenge remains low until you reach the (faux) final palace towards the end of the game. And this was on Hard Mode.

At this point I’ll be discussing the end of the game. There will be spoilers, lots of them, so DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT if you haven’t seen the true end. You have been warned.

Long story short: great game, best of the bunch, but it had a few hiccups toward the end.

STORY SPOILERS INBOUND DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT

That’s not the only places where the game starts to falter towards the end. The story ramps up well throughout the game, but by the time you’re about to enter the true final dungeon, the plot is derailed as you seek to do battle with a surprise antagonist that is responsible for everything. This isn’t unlike P4’s final moments, which reveal that the mysterious gas station attendant was responsible for giving the protagonist and antagonist their Persona powers. The reveal of Igor as the god Yaldabaoth, who set up the whole game as an experiment of sorts for his own amusement, has punch. While I’ve heard it said that it was obvious given the drastic change in voice, I never once questioned Igor on the simple premise that his voice was changed due to the passing of the original Japanese voice actor. I figured changing the voice even in English to match the new Japanese one was a sign of respect. That they’d use it for a plot critical reason was brilliant, to say the least.

For the less savvy, I figure the only tip off Igor wasn’t the real Igor is that he calls the Velvet Room his, which the original Igor never does.

This is the good part of the ending, mind you. The bad part is that we never get a true resolution to the Metaverse abusers. Following the change of heart in Shido, who’s treated as the big bad, we hear that his conspirators know of a way to use the Metaverse to sway public opinion. This is never followed up on, and we jump right into the conflict with Yaldabaoth as the party decide– rather hastily– to erase the Metaverse completely. I get the reasoning behind this choice, but given the small timeframe of events here, it feels rushed. Mere days after the change of heart in Shido, you’re thrown into Mementos, expected to finish the dungeon, and without a chance to breathe or replenish supplies expected to tackle the final dungeon. All in the span of a single day. Considering the wealth of time you’re given to prepare for every other dungeon, this screams rushed and is quite a shame. P3 was given until January 31 to finish its plot, and P5 demands it be completed before Christmas.

That’s not to say you won’t have time to finish everything, but considering how robust the rest of the story was, this is quite a letdown. Even if the surprise revelation is well-delivered.

All in all, Persona 5 was fantastic. I played through it twice essentially, and loved every minute of my 160 hour romp. I’ll gladly go back for a third run, and soon. If I could stomach P3 nine times, and P4 five times, surely this considerably greater journey could hold up for three.

And that was a rushed end to this discussion. Sucks, doesn’t it?

Persona 5 – Refined to Near Perfection