Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Release Date: September 15, 2016 (Japan), April 4, 2017
Publisher: Atlus, Deep Silver (EU)
Genre: Role-Playing, Social Simulator
After numerous delays and a general lack of communication from Atlus, we have finally arrived. Four years after its initial release date and the world outside of Japan finally gets their hands on the elusive Shin Megami Tensei game: Persona 5. Can it hold up to the expectations it's generated? Let's take a look!
Before we begin, it's worth noting that Atlus veterans Katsura Hashino, Shoji Meguro, Yujiro Kosaka, and Shigenori Soejima all reprise their production roles from previous Persona titles, giving the game a strong starting point, with regard to maintaining the quality of its predecessors.
Persona 5 starts with what is seemingly the end of its story. The hero, a nameless proxy for the audience, is being pursued throughout a casino by a group of men in black suits. He makes his way to a balcony, only to be confronted by one of his pursuers. The man's body collapses into a red and black mist, giving way to a Minotaur-esque creature. The two begin to fight, but the hero summons a similar mystical being and quickly dispatches the monster with his own. Continuing on his escape route, after crashing through a plate glass window in the most stylish way possible, he is suddenly surrounded by police officers, and quickly arrested.
A Thief's End
After his apprehension, he is informed by a cocky investigator that he was sold out by a member of his own team. Soon thereafter he is placed in a secluded room until, eventually, a prosecutor arrives to interrogate him. This becomes a primary storytelling mechanism for the majority of the game, as the protagonist explains the details of his crimes as one of the Phantom Thieves: a group of vigilantes aiming to change the hearts of ne'er-do-wells.
As he begins spinning his tale, we quickly discover that he is a student and one on probation at that. An assault case in his hometown forced him to leave his previous school and begin anew at Shujin Academy, who agreed to take in the troubled student. On the first day of school, he and another student make their way to the building itself, only to discover that it has taken a mysterious new form...
If you haven't previously ventured through a game from this series, the early goings might raise your eyebrows. It's important to realize that Persona 5 is slow by design. It is essentially part social simulator, part role-playing game, with heavy visual novel influences. You should be prepared for a lot of exposition and a lot of dialogue.
Most of Persona 5's gameplay involves living out the protagonist's daily life in the way that you choose. Attending school is a necessity, as an education is important, but beyond that, you're usually free to do as you will. Time is limited, so you can really only partake in two activities a day; one in the afternoon and one in the evening. You can use that spare time to study, watch movies, or play games. These activities help to increase your attributes, something that plays into the game's most prominent time sink: your social links, a form of relationship value that increases as you continue interacting with other characters. As such, many would-be side characters are given far more development than one would expect, becoming meaningful characters with intricate backstories and personalities. As you learn more about your confidants, you unlock various abilities, many of which will help you during your thieving exploits.
Dungeoneering is still a large part of the Persona experience, and in the fifth game, it has received somewhat of an overhaul. In this entry, dungeons have gained more verticality, leading to a linear 'platforming' element. This persuades the player to use another new mechanic: stealth. Here, you'll learn that patience is an essential part of the game. As you venture through each area, you are presented with the opportunity to attack an enemy from above or behind, giving you the advantage in battle. Unlike previous titles, attacking from behind is encouraged almost to a fault. Your party is far weaker than they were in past games, meaning any encounter that doesn't begin with an advantage is an extra hurdle.
The Art of the Steal
For the uninitiated, Persona's battle system is a very modernized take on traditional ideas. It's turn based combat done to an incredible degree of adequacy. You search for an enemies weakness, and you exploit it to take them out faster. Where its gameplay truly excels is in the primary boss battles. It's a quality over quantity proposition; there aren't a lot of them, but each is memorable and exciting, all including their own twists to keep things interesting.
The battle system remains largely unchanged from that of Persona 4, but there have been a few changes to the formula. These include the addition of a ranged weapon for each party member, and Baton Pass, a mechanic which allows a character to pass their turn to a teammate after hitting a weakness. This easily allows your team to drop all of your enemies, should you have the necessary information. Once they're knocked down, you can go for an All-Out Attack, which is essentially a large burst of damage against all enemies, or you can choose to take advantage of a long dormant, returning mechanic: negotiation. The prominent feature of the mainline Shin Megami Tensei titles returns to the Persona series for the first time since Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. With it, the player is given the ability to talk to the demons. The primary uses are asking them for one of three things: money, items or attempting to persuade them to join the leader's arsenal of Personas.
Maintaining a trend established with the previous games, Shoji Meguro's score focuses on a particular music genre. Persona 3 had a great hip-hop influence, whereas Persona 4 switched to a slick pop style. This time around, he chose to focus on Acid Jazz, which is certainly less broad than the other two categories. To be perfectly blunt, the game's soundtrack is a massive disappointment. I don't think the problem lies with the quality, but instead with each track's originality. Ultimately, there are fewer tracks that stick out among the bunch. The vibrant sounds that were so prominent in the previous titles haven't returned in full force for this entry, leaving us with a mostly forgettable library where only a few gems shine through.
Sounds of Rebellion
On the other side of the game's sound department, the voice cast turns in very respectable performances. The English cast includes several prominent modern voice actors, including Matthew Mercer (Final Fantasy XV, Sailor Moon), Cherami Leigh (Shakugan no Shana, Fairy Tail) and Jamieson Price (Dynasty Warriors, Dragon Ball Z), among others. Veterans of the series will notice a myriad of returning favorites hiding away during their daily activities. If you'd prefer the dialogue in its' original form, you're in luck, as Atlus has released a free add-on allowing English-speaking players to switch to the Japanese cast and vice versa.
Persona 5 is a game that oozes charisma; from the screenshots alone, you can tell you're on to something special. Every moment you spend with the game is a visual symphony. Sleek costume designs, combined with bright colors and similarly vibrant personalities make every moment an interesting experience. The monsters from the shared Shin Megami Tensei universe are rendered in the highest quality to date and look phenomenal. Hand drawn anime cut-scenes accompany the game, and sometimes rival those seen in Persona 3's feature films.
Back in Black (and Red!)
In ClosingSimply put, I believe Persona 5 to be the best game on the PlayStation 4. While its plodding pace may occasionally be tough to weather, if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with a rock solid gameplay experience, buoyed by some of the most interesting characters in franchise history and by association what is perhaps the best set of social links yet. My only major disappointment came from the soundtrack, and that was due in part to my immense expectations for it. Sometimes, it re-treads over ground previously explored by Persona 3, but those instances are mostly incidental by the conclusion of the game. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does introduce some changes that will serve the series better in the future. If you like role-playing games, Persona 5 is a must.
Time Spent: 123 hours, 43 minutes.Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable)
Further Playing - Persona Edition
I've finished Persona 3 seven times. It is one of my favorite games ever made, if not number one. It also happens to have, what I consider to be the best video game soundtrack of all time. The hip-hop style provides for some of the most memorable tracks in franchise history. I won't get into it specifically for spoiler reasons, but I will also note that this game has the most satisfying final boss fight that I've ever encountered.
I recommend Persona 3 Portable as my version of choice. It includes a female protagonist option, which I view as the most fulfilling way to experience the game, due to her superior social links, but if you insist on playing the PlayStation 2 version, be sure to check out Persona 3 FES instead of the original. It includes a new story, one that takes place after the first journey, and it only improves on the original experience. It's a major value add as well, as the side story that's included it can provide an additional 30 hours of gameplay that isn't available in the other releases.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PlayStation 2, PlayStation Vita)
For all the gripes that I've expressed about it over the years, Persona 4 is still a really good role-playing game, I don't like it as much as its predecessor, but it has some things going for it. The soundtrack gives the one heard in Persona 3 a run for its money, with a light pop styling as it's primary theme. This has the lightest tone of the Persona games by far, which is odd considering some of its plot points. I haven't personally played Persona 4 Golden, but all indications point to it as the superior version, so if it's available to you, that seems like your best bet.
Catherine (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 - Xbox One)
I'm packaging Catherine in with my Persona themed recommendations, as the game was development was lead by the key members of 'team Persona'. It also shares some similar themes. The writing is top-notch, and a great deal of thought went into the characters interactions with one another. Compelling does not even begin to describe the story. Its gameplay might not appeal to everyone, as it is an incredibly unique puzzle game, almost to a fault, but that didn't stop it from becoming one of my favorite titles.