It’s here: the ultimate game for the PlayStation 3 and 4, the one all other role-playing games must aspire to be. “Persona 5” is big, it’s sprawling, it’s glorious and it’s as close to a masterpiece as any game I’ve ever played.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so drawn in, so into a game that I wanted to spend all my waking hours just figuring out what comes next. For those fans who waited the eight years from the release of “Persona 4” (all the way back on the PS2!), it’s more than worth the wait; for those just starting, it’s as good a place as any to get into the most unique and beloved RPG series around. If you own a PS4 (or even a PS3), you must own this game.
“Persona 5” opens with a bang as your character — known as Joker — runs through a casino, narrowly escaping guards before being captured by the police. From here, the story flashes back to the beginning of March of some futuristic year, as your unnamed protagonist is sent from his rural home to Tokyo in the wake of an arrest after stopping a violent assault.
He’s not even started school before he finds a mysterious app on his phone and discovers the Metaverse: an entire alternate universe born out of the distorted desires of adults. With the help of his friends (and a talking cat named Morgana), they decide to become the Phantom Thieves, reforming society through stealing the hearts of adults they find unjust and cruel, all while keeping a low profile and being a normal high school student.
As has become the series staple, “Persona 5” is really more like two games in one; for most of the in-game calendar year you’ll be attending classes, after which you can choose to spend time with friends, take on a part-time job or try one of the many different activities around Tokyo. Most of your time will probably be spent with the Confidants, a revamp of the “Social Link” system present in “3” and “4.”
The basic idea is that you spend time with certain side characters after school and on the weekends, which function as side plots. Spend enough time with them and they rank up, which gives you a huge bonus to fusing Personas (more on those later).
As befitting a thief, spending time with Confidants provides you with bonuses and extra skills to take with you into battle. For example: spending time with your teammates allows you to unlock battle skills like follow up attacks, spending time with a politician can strengthen your speaking skills and in turn give you a leg up in negotiations, etc.
Further complicating this arrangement are the social stats you’ll need to level up outside of all this in order to talk to some of them, meaning you’ll have to spend precious time reading books to level up knowledge or taking a Burger challenge to rank up guts. Ironically, you’ll have to manage your time just right in order to get the most out of the game and make battles as easy as possible.
At several key points, you’ll also be donning masks and journeying to the “Palace” realm, which houses the dungeons for each target. The most welcome and recognizable change to veterans of the series will be the Palaces, which are hand-crafted with a different environment, enemy (“Shadows,” as the game calls them) and chest as opposed to the randomly-generated endless hallways of previous entries.
In addition, “5” introduces stealth to the mix by allowing the player to take cover and ambush enemies when they get close. The changes are welcome and serve to break up the monotony, even if the camera at times is a little stiff and it feels too locked in for a specific vantage point. Randomly generated dungeons still do exist in the form of “Mementos,” but it’s relegated mostly to side quests and grinding on your off days.
Successfully ambush an enemy, and you’ll be thrown into a turn based battlefield similar to most japanese role-playing games. The core of these fights revolve around a Persona, which can be thought of a little like Pokemon, except instead of monsters you fight using demons, mythological gods, historical figures and more.
Whereas in the past, Personas were gained through a series of cards to choose from at the end of battle, in “5,” knocking down all Shadows initiates a hold up, from which you can talk to Shadows and convince them to join your team. Every Shadow has a unique way of talking as well: you may have to flirt with a Pixie in order to flatter her or soothe, an old man on a horse (Berith) who rants about the “kids these days.” Even if you fail it’s still enjoyable just to see what they’ll say to you.
Developer Atlus has been sorely missed by the previous generation of gamers: the last new game they released was 2011’s relationship-focused puzzle game “Catherine” — in which you play as a man cheating on his girlfriend while being plagued by mysterious nightmares. The year 2013 brought an expanded edition of “Persona 4” to the mistreated PlayStation Vita, as well as an entry in the “Shin Megami Tensei” series (of which “Persona” is a spin-off).
It takes only one look at it to see what they’ve been doing with all that time. This game looks fantastic: from the text that flashes during battles and around the world, to the seamless transitions between different areas (silhouettes of people riding a train or walking on, the main character dropping down before running off), even the menus are dripping with style. I cannot stress enough just how good this game looks, it’s truly the most stylish thing on the market.
Perfectly complementing these visuals is the insanely catchy soundtrack provided by series composer Shoji Meguro. From the melancholy trip-hop in the night to the upbeat daytime tracks and the unique songs for each dungeon, everything matches the mood perfectly and provides the perfect background for a thief.
This isn’t to say there aren’t definite flaws: one of the most frustrating elements are the fact that despite having an overall theme of rebellion and breaking free of societal norms, the only two characters explicitly coded as gay are stereotypes who only show up twice, both times to freak out the protagonist and his friends. They aren’t written as hateful so much as lazy and ignorant, and it’s especially disappointing in light of the way “4” handled the themes of teenage sexuality. In spite of this, the rest of the story and game are so well polished that they seem to be a minor drop in the bucket compared to the wealth of content offered throughout.
“Persona 5” stole my heart, and all of my free time. I can’t remember the last time I was this obsessed with a game, frustrating deaths and all. Every single moment I could I wanted to run back and find out what happened next. I have the battle theme constantly stuck in my head; even right now, as I write this, I’m listening to the soundtrack. Atlus has outdone themselves, creating a true masterpiece of a game, one that ranks as the best of the decade and the best RPG on the PS4.
Finally, coming to the end left me dazed and empty in a good way, like I’d finished a long book and had to say goodbye to the characters I’d met along the way. I get fired up just thinking about running through a Palace to steal treasure while the guitars shred over my TV. This is a game you should not miss even one second of, the standard to which all other JRPGs will be held to. There will likely never be another game like this, at least until “Persona 6” comes out. If the pictures and these words won’t convince you, then that’s your loss.