Thursday, December 28, 2017

Persona 5 - Thoughts

The best thing about the Persona series is that it's an amalgamation of great ideas: it's one part dungeon crawler, one part visual novel, one part management sim, and one part animal breeder. These parts don't operate in isolation either; the bonds you form with friends boost the power of the personas you merge, and the personas you merge can make dungeon crawling significantly easier. The Persona games—at least the last three—are fairly long too (+80 hours), meaning that you'll have to carefully balance all of these aspects together if you want to see the story through. This is especially true given the difficulty of the series, where exploiting weaknesses allows you (or your opponents) to strike again, often dealing a killing blow.

Persona 5 proudly continues in the tradition of its ancestors. It's the biggest, most stylish entry into the franchise yet, and the standalone story makes it a fantastic entry point for fans new to the universe. I played a good chunk of Persona 3 years ago, but this is the first Persona I've played to completion, and I'm already hungry for more. Not necessarily more Persona 5 per se—my stomach is still distended from the wealth of content I chewed through—but the Persona formula in general has the most delicious loop I've experienced in a long while, and it's safe to say I've become a fan of the series.

There's such an enormous breadth of content to discuss here that in no way can I possibly do justice to the number of intriguing threads Persona 5 holds. Somewhat unexpectedly, I going to heap praise first and foremost on how stupid-good the UI looks. It's easy to view HUDs as a means of conveying information instead of a framing device, but Persona 5 flaunts its style constantly, invigorating your indomitable spirit through the vibrant colors and animations in its menu. It's a good thing the UI is sexy as all get out too, since you'll be interacting with it constantly over the hefty adventure. A couple improvements could be made to streamline the menus further—like offering a quick way to peek at the abilities of your allies' personas—but I'm so damned charmed by the game's aesthetic that any inconveniences are easily overlooked.

This holds true for the music as well; a number of tunes will see exhaustive use throughout your journey, but the soundtrack is so vivacious and passionate that it's hard to get sick of any of the tracks. No matter how many times I heard Layer Cake, Blooming Villain, or Mementos, I was helplessly tapping my foot as soon as the music kicked in. Even the battle theme Last Surprise—which will play thousands of times mind you—continues to thrill every time the chorus takes off, especially whenever it coincides with you mopping up your opposition. While we tend to think of story and stat progression as the central staples of an RPG, I'd contest that the soundtrack can be just as important; part of the reason why classic JRPGs are remembered so fondly is because how quickly hearing a melody can immediately transport you to its world.

The UI, animations, music, and general mood of the game are all critical because of how much they distinguish Persona from its contemporaries. Similar to Earthbound, there's very little like it out there, even if it has commonplace themes like "fighting against authority" and "realizing the power of friendship". Persona 5 isn't really a revolutionary game but it's certainly a rebellious one, changing up a number of familiar RPG aspects in order to get you out of your comfort zone. Mana-recovery items cannot be bought, witnessing every social link cutscene is nigh-impossible without a guide, and there's a deadline to each major objective. In both its style and structure it engages the player, inviting them in with a luscious style and then dragging them forward, whether they want to move at that pace or not.

Despite the playful exterior, Persona 5 is a relatively no-nonsense game. This is most easily observed in its combat, where some bad RNG can cause you to lose up to an hour of progress (which yeah, happened to me in Palace 5). Because of this you'll want to mitigate that risk as much as possible, which is where all of the meaningful choices in the game come from. Should you befriend the person that helps your back-up party members gain EXP? Or what about the girl that allows everyone in your party to successfully retreat? How about your close friends, who will gain a chance to save you from a fatal attack? You'll also have to balance these bonuses with your own personal preference for these characters too—getting more ammo for your gun could be useful, but dang, isn't it more fun to see what wacky antics Yusuke will get into next?

The importance of the choices you make also carry over into the combat as well, where having an enemy's weakness will make or break an encounter. And when you square off against the boss fights in the game (all of which are spectacular by the way), you'll have to resort to buffs and debuffs to stand a chance. This means balancing your party's powers with your own persona repertoire, trying to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to cover them. Is it better to keep out a persona that nullifies physical attacks or switch over to one that has your best abilities (Matarukaja, Marakunda)? If you're low on SP and not near a save room, do you use an item, push on without magic, or retreat? And if you get surrounded and battered, do you risk it all on an insta-kill attack or try to recover? Add in limited skill slots that force you to decide what will or won't carry over with every persona merge, and Persona 5 becomes a game that will always keep you on your toes... well, as long as you don't seek to purposely game it (I'm looking at you, SP Adhesive).

With so many aspects of the game bewitching me, you might wonder, "Well, was there anything you disliked?" And this is where we get into Persona 5's rub: the story. More specifically: the dialogue. There is a laborious amount of text in this game. And while I'm fine if the dialogue is filled with witty candor or clever insights, a considerable amount of it is unnecessary repetition. Like, you'll have an event happen that day and your group will conclude "we should probably deal with X next" and then immediately after that scene you'll get a text chain along the lines of "we need to hurry and deal with X!" The amount of times characters repeat objects or whinge about an upcoming enemy starts to sap the excitement out of playing the game, especially since a lot of dialogue is used for observation instead of character building.

I know it might seem ironic to complain about the amount of text in a dialogue-focused RPG, but this game is 100 hours long—cuts can be made somewhere! Not only that, but the story has a tendency to feel unfocused and scattershot (in some part due to the direct translation). You'll have characters endure sexual harassment and then proceed to get gawked at by friends, or villains will wildly oscillate between being flawed humans and one-dimensional charlatans, or events will dominate the dialogue of bystanders and then evaporate without a trace a week later. There's such little room for fascinating side stories to develop—like the school stalker and her crush—because the plot often dominates all of the dialogue with its relatively one-dimensional perspective.

But I still greatly appreciate what's at the heart of this story. At times it feels like Persona 5 is very predictable, but it throws a few fascinating curve balls at you now and then. That, and I appreciated a lot of the down time in the social links, as those moments often did more to build character motivations than many (many) of the plot-centric cutscenes did. I like Persona 5's cast (sans Haru), and its themes, and message about society as a whole—there's just a considerable amount of questionable material to critique. Had the narrative been aimed more at "adults" rather than the "highschoolers" you control, I suspect a strong polemic against Japanese society could've arisen from it. As it stands now, the idea is there... it's just wrapped in a lot of stereotypical anime tropes.

My disappointment in Persona 5's story barely dents the enthusiasm I feel towards it weeks after finishing the game. It was such a robust—and often intimidating—experience that I'm glad I made my way through it, and look forward to whatever direction the series takes from here. I can understand why a lot of fans get consumed with discussing the franchise too; after spending roughly a year playing the fifth entry, the world and its cast feel so familiar that it manifests in my memory as a warm second home of sorts. While there was great comfort to be found in the mundane daily activities, it was the risky palace infiltrations that got my blood pounding—and the combination of those two sensations is one I'll be savoring for a long time to come.

Images obtained from:,,,

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