Release Date: Japan – September 15, 2016, Worldwide – April 4, 2017
Rating: M for Mature
Genre: Social Simulator, RPG
Platforms: Playstation 3, Playstation 4
It’s nearly impossible for me to justify playing a video game expecting to take 100 hours to get through: the side quests there are to explore, lore-building collectibles to find littered across the game, and the NPCs that populate the space. When playing, my completionist side begins kicking in, asking me to have the patience to scour everything before moving on to the next level or place. The completionist in me is someone who needs the time, and the realistic side is often reminding me that I do not have that patience or time. At best, the longest games I tend to enjoy playing max out at 40-50 hours of total playtime…roughly 2 months of solid real time for me. Beyond that, I have a tendency of switching for another game and never looking back.
Persona 5 is one of the rare exceptions that is also proving to be one of the best damn video game experiences I have had in a long time. Effortlessly, it has moved into being my uncontested Game of the Year for 2017, and one of the rare immediate recommended entrants for the Last Token Gaming Hall of Fame. I cannot remember ever feeling glued to my seat for hours on end and remaining unaware of the time elapsed from the moment I began playing, until the time I needed to stop. From beginning to end, those 100 hours of Persona 5 captures a player’s attention and never relents, demanding them to keep their focus on what is going on.
It could be the Robin Hood-esque storyline interspersed with discussions of youthful rebellion, effecting social justice, and discovering self-worth. It could be the aesthetically pleasing style the game oozes from the beautiful start menu to the anime cutscenes. It could be the way each character feels realistically flawed regardless of the tropes they end up being trapped into. Or it could be the addictive, layered soundtrack that solidifies the conceptual design of the game. It’s actually because of one simple truth: the game has a heart that is worth listening to. Ultimately, Persona 5 is a cautionary tale against letting your desires becoming your obsession to the point where it hurts those around you, and of becoming the change you wish to see in the world.
Much like its predecessor, Persona 5 is a social simulator meets turn-based role-playing game placing players in the role of a character they can name. By day, he is the normal, typical high schooler: busy school schedule, hanging out with friends, and the occasional shift at work. By night, they are a leader of the Phantom Thieves*: a ragtag group of youthful misfits who venture into a metaphysical realm called the Metaverse to steal corrupted adult hearts to effect a change. By change, it means forcing those people to seek redemption and forgiveness. Mementos is an ever changing, procedurally generated dungeons that are never the same twice. Each Castle is a main mission for the storyline,
The Metaverse is a pseudoscientific, metaphysical realm conjured from humanity’s cognition. It is also made up of two distinct unique experiences: Mementos and Palaces. Mementos is the collective unconscious of humanity’s desires making it huge and vast: no one person’s desire is so strongly distorted that they can create a Palace to protect it. Essentially, Mementos is where most side quests will find their conclusions and serves as a collection of randomly procedurally generated dungeons to experience grind in. Palaces are the main storyline missions, and are created by specific individuals to protect their darkest desires. These desires have become so distorted and strong, that the characters who “rule” the Palace have built these places to preserve it. Upon completing all but the final two palaces, players gain a new party member to add to their team that have their own persona and special abilities.
Daytime gameplay is relegated to a social simulator experience: players have an array of activities to choose from within two set blocks of time. Each activity bears a reward for completion such as building up social stats, unlocking new places to explore, or spending time with party members or important NPCSs. Some activities might also have special conditions where choosing to do them in a specific day maximizes the reward, while other activities might have specific times and days they can be completed. For example, going to a bath house on Thursday triples the amount of points going towards the main characters Charm stats. A character might not be able to hang out until the weekends. Even weather begins playing a factor in deciding what activity to do; rain reduces the amount of people who go to a diner, resulting in more points towards the main character’s Knowledge social statistic.
Initially, the time management component can feel overwhelming given the amount of choices players are given immediately. Even when I started playing, I could feel myself a little stressed out and overwhelmed. However, upon settling in and understanding the components I would be focusing on with the activities I favored, I found the social simulation experience rewarding and engaging. Particularly, the activities I loved the most were held within the Confidant system.
Much like its predecessors, Persona 5 has a confidant system; a major character that’s either in party or an NPC represents a specific arcana (or type) that can be strengthened through hanging out with them. Each character has their own self-contained story arc, giving them a spotlight to focus developing and fleshing out their backstories. Every story provides insight into each character’s motivation and drive for either being part of the Phantom Thieves or their current occupations. The conversations and events occurring within the stories paints a flowed, but enigmatic portrait of the highlighted character. The concisely strong, poignant writing provides a satisfying storyline from beginning to end. By the time the main character reaches the conclusion to each story, there’s a sense of satisfaction for completing each story, and a strong camaraderie with the characters.
Finishing the storylines also has two other major benefits; unlocking the full potential of the Persona for each person in your party, as well as maximizing the amount of experience you get for creating a Persona within the character’s Arcana. Furthermore, as the storyline progresses, players are rewarded throughout the story with battle advantages that can be pivotal in battles.
Other activities might not have as big an impact as the Confidant system, but still offer an array of things to do. For example, Persona 5 eventually unlocks the ability for players to make Coffee, which helps for regenerating some of an individual party member’s SP (Skill Points). Or, players can craft tools for looting treasure chests or reduce their visibility in the Metaverse. Every activity essentially has a purpose or reason that is beneficial to the player. There are no time-wasting activities that have no benefits or reward. It shows a thoughtfully meticulous designing of gameplay details. However, the game ensures it does not allow the player to get lost in these activities by providing gentle nudges and reminders that there’s still a story progression to be made. This is done by the flashback storytelling mechanic that allows room for some significant twists and turns hidden within the major story plots, and the spiritual realm known as the Metaverse.
Inside the Metaverse is where the dungeon-crawling RPG goodness happens. The bulk of Persona 5’s story is contained within the stories surrounding the 8 palaces, each one expanding in size, scope, and difficulty. Palaces are created for protecting a single person’s darkest, deeply distorted desires – which ends up being the “treasure” of the Palace. Having been drawn to the distorting desire, Angels and Demons serve as guardians within the Palace. These Palaces are ruled by a “shadow” cognitive representation of the Phantom Thieves’ target, who act as the final boss before having successfully “stolen” the treasure. In order for the Phantom Thieves to be able to steal the treasure, they must first accomplish completing a set of conditions within a certain time frame. Failure to do so leads to an early, abrupt ending in the game and a chance to start over.
First, players must successfully chart their escape route from the “main entrance” of the treasure’s location by navigating well-crafted levels. It is in these levels players will have to deal with the various elements dungeon-crawlers are packing; puzzles for advancing, enemies ranging in size and difficulty, mini bosses, and traps. Scattered amongst the castle are places marked as “safe rooms”: it’s in these rooms players have the opportunity for saving their progress, healing up and continuing navigating through the castle, or to enter back into the real world and come back another day. The second, and main condition is the time limit for each Palace: every mission has a certain amount of days to get to the treasure based on the real-world events occurring.
Persona 5’s Palace designs are each unique each experiences. Each Palace is thematically designed reflecting the person’s view of the world also correlating with their distorted desire. For example, my favorite Palace to have explored took on the shape of an Egyptian pyramid. Enemies I had to face tied into the Palace’s design, puzzles I had to solve involved giant statues and sunlight, as well as putting a hieroglyphic-like picture together to uncover the history of the “Ruler”, as well as how their desire became distorted. Even the music and sound design provides a feeling of being in an Egyptian-like setting.
Inversely, the Metaverse is also housing Mementos, the collective unconscious of humanity. Whereas Palaces are designed and crafted dungeons to explore, the dungeons in Mementos are ever expanding and randomly generating. In this place, players will uncover random items that range from crafting to accessories. Players will also face a range of enemies increasing in difficulty the further down players go into Mementos. If players are feeling like they want to collect items, level grind, gather Persona for fusing, or even test out attack combinations, Mementos is the place to go. Plus, hidden within the dungeons are most, if not all, bosses for the plethora of side quests in Persona 5.
Tying Mementos and Palaces together is the addicting, exciting gameplay elements. Battles are tense, challenging, and exciting. When engaged in battle against an Angel or Demon, players have to pay attention to many factors that can either give players complete control over the battle, or destroy them. For example, a demon might be weak against ranged weapons, and another might absorb lightning spells that will heal them. It’s a system that wants players to take mental notes and solely focused on the battle at hand, and it will punish players who go into auto-pilot mode or attack blindly. Persona 5 also wants players to learn how to utilize the various persona the main character can gather throughout the game as well as the ability to switch party members during battles. Essentially, Persona 5 rewards players for paying attention to every detail within battle.
When players begin utilizing these traits to their advantage, the gameplay really begins to shine. One of the core elements to the Persona series (as well as its parent franchise, Shin Megami Tensei) is negotiation. Upon dealing a critical hit upon an enem(ies), a screen pops up providing players the ability to either perform an all-out attack on an enemy, negotiate with them to join your team, or let them escape. Negotiating with the enemy requires players paying attention to an enemy’s personality. Failing to choose the right answers to the questions decreases the likelihood the enemy is willing to become a Persona, and increases the likelihood they will attack or run away. It’s easy to feel that Persona 5’s battling may sound difficult and intimidating, but Persona 5 finds a way to create a learning curve providing enough challenge for longtime fans of the series and provide a solid entry for fans just starting.
However, what makes Persona 5 a cut above the rest is the stellar writing on every front. Every character from the party members to the antagonists and NPCs feels fully fleshed. All characters feel humanly flawed: everyone has their own motivations and desires, insecurities, and identity. Sure, the characters can oftentimes feel like they are being forced into a trope that fits the storyline. However, there are plenty of times where they can break out of their respective archetypes and feel…normal. All of the characters have backstories that are at times heartbreaking and depressing…but they are also to overcome these challenges and find self-worth. Eventually, they find their self-worth and strength to overcome their fears and doubts. It is a story of finding strength within yourself while also finding strength within the bonds with friends and family.
Yet, where Persona 5’s writing shines brightest is its villains. Every villain and their respective story arc feel like a worthy adversary for a full anime series. Their actions in order to both gain and protect their distorted desires are often despicable and heinous enough, creating a solid storyline to explore. Right when players are getting to the final leg of exploring a Palace, Persona 5 begins to provide the one element every all great storytelling deliver: context. The party begins to see the insecurities, fears, and motivations that drive each person’s obsession with their distorted desires. Unfolding before the player and party’s’ eyes is a story of a human being who lost themselves in the chase of their desires. A story of someone venturing too far into the rabbit hole without finding a way out. The characters are a tragedy of their own design, and while they are still vile and despicable, they are someone to also empathize.
Instead of being a story of right versus wrong, Persona 5 serves as a cautionary tale about becoming blindly obsessed with our own desires. Desires are always going to be a driving force in our life, but they should not be ruled by fear. Instead, our confidence and self-worth should be the driving force behind our desires.
Even though it’s 100+ hours long, Persona 5 is one of the best damn video game experiences I have experienced in a long time, my uncontested Game of the Year for 2017, and my immediate entry into Last Token Gaming’s Hall of Fame. It’s very rare that I find myself playing a game that can keep me glued to my seat for hours on end, unaware of the time elapsed from when I sit down to when I force myself to stop playing. From the very beginning until the end, Persona 5 effortlessly demands attention from the player, with a story appearing conventional at first but twists and turns into something else entirely. The stylishly and aesthetically pleasing anime art-style and rich, eccentric soundtrack coalesce to grab the player’s attention. Gameplay is neither too difficult, nor too lenient, somehow striking the almost perfect balance between being a social simulator and dungeon crawling turn based RPG. Ultimately, Persona 5 is the complete experience transcending the limitations of its genre, becoming a must have in anyone’s Playstation library.
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