There are a few things I love to have in my JRPG’s. Monsters taking the form of creatures from literature/mythology/religion, goofy anime tropes presented in innovative and interesting ways, and smooth jazz. Lucky for me, Persona 5 has all of these in abundance.
You take the role of a nameless and mostly silent protagonist, who’s commonly referred to as Joker or ‘that guy’. The game opens with a bang as you’re thrown headfirst into a casino heist. You have no context for why you’re there other than that you’re clearly up to no good, stealing something of importance, and the whole casino is after you. There’s a brief overview of the mechanics of dungeon crawling and battle before you find yourself quickly surrounded by the police. This is where the story truly begins as you’re forced to relay all the events leading up to this moment.
The protagonist has recently moved to Tokyo after an unfair encounter with the law, and now has to live a year in the big city, attending highschool, making new friends and generally trying to just enjoy their life. Fans of the Persona series will be pretty familiar with this formula. Essentially, the game is divided into days. During the week, you attend school and then afterward you’re given the freedom to pursue friendships, hobbies and dungeons. Of course, you don’t get this freedom without first sitting through a lengthy tutorial.
Though, where Persona 4’s lengthy introduction was a series of cutscenes, Persona 5 at least allows you to explore a dungeon, or as the game calls it, a ‘Palace’. A Palace is, essentially, the heart of a corrupt adult where their twisted desires have manifested into a tangible location. In this case, my first Palace was the castle of a highschool volleyball teacher. He viewed himself as a King, and the school as his castle, and the goal was to change his heart and make him less of a jerk.
Exploring castles is a classic dungeon crawl, uncovering each floor and fighting the enemies it contains, though you can easily sneak up on enemies to enter into an ambush situation which is in your favour. Remember though – just as easily you can get the advantage, if you’re careless enemies can gain advantage over you. Battles take place in a turn-based environment in which you’re given a wide variety of options. Perhaps too many, even, as I frequently found myself a little overwhelmed.
There’s melee attacks, gunshot attacks and Persona attacks. The first two are fairly straightforward and Persona could essentially be called your ‘magic’, which is divided into eight elements. While your party members have set Personas that generally revolve around one element, the protagonist is a rare ‘wild card’ and is able to summon a variety of creatures with amazing designs from all elements to fit the situation. From here, it’s a sort of classic rock-paper-scissors affair where you have to discover the enemies weakness in order to defeat or knock them down. Once knocked down there’s a new set of options displayed to you.
Players of mainline Shin Megami Tensei games, or players of Persona 1 and 2 may be familiar with this mechanic. The player is given the option for an aggressive all out attack against every enemy present, which is usually a one hit KO, or they can choose to talk with one of the enemies. At this point, the player can ask for items, money, or engage in a conversation to try and claim the Persona as a part of your team. Though this can be tricky, as there are a variety of personality types and certain dialogue options will just frighten or enrage the Persona, encouraging them to flee or resume the fight, respectively. Again, this just adds to the options at the players disposal and where some will be more than happy with the strategies to choose from, for me it was overwhelming and eventually a little frustrating to have to go through finding the correct combination out of so many options.
That said, the dungeon crawling is only one small part of the overall Persona experience, which brings it to the biggest problem the game has, and perhaps the only real problem in an otherwise amazing game. As I mentioned, the tutorial is action-packed but long, clocking in at around 10 hours. And in that time, you’re not given any freedom to pursue other mechanics until the game decides you can, and introduces things gradually. This would be fine if it wasn’t, again, ten hours. After that, you’re able to do whatever you like whenever you like, and the game takes on a visual novel feel when you’re not dungeon crawling. This means pursuing friendships or more intimate relationships, increasing social stats by renting DVD’s or reading books, and buying items to prepare for your next dungeon crawl.
It’s a nice way to break things up and the cast of characters is likable enough that this is honestly a super fun thing to do, as I found myself wanting to pursue new friendships to not only power up my Personas, but to also discover more about them. Though again, the pacing makes this difficult at times given that you can never be sure which days you will be forced into events and which days you’ll be allowed to pursue your own interests as there’s little, if any, warning. And, just like real life, I found myself having to pay DVD rental late fees. At least it’s realistic.
The translation itself can also be a little awkward at times, being too literal in places while other places it’s been wonderfully done. So it’s a bit hit and miss, but it’s a small thing in a game that’s otherwise drawn me in.
Just make sure you have a lot of free time to play. My total play time came to nearly 90 hours, and that’s just a straight A to B run. You could easily rack it up to over 100 if you’re a completionist. I also have a weird craving for ramen.
But, most importantly, I can’t wait to dive right back in and see where this wacky and lovable game, if a little convoluted, takes me next.