Video Games Review: Persona 5 (PS3/PS4, 2017) Steals Hearts and Takes Souls

As someone new to the Persona series, the newest entry had me equal parts curious and baffled. Coming into a series with little prior knowledge or experience is a daunting experience, but Persona 5 had me wrapped around its finger from the moment it began. With the introduction of the game, which features a mysterious thief, a casino setting and a squadron full of cop cars, the game pulled off its greatest heist – it stole my heart.

What stood out almost immediately was the brilliance and panache with which it pulled off its art style – even the introduction, with its stylish red, black and white colour scheme oozed an unexpected charisma. Blending its gorgeous art with anime cutscenes for the opening chapter, Persona 5 pulls of the balance well. The anime art provides some of the most vibrant and beautiful moments in the game, showing off the Tokyo setting in unique fashion. While my previous experiences with JRPGs have often highlighted problems with adapting the anime style into smooth and gorgeous gameplay, Persona 5 has no such qualms, pulling off the bright, cel-shaded style with ease.

The sheer diversity of locations on offer also provides a wide range for the game, with the locations veering from a busy city street, to a crowded school and then right on into a knight-filled, shadowy dungeon where students are tortured and imprisoned. Persona 5 performs the gearshift near flawlessly, leading players through a variety of great and terrifying worlds. It also perfectly replicates that feeling of fear that grips your heart when you’re lost in a subway station and none of the signs are there to help you out. Despite this, the game excels at guiding players through its complex world, never shying away from the oddness of the franchise, but never alienating players because of it.

One concern that I had going into the game was the excessive and complicated lore that follows the Persona franchise. It’s a game filled with demons, dungeons, thieves and a whole lot of schoolwork, but one that never felt too overblown or strange. All the pieces of the Persona puzzle fit together well, and the story balances the bombast and subtlety of the franchise to great effect. For a game that traipses the well-worn ‘teen superhero’ genre, Persona never feels anything other than unique, avoiding many of the pitfalls of its companion titles, and crafting something that feels entirely new.

The story of the game is long, complex, and requires several hours of dedication to get to the real meat of the story, but all the tension and mystery that the game sets up had me completely and utterly hooked. The game thrusts you into the action almost immediately, in a stunning opening scene that features the protagonist robbing a casino and attempting to escape a squadron of demon guards and policemen. The opening is bold and bombastic, dropping players into the deep end immediately and holding all of Persona 5’s cards against its chest. Featuring two narrative strains – one set in the past, and one in the present – the game dangles answers in front of its players tantalisingly, before pulling them away with a great deal of panache. Both narrative strains are brilliantly balanced, and waste no time in sewing the seeds of mystery to enthral unsuspecting players. For all the complexity and mystery behind the central narrative, I never felt lost once, with the game being careful not to leave new players in the dust. The lore is condensed into skilful and easily understood segments, making the story highly accessible for any players new to the franchise.

While I’m not usually a fan of strategy fighting, the stylish turn-based combat of Persona 5 soon won me over, and in some cases, it reminded me of my first experiences with Digimon World 3, one of my first and favourite JRPGs. The protagonist may attack with his own chosen weapons, or utilise his visually stunning persona, Arsene, to unleash devastating attacks against his enemies. The more you level up, the more powers and attacks are made available to you, each with their own wonderfully over-the-top action, making each battle a delightful romp and never feeling repetitive or boring. A wide range of enemies also changes up the battle dynamic, with each enemy boasting a strong visual design and hosting a wide range of devastating attacks. While the game hardly pioneered turn-based battles, it does a great job of innovative them, turning what could have been another pitfall into a great success.

The action of the game was also largely buoyed by the brilliant composition and musical score of Shoji Meguro. Featuring catchy melodies and head-bopping beats, the music really captures the effervescence and emotion of the action, lending subtlety and tension where needed, and illuminating the personality of both the characters, and their surroundings. I often found an errant foot tapping to the musical beats as I become more engrossed and absorbed by the world of Persona 5. Atmosphere is something that the game pulls off well, carefully combining music, colours and setting to create the intrigue and tension that guides the player through the many winding paths of the game.

The sheer breadth of the game is frankly staggering, with such a wide range of places to explore, activities to undertake and friendships to maintain. What makes this so frustrating, however, is the little time that you have to complete these activities. The game operates on a day-to-day basis with each activity you undertake leading to a certain amount of time passing. In order to succeed, players must cultivate their relationships, earn money for new items, take classes, answer quizzes all the while working on exploring dungeons and levelling up for the next challenge waiting around the corner. Meticulous planning is needed in order to balance the day-to-day life of the protagonist, and this planning often had me cursing the game. I wanted to do more and explore more in the time that I had, but too often, time ran out and I was forced to rethink my strategy. The level of planning needed can prove to be frustrating, but as time went by, I thought less and less of it, as it became easier to navigate the system and spend my days wisely. The constant reminder at the loading screen to ‘take your time’ was a motto that I soon learned mattered, and it was one that I tried, and largely failed to stick to.

Visually brilliant and filled with stylish panache, Persona 5 is a game that improves on nearly every aspect of the JRPG genre, crafting a unique tale and avoiding the many pitfalls that often dog its companion titles. While the game relies on years of lore, it does a brilliant job of weaving this lore for new and old players alike, never alienating or over-explaining key elements to its players. Persona 5 is a stunning game in nearly every aspect, and one that demands and deserves your attention.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Subtle and brilliant story; great characters; brilliant visual design; wonderfully innovative combat; wide range of dungeons
Lowlights: Too much to do; some frustrating level design
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus & Deep Silver
Release Date: Out Now
Platforms: PS3, PS4

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.