Worth the Wait:
“Persona 5” has been a long time coming. It was originally a PS3 only title, scheduled for release in Winter 2014 (!!), but here we are nearly three years later and it’s finally arrived. To say it’s been highly anticipated would be doing Persona 5, and the Persona series in general, a huge disservice.
The franchise made a huge splash with its third iteration and has been a highly regarded property ever since, so does this new release from Atlus deliver?
Persona 5, much like its predeccesors, dumps you in the shoes of a Japanese school-kid and lets you live out a year of their lives. As you might expect, this consists of making friends, taking tests and of course battling demons. Sorry, you weren’t expecting that last one? You’ve obviously never played Persona before…
Indeed, pretty soon after starting Persona 5 you’ll realize this isn’t an odinary life sim. Whilst the allure of living a very Japanese life and getting to know all your good looking friends is a huge part of Persona’s charm, we’re ultimately here to save the world. P5 wastes no time in setting up your role as part of the ‘Phantom Thieves’, a group of schoolkids who secretely jump into various villain’s psyche’s and change them for the better, Inception-style.
Persona 5 isn’t afraid to take control away from the player for vast amounts of playtime, and as such it often feels more like a visual novel than anything else. This would be criminal if the story and its characters weren’t so compelling, but thankfully the cast of misfits and the various social links you can make in the game are all interesting enough to want to stop and chat.
The narratives biggest problem however arises when the game forgets that these characters are fun enough to want to get to know, and instead makes every conversation about the Phantom Thieves – what their next course of action is, how many people are talking about them and who their next big target will be. In previous installements I felt the party was a solid group of friends first and foremost, and a demon-battling squad second. Sadly the gang here feel like they’re only together to take down bad guys. Even during a lot of the ‘social’ moments, where the group enjoy trips, festivals and holidays, they simply stand around and talk about the Phantom Thieves. The frustrating thing is that these characters are plenty fleshed out when you interact with them one on one, but as a group they feel a bit cold and distant.
Persona 5’s gameplay is split into two very different play styles. Most of the game will be spent going to school, talking to your friends, raising your various social stats and deciding exactly how to spend your free time. With only a year to get to know absolutely everyone, ace every test and hook up with a lucky lady, the way you allocate every spare moment is vitally important. You can go to the library and study to raise your knowledge – which in turn will help you get to know some of the smarter students and social links – or you can go take on the local food challenge at Big Bang Burger to raise your guts and come away with big prizes. You won’t see and do everything the game has to offer in the year you’re given – there’s simply far too much to accidentally nail every moment – that’s for a second or even third playthrough, armed with your newfound knowledge (or more likely, a guide). I don’t suffer from Fear of Missing Out (or FoMo) in real life, but Persona 5 gave me a crippling case of it because I wanted to see and do everything (and hang out with everyone). Thanks to this I was always a little paralyzed with choice during any block of free time.
Whilst choosing how you spend your time and who you spend it with is one of Persona’s biggest draws, and most enjoyable systems, the game has a habit of locking you out of it for bursts of time. When the story has something to say, for instance, the game doesn’t hesitate to take away any illusion of choice from the player and force them to watch cutscene after cutscene for upwards of a week. Worse still is Morgana, your talking-cat buddy, who often sends you to bed because he’s decided you’re too tired to possibly do anything else. Whilst I understand that narrative is hugely important here, it shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of fun. Persona 5 often struggles to find this balance.
During missions or grinding excursions in the semi-optional side dungeon, however, the game takes on a wholly different flavour. Classic Japanese RPGs aren’t as prevelant as they once were, so it might take a little getting used to Persona’s strictly turn-based based battle system, but it throws enough new tricks and enjoyable gimmicks to freshen up the somewhat aging formula.
In a dungeon, you’ll summon your Persona – manifestations of your own subconcious able to deal out massive amounts of elemental attacks. If you manage to find an enemies weak spot and down them, you can carry on your barrage, picking off every bad guy until your team have the upper hand. Finding weaknesses and exploiting them is absolutely core to Persona 5’s battle system, and for the most part is absolutely vital in every battle. If you ignore these weaknesses, maybe in an effort to conserve SP (the game’s mana bar) you’ll get wrecked. For a game all about choice, P5 doesn’t often trust the player enough to make their own, and instead drills in a very particular way you should enjoy its 100-hour campaign.
Once you’ve figured out an enemy’s weakness through trial and error, you’re allowed a snazzy All-Out Attack, a party-wide pile-on that essentially works as an insta-kill move for all but the hardiest of foes. Thanks to this, however, fighting often devolves into simply following prompts. Any of the trash mobs roaming the halls can, once you’ve found their elemental achilles heel, be downed in a single turn and wiped out before they even get a chance to attack – which is neat, but turns everything here into a paint-by-numbers affair.
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