When you write enough, you start to see overlap, patterns, and repetition. I can give you a breakdown of how I write, what phraseologies I veer towards, how I always list things in threes when I can help it; the list goes on. Anyone that’s written school papers or stories can probably feel themselves veering towards certain words or leaning on one metaphor in multiple spots because it was just too good to waste on a single occasion. That helps create your personal mold of simple pathways and synaptic shortcuts that can be cracked and remolded if need be, but serves as a comfortable stamp where words flow like ink. It’s your style in all of its irreplicable spirit.
Persona 5 is a written magnum opus come to interactive life with such an indomitable style that redefines so much of how that descriptor fits into my gaming lexicon, it’s tough to think of a more fitting use for the word. Every game has a style, of course, and I love a lot of them. I love the haggard, clawing shards of greatness attempting to stay in power within the backgrounds of Dark Souls, the uncensored, animated feel of Killer7, and Mario’s detailed, vibrant world of welcoming challenges. I love the messages these respective styles send when their imagery is pistoning in tune to their gameplay and story (yes, even Mario’s story). A properly executed style radiates to the beat of your heart and conducts with a tantalizing wand, summoning you along an edge of absorption and anticipation.
Here, in this definition, Persona 5 has done away with many bars of old. You and your band of merry teens go through the school year fighting against social stigma as well as a local, more elusive terror – which is the over-simplified summary of every Persona game. The plateau beyond that Persona 5 achieves becomes apparent quickly as the introduction injects you with the color and vibrancy of the world and characters that doesn’t let up as you might expect. Over the daily cycles, you feel the total embodiment of the idea that you are the Phantom Thieves, not just teens who live a second metaverse-traveling life. The flashy red streaks and fluid screens may seem pithy in comparison to the game itself, but I say bite your tongue. I say gameplay makes a game worth playing but details make a game worth noticing, and Atlus absolutely astounded the details here.
The full Persona formula is present with confidants, hobbies, dungeons, and Velvet Rooms to behold, the vast majority of which are interesting as you’re drawn into the world so early. Part of that rests on the shoulders of your self-named character having much more to say based upon your input this time around. Persona 4 always felt like I was watching rather than playing during the longer story sessions, so a change to include a lot more player choices sits well enough with me despite the mostly aesthetic nature. Shortcuts and guides help you navigate a much larger world than previous Persona titles. The traits also seem to grow a little slower than previous games, making the information on where to upgrade Knowledge and Guts all the more welcome and integral.
Persona 5’s core cast feels slightly mixed despite being strongly written and voice acted (and with some pretty badly misspelled subtitles at times). I didn’t like Yosuke from 4, and I don’t like his brother-from-another-mother Ryuji in 5. Call them different in some lights and realistic for how some high school students act as you will, but their brash personalities feel too boiled down to experience in consecutive main entries. There are some other holdover traits – another talkative animal companion, another model etc. – but all of these differ in a key enough way(s) to make them interesting on their own and don’t feel like the same characters reskinned and rewritten.
Things have never been more simple on the gameplay side with your main character eventually able to switch teammates in and out, call for help on an attack, and set up specific attack patterns inside dungeons. Even as thieves, you’ll be getting into plenty of battles with stealth being your key to attacking first, and being careless costing you the first turn in battle and raising suspicions of your infiltration to your detriment. Personas are mostly gained through a somewhat haphazard conversation system that you can engage in only when you’ve got the monsters in a daze as well as through an Igor fusion mechanic that helps you leapfrog into stronger Personas faster.
Oddly, the issues I have with gameplay are with the outside world and in how limiting it feels in an already compartmentalized world. You’re not let out to explore freely, using what is now standard Persona time chunks, for a considerable amount of time after that exciting introduction, and you may be shocked yet again at how many times you’re told “you’re too tired! Go to bed!” It’s an odd disconnect to have freedom to travel the rails and choose how to spend a block of your day for most of the game, then about a quarter of your nights where you’ll be basically locked in your room for no reason beyond the game feeling like an evil step-parent. I’d actually – god help me – prefer some sort of stamina meter integration where staying out the night after an infiltration makes it so that you fall asleep in class or can’t make a friend engagement if it’s done too many times. This is a world that wears consequences on its sleeve and yet bubblewraps this section to keep you from hurting your own character.
Persona 5 does, speaking of consequences, keep up one of my favorite aspects of this series: fearless storytelling. Despite the guiding, the deeper, more personal storytelling is as much of a highlight as it ever was in previous entries, tackling subjects and showing situations that feel uncensored without much over-the-top exploitation. Gray, indistinguishable lines of morality and personality types paint a world where anyone can fall into temptation, but not all of them have to be monolithic despots. Even in Mementos, which serves as a more sprawling, continuous dungeon, you’ll deal with the less extreme personalities of Shadows, parsing each of them into characters that have their own thorns and scars to bear.
Gaming trends, not unlike those of writing, paint their own style, and can come up different shades in the same color palette a little too often. Persona 5, although similar to those that have come before, slides over a high RPG bar with a shadowy smile, charming you with the pure heart of a Phantom Thief in what could’ve ended up as a simple paint job. The small limiting areas and wavering in the character quality don’t come close to stopping this heist, and the victims never stood a chance. What could they ever hope to do against this much style, this level of writing, and…um, oh-this slick of a game case?
Persona 5 Score: