Persona 5 had a tough act to follow after two major hits in Personas 3 and 4, and the long wait for it certainly got fans' hopes up. But does it rekindle the series' flames of ingenuity, or has the magic just been lost after nine years?
The Persona series has a complex history, beginning in the Playstation era as an off-shoot of the Shin Megami Tensei series that saw a low-key North American release in the console's early days. It later got a Japanese-exclusive sequel in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which itself got a sequel in Eternal Punishment (which saw a US release right away while its prequel had to wait nearly a decade for one, leaving many North American players confused by its storyline). But the series truly made a splash with Persona 3, a late-era Playstation 2 game that separated itself from its predecessors storyline-wise and completely changed up the format, combining elements of school sims and dungeon crawlers together in a rather clever way - the more the player would advance their relationship with in-game characters, the more powerful they would become for the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game.
Persona 4 continued that idea, polishing up the gameplay while putting much more emphasis on the characters, giving each of them an individual story arc admist the ovearching plot of a murder mystery and exploring a strange alternate world. The player was no longer the only beneficiary of advancing once's social connections - the playable characters along the way would also gain new benefits, such as follow-up attacks, the ability to survive a single fatal hit or, at maximum level, their Personas would transform into a new form, gaining more power and usually losing their elemental weaknesses. A logical step up from 3 in most respects, but a welcome one.
Persona 5 once again continues in Persona 3's vein, largely retaining its style of gameplay while attempting to reintroduce some elements of earlier games in the franchise. Nuclear and Mind spell elements make a return here, as do characters having a secondary gun weapon that can attack multiple enemies in a round. Perhaps most surprising, though, is the fact that it restores some traditional Shin Megami Tensei elements to the mix - demons are no longer simply acquired via cards or fusions, but also via the series' traditional negotiation system - one must bargain with demons by choosing the right options during dialog, and occasionally gift them items or money to convince them to join the player's ranks.
A few new ideas have also crept their way into Persona 5's design. Being a game themed around thievery and heists, the primary dungeons in the game now take the form of "castles", with the player encouraged to utilize stealth to evade traps, find hidden passages, solve puzzles and hide around corners to ambush enemies. Each time they are sighted, an alert level will rise for the dungeon, making enemies more on-guard and aggressive. Routes through them are also considerably more convoluted, generally requiring the player to snake their way through vents, atop walls and ledges and through mazes of laser traps. One also cannot return to a given castle once it is completed, though there is a randomly-generated dungeon called "Mementos" that grants opportunity for the player to level up, gain new items and complete sidequests between the main quests. That all sounds interesting, but the gameplay as a whole is hampered by the fact that Persona 5 has the Ocarina of Time problem - the game explains out every single puzzle and gameplay mechanic in great detail, to the point where they feel like they're often included to simply waste time and prolong the experience with empty busywork rather than provide any kind of legitimate, satisfying problem-solving on the player's part.
At first glance, Persona 5 also appears to take a much darker turn with its storytelling. The main character is depicted as a delinquent on probation for a vague past incident, and his first encounters with nearly everyone are markedly unpleasant, with them dismissing him as a criminal and seemingly ready to have him locked up for the slightest infraction. The game even opens in medias res with a scene depicting him being captured by the police, aggressively beaten and then grilled by a prosecutor about vague past actions (which gets called back to many times throughout the experience), hinting at some skeletons in his past that justify the general attitude toward him, or possibly events that have yet to be portrayed in the game's narrative. The villains take a much more sinister twist as well, with themes like sexual harassment, physical abuse and, most shockingly, attempted suicide quickly creeping into the story. The only break from this, at least at first, seems to come in the form of the other world the protagonists stumble into, which gives them an escape from their bleak reality into one where they have strange powers and use them in pursuit of revenge against their real-life enemies. This had the potential to set the protagonists up as power-high vigilantes taking revenge against those they perceived to have wronged them, eventually crossing a line and becoming perceived as a threat to society as a whole (hence the framing device with the prosecutor character) - effectively, they could be antiheroes or even outright villains, albeit ones with a relatable motive that makes the player want to root for them.
However, the writers seems to have quickly gotten cold feet in that regard; not long after the first chapter's conclusion, they largely backpedal on the idea and put up a much clearer line between good and evil, with the protagonists being unambiguously defined as unjustly-labeled misfits and the villains quickly devolving into shallow, cartoonish caricatures with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Virtually no thought is given to any potential negative consequences for the main characters' actions either, which undermines much of the potential drama and intrigue of the scenario and leaves the player with no interesting moral dilemmas to think about.
I personally felt this was a very disappointing turn, especially in an era when games like Fallout: New Vegas and Shadowrun have so effectively crafted grim worlds and complex, morally-ambiguous protagonists them that you wanted to root for, as well as equally nuanced villains one could easily sympathize with on some level. Even the earlier Persona games never made their villains feel like empty caricatures devoid of any sympathetic qualities, so to see it occur in a sequel with five-plus years of development time behind it is just plain sad. A darker turn for the main cast wouldn't even feel out of place in a franchise that has featured - among other things - nuclear war, widespread cannibalism, battling the Christian god (depicted as the enemy of all who live!) and giving the player the option of adopting a Darwinist philosophy where the weak inevitably die at the hands of the strong, so why not go all the way with the idea?
Even without that, the main characters of Persona 5 lack much of the personality and charm present in Persona 3 and 4's cast, instead largely fitting into broad-brushed character archetypes - the artist, the athletic character, the quirky and introverted computer whiz, and so on. While they do get some laughs at times, it is disappointing to see them rarely ascend beyond their basic traits, especially when so many Shin Megami Tensei games before were able to craft characters that, while built on familiar tropes, also managed to bring many unique elements to help themselves stand out. Part of this may come down to the game's general premise - by quickly labeling the main characters as lovable misfits, it may have closed off much of the opportunity they had to interact with other, more "normal" characters within the game's world on any interesting level. However, that could have easily lent itself to some interesting drama by exposing the player to the difficulties the characters would have balancing their mundane daily lives with their new, exciting nightlife as masked vigilantes. Key words here being "could have", because there is virtually nothing along those lines in the game aside from barely being acknowledged in a throwaway joke or two. The premise grates on me as well; it's essentially the same as the anime series Deathnote, where a relatively anonymous character takes revenge on those he deems to be evil in a way that can't easily be traced back to him. However, Deathnote at least had enough thought behind it to show that the protagonist's actions had very severe negative consequences, and it never tried to portray him as a heroic figure, particularly as he's completely apathetic toward anyone he hurts in pursuit of his own selfish ends, even his immediate family. Morgana as a character is perhaps the worst element of this whole experience, though, quickly going from "mildly charming" to "making the player want to strangle him" as he offers insipid commentary for every single action you take throughout the game and constantly stops you from pursuing social links and minigames in favor of... passing time to the next day and doing nothing. Boy, what an efficient and not-at-all frustrating way to blaze through large swaths of limited game time AND bar you from enjoying its most interesting elements!
On the stronger end of the scale, however, Persona 5 sports very impressive production values, with much flair and polish even in its mundane elements - the game's menus sport bright, vivid colors, flashy fonts and chaotic art design, character portraits and cut-ins during dialog are all animated, and finishing battles with an all-out attack results in a eye-catching pinup shot with a visual style heavily reminiscent of a Gainax anime. The narrative is also punctuated with fully-3D cutscenes for key moments, and nearly every story-relevant scene is fully voiced by big-name actors. Battles themselves immerse themselves in the game's high production values as well - every demon the player encounters has their own complement of voiced lines and full combat animations, and winning fights results in a stylish animation of the protagonists gathering and running/driving off to their next goal. One can easily tell that this was the Atlus art team's most ambitious project to date, and the sheer amount of effort present shows off how Japanese RPGs can truly stand out and be distinct in the HD era. However, it can become distracting at times, particularly when a character is trying to navigate around a town or dungeon and are constantly beset by NPC word bubbles covering the screen or repeated bits of inane dialog from the main cast.
Of course, the soundtrack is another of Persona 5's major highlights. Series veteran Shoji Meguro returns once more to give the game a distinct and non-traditional soundtrack, this time incorporating elements of acid jazz and hard rock with some surprisingly spot-on English pronunciation in their lyrics despite being performed by Japanese singers. These lend to the overall off-beat atmosphere and, paired with the flashy interface and visual effects of battle scenes, ultimately give the game a very mesmerizing feel when the story reaches its tensest moments.
Overall, Persona 5 can best be described as a step forward for the series in some respects and a big step back in other, more important ones. While it definitely makes a strong first impression with its heavily-stylized presentation and darker bent, the fact that they seemed to be afraid to fully commit to a new turn for the Persona series' tone and quickly backpedaled to a lighter and more "safe" feel hangs a cloud of disappointment over the rest of the game. This only gets further compounded by the fact that its writing quality has taken several steps backward from earlier titles, and its overall design and themes feel generally "kiddified" and dumbed-down to reach a wider audience. There's nothing wrong with reusing a format that works, but without building on what came before and pushing new boundaries, the series will stagnate and lose any charm it once held. Persona's 5 feels like the first step down that road, and I'm sad to say that, judging from the general trend of most Atlus IPs since the Sega buyout, I doubt it'll be the last.
Platform: Playstation 3, Playstation 4
Recommended version: Both versions are largely identical, though the Playstation 4 version runs in a higher resolution and framerate compared to the Playstation 3 (1080p60 vs 720p30) and the Playstation 3 has substantially longer load times. Both also have slightly different (cosmetic) DLC available for download.