Friday, 11 August 2017

Persona 5 - Review

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3

Persona 5 had a lot to live up to. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Persona 3 & 4 are two of the greatest J-RPGs ever made. Persona 3 made the series what it is today; rebooting the older games and melding classic RPG mechanics with a layer of social simulation. Its successor, meanwhile, has some of the strongest character writing...well...ever.

One of the strengths of the previous two games was how unique they both were on a thematic level. Persona 3’s exploration of existentialism, and a melancholy look at death contrasted with Persona 4’s more light-hearted, but still poignant, examination of hope versus nihilism.

Persona 5 continues that tradition, bowling over any assumptions that this was going to be a safe and predictable sequel. As with the last two games, it has a primary colour, and it’s bright red. Fitting, given the subject matter. This is a game that’s about freedom, challenging authority and facing injustice.

It wastes no time setting up these themes either. Within the first hour you’re introduced to a host of characters who, quite frankly, don’t seem to want you around. The head teacher of your new school sees you as a problem student, and the guy you’re sent to live with stuffs you in the attic and tells you not to cause trouble.

This is a gritty, grimy contrast to the otherwise innocuous charm of the previous games’ school environments. Persona 5’s opening arc, essentially a tutorial, is about a gym teacher who abuses his students, driving one of them to commit suicide.

It’s a blistering gut-punch to start your game on, mining some genuinely disturbing emotional mileage from themes and story beats that other games wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Persona 5 though, is all the better for it.

This story thread soon results in your character and his friends forming the Phantom Thieves; anarchic warriors committed to rooting out injustice. As with Persona 3’s Tartarus and the Midnight Channel from Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves have to visit another world, this time through an app on their mobile phones. In this case, it’s to root out a particular villain’s subconscious, stealing their prized treasure, and forcing them to undergo a change of heart.

If the story and themes are a deviation from the previous instalments, the combat and dungeon-crawling remains relatively familiar territory. Given that you’re playing as thieves, there’s a general emphasis on stealth, ambushing enemies as you slowly explore your target’s “palace”; the home of their subconscious desires.

There’s an indication that Atlus have wanted to make these sections more evocative and tighter than in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The dungeons are more linear than before, comprised of fixed rooms and locations, rather than the procedural generation of the last two games. Likewise, the focus on stealth, ambushing foes in order to initiate combat, is given greater significance than before, bordering on a stealth mini-game. Get spotted by too many foes and you risk being booted out of your targets palace early, forcing you to return on another day in order to complete your mission.

The focus of these dungeon-crawling sequences still remains the same, however. Bonus turns are doled out for successfully striking weaknesses or inflicting critical hits. It makes for tactical forward-planning when constructing your team; whilst each party member has their own particular Persona, your main character has access to a menagerie of alter-egos that you accumulate as you progress. Since your opponents benefit from the bonus turn system in the same way that you do, there’s a Pokemon-like mentality to building up your collection of Personas, attempting to diversify their weaknesses and ensure you have a broad range of strengths.

Talking to enemies makes a return from other MegaTen games as well, adding a little more nuance to acquiring new Personas for your main character. There’s a smart risk versus reward element here, as a conversation that goes south will leave the enemy with the initiative, turning what was initially an advantage (you have to down all the enemies with super effective hits in order to initiate a dialogue), into a potentially dangerous situation.

This is still a game that rewards wiping out enemies as quickly as possible. Fights might be turn based but there’s a breezy quality to encounters, with taking down enemies with that important all-out attack being almost always the primary goal.

Series veterans will also be right at home with the game’s fusion system. As in other MegaTen games, fusing monsters isn’t just a quirky pass time but an outright requirement in order to stay ahead of the curve. Personas level up far too slowly to justify keeping them around forever, and so frequently making trips to the Velvet Room in order to splice various creatures together is something of a necessity.

It’s arguably even more important here than in other instalments because of the game’s social simulation mechanics. Part of what makes these Persona games what they are is that a significant portion of your playtime is devoted to building up your relationships with the people around you. Persona 5 is no different.

Atlus have made some tweaks to the social side of things by threading them back into the core theme of working as the Phantom Thieves, with each social link you acquire also providing a number of different bonuses as you level it up. Make friends with a socialist politician running for office and you’ll unlock abilities that make it easier to recruit new Personas, build up stronger connections with your party members (as with Persona 4 each of them comes with a unique social link) and they’ll gain additional abilities for use in combat.

It’s a nice touch, and one that adds even greater strategy when it comes to working on the game’s relationships. Prioritising some social links in order to gain access to specific bonuses is a valid tactic throughout the game, and all the while you’re fighting against the fact that you’re on borrowed time. There’s never enough time to do everything you want in Persona 5 and so you have to make decisions, who to spend time with, what to do after school. It’s not long until your social schedule is overflowing with things to do.

Between completing palaces and building social links, there’s also Mementos to tackle. If the game’s main dungeons have become more linear and story driven, then Mementos is the more typical, randomized floors seen in the other game. Like Tartarus, Mementos is divided up into a series of floors and zones as you progress deeper.

I’ve avoided talking about the game’s story largely due to spoilers. Atlus, likewise, seem especially nervous about spoilers, with my PS4 repeatedly telling me that every other scene is blocked from recordings and screenshots.

Thematically, Persona 5 is easily on par with its predecessors, exploring freedom, youth and, most importantly, anger at institutions of power in a way that feels earnest, genuine and remarkably poignant given the times we’re living in. It’s easily the most overtly “political” game that Atlus have written in recent years, with an anarchic sensibility. It touches on anti-capitalist themes here and there, with one villain being a business owner who sees his staff as nothing more than wage slaves, and makes for one of the game’s most interesting dungeon designs as you explore the subconscious version of his factory reimagined as a giant science-fiction fantasy staffed by robots.

Atlus manages to do all this without the themes themselves feeling pat or hokey. The game tackles these elements with enough subtlety that the player isn’t being beaten over the head, whilst still ensuring that those themes are resonant enough that it never feels flaky or vague.

It’s in the plot, then, the story that strings all these fascinating ideas together, that Persona 5 risks stumbling. The characters this time around are less engaging and memorable than those in Persona 3 & 4. It was always going to be a tough standard to live up to, but both the main party members, and the social links, never leave quite the same impression. There’s no relationship here that catches you off-guard, like Akinari in Persona 3 or Rise in Persona 4. It’s also hard not to look at some of the new teammates and just see older ones pasted over with a few different character traits; is Ryuuji really all that different from Yosuke and Kanji, isn’t Makoto just Mitsuru done all over again?

Persona 5 is so focused on its central story that the sub-plots and downtime, the moments that are arguably just as important to these games, is made much weaker. It’s made worse by the fact that the later parts of the game suffer from some poor pacing. Again, it’s difficult to articulate this without revealing massive spoilers but, as the game progresses, there’s little build-up to its climax, scenes can feel repetitive or altogether redundant (it wasn’t necessary for characters to repeat the same phone text dialogue every three or four days) as the game seems to shuffle towards its ending rather than build up to it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

None of this takes away from the fact that Persona 5 is  a fantastic game. It’s made by a team that’s still at their peak when it comes to crafting J-RPGs. It might stutter a little when compared to Atlus’ other efforts, but, barring some miracle, it will easily go down not just as one of the best RPGs of the year, but as one of the best games of 2017.


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