In a year already offensively overloaded with Game of the Year contenders, Atlus’ long-awaited RPG Persona 5 has finally arrived in the west, to the delight of critics everywhere.
With this in mind, as the Persona series’ number one shitposter, I feel it’s my duty to tell you why you pricks should finally cave and play Persona already.
The Persona series, for the uninitiated, has become beloved for telling the story of everyday teenagers coming upon mysterious new powers and monstrous enemies. The core gameplay involves managing your time effectively. Sure, you have to save the world – but you’ve got exams, and I think that girl in Drama club fancies you. Introduced in the third game, Social Links have become the heart of the series. Hanging out with your mates will increase their stats, unlock new powers and allow you to fuse more powerful personas – Essentially the series’ answer to Final Fantasty-style summons. Speaking of Final Fantasy: Don’t be put off by the number. While each game exists within the same universe, they’re all standalone stories, so you won’t miss anything by jumping in now.
Now, since this blog is apparently dedicated to shitting on the things I love, I want to get this out of the way. Persona 5 is not the best Persona game. That crown still (and likely always will) belongs to Persona 4: Golden, voted the best JRPG of all time by Objectively Correct Magazine (2016). It is, however, perhaps the most accessible entry to the series to date.
Perhaps the biggest factor on scaring away new players is how disgustingly anime it all is. Whilst singing the series’ praises, I always run into the same arguments: “This is a weird hentai game for weebs. Never speak to me again”. Which… I’ll be honest. I can’t argue with that. Persona 4 especially is soaked in typical anime bullshit: Each member of its main cast more or less fits into various anime tropes. The idiot best friend, the tomboy, the refined heiress and the implausibly young detective. At first glance you’ll feel that you’ve either seen these characters before, or desperately avoided doing so. Whilst the true strength of Persona 4 lies in its ensemble, you need to get a decent length into the game’s hefty runtime before that becomes apparent.
Another issue is that the initial pace of Persona 4 is glacial. Whilst it’s a decision that mirrors its setting of the sleepy rural town Inaba, it asks for a lot of patience as it plods along for its opening hour or so.
Persona 5, however, has none of these concerns. Whilst still utilising anime cutscenes, the game feels effortlessly cool: Right down to its menu screens – If the efforts to add flair to even the most basic of features in Persona 5 were a conscious attempt to broaden its appeal outside the anime fanbase: It worked. You’ll spent your first hour or so of the game wondering how you became the kind of worthless bastard who gets impressed by menu screens and UI design. You’ll hate yourself, but love the game.
The soundtrack has been composed with this in mind. Whilst still remaining as catchy as ever, the music evokes feelings of leading a team of jewel thieves, instead of an exciteable teenager at a Taylor Swift gig. The best point of reference for the change in tone is the spin-off game Persona 4: Dancing All Night. Whilst Persona 4 could have a Japanaese Idol-focused dancing rhythm game sequel, a Persona 5 spin off would involve drinking whisky to the beat of a smoke-filled Jazz bar, or burning an effigy of Thatcher at a punk show.
The characters too feel a little more nuanced and varied than what was seen in previous games – from the agoraphobic Futaba to the Phantom Thieves’ PR guy Mishima, who’s maybe just a little bit much, dude. Dial it back a bit. Whilst this does come at the cost of the ensemble not feeling quite as solid as Persona 4’s teenage detectives, the characters are more interesting in isolation – each struggling to find their place in a society that labels them as outcasts.
Just as Persona 4 matched its pace to its sleepy surroundings, Persona 5 throws you right into the action, as you’ll encounter your first dungeon and be introduced to the updated combat mechanics within the first hour. Dungeon crawling has seen a significant update here. Persona 4’s randomly generated dungeons, generally regarded as the game’s weakest moments have been abandoned. Persona 5’s palaces have been designed with care, each evoking an aspect of that month’s villain’s personality.
In terms of both storyline and gameplay, the Persona series follows a template so rigid that series veterans knew exactly what to expect before Persona 5 was even out. The game is never over when you think it’s over, the villain isn’t who you think it is, and the final act will be borderline incomprehensible. It’s not what the story is, it’s how the story is told, and the friends you make along the way. In this, the latest entry to the series is perhaps the least intimidating.
Persona 5 ditches the small-town vibe of 4’s Inaba, replacing it with a grubby city life – Filled with corrupt politicians and obscene train fares. Whilst this move loses Inaba’s memorable simplicity, it’s the perfect setting for the game’s tone.
The city feels cold and seedy when contrasted with the welcoming Inaba. Persona 4’s protagonist was Handsome McEveryman – an instantly popular exchange student. Our new protagonist is less fortunate. Forced to transfer after being expelled due to a recent criminal record, you’ll be treated as a liability by your elders, and a delinquent by your peers. Persona 4 flattered you with the nerd fantasy of being the popular kid at school. Persona 5 would rather ingratiate you with a group of outcasts rebelling against the society that rejected them. From the start, Persona 5 provides a relatable foothold for those who might have bounced off the peaceful, innocent beginnings of the previous game.
An obvious, but important note to make: This is the first Persona game in years to be released on a system people actually own. As the kind of insufferable bastard who relentlessly recommends the things he loves to his friends, until they either surrender to my will or leave my life entirely: recruiting for the church of Persona 4 is a huge ask. Newcomers are forced to either dig out a copy of the PS2 original (costing around £20, because the internet is terrible with retro games) and play on an outdated system like a goddamn animal, or buy a PSVita: A purchasing decision so poor that Sony themselves will personally call you up and ask you if you’re okay. Given Atlus’ apparent reluctance to port P4:Golden to the PS4, there’s currently a pretty high barrier to entry for would-be Persona fans.
The age of these games also has to be taken into account: Persona 4 originally released in Japan in 2008, reaching Europe in 2009. Whilst the anime avatars (not the alt-right kind, thankfully) for each character shown during dialogue adds personality to the games’ cast, the character models themselves have come to resemble haunted mannequins, fuelled only by hatred for their malevolent creator.
Whilst the core gameplay of Persona has remained largely unchanged since Persona 3, graphically the games have seen better, more naive days. Persona 5’s smoother character models will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the Wii U’s Tokyo Mirage Sessions, also an Atlus creation.
The improvements go beyond the graphical too. Gone are the days of having your friends form an orderly queue at lunchtime to tell you they’re ready to level up their social links, like the world’s most polite stalkers. Persona 5’s confidants will simply text you asking you to hang out, and you can respond or ignore them at your leisure. This removes some of the organisational stress that came with life in Inaba: I’m sorry Rise, Kanji wants to hang out, and I’m fairly sure you’re a sexual predator.
Whilst Persona 5 may not surpass its predecessor, it serves as the perfect entry point to the series. Stripped of the most off-putting aspects of the series, and wrapped up in a stylish, polished package, Persona 5 may finally be the game that convinces you normie cunts. Persona 5 may serve as the inoffensive opening to the series, encouraging new fans to dip their toes in older games afterwards.