Losing your Heart in the big city: The Importance of location in Persona.

Persona 5, released in Western markets in April, is a very, very good game. An early GOTY contender in an already competitive year for great games. Despite this, as I explained in my previous post on the game, Persona 5 is not the best Persona game. Therefore, as I’m apparently a terrible person who doesn’t deserve happiness – Here’s everything that’s wrong with my favourite game of this year.

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As much as “The real character is the city, you guys” is a trash statement used exclusively by pricks, the tone and pacing of both Persona 4 and 5 is dictated by their locations. The contrast between Persona 4’s small town of Inaba and the busy, sprawling city of Persona 5’s Tokyo is not only symbolic of the differences between the two games, but also the cause of many of Persona 5’s strengths and failures.

The most immediately apparent change from its predecessor is Persona 5’s pacing. Persona 5 throws the player right into the action – Introducing the game’s first palace and combat mechanics within the first hour, in stark juxtaposition to the slow, methodical pace found in Inaba. Whilst the Phantom Thieves are killing shadows and stealing hearts, the protagonist of Persona 4 (Yuu Narukami) is getting carsick and making awkward small talk with his new classmates. Whilst this decision certainly makes Persona 5 a more attractive proposition to new players, it’s also reflective of the game’s setting.

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Whilst potentially off-putting, the glacial pacing of Persona 4 feels like a narrative choice rather than a failure. The main hook of the Persona series has always been its ability to link high fantasy with the relatable realities of daily life. In this, the slow, plodding introduction to Inaba perfectly reflects the small town life. The game wastes no time in telling the player that living in Inaba is boring. There’s nothing to do and everybody knows each other’s business. City boy Yuu Narukami becomes an instant celebrity at school just for being different. Whilst placing the player as the new popular kid at school might feel like a nerd power fantasy, it’s nonetheless reflective of the game’s setting. Despite being fictional, Inaba immediately feels real to the player, as they interact with the town in the same manner as its inhabitants: Sitting around, waiting for something big to happen.

Persona 5 couldn’t be further removed from this. Its portrayal of Tokyo is vast in comparison to Inaba, with far more activities and areas to explore. Perhaps in reaction to this, the story moves at a hectic pace. It seems contradictory to claim that an 100+ hour campaign could possibly feel rushed, and yet the game offers few moments to truly sit back and relax. From its opening hour that cuts right to the action, to an uptight cat implementing the most rigid bedtimes ever seen in video game history, the narrative desperately pulls the player along behind it, for fear they’ll get distracted and left behind otherwise. In this, Persona 5 emulates the worst aspects of city life. There’s lots to do and places to see, but when will you ever have the time? You’ve got school in the morning, and your cat is being a real dick lately.

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Perhaps worst of all, the central relationships of the game have been compromised in the move to the city. While each of Persona 5’s main cast is strong in isolation, they don’t work as well as an ensemble as the cast of Persona 4. Inaba’s amateur detectives are better than the sum of their parts – The Phantom Thieves just don’t have the chemistry of their predecessors.

Inaba is the perfect setting to have a diverse range of characters with contrasting personalities and motivations, and yet keep their resulting friendships believable. Their friendship grows not because of their similarities, but in spite of their differences. The group has the inevitable personality clashes and sexual tensions that arise from a group of friends that has formed out of necessity – The town is too small for them to stay with people more in-fitting with their comfort zones. They do everything together – from solving murders to snowboarding – Because there’s literally nobody else. The cast grow to love each other just as the player, in turn, learns to love them: Via a Hellish Stockholm-syndrome. Their affection for each other in the game’s closing hours is real, but it took work to get there.

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The Phantom Thieves lack this central chemistry. The game attempts to echo the varied cast of previous games – but with less of a reason for these people to be friends. Whilst circumstance may pull them together, as each finds their own reasons for joining the Phantom Thieves, there’s little that holds them together. Reflecting the game’s tone, the cast maintains a laser-focus on their activities as Phantom Thieves. The Inaba gang spent just as much time playing at the beach, arguing about curry and being horrifically homophobic to each other as they did actually solving murders. In Persona 5’s hurried narrative, the gang are never given enough time to bond as a group. Even their activities outside of exploring Palaces inevitably end up with them discussing future targets, or their popularity ratings. The group feels as if they lack common ground, and just discuss the one thing they have in common to avoid awkward silences. Once they’re done being Phantom Thieves, what keeps them together?

They each have more active lives outside of each other, far more than the cast of Inaba were permitted. Ryuiji has a complicated relationship with his former track team, while Anne is focused on her modelling career. The cast is found spread out across the city, pursuing their own interests in isolation from each other, in an admirable commitment to urban solitude. While their social links are engaging, and build a believable relationship with the protagonist, there’s little that bonds them to each other. Once the protagonist has moved home, why would they still be friends? What unites them? Despite featuring a more diverse and potentially interesting cast, Persona 5 seems to have accidentally recreated the loneliness of inner-city life.

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The success of the Inaba gang speaks for itself. By the time their investigation has concluded, it’s an emotional moment to say goodbye. Emotional enough that Atlus successfully revisited the cast in entirely different genres. Their chemistry works as well in their JRPG roots as it does in their dancing and fighting game spin-offs. Can the same be true of Persona 5? Will players be as eager to reunite with the Phantom Thieves?

Persona 5’s recreation of Tokyo is as loving as it is accurate. It’s just perhaps a little too accurate. Whilst there’s far more to keep players occupied here, the series seems to have lost the heart that comes with limited simplicity.

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