- Release Date (NA): March 31, 2020
- Release Date (EU): March 31, 2020
- Release Date (JP): October 31, 2019
- Publisher: Atlus USA
- Developer: P-Studio
- Genres: Japanese Role-Playing Game
Persona 5 Ignoble
It’s become a common criticism of video games to deride them as power fantasies. Usually deployed against military shooters and over-the-top action games, it’s often used to dismiss players as self-centred or childish, seeking validation in a shallow world where they get to assert their will through sheer force. Persona 5 ties in to this idea of video games as a power fantasy in an interesting way, in that you’re fighting for the oppressed and the downtrodden, but the world still feels just as hollow. Centred on a group of high schoolers who discover the power to turn evil people good against their will, it’s very much a game of its time, tackling many hot button issues. In particular, issues that are resonant among young people, such as sexual exploitation by those in power, corporate greed or corrupt politicians. Frankly, as a surface-level wish fulfillment scenario, it’s quite effective. Who wouldn’t get some satisfaction out of seeing these people filled with regret, forced to reckon with the consequences of their actions?
But the question on most people’s minds—is it right to brainwash evil people if it’s for the greater good?—is one the game isn’t terribly interested in engaging with. While the idea is given some lip service, that ethical conflict never spurs any real change in your characters or action in the plot. The villains are also portrayed as so cartoonishly evil, in order to justify your actions against them, that they cease to feel like real people. This is a major problem for a game that wants to dig in to the core root of this type of corruption.
The Persona series, as you might guess from the name, has always placed a strong emphasis on analyzing the human psyche, with much of the mythology taking cues from Jungian psychology. The dungeons in Persona 5 (called Palaces) are physical manifestations of your targets’ minds, allowing you to understand them better through the symbolism in the Palace’s design. For example, the first storyline has you dealing with a famed former Olympian, Suguru Kamoshida, now a PE teacher at your school who uses his power and influence to get away with perpetrating physical, emotional and sexual abuse against his students. (It doesn’t entirely make sense on paper, but parallels real-world scenarios enough that it’s passable with a little bit of suspension of disbelief.) Kamoshida’s Palace turns out to be a castle where he is a king and all the students are his slaves. It’s an effective bit of imagery, but there’s nowhere for it to go from there. Kamoshida starts as an irredeemable egomaniac and remains that way, which makes the exploration of his Palace fairly one-note. You may discover a new depth to his depravity, but there’s no new angle, no deeper insight, because humanizing him would mean confronting the ethics of the brainwashing you’re doing.
Contrast that to the way Persona 4 handles its dungeons. It uses the same idea of making them physical manifestations of someone’s psyche, but instead focuses on repressed emotions. Take, for example, Kanji Tatsumi, an aggressive loner and street thug. Kanji’s dungeon is a steamy bathhouse and his Shadow (how he sees himself; equivalent to the PE teacher from 5 seeing himself as the king of a castle) is an overly flamboyant gay stereotype. Your first thought, of course, is that Kanji is in the closet, which is causing his combative behaviour. That’s already a more relatable, human story than Kamoshida’s, but there’s a progression to it that encourages you to finish the dungeon.
It turns out Kanji’s family owns a textile shop, and he showed an aptitude for knitting at a young age, which led to him being mocked as girly. He compensated for this by adopting an overly tough persona, but that lingering insecurity made him question his masculinity and, by extension, his sexuality. Kanji’s sexuality is ultimately left unclear, and it could even be read as Kanji himself being unsure of his feelings, but he’s ready to accept it and be comfortable with himself until he finds his answers in his own time. And Kanji gets to stay around after the epiphany at the end of his dungeon, so we get to see how he grows from the experience and where it leads him. But since Kamoshida is a criminal, he is arrested and his story ends after his dungeon, so he, along with all the other villains, are never given a chance to become more than a caricature. (It’s worth mentioning that there is one Palace that operates much like Persona 4’s dungeons, focusing on a shut-in, and that Palace has by far the best design, with some clever choices that let us understand the owner better beyond the first impression of the Palace.)
Of course, there’s more to stories of abuse than the perpetrators, but Persona 5 falters in these areas as well. Let’s talk about Ann Takamaki, the character at the heart of the Kamoshida arc. Ann is pressured into trading sexual favours with Kamoshida in order to avoid similar abuse befalling, and to secure preferential treatment for, a friend of hers on the volleyball team. Ann’s story in particular resonates because it shows the way abusers isolate their targets and manipulate them into feeling partly responsible for what’s happened—Ann’s friend feels guilty because Ann has been doing so much to protect her, and Ann feels guilty for ultimately not being able to save her. It’s a promising start that keeps the tight character focus of previous entries, with a darker edge to it. But there’s an inconsistency to the writing that holds it back. Ann is also a model, revered for her beauty, and, aside from the commentary on sexual abuse, a big part of her story has to do with the way people objectify her and can’t get to know the real her. Yet, the game revels in every opportunity to objectify her itself. She spends the majority of the game in a skintight, red leather catsuit (not of her choosing). Many, many scenes feature her being hit on, ogled or groped. One male party member is hopelessly in love with her and spends the entire game trying to win her affection. Another is introduced through a storyline wherein he desperately wants to paint her naked. Her biggest contributions to your plans is reluctantly agreeing to use her sex appeal to flirt her way past an enemy. One of her unique combat abilities is using a sexy pose to distract the enemy and make it lose its turn. It’s relentless.
There’s nothing wrong with sexuality being a major part of a female character, but the singular focus on it with Ann, and the lack of active input from her, invalidates much of what makes her role in the Kamoshida arc work. Perhaps the idea is that women, regardless of how much growth they undergo or agency they decide to take in their life, can’t escape a world where they’re only seen for their looks. But that would contrast with the ultimately optimistic tone of Ann’s story, plus it would make the other heroes extremely unlikeable, since most of the harassment directed towards her comes from your own party. It seems more likely that the harassment is meant to be seen as good fun or boys being boys. While that’s not exactly new for the Persona series or anime in general, dumping it on a survivor of sexual abuse who wants to be defined by more than her sexuality gives it a particularly ugly feel. Most frustrating of all is the inconsistency of Ann’s response to these situations. If it’s coming from a villainous character, she’ll respond with appropriate anger and disgust. If it’s coming from a party member, however, her reaction can range from amusement, to anger, to beleaguered dismissiveness, to being completely oblivious to the fact that she’s being objectified. That last one, in particular, does a massive disservice to the struggle depicted in the Kamoshida arc. Moreover, most of these reactions serve to absolve the harassers without Ann actually playing along, allowing them to indulge in sexualizing her without having to justify why it’s acceptable here but not when others do it.
Let’s contrast with Persona 4 again. Rise Kujikawa is a teen pop idol, and experiences most of the sexualization you’d expect to go along with that job. When you meet her in person, she’s typically flirty and bubbly, unafraid to cuddle up to the protagonist or speak openly about the sexual tension in the group. The key distinction between Rise and Ann is that Rise takes an active role in her sexualization. Rise flirts with the protagonist because she enjoys it; Ann is forced into situations where she has to flirt to solve a problem. When the boys make inappropriate comments about Rise’s body, she generally accepts it with a straight-faced frankness that diffuses the grossness; Ann is usually unreceptive, but unwilling to fight about it much. Rise’s introductory storyline also has nothing to do with her looks or sexuality, whereas Ann is introduced as a woman under the thumb of a man who reduces her down to her body, and despite making a show of breaking free from that, the men in her life (and the man writing her) rarely let her become more than that for the rest of the game.
The reason I’m spending so much time discussing the first storyline (aside from wanting to avoid spoilers) is that, despite its massive missteps, this case and the following one are easily the most interesting of the game. The first two cases are on a smaller, more personal scale, with the second focusing on a young man being exploited by his adopted father and mentor. It does some good work portraying the way abusers can single out helpless people, make their victim indebted to them and gaslight them into accepting, or even embracing, their abuse. But past those first two arcs, the scope expands and that personal touch is lost, as the focus shifts to bigger targets, such as the organized crime boss at the centre of the third arc. Because it tries to comment on society as a whole rather than the struggles of the individual, it loses the character-focused nature of the other games and becomes more plot-dependent. Persona 3 and 4 (which share a writer/director with 5, Katsura Hashino) don’t have particularly strong plots, being dragged down by some abysmal pacing, repetitive dialogue, overlong expository scenes and awkward tonal changes. But they’ve always overcome those issues due to their fleshed-out characters and well-realized cast dynamics, that make you happy to just exist in the world with these characters. As Persona 5 attempts to dazzle you with a conspiracy-laden plot full of twists and turns, like a bad B-movie, it sells out its biggest strengths and leaves you with the weakest parts of the other games.
This leaves most of the character work shunted off to the Confidant system. Confidants (equivalent to the Social Link system from 3 and 4) are small side-stories where you spend one-on-one time with people around town, some from the main story and some who only show up in their Confidant storyline, helping them sort through their personal problems. These have always been hit-and-miss, with both 3 and 4 having some wonderfully poignant ones and some woefully pointless ones, and 5 mainly straddles this same line, even if it misses more than it hits. They suffer from the same melodrama as the main story, in that most of your Confidants are being obstructed by someone ridiculously evil, and you’ll take it upon yourself to perform a mini brainwashing. Some of the topics here could make for interesting stories—blackmail, domineering stage mothers, corruption in the media—but the bad guys are always cackling, gleefully evil supervillains, so it’s impossible to get invested in the emotional reality of your Confidant. Since your Confidants need to be innocent lambs (again, to justify the forced brainwashing you do to their enemies), most of these boil down to someone escaping a harrowing situation rather than a story of self-discovery or -acceptance, and because escaping that situation comes from your magic powers rather than any personal growth, there’s simply nothing to latch on to with these stories.
The Confidants that don’t have mini missions built into them generally fare better. Some are quite good, in fact. Helping a young artist rediscover his passion, getting the aforementioned shut-in used to life outside, reconnecting a stuffy (but well-intentioned) student council president with her student body. These are all simple, low-stakes stories, but they’re also deeply personal and, regardless of your experience with situations like this, the underlying emotions fuelling them are certainly relatable. They’re not perfect, and they don’t reach the heights of the best Social Links, but they’re at least on par with what the series typically offers.
As harsh as I’m being, I don’t think Persona 5’s writing is all bad. I love the personal touch and the messy subject matter of the first two arcs. This cast, despite being shallower than previous Persona casts, all have unique voices and it’s fun to hear them bounce off of each other. Despite having arguably the darkest tone in the series, it’s probably the most successful in its comedy, partially thanks to the phenomenal voice work but also due in no small part to some unabashedly silly writing. Your party members get some decent character stuff woven into the main story, and most of their Confidant storylines work. The central villain is one of the best the series has produced yet, by being everything the brainwashing targets aren’t: sympathetic and three-dimensional, all while keeping up the series motif of being a dark reflection of the protagonist. There’s a lot to like moment-to-moment that keeps you engaged and hopeful that it may come together, but it rarely rises above being an enjoyable-but-shallow distraction. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s certainly not commensurate with the lofty heights the series has reached previously, the clear ambition present in the writing, or the time investment required to reach the end.
Persona 5 Royal
Given the unrealized potential in Persona 5’s script, I had high hopes for Persona 5 Royal, an expanded remake that recently released. Similar to Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden, Royal primarily serves to expand the story and only offering relatively minor gameplay tweaks. Unfortunately, it really only adds to the original story, mainly through an extended epilogue, so the bigger issues in the script aren’t touched. The new characters and epilogue actually work pretty well, however.
The new party member, Kasumi Yoshizawa, is somewhat of a disappointment at first. Her introduction trailer made it clear she had the same powers as your group while standing in ideological opposition to them, and while that’s still true, noting much comes of it. She’s strangely disinterested in her magical powers, and though she still vocally opposes your actions, takes little action to stop you, so nothing comes of the conflict. Her Confidant route fares better, staying grounded the way the best Confidants do, by focusing on her overcoming her sister’s death and her struggles to accept her limits. It ends up a little lighter tone than you might expect given the subject matter, but it’s serviceable. Kasumi’s story really only pays off once you reach the new dungeon, Royal’s biggest addition, tacked on past the original end of the story.
While it doesn’t exactly slot in naturally (I think even people going into Royal blind will be able to tell this is an add-on made at a later date), it’s become my favourite Palace in the game. It tackles similar ideas as the previous final Palace—whether it’s better to live a happy life under someone else’s control or to live free and deal with the harshness of reality—but it resonates much better due to a more human, relatable villain and a stronger focus on the personal struggles of your party members rather than philosophical back-and-forths. It’s overwritten in the way Persona (and many JRPG) endings often are, which is especially harmful when the theme has already been covered in this game, but if you’ve put the hundred hours in to get to this point, it’s unlikely you’ll be deterred now. As mentioned, here is where Kasumi comes into her own, with her story tying in to the themes of the epilogue to give it a sense of urgency without overshadowing how it resonates with your original party members. Certain aspects of her story even parallel the dynamic of the protagonist and the original villain, giving new meaning to their relationship in a subtle way.
The new Palace also excels in its art and sound design. Looking somewhat crystalline, it’s vast and beautiful, reflecting the idyllic world the villain is trying to enforce, while the sterility and emptiness keep the underlying menace at the forefront of your mind. The theme song, Gentle Madman, performs a similar effect. The pleasant piano melody placidly plods along, lulling you into a calmed state, while the relatively hard percussion keeps you moving. The juxtaposition reflects the somber mood of the final mission, as the target here is much more sympathetic in his motives and his goals, but needs to be stopped due to the extremity of his methods.
It’s a relief to see the new music and art stand up to scrutiny, as the original Persona 5 set an exceptional standard in these departments. Every inch oozes with style, strong reds and blacks providing a sharp contrast that make the colours pop. Nothing is designed haphazardly, with everything from dialogue boxes to the menu options thrown in at differing angles and sizes, creating this controlled chaos that catches and holds the eye. There are also plenty of fun details, such as the knife that pins the date on the calendar at the start of every in-game day, to keep things varied and interesting visually.
The music and overall sound design are similarly excellent. Early sections have your character dealing with pervasive rumours about him, and as I roamed the halls of my school, I heard hushed whispers surround me as people gossiped about my checkered past. You’ll hear plenty of little conversations from background characters as they comment on what’s happening in the world, only a fraction of which will be displayed as text boxes, but these early ones that focus on the inescapability of your reputation were the most effective.
Shoji Meguro turns in a career-best score here. Mainly employing an acid Jazz style, the soundtrack is bass-heavy and features a lot of orchestral arrangements, with distorted electrical instruments often backing up the faster fight music and synthesizers accompanying the softer songs. Each track is memorable and evocative, creating an auditory language as tracks get reused and let you know what to expect out of a situation. For a game of this length, it’s impressive that the music never becomes repetitive or overplayed, but that only speaks to the variety and quality of the music. Royal only helps this by adding more tracks that blend seamlessly to the original score, giving the music a little bit of a longer shelf life. Of particular note is the new battle theme, which doesn’t replace the old one because it only plays during ambushes. Its opening notes immediately get you excited before it launches into an uptempo tune that amplifies the manic fun and kickass feeling of the combat.
Despite being turn-based, the combat achieves that manic energy from the gleeful satisfaction that comes from exploiting its bounty of tactical options. The signature “1 More!” system returns here, meaning if you knock an enemy down (by hitting an elemental weakness or dealing a critical hit), that character gets another turn. Baton Pass lets you pass your turn to another party member, meaning if they can down another enemy, you can pass the turn around to your entire party, recovering a little health and mana plus accruing bonus damage with each pass. If you knock down every enemy on the field, you can either do an All-Out Attack, a flashy attack that deals massive damage to each enemy, or a negotiation, where you end the fight by asking the enemy for additional money, items or power, at the loss of some XP (and the risk of the negotiation failing). Using certain attacks on enemies with status ailments nets you bonus technical damage, plus a chance to knock over the enemy if you’re facing one without any elemental weaknesses. Mana recovery items are sparse and you’ll need magic to get through the dungeons, so you need to pick and choose when to employ it, unless you want to continually leave and return another day. Add on top of this normal JRPG tactical concerns (balancing equipment in your budget, choosing party members to prioritize, deciding whether to make your team perfectly well-rounded or try to fill in their gaps with lots of items), and you’ve got a system where you’re constantly presented with choices and, even if they’re not always life or death, there’s still a lot of fun to be had from trying to maximize your gains.
This resource management is reflected in the life sim side of things. Each day gives you two time slots to perform activities, one in the day and one in the night (for some reason, whether you’re in school that day or not, you get one daytime activity regardless). Going to a dungeon counts as your daytime activity and heavily restricts your options for nighttime ones, which is why you want to complete the dungeons in as few days as possible. A lot of your activities will also raise social stats, which are needed to establish or advance certain Confidants.
Your Confidants are probably the main thing you’ll be pursuing in your free time, and if you’re not into their stories, there’s plenty of gameplay benefits to them as well. Persona 5 has a monster-collecting aspect to it, with the monsters acting as the main deciding factor in your combat stats and abilities. Each monster has a type (called “arcana”) that corresponds to one of your Confidants. When fusing these monsters together, you’ll get extra XP depending on the resulting creature’s arcana and how far along in the storyline you’ve gotten of the corresponding Confidant. On top of this, each Confidant unlocks extra abilities for you. Party members will unlock battle abilities, but non-party members are still plenty useful. This even creates an unintentional dilemma at times, where I was torn between spending time with Confidants for gameplay reasons or story reasons. Do I hang out with the boring Shogi master who teaches me powerful battle tactics (like being able to swap party members mid-fight), or the more interesting former Yakuza who’s only going to give me a discount on my weapons? Some Confidants will even raise your social stats at every visit as well, which really gets you the most bang for your buck on each activity, increasing the pressure to make the most of your limited time. Should I focus on raising a stat to push through one Confidant, or should I raise that stat by hanging out with a different Confidant, taking longer to reap my ultimate reward but getting a heftier net gain? It’s a genius system that appeals equally to the artsy, story-minded RPG player and the more technical, numbers-driven RPG player, only held back by the fact that the quality of the writing doesn’t nearly hold a candle to the cleverness of the gameplay design.
Royal adds in several new activities that will raise your social stats, but also give you other unique combat bonuses. Examples include the Jazz club that teaches party members a new skill, the darts board that strengthens your Baton Pass or the billiards table that increases the damage bonus and knockdown rate of technicals. Royal also gives you more opportunities for events, as the original had a bad habit of arbitrarily taking away your nighttime activity for little reason. It still happens from time to time, but now most of those nights will let you stay home and raise a social stat, but not go out to rank up a Confidant. Even if the efficacy of your activities has been lowered to reflect these extra opportunities (hypothetically; I have no idea if they have or not), it’s still a better design as it keeps the momentum up and makes you feel like you’re making progress, which is surprisingly rewarding. And I think that’s the key to why this time management system works so well: each activity is rewarding on one or more levels, but there’s always more to do, something you’re giving up, when you make your decision so it never feels like an empty or meaningless reward.
There’s also great care given to the setting to give the impression of a full, real life for your protagonist. As mentioned, the game is broken down into days, and your available options change depending on the day of the week. Confidants will only be available certain days, activities might be cheaper or more effective depending on the weather, some items can only be bought on Sundays, etc. Combine that with the accurate recreation of Tokyo for you to explore, and it’s easy to see how so many people (including myself, who’s lukewarm at best on the writing) can get sucked into this game for so many hours at a time. Even if the lack of depth to the writing can make the experience somewhat forgettable in retrospect, it’s hard to deny the addictiveness of this gameplay loop and reward system. There’s always something to look forward to in the calendar, just one quick thing you want to finish before you set the game down. The bustling metropolis is fun to explore and is overwhelming just when it needs to be, with plenty to find beyond the necessities if you want to go looking for it. The life sim and combat are a beautifully interlocking puzzle, with every system connected to another, every choice carrying true weight, and both are intimately connected to the story.
It’s hard to find a one-size-fits-all recommendation for Persona 5 Royal, since it’s so many different things to different people. For those who loved Persona 5 and want to revisit the world, it’s hard to imagine they won’t love this, as the additions only enhance the experience. For first time players, this is undoubtedly the one they should go with, as it’s the definitive version of the game, and it’d be a shame to invest a hundred hours into the original just to find out you didn’t get the full experience. If you already played Persona 5 but didn’t love it, this isn’t worth the double dip. As nice as the new stuff is, it’s all fairly minor (with the exception of the new Palace) and won’t be worth the time investment. And if, like me, you were disappointed by Persona 5 and were hoping Royal would be more of a fix for what was broken in the original, rather than just an expansion, you’ll be left disappointed this time around as well. Ultimately, Persona 5 Royal is just more Persona 5, and you likely already know if that’ll appeal to you or not.
- Brilliant marriage between the dungeon crawler and life simulator halves of the game
- Gameplay always feels connected to the story
- Music and sound design is top notch
- Inspired and stylish visual design
- The new Palace is the best in the game
- Script is more plot-focused than is typical for the series, and loses much of its depth in this exchange
- Confidant stories are same and generally one-note
- Villains are one-dimensional plot devices rather than real people