As a teenager I was obsessed by JPRGs, or as we referred to them at the time, RPGs. I had little exposure to any western ones during the nineties, and only really started to take notice of them in the early 2000s. Since then that side of the genre has taken over with franchises like Fallout, Dragon Age, Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls commanding the console market for whole generations. The average quality of the JPRG took a nosedive in the mid-2000s – Final Fantasy churned out 12 and 13 and all its terrible sequels (and the less said about 15 the better), Xenosaga started well but lost sales with every instalment until it was cancelled, the Tales series died after Symphonia and still trades on the strength of Vesperia, only viewed as great in the dearth of other quality titles. At the same time, people like me who had grown up on high quality FFs 7, 8 and 9, Xenogears, Star Ocean Second Story, Suikoden and Chrono Trigger, were expected to stomach fifty awful Kingdom Hearts decimal points that did nothing but leave a bad taste in the mouth (Don’t even get me started on what we eventually got with III). Masterful immersive titles used to come thick and fast, but in the last decade the genre has floundered against the rocks.
Thankfully there are one or two games that buck the trend and keep a fan’s hope alive. Zelda: Breath of the Wild redefined the open world trope so relied upon by western developers. And after a hiatus of 8 years Persona 5 crashed onto the scene in 2016 reminding everyone of just how good JPGs can really be. I was so disillusioned by this point I missed it the first time around. For the last 4 years Atlus have been spending their time honing, refining, slicing away chaff and adding heaps of new content into what has become Persona 5 Royal, a tremendous return to form for a genre that’s spent a decade on life-support.
Royal is so much more than a repackaged Game of the Year Edition with bundled DLC, but it’s also a bit less than a rebuilt game from the ground up, like the FF7 Remake, the recent Resident Evils or Shadow of the Colossus. This is a pimped-out all-guns-blazing stylish re-imagining of a game that was already top of its class.
So, for people like me who missed it the first time around, or the uninitiated, the Persona games (ever since 3) are a strange mashup of two of Japan’s favourite genres; the fantasy RPG and the social simulator. Half the game is set in the real world; you are a high school student in Japan, and you need to go to school, get a part-time job, study for tests and learn social skills in order to make friends or start romantic relationships. You also need to clean your room, enhance stat points by reading books or watching your character watch DVDs, navigate the Tokyo underground, and manage your time very efficiently. The other half of the game is spent in a kind of fantasy netherworld unreality called The Metaverse; a dungeon crawler with hundreds of hours of turn-based combat and exploration, leading to bosses and ultimately advancing the story. The conjunction of these two genres makes Persona somewhat unique and has proved to be a winning formula. The closest western equivalent I can think of is Bully, back on PS2, which incidentally came out within months of Persona 3. School life simulators must have been on trend.
Stolen My Heart
The narratives are where the games have always shone, and though this one is familiar, it’s still wholly its own beast. In Persona 5 you play as Joker, a high school delinquent who has been relocated to Tokyo after getting in trouble trying to save a woman’s life. You now live with surly ladies-man and coffee shop owner Sojiro, who misses no opportunity to berate and threaten you with eviction and only lets you live above the coffee shop in a garbage filled attic (for most of the first five hours, all I anxiously wanted to do was tidy that room!). At school the false rumours about you are rife, making it hard to make friends, apart from with other outcasts. Enter Ryuji, a wronged punk with a heart of gold, and the beautiful and misunderstood Ann. There are stirrings of unrest at the school as you slowly uncover more and more about a teacher who employs abuse and manipulation to lord it over students and faculty alike. Soon you have access to a strange reality where you can enter the psychic realm of others and gain the ability to defeat them in the Metaverse which in turn coaxes them to have a change of heart in the real world.
There are a hundred other side plots to this, and that’s barely the first ten hours. Your team recruits more interesting party members eventually becoming the Phantom Thieves, setting to rights wrongdoers of all types and professions across Tokyo. The game is a masterclass in writing believable vulnerable characters and includes so much intense and often heady character exploration I became more attached to these delinquents than I have to many characters in the last few years of gaming.
It’s also very dark in places and delves into subjects most games wouldn’t touch. There’s a multi-layered predatory storyline at the heart of the first few hours. The students are being bullied and blackmailed by an adult in power over them, able to ruin their chances, or advance them in exchange for favours. They are both physically and emotionally abusive and manipulative, and as the player it’s your job to get involved, to do something meaningful to put a stop to what’s going on. It’s not every game or every anime that deals with abuse and coercion head on, and though it’s sometimes hard to watch, it’s an emotionally resonant story that really involves the player in the characters of the story. The writers should be commended for tackling such heady subjects with both subtlety and heart. It’s exactly the kind of stuff fifteen-year-olds should be exposed to. There’s some stark reality in the middle of this high fantasy anime RPG.
My go-to game for character interactions that have surprised me in the past few years has been the Witcher 3 and its seminal first act dealing with the Baron and his estranged family. Persona 5, even within just a few hours, has that level of sophistication to its narrative, even though it’s an anime, the most melodramatic of mediums. I cared for NPCs very quickly, I felt outraged, I felt the injustice of what was happening in their lives. And then I got the catharsis of being able to do something about it. It’s the magic of videogames, having the power you don’t have in the real world, and having an actual effect on your world.
Money Can’t Buy Style
The style of the game is probably what most people see first; it oozes Japanese punky cool from every flashy screen. Menus, transitions, powers, level ups, speech, everything that could be animated has been and it breathes such a wonderful life into the game. Menus move in a flash, there’s no slowdown on anything and you will barely notice any loading screen. Japanese RPGs are often known for wacky and flamboyant character and enemy design and Persona’s design is on steroids; your Metaverse outfits are especially cool, bosses are completely ridiculous throughout the game, and some of the later Personas are breathtakingly intricate.
Persona 5 accentuates and doubles down on the most fun, most stylish parts of an RPG and ditches as much as possible of the grind, the downtime, the boring stuff. For the most part it succeeds. Everything is streamlined; even walking is too much bother in this game; within a two-hour stint you are introduced both to a stealth mechanic to jump from spot to spot and ambush your enemies, and a grappling hook to get to those hard-to-reach places. Most RPGs bank hours of play forcing you to travel from point A to point B, padding out otherwise sparse worlds and narratives with long journeys. There’s never any of that in Persona. If it can use a gimmick to get somewhere, or a fast track mechanic, it will. You can fast track every conversation, backup characters earn EXP without participating in battle; there’s a lot for a speed runner to take advantage of.
Style isn’t only seen in the visuals; the music, themes and sound effects are all exceptionally catchy. Royal has a number of ear-worm theme songs and when the first one came on it threw me back to those days when the first trailer for FF9 broke and the hype of Melodies of Life. Theme songs have not been the same for so long now. I hope you like ambient trip hop acid jazz, coz it’s all you are going to be listening too for the next 100 hours. The music has elements of a dozen different genres though, many you wouldn’t place together, including hip hop, heavy metal and Chobits-style doo-wop. Its crazy, but I’ve been humming them for weeks now. The English dub is well done by confident and capable voice actors working with an often-melodramatic script and the writing localisation in particular is fantastic. Ryuji especially is very believable, using tons of colloquialisms that would not have been in the Japanese original.
Gotta Catch ‘em All
Persona 5 wonderfully employs turn-based combat, without ever making you have to wait your turn. You have a team of 4 in battle and each party member can tap in their own psyche to unleash a Persona, a larger than life outrageously-designed demi-god to fight for them. You level up with experience and so do your Personas, giving you access to more attacks and magic. Joker can also capture enemies and use them as his own Personas, introducing a whole Pokemon-like collection mechanic to battles. You have lots of freedom to fuse personas together, evolve them into new forms etc and make your team unstoppable.
Another interesting mechanic is guns; in Royal each character has a gun, and one clip per battle (this was one clip per dungeon-run in the original). In the first few hours, these guns can feel shockingly overpowered, allowing you to rinse through enemies, but before long some enemies become immune, and the game does a good job of balancing out this very useful addition to combat.
The main areas to explore are the Palaces created by the distorted desires of those you are trying to defeat. Each palace has an intrinsic detailed theme, and is a lot of fun to traverse and find every secret in. The graphics and colours really pop, and I found these areas, though a little sparse sometimes, never got old in the three or four stints you will generally need to best them. In between Palaces you can still find fights in Mementos, a massive multi-floored procedurally-generated uber-dungeon. You traverse this huge place in a cat-bus – only in Japan. I especially loved the little in-joke that the cultural psyche of Japan seems quite happy to put cats and buses together, probably ever since My Neighbour Totoro.
But all this combat must be balanced in the real world, with the social: exploring your school, hanging out with friends, work a job, and hundreds of other things besides. There are a ton of options which really helps the whole game stay fresh and not get bogged down in minutia, something that is very easy for complex RPGs – there’s no pointless item systems for example. Shibuya’s back streets are vibrant, lived in spaces that really feel real. I couldn’t think of a better game for isolation. It’s like living another life, and I don’t mean like any old RPG. In Persona you live actual day-to-day tasks, yet somehow its rarely boring.
The game is huge, with seven or so large palaces to complete, Mementos to keep you going on the battling side, and around 80 hours of narrative that will take most players quite a lot longer. The ‘Royal’ enhancement has added far more than you might imagine; a new playable character and storyline, a new palace and school semester, new locations in Tokyo including many new minigames, an expanded selection of enemies and personas, the grappling hook and all the new areas that come with it, and loads of new gameplay options including new attacks, items, weapons and mechanics.
Change of Heart
Now, you’d be forgiven so far for thinking we were verging on a ten, but there are some issues here.
It seems very counter-intuitive to say that a game with this much to do in it, is actually very restrictive, but let me try to explain. There’s not a lot of freedom in the world of Tokyo. Areas are small and cramped, and the focus for exploration has gone on Mementos and the Palaces. I was constantly stopped from doing what I want to in the evenings by my pet cat telling me it’s too late and I’m tired, even after the story begins to allow you to go out later, which can get very frustrating. We are very used to games allowing more freedom than this. In GTA5 I can be out all day every day, and pretty much never sleep. Not in Persona – you have to sleep. In that sense it’s realistic, but it’s also often claustrophobic and obstructive to that same sense of freedom it’s trying to give you.
You can’t pause most of the time. This has become common in online games, but in single-player pause should be mandatory. There are long periods between chances to save. And really annoyingly the ‘Options’ button that pauses most games, skips the conversation you are in, and you can’t go back. I missed conversations doing this a number of times. To add a little insult, it is then the same button to save your game when in the real world, so if you care about the conversations, you know, be careful. Only later did I discover the text log by pressing L3 – that’s great and allowed me to go back and read what I’d missed, but you know what, the horse has bolted.
For all its vaunted storyline dealing with abuse and harassment, Persona 5 manages to wrongfoot itself in tone a number of times. You are fighting against sexual harassers, so why still include common anime tropes that are clearly sexually exploitative? Spoiler alert: Ann’s character goes through a complex overcoming of sexual harassment, calling out her abuser and destroying the sexualised version of herself, but at the same time her avatar is repeatedly shown in a bikini and provocative catsuit. I want to read it as her owning her sexuality after throwing off the harassment that made her hate it, but it comes off as nothing of the sort.
Without spoiling much, another scenario later has her needing to strip to get information from a target; she is clearly very much against it, yet the boys in the team encourage and essentially force her into doing it. It’s played for laughs, which is a common anime trope, but the boys have essentially become her harassers. This is not the serious and adult tone struck during the rest of the story and it annoyed me. Anime and the games that use its clichés need to come into the 21st Century. This game came out in 2016, but the Royal remake would have been a fantastic opportunity to ditch a little of the fan-service and earn the more serious tone it’s aiming for.
Saved by the Bell
There’s a lot to be said about Persona 5 Royal. Its massive, intricate, bursting with ideas and story and no review is going to even scratch the surface of what is without doubt one of the best offerings to come out of Japan in years. I started by explaining the contemporaries that Persona 5 exists within to give you some idea of just how much of an achievement this game is. It’s not quite perfect, but its closer than any JRPG has come in the last decade or more and breathes new life into a lagging genre. If you like RPGs, anime, engrossing narratives, or just a second life to live, and you are anything like me and have lamented the dearth of real quality JRPGs in the last decade, you owe it to yourself not to miss this.
I’ll leave the anxious among you with this tiny spoiler alert; it’s okay, you do eventually get to tidy your room. Phew!
Persona 5 Royal is available now on PS4.
Developer: Atlus P
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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