NOTE: I will leave this as spoiler free as possible and describe main themes rather than specific story notes. Be warned, some images will contain spoilers.
A few of you might be wondering where I’ve been hiding this month. I wish I had a great reason that involves international espionage or something, but the truth happens to be that I’ve been spending most of my free time playing a new RPG from Atlus called Persona 5. As of this writing, I just saw the end credits roll and with a tear in my eye I wish that I could play more. Usually a lot of JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) tend to be good for about 25-30 hours, then fetch quest you to a final boss that you don’t care about. My Playthrough of Persona 5 was 110 hours and I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted – I’m not one to immediately re-play a game, but I kind of want to with this one. I actually started to write this review a few weeks ago, but decided to stop in case the game “crapped the bed” at the end like so many do – thankfully that was not the case, and if there was any way to eloquently describe the opposite act I would write that instead.
For those unaware of the series my gushing pertains to, Persona is a long running spin-off of another series called Shin Megami Tensei which dates back to the NES days. If you want to see more info, I did a write-up a while back about how controversial the series was, that sort of shows you some themes and ideas within. SMT or “Megaten” games tend to be pretty hardcore, and for a while Persona has existed as a more casual friendly entry into the series, full of anime tropes and cut-scenes. As this series has matured, the staff has shifted the balance around a bit until they finally hit the sweet spot. I’m honestly leaning towards a “student surpassing the teacher” moment, and I think Persona 5 has been my favorite SMT game ever made.
So, what makes this game so good? Does the near unanimous praise this game has garnered from review sites come from anywhere or is this just weebs hyping something? The answer is – Persona 5 is a near perfect classic turn-based Japanese RPG – a genre that everyone has been abandoning due to age and lack of innovation. And while many former genre-mates like Final Fantasy have gone to action-RPG land, Atlus has doubled down and it paid off. At the game’s core are two gameplay features that define the series – demon negotiating and the press-turn battle system.
Demon negotiations are what led some to call this series “goth Pokémon”, but in truth Megami Tensei, the first game in this series, was released nearly a decade before Pikachu was a glimmer in anyone’s mind. So yeah, you do go around capturing monsters to force into battles, but it’s a bit different here, as these creatures (from gods to toilet demons) act as a way for the characters to use magic and strengthen attacks rather than actually throwing down. The concept here is that these creatures, called Persona, are shards of the mind of the psyche of the characters and embracing their power will lead the characters to self-discovery, and in this case, stand up for themselves. I’ll talk more about this later, once I finish up this thought.
The Press-turn battle system is perhaps one of my favorite RPG battle systems, as it forces you to think about strategy rather than plowing throw every encounter doing the same attacks. Basically, one attack is allotted per character deployed in battle. How you use these opportunities is crucial to your chance at winning the fight. By executing an attack (physical, magical, or using an item) one press turn will be used up. To make things more interesting, is the fact that you can lose and gain turns in a few ways. If an attack hits the enemies weak point or triggers a critical hit, you will gain a press turn (essentially an extra attack when all is said and done). Thus, making enemy exploitation and knowledge of your foes a primary factor in winning the battle. Be aware though that enemies can do the very same things to you. Therefore, if you are unprepared and caught off guard, even a much lower level group of enemies can defeat you quickly in a string of critical strikes. This exact situation happened to me in a few of these games, most notably SMT: Nocturne, where the game would constantly put you in situations where battles seemed almost impossible to win sometimes.
Now a great battle system can make or break a game, but the story is where it really counts right? Yes – and with this game the story was nearly flawless for me. I’m a sucker for anything related to western esotericism and Gnosticism, and this game is basically a media representation of many of the books and podcasts I like to study in my free time. For me, playing this game is almost like having the feeling of an epiphany the entire time which is a feeling I rarely have with games. In the past, The Persona games have been about the idea of secret inner beings that we force out of our mind. This concept is taken nearly directly from the pages of Swiss Philosopher and Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. When writing about his concept of a persona, Jung explained that many lack a persona –
“The alternative is to endure living with the absence of the persona—and for Jung “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground. […] Those trapped at such a stage remain “blind to the world, hopeless dreamers… spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.”
Then, there was the concept of recovery of these personas:
“Recovery, the aim of individuation, is not only achieved by work on the inside figures but also, as conditio sine qua non, by a readaptation in outer life—including the recreation of a new and more viable persona. To develop a stronger persona… might feel inauthentic, like learning to “play a role”… but if one cannot perform a social role then one will suffer. Thus, one goal for individuation is for people to develop a more realistic, flexible persona that helps them navigate in society but does not collide with nor hide their true self. Eventually, in the best case, the persona is appropriate and tasteful, a true reflection of our inner individuality and our outward sense of self.”
Within these few paragraphs lies the entire theme of this game – people are mere husks until they embrace a persona, nurture it through social interactions, and evolve it to better oneself.
On top of this, Persona 5 is about bad people doing bad things, and good people feeling hopeless about it. The problem is, genuinely evil people doing genuinely evil things are commonplace in our world. This might be as small as somebody cheating on their spouse or a policeman taking bribes all the way up to mass murder. For the most part, few have the courage or intention to go against this, since that is what our society has conformed to. We do many things to uphold collectivism, and feel that order brings “the greater good”. We listen to people in authority because we’re afraid that going against it will change our lives for the worse, no matter how much we disagree with them. If someone hides their bad intentions behind the media’s manipulation and lies, we believe it, because that’s all that we’re able to see. Without going into a political rant here, this game is very true to our current times.
Persona 5 is also about breaking free from those conventions, standing up for what’s right and basically throwing a big middle finger up to “the greater good”. In the game, our rag tag group of heroes assemble to help people that don’t have the power or courage to help themselves. They are all social outcasts in their own ways – a pair of juvenile delinquents, a foreigner judged for her looks, a stoic class president, a daughter of a powerful man, an artist seen as “eccentric” and even a person that shuts themselves away from the outside world. It would be easy for any of these characters to turn into bitter horrible people, but they don’t because they still have hope. Hope that humanity can turn away from evil.
Easily, one of the most fulfilling parts of this game – and the reason it made me emotional more than a couple of times was the way it handles relationships between characters, and even NPCs. This isn’t a new thing for persona, as all of the games since Persona 3 have had a “Social Link” system in place wherein one gets stronger as they nurture friendships between characters. in most games, interactions with NPCs are a few bland moments of time filling exposition and that’s it – here one can easily fall in love with even the simplest characters. Aside from dealing with your own problems, the main protagonist becomes friends and helps a slew of other people, all similarly down on their luck and wanting to give up. One example is a back-alley Doctor that ultimately supplies the party with medicines and other goods, Early in the game you discover that she has a troubling past and has basically given up on all of her dreams. and only after you push her to be her best, does she finally accept her faults and move forward with her life. and that’s only one of many characters you interact with
These interactions are not mandatory, as the game allows the player the ability to choose how to progress the game. with a limited number of things that can be done in any given day, as well as the need to place some needs above others, means that some friendships will not be as fulfilling as others – much as with real life. It seems that at any given time, you know you really need to level a character up, but tests are starting soon and you better study! And what’s that 6 other people want to hang out! Socializing in the world of Persona can be just as hard as in the real world it seems.
I promised that I wouldn’t go too far into spoiler territory, so I better leave it there. I would say this this is easily one of the best RPGs, scratch that, GAMES that I’ve played in the last decade. when most RPGs roll down a checklist of boring cliches, the Persona series continues to break new ground and re-invent itself each time. If you are looking for something different to play, and are willing to stick with a game that could clock in over 100 hours, you won’t find any more fulfilling game that came out all year. Here’s hoping that an inevitable “sequel” spinoff game comes out soon so I can hang with these characters again, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait eight years for Persona 6!
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