Persona 5 review
Warning: This review contains spoilers for early sections of Persona 5, some of which is disturbing. There's also some discussion of the ending's themes.
My save file says I have played Persona 5 for 120 hours and I still don't know who this game is for.
Is it for kids? Apart from the fact it has an M rating, Persona 5 opens with its teen protagonist drugged and beaten by police, then segues into a tale of horrific teacher-student abuse, culminating in a girl attempting suicide after being raped. That's the very first chapter. Even if the game's tone gets a bit lighter from then on out, I don't know if I would consider it teen-friendly.
Is it for adults? If so, Persona 5's storytelling is offputtingly shallow, a sugar-encrusted platitude about overcoming generational disenfranchisement with a bit of gumption and optimism. 100+ hours of high school students lamenting their suffering and exploitation at the hands of "rotten adults," only to get handed a paint-by-numbers resolution full of facile reassurances, torn straight from nearly every superhero anime you've ever seen. I do not know a single person over the age of 18 who has the time for something like that.
I still don't know who this game is for.
And yet. And yet. There are parts of this game worth lauding. The central cast is great, as is usually the case in Persona games. The graphical style is gorgeous, undeniably worth all the praise heaped upon it since the game's reveal. Two of the major late-game dungeons are incredibly well-designed, both as maps and as metaphors for political corruption (a leap I did not have to make on my own, as Persona 5's characters are always at hand to explicate these things themselves). Actually I would say the final third of the game is all pretty satisfying.
But taken as a whole, Persona 5 is an enormous mess, and I remain unconvinced the investment it requires is necessarily worth the payoff.
Let's start with the one thing Persona 5 definitely does better than its predecessors: combat and dungeon design. In past Persona games (at least, the ones Western players are most familiar with), dungeons were procedurally generated, meaning that exploration and level grinding were a monotonous chore. While there is a floors-based procedural dungeon in Persona 5 -- Mementos -- it's mostly optional; meanwhile, main story missions all take place in fully-realized buildings with concrete floorplans, facilitating all the backtracking and minor puzzle solving of other Atlus games while also offering a new cover-and-ambush system that, though too simplified to really be called "stealth mechanics," is nonetheless a fresh and welcomed change.
As a result, Persona 5's dungeon exploration differs in two fundamental ways from past Persona games: 1) each dungeon has its own distinct feel and internal logic; 2) almost all of the dungeons feel way too short. Party members exacerbate the problem, always urging the player to complete a dungeon as quickly as possible, despite the fact that the plot won't advance till a deadline has passed on the in-game calendar -- leaving the player with often huge "doldrums" periods in which there is little to do but go to school, work, and develop friendships with such colorful residents as Hot Dad Who Runs An Airsoft Gun Shop and Anime Bernie Sanders. While past games also had downtimes like these, the sense of urgency isn't quite the same as it is here, nor does the story's tension feel needlessly overextended the way Persona 5's does. But that's an issue of story, which I'll address below; in terms of level design, this is a wise move. Procgen dungeon crawling is so passe.
Combat is also a smart evolution over Persona 4, again diversifying the additional support abilities party members can perform, most critical of which is the Baton Pass. This ability -- which is unlocked for each party member by leveling up their 'Confidant' social link a couple times -- lets players immediately skip over the current turn order and send the next action to a teammate, boosting their attack and healing abilities. This can be done up to four times in a row just by hitting an enemy's weak spot or otherwise criticalling, and it means that under the right conditions combat is heavily slanted in favor of the player. Combined with party skills to randomly undo status effects and perform follow-up attacks (to say nothing of Futaba's Position Hack ability which is a straight-up cheat), it's actually difficult to not have a battle go your way right from the get-go.
Enemy negotiation -- a mainstay of other Shin Megami Tensei games, but new to players who've only encountered Persona 3 and 4 -- is a trickier beast, largely because Persona 5 obfuscates how these conversations actually work. Apart from bosses, enemies ("Shadows") have one of four personality types, each of which respond best to a certain kind of answer. "Upbeat" Shadows like jokey and nonchalant responses; "Irritable" Shadows like serious (but not necessarily threatening) replies; "Timid" types prefer answers that are gentle or apologetic; and "Gloomy" types, well... The tutorial (which you can only find by browsing the System menu) says Gloomy enemies like "vague" responses, but really what this tends to mean is they like answers that make the player sound lazy and unmotivated, like saying your favorite food is curry (as opposed to the "healthier" options). There are a lot of ambiguous and downright nonsensical dialogue interactions like that.
In other words, enemy negotiation's biggest charm point is also its biggest weakness here: the writing. This is a persistent problem in Persona 5's localization -- something I'll elaborate on below. If you really have difficulty persuading Shadows into joining you, I recommend chipping away at their health until they're near death, at which point most will yield and offer to join you automatically. (Or you can just extort huge wads of cash from them, then kill them anyway.)
Lost in Translation
I'm just going to say it: thematically, Persona 5 is hot cheesy garbage, like fully loaded poutine or nachos with a whole block of melted Velveeta poured on top. Tasty, maybe, but not exactly nourishing. Despite the "Phantom Thief" motif, it bears far less resemblance to crime and heist stories than it does to Atlus's old mainstay of supernatural horror, including the horror genre convention that if any of the protagonists acted rationally, the whole thing would be over in the first ten minutes.
But no one ever does act rationally, and what follows are 80-125 hours alternating between supernatural capers and the comforting monotony of a Japanese slice-of-life story. After a flashy prologue (casino heist! capture! forced confession!), most of the game plays out as an extended flashback, as the protagonist relates to public prosecutor Sae Niijima every mundane day in his life up to the time of his arrest. Each day on the in-game calendar, players guide their mop-headed soft boy hero to the train station for his crowded metropolitan commute, answer pop quizzes from petty-minded teachers, get three part-time jobs with ease despite the story's backdrop of economic downturn disproportionately affecting the young incoming labor force, and occasionally, perform mystical brain surgery by robbing the depths of someone's mind.
Every once in a while, the story will exit the flashback and catch up to "present time," where the protagonist's relationship rank with Niijima will go up. This means that things happening in "real" time are retroactively applying EXP bonuses to past events in the story that he is telling her about. There's also this whole thing with a talking butterfly and the Velvet Room and revising one's fate, which -- fuck it, basically what I mean is the timeline's a mess and divergent realities might be involved. That's not even the story's biggest headache.
You could argue that Persona 5 is a power fantasy about social reform.
In much the same way that shooters are often power fantasies about skill and domination, you could argue that Persona 5 is a power fantasy about social reform: not only can you change the world, it has finite HP and it's vulnerable to ice spells. Obligatory mascot character and talking cat Morgana brags that the hero and his compatriots are leading a "bloodless revolution," the symbolic killing of a few bad actors in these so-called "cognitive" worlds (the dungeons) somehow translating to political sea change, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sure, there is a point at which Persona 5 pokes holes in its own premise and reveals things aren't really as easy as they seem, but by that point, the player's already sunk about 60 or more hours into this story. That's a hell of an ask even from the most polished, smartly written RPGs.
And Persona 5's writing is not polished. The English vocal performances are generally OK, name pronunciations aside, but the lines they're asked to read are frequently stilted and unnatural, hinging on words nobody uses in everyday speech like "cognition" and "aesthetics," the latter deployed to mean something between a person's self-presentation and their commitment to moral principles. That's my best guess, at least? I don't fucking know.
Thankfully, there is both a free-to-download Japanese voice track and a "Log" button so you can review conversations, but this is like slapping a bandage on a gangrenous limb. A game with production values this high should not read like a fansub, and I don't mean that in the sense they left "bread" untranslated as "pan" or whatever -- I mean that it's sloppy, inconsistent, and sometimes just completely wrong. Take Yusuke, the socially-awkward 16-year-old artist who wears a fox mask: in Japanese, he's meant to sound formal and old-fashioned, but in the English script he has no well-defined character voice at all, alternating between sweepingly pretentious and totally average teen speak, "you guys"-ing with the rest of 'em. His English voice casting certainly doesn't help.
Lest you consider this all nitpicking, Persona 5's localization choices do indeed impact what the game is saying. Remember what I said about the game's first chapter, where a girl is raped and subsequently so traumatized she tries to kill herself? Persona 5 refers to this as "sexual harassment." Not as "rape." Not as the more nebulous "sexual abuse," additionally confusing seeing as this chapter doesn't shy away from calling out physical abuse. Just "sexual harassment," as if the script were suggesting she was catcalled to death. This may be a literal translation of the Japanese portmanteau used, "seku-hara," but using "harassment" in the localization when it is made abundantly clear the character was raped ("You took everything from her!" party member Ann screams) downplays the seriousness of the entire scene.
Localization isn't just about 1:1 translation; it's about ensuring stories make sense for the intended audience.
Worse, it doubles down on the cowardice of the original script, rather than seizing upon the opportunity to clarify and deliver maximum impact for the English-speaking player. Localization isn't just about 1:1 translation; it's about ensuring stories make sense for the intended audience. If it was "just" sexual harassment, and the guy who did this was Unequivocally Evil for doing so, then why are all the gross moments that come after it -- the lewd comments Ryuji lobs at Ann, Yusuke's stalking, the two camp gay men entreating the protagonist to strip, to name a few -- just harmless fun? Where is the consistency there?
"Oh, it's Japan, that's just how it is there," you might want to counter. Except these behaviors aren't acceptable in Japan either. And even if they were, this is a game being localized and sold to a Western, English-speaking audience. That matters.
But suppose you are the kind of person who calls strangers on the internet "SJW cuck" and you don't care whether a girl's rape is referred to as such in a major game from a major publisher. Even the more mundane examples I've provided here should illustrate just how inadequate Persona 5's localization is. Compare all this with Persona 4, which by most reasonable assessments represents a nearly flawless localization: it remains faithful to the source material with a few language tweaks to make the jokes land for an English audience, and delivers it all with vocal performances so good even a diehard of the dubs-versus-subs debate might have to reconsider their stance. There are a few fumbles, sure. But overall it set an incredibly high bar, one that Persona 5 falls disappointingly short of.
Do It for the Memes
The criticisms printed above are nothing compared to the whole laundry list of issues I have with Persona 5. I didn't even mention the trans woman who, though better than 99% of Atlus's transgender representation, still gets called a drag queen. Or the sheer number of adult women in this game who seem ready to hop into bed with a 16-year-old. Or that you still can't date your best friend, even though Ryuji is clearly just as in love with you as Yosuke was in Persona 4.
But I'll spare you, because at the end of the day, it serves no one any good to only emphasize a game's negatives. Inasmuch as Persona 5 can be cloyingly childish and it earned its biggest laugh from me during an inadvertent "clap for Tinkerbell" moment, there was a lot I really connected with in this game. Futaba and Makoto are two of the most relatable characters I've ever encountered. The "Confidant" social link with Yoshida, a downtrodden former politician whose speeches will remind you more than a little of the Democratic primaries, was another highlight. Persona 5 tackles social inequality much more directly than past entries in the series, and there are a few optional quests where you (say) get to take down somebody's abusive boss or a controlling ex-boyfriend. It's undeniably cathartic. And oh man, when you get to the dungeon critiquing the Japanese legal system, the game just shines.
For these reasons and more, part of me really wants to recommend this game to you. My criticisms exist as small drops in a considerably large bucket -- the problem is, taken altogether, the good points are just as tiny. Most of that bucket is taken up with just stuff.
Persona 5 is a big game, in case all of the preceding did not make that clear. I have yet to run across someone who's put in less than 100 hours on this thing. Most of that time is spent on day-to-day life activities: going to school, going to work, studying, buying otaku goods in Akihabara. The other major timesucks are dungeons and inventory management. You could, I suppose, get through the game never participating in social link conversations or messing with Persona fusion in the Velvet Room, but that will turn into a problem once battles start getting tough. If you're just playing for story, there's a "Safety" mode that dramatically reduces combat difficulty, but it doesn't make the game any shorter. If you don't care about story or you're on New Game +, there's a fast-forward button to skip dialogue, but you're still looking at one hell of a long game.
Whether or not Persona 5 is "worth" it depends on your patience.
In other words, whether or not Persona 5 is "worth" it depends on your patience. The story does reward you, eventually, but it's a long road to get there. In the amount of time it took me to reach Persona 5's third act, I could already have reached the end credits scroll on Persona 4, and that game has a much better whodunnit at its center. There are plenty of reasons for picking up a copy anyway -- because all your friends are playing it, because you were a fan of the past two games, because you want to understand the memes on Twitter -- but you should do so knowing the sheer scale of such an undertaking.
Moreso than its predecessors, Persona 5 asks a lot and offers very little in return, and what it does offer smacks more than a little of things you've seen before (including other Persona games). For some, that's fine. Like the day-to-day school and social life stuff that has become the hallmark of the series, sometimes the monotony is the point. If all you're after is another Persona game, but more, this will scratch that exact itch.
But sometimes, "the same but more" just doesn't satisfy. Atlus promised Persona 5 would be a return to the "dark" roots of the series, and while it's definitely darker than Persona 4, what I played was a mish-mash of dissonant ideas plagued by awkward and inconsistent localization, hedging itself where it should go all in. A rape isn't called a rape. Anonymous message board commenters can say "fuck," but principal character Ryuji has to console himself with "eff." Gay relationships with party members are still verboten, but a gay male NPC sexually harassing a teenager, that's perfectly palatable, I guess. The game calls out the social inequalities screwing over an entire generation, and then says the solution is, what, positive thinking? Better civic engagement? I would call it a compromised vision, but compromised with whom, exactly?
Persona 5 takes way too long to get to the point, only to arrive at an ending that is entirely standard Atlus fare.
Listen: no one spends 120 hours on a game with the intent of telling you it sucks. It is just not a thing that happens. I did not go into this game planning to rate it negatively, nor does any reviewer on any game ever, at least not in my experience. (And it is considerable, at this point.) If anything, the deck was stacked in Persona 5's favor here: I loved the previous games, Japanese RPGs are far and away my genre of choice, and I have almost certainly been a teen at some point. But Persona 5 takes way too long to get to the point, only to arrive at an ending that is entirely standard Atlus fare. I'm getting a little tired of committing weeks of my life to someone's school schedule just to punch abstract concepts to death. I would rather a game try to say nothing at all, than try to say something radical half-heartedly.
If you want to live in an anime with stylish classmates and talking animal companions, just stick to Persona 4. The Vita version even lets you take screencaps. As for this game, at least wait and hope Atlus will put out a revised edition. It might even come with all the costume DLC packed in.