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An average game wearing a spectacular mask

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    Persona 5

    Rating: 3.0 – Fair

    An average game wearing a spectacular mask

    With a title like that, let’s get the game’s biggest strength out of the way first. I don’t mean to sound too dismissive, because it’s a really, really good one. Persona 5 is simply the coolest game ever made. Period. Everything in the game’s presentation oozes a confident style that seems so effortless. It’s in the smaller details, like the loading screen transitions of little subway people moving from left to right or the hero jumping from/into the inky blackness of the loading screen during dungeons, or the animated menus that look like wanted posters. Even the intro cutscene has the cast ice-skating instead of doing something obvious like swinging swords or shooting guns. The sense of style is also present in the bigger elements. The music is top notch, as always for the Persona series. The character design is beyond reproach as well: the cast is generally very interesting and their Phantom Thieves alternate costumes are really badass. It says a lot about a game’s character design that the chick in the cleavage-revealing latex catsuit is one of the least popular characters among the fans.

    But what of everything else? Aside from its presentation, Persona 5 feels like a mediocre-to-good JRPG, especially when compared to the rest of the Persona series, to which it brings very little despite a hiatus of almost a decade.

    The social-sim/time management aspect is still a central part of the concept and mostly fun. Do I study, cozy up to my waifu or go dungeoneering? Of all the Persona games, this is the one where it is easiest to max out all social links and do everything without following a step by step guide, which is a big plus. However, the game doesn’t do anything to alleviate the inherent problem with the social sim aspect of Persona: it’s only grudgingly that the game gives you control over your life as you’re constantly being thrown in hours of cutscenes/dialogue. When you actually can go to a dungeon, you can finish it in one go, leaving you with nothing else to conquer for a while (which you should naturally try to do, as it’s pretty much the only element of the game you can use strategy to maximize). You’d think they’d mix up the formula a bit with more freedom, random events, secondary dungeons, branching storylines, etc., but nope.

    The size of the "world" i.e., Tokyo, is bigger than in the previous games, but it’s not saying that much. It has more or less five areas you can openly traverse, which really doesn’t feel like being able to roam in a big city. The game has two simple mini-games, so it’s certainly no Yakuza in that regard either, not that I really wanted it to be. If you’re attentive when walking around the streets, you can notice future events are foreshadowed and it’s a deft touch. The game’s single weapon/armor store always has the best stuff, i.e. better than pretty much everything you can find in chests, through quests or fusion (crafting). It’s efficient, I guess, but it’s one heck of a way to make exploration essentially pointless. Fairly early on, you can buy through a social link an accessory that gives back MP every round, which is gamebreaking since dwindling MP is the only real bottleneck to progress in a dungeon. You’ll barely ever need to look at another accessory again unless you hobble yourself on purpose. There are also often special sales and events depending on weather or the season and all of those are quite neat. Some of those items can be useful, but considering the above, it really doesn’t mean much.

    What about the combat? It’s the same system since the past few persona games, where hitting an enemy weakness grants an extra turn and hitting every enemy’s weakness in a turn will allow you to wipe them out instantly. If you’re playing moderately well, you should ambush and get a free turn on enemies 90% of the time, so enemies will never get to do anything. Not terribly strategic, if you ask me. In fact, the game is quite easy. You can put it on a harder setting, but it doesn’t change the strategy: suckerpunch or be suckerpunched. Besides, the game is already extremely long, do you want to make it longer by adding the occasional Game Over when a lucky hit kills your leader instantly?

    They’ve been dragging the same old enemy/persona models they’ve had since the PS2 era and used for more than half a dozen games now, so combat is getting pretty stale in that regard as well. They brought demon negotiations back, which ask you inane questions with the results based on the enemy’s personality ("what kind of sashimi would you be?" and the like). It’s as boring as it’s ever been, one more chore to add to the pile. All in all, however, the combat works smoothly in a challengeless way.

    The game’s single "optional" dungeon is called Mementos. Sadly, you’re never allowed to go further down than the difficulty of the last dungeon you’ve beaten in the main game. What do you think you’re doing, going on an adventure? The game has the usual NG+ optional superboss. To even get there, though, you’ll have to go through a significant part of the story a second time, which is a bore. It says a lot about that battle and the game in general that the real challenge is to find tricks to power up quickly in order to have to re-experience as little of the story as possible. I guess it’s a godsend they added a button to fast-forward dialogue. Small mercies and all that.

    Now the story is also a very important aspect. If I could summarize it in one word it would be: long. Most playthroughs of the game last around 100 hours and a ton of that is dialogue. The new gimmick is that the teenage cast are Phantom Thieves in an alternate universe where they can steal corrupted people’s hearts from their psychic fortresses to turn them into good people. They certainly came up with an interesting concept, no question about that. They handle it well at first: your first antagonist, a tyrannical, sleazy PE teacher is convincing as the kind of petty evil that’s easy to relate to. Except a few other good ideas, they never really explore the concept, though. Is it morally wrong to forcibly change a person’s mind, even a ¡°bad¡± person? The bad guys are so moustache-twirlingly evil that it hardly matters. Is such a ¡°forced¡± change of heart as a good a redemption as the real thing? Who knows, every antagonist mostly disappears for good the second it happens to them. The idea that you can change the bad guy’s heart without killing him is intriguing. It was their best idea really, it’s a shame they don’t do much with it.

    It’s weird that a game this effortlessly cool has such a bloated, mediocre story. The game hardly has the courage not to copy-paste its predecessors’ stories either. It’s very similar to P4, in particular (with some interesting nods to Catherine added in). The game has no confidence in your intelligence: every plot point has to be explained ad nauseam. The game is also much too wordy, with about 33%-50% of words in the game being totally uneccesary. Do we really need all those text conversations every three days where no one says anything in particular, with an added pointless answer prompt thrown in? You don’t need to re-explain the rules of the Metaverse "on camera" to every new party member either. You could probably cut 10-20 hours from the game without changing the plot at all, which is pretty insane, when you think about it. The quality of the prose itself is serviceable, but the English translation is sloppy, at least by Atlus standards. One more reason to edit the bloat and focus on quality over quantity.

    The thieving aspect is also awkwardly stapled onto the JRPG formula and matters very little. You can’t actually use stealth to avoid fights (you need that sweet xp, bro!). You also need to send a calling card to every bad guy, essentially adding two more days to every dungeon and 20 minutes of dialogue, all to ensure that you can’t press on and face the boss as soon as you reach the end of a dungeon. I guess it would be too exciting otherwise.

    The final act is spectacularly long and turgid, so much that it wastes the game’s best (but overwrought) plot twist by just going on and on. For example: the cast does the "Can’t move! Such power!" schtick four times and they re-state their character motivations for at least an hour. By the end, it also squanders the idea of thieves changing a person’s heart from the inside to become every other JRPG plot ever. So if you’re expecting more of the same cliches from a supposedly groundbreaking series, you won’t be disappointed.

    It may seem unfair to hammer on the game’s story, which admittedly might still be better than that of the average JRPG, but there’s just so much of it that it’s impossible to ignore the flaws. As it is, the game isn’t meant for children as it deals with grim themes like rape and powerlessness in the face of corruption. But it’s not really for adults either, because it really doesn’t have the intellectual clout to do much with its premise and not to fall back on banalities and cliches. So the game has that definite tinge of Young Adult fiction going for it. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it almost seems like most of its audience would poo-poo it if it were a novel, but glued onto a few inoffensive JRPG mechanics, the story is now an integral part of the best game ever. If Twilight came out as a JRPG, it’d be a critical darling I guess.

    It’s also ironic that a game whose overarching message is to make the most of your time in life and your relationships with others drags you in for 100+ hours. That’s some subtext, eh?

    It’s a common refrain that JRPGs are stagnating as a genre. I’d argue that with their rabid insistence to add ever more bloat, that they are actively regressing in that regard. This game is no exception, as by most accounts, it’s the longest in the series by one or two dozen hours. So Persona 5 has no answers to that issue, or any of the other ones that plague JRPGs. If Persona 5 is at the pinnacle of its genre, it’s only because of its spectacular presentation and not much else.

    Boy is it cool, though.

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