By Henry Lopez
I have noticed a very interesting trend happening over the past couple of years when it comes to gaming, that trend being that Japanese game development seems to be on the upswing. It was not too long ago when gamers and even other developers where talking about the sad state that Japanese game development was in, and in a way I somewhat agreed with them. But something happened over last year or so where all of the sudden everyone was excited again about what was coming out of Japan. Long time Japanese franchises released some of their best games in a long time (looking at you Resident Evil VII, and Final Fantasy XV), and there was exciting new games coming out from the region. All this coupled with the fact that Nintendo had an incredibly successful launch of The Switch. So it feels like it was perfect timing that Atlus released Persona 5 this year in the west. Persona 5 could have easily crumbled under the weight of hype that the franchise had garnered over the years but that was not the case. Not only has Atlus managed to continue the trend of the Japanese gaming revival, but they also might have created the finest JRPG of the last 20 years.
It has been almost a decade since Persona 4 originally came out on the PS2, and over the course of those years anticipation for the fifth installment as well as its fan-base has been slowly growing. I for one became a fan of the franchise after playing P4, as well as its fighting game sequel Persona 4 Arena. So naturally my excitement for Persona 5 was pretty high. As it turned out the game delivered in every single way I was hoping, and then some. The thing that drew me in about P4 was its characters and how it juggled the fact that the game is half dungeon crawler rpg and half social simulator. P5 continues this design philosophy, but they have made simple tweaks so that in what is easily a hundred hour journey the formula never gets stale or repetitive. For me it never got old jumping out of a dungeon in order to continue my life as a student in Japan and vice versa. This is partly thanks to the wonderful cast of characters you encounter throughout your journey, as well as the fantastic setting of the game. Characters range from an anthropomorphic cat who is trying to figure out whether or not he is a human, to an alcoholic journalist who you ended up giving scoops on stories that are happening in the area. What makes the characters really pop is the fantastic voice talent behind them. While there are some clear errors when it comes to the localization of the game, the voice talent does more than enough to pick up the slack. One of the standout performances in the game comes from Cherami Leigh who voices Makoto Nijima, one of your fellow party members. For me Makoto has the most interesting character arc in the game, and Leigh’s performance captures this perfectly.
The story while not being anything groundbreaking does feature some fantastic concepts and a wonderful set up that kept me wanting to play for hours on end. The story centers on a group of high-school students who and are not too pleased about the way it is headed and are out to reform it. They accomplish this by going into people’s subconscious and making them have a change of heart. Think of it like Inception only with a lot more color and flare and less pretentiousness. They use personas which are beings created from their own subconscious to help them out on their journey. They end up calling themselves The Phantom Thieves and throughout the events of the game they end up gaining a large following in Japan, but not everything is what it seems. While it is not the deepest thing when it comes to narrative, it uses its concepts to the fullest in very interesting ways. Let’s just say that there is a wonderful albeit unintentional parallel to the 2016 presidential election. Another thing that keeps the narrative fresh is the relationships and bonds you form with what the game calls confidants. Your confidants not only consist of your party members but also assorted other people you encounter in the game that end up helping you throughout. The forming of relationships and hanging out with your confidants has always been a big part of the franchise and Persona 5 does a fantastic job with it.
Atlus’ games for the most part have always been known for having an incredible art direction, but Persona 5 takes it to the next level. The game oozes style during every single minute of it. The character and creature designs are absolutely phenomenal. But it does not stop there, the dungeon design, and the way the combat looks is like nothing you have ever seen before. Even the way the pause menu is designed is striking and original. It also features an incredible soundtrack composed by long time series composer Shoji Meguro. The soundtrack which goes from J-pop, to rock, and a whole lot jazz fits the mood of the game perfectly. It is one of the handful of gaming soundtracks that I find myself listening to on my free time.
On top of having an amazing art direction and great characters Persona 5 also has an incredible turn based combat system. I have not had this much fun with a JRPG’s combat system in quite some time. At first glance it seems relatively simple even pokemon-esque given that you will find yourself cycling through your personas in order to find which one would work the best in the current situation. But much like Pokemon there is a gigantic layer of depth to it. This makes it constantly enjoyable and refreshing. There is also different ways to approach combat in the sense that maybe you will want to sneak up on the enemy and start the battle with an advantage instead of taking the enemy head on. Also while in combat you can choose to interrogate the enemy and see if they would like to join you as a persona, or maybe give you an item or currency. Given the countless types of personas you can acquire as well as the depth to the combat I never really got bored with the game.
While I absolutely adore Persona 5 it does have some minor flaws that are worth mentioning. For one while I did thoroughly enjoy the game from start to finish, near the end it started to overstay its welcome. Particularly during the final dungeon in which by the time I got there I felt like the game had showed me everything it had to show me. Another minor flaw is that while you can have romantic relationships with your confidants the game does not let you have a same sex romantic relationship which ultimately makes the game feel very dated, and takes away from the illusion of it being a proper life simulator. Lastly and this one is slightly tied with my last critique is the fact that at times the game is stubbornly Japanese. This is not in the way it plays, in fact I think that its traditional turn based combat system is one of its strengths, but in the way that it handles some story elements and how some characters are presented at times. This is not that big of a problem for me, but it can be something that I can see being problematic for other gamers.
Overall I can’t say enough how much I love Persona 5. I can’t think of another game this generation of consoles besides The Witcher 3 that I enjoyed as much. There is so much to love from the characters and the relationships you have with them. To the fantastic combat, and the wonderful art design. It is all masterfully done in a way that is rare in games nowadays. While it does have its flaws for me it is not something that the game does not overcome. I truly believe that years from now we are going to be looking back at Persona 5 the same way many of us look at Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and many of the other great JRPGs. In an already stacked year when it comes to games Persona 5 stands above all the rest.