Home > Gaming > ‘Persona 5’: Our first take

‘Persona 5’: Our first take

‘Persona 5’ ditches the slog of randomized dungeons, yet stays true to its roots

‘Persona 5’ makes important improvements where the series needed it most.

The Persona games are totally unique in the world of role-playing games (RPGs). They aren’t fantasy or sci-fi, but take place in a modern-day Japan rife with folklore about demons and spirits that live all around people, unseen. Beyond the series’ setting, Persona asks you to balance your combat and questing with time management. Controlling a high school student, you need to balance keeping up with friends, studying for exams, and making progress through otherwordly dungeons, all while a ticking clock counts down the time to the end of the school year — and the game.

If there’s one aspect of Persona that fans have consistently complained about — even while adoring each new game — it’s the series penchant for using randomized dungeons. In past games like Persona 3 and Persona 4 the dungeons were repetitive slogs, which felt separate from the events going on in the “real world.” Persona 5 addresses that effortlessly, and goes to great lengths to ensure fans won’t have anything to complain about anymore.

While Persona 5 still has some procedurally generated dungeons, they take up far less of your precious time. Instead you’ll spend the lion’s share of the game in the “metaverse” — a dimension where people’s dark desires physically manifest — fighting through expansive, hand-designed dungeons full of monsters, traps and scripted events. That’s a big change for the series, but after spending a couple dozen hours with Persona 5, it’s clear that developer Atlus made the right call.

Back it up

A sub-franchise of Atlus’ long-running RPG series, Shin Megami Tensei, the Persona games follow a very particular formula: They tell the stories of trendy high school students who do crazy things like shoot themselves in the heads with magic handguns or dive into TV screens to unlock their inner powers (their “personas”) and fight evildoers. And the protagonist, unlike his friends, has the crucial ability to swap personas in and out of battle like demonic Pokemon.

Persona 5 keeps that trend up. In this world’s fiction, every individual’s pathos and negative traits are concentrated in an alternate dimension that resembles the Tokyo subway system. Some particularly evil individuals — a perverted teacher, for example, or an artist who plagiarizes his own students’ work — have power and status in the metaverse, twisted manifestations of the way they see the world. The teacher thinks the school is his castle, so in the metaverse he becomes a king.

More: Persona 5 delayed until April, fans can pass the time with this gameplay trailer

Through the magic of a phone app and the guidance of a talking cat — elements that aren’t yet fully explained in the game’s first 20 or so hours — our protagonist and his gang of buddies enter the metaverse. They establish a team called “The Phantom Thieves” and work to change criminals’ hearts and minds, with the ultimate goal of getting them to change their ways in the real world and confess to the authorities.

Persona 5 bursts with cool artistic flair in every element.

Persona 5 bursts with cool artistic flair in every element, from the music to the loading screens. The aesthetic transitions seamlessly between 3D graphics, comic-book stills, and animated cutscenes in the style of Japanese anime. It wastes no opportunities to flash a brilliant pop of color or a smartly designed custom menu where a different game would have played it straight with boring interface elements.

It’s remarkable that everything is still readable, but Persona 5 manages to convey all the information clearly, even with its completely over-the-top style. Even when you aren’t playing, you’ll be tempted to leave Persona 5 on in the background just to listen to the music.

Reinventing dungeons

But substance is more important than style, and Persona 5 wastes no time in getting you into the action. It opens with the characters already embroiled in a heist. Things go awry, and the protagonist finds himself telling his story to a police interrogator, letting us experience the story from the beginning as well.

More: No, Persona 5 is not coming to the Switch or PC — for real this time

From there the game starts to retread past entries, introducing the balancing act of social life, school and improving various skills for which the series is known. With only so much time in a day, you have to decide whether to spend it hanging out with friends, studying or doing other activities around Shibuya, all of which will ultimately benefit you in tangible but differing ways. Yet the game doesn’t take long to introduce you to the metaverse for the first time, and that’s when its most important improvements over its predecessors begin to become apparent.

Persona 3 and Persona 4 were fantastic games in their own rights, but many players suffered through their random, repetitive dungeons to find their fun. Persona 5’s sprawling metaverse environments feel like a direct response to that criticism. There’s a lot going on in each, and the first two, at least, do not feel repetitive.

'Persona 5' Hands On

A lot of that comes from the new systems layered on its tried-and-true RPG-style exploration and turn-based combat. There’s a cover system now, for example, that lets you zip around in hiding and ambush unsuspecting foes. Getting spotted too many times raises the stronghold’s alert level, causing more foes to appear.

There are treasures around every corner now, many hidden unless you frequently tap the L1 button to enable a special vision mode that can also reveal enemies’ levels before you fight them. Locked treasure chests hide the best loot, so you’d better spend time in the real world crafting makeshift lockpicks.

New touches aside, it simply feels better to explore spaces that were thoughtfully designed. Persona 5’s huge dungeons double back on themselves through shortcuts and locked doors, inviting you to tackle each space from multiple angles. You can jump across gaps or slide under laser beams at various points, finding alternate routes or ways to get a jump on foes. Scripted events, such as members of your party getting captured, mix up the formula and keep you on your toes.

A battle of wills

The series’ unique turn-based combat has also expanded and improved. The basic formula, where players target an enemy’s weak points one after another before ganging up for an all-out attack, remains, but now you can also “hold up” weakened enemies and ask them for more money or items. That’s also how you recruit new personas to fight with you, although you first have to impress them in conversation.

It simply feels better to explore spaces that were designed by humans.

The combat generally feels more user-friendly than past entries as well. You can tap a button to have the game select an ability for you based on your equipped personas and the enemies you’re facing. You can let the AI control your teammates or rush through every battle on fast forward if you’re more interested in the story.

Outside of battle, there are safe rooms that give respite as you infiltrate each new stronghold. You can consult with team members about their status or your progress through the dungeon, revealing some unique dialogue (of which there is so, so much in this game). You can even press a single button to auto-recover at any point, saving you the simple trouble of navigating the menus to find a heal spell.

More to come

All that was in the first two dozen hours, and if Persona 5 is anything like its predecessors, the game will likely reveal new wrinkles for dozens more. But what’s crucially clear from these initial hours is that Persona 5 is a total refinement of this winning formula. It’s not trying to change or reinvent what made the series beloved by so many fans, but it layers wit, style and smart design over every facet to make the most intuitive and player-friendly version yet. And making the dungeons less repetitive — addressing the biggest weak point of the series to date — is the cherry on top.

More: Nioh review

Persona 5 launches April 4 on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Watch out for our full Persona 5 review later this month.

Highs

  • Incredible style
  • Improvements to combat
  • Dungeons designed by humans
  • Addictive social links system
  • Engrossing story

Lows

  • No female protagonist option