Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

persona 5 (ペルソナ5) by Atlus Co, Ltd. (株式会社アトラス)

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


Here's the spell of Persona 5: A remarkable year in a Japanese high school through a YA lens bolstered by Carl Jung's Pokémon. That formula served the series since 2006, and eleven years later, Persona 5 finally sees American shores.

In any other eight month period, it'd be the standout weird Japanese release, but it collides with Final Fantasy XV's imperial march and a game only the hardest of the hardcore had on their radars, Nier: Automata. Luckily, Persona 5's mechanics are the sharpest they've ever been, and the two sides of the coin—YA dating sim and occult Pokémon—feed into each other better than they've done in past iterations.

Persona 5's pitch is the same: Go into a dungeon of a person's subconscious and wade through enemies until you run out of magic points, save your progress for the night, and leave the dungeon. The next day? Shibuya and noodles with your friends and acquaintances. Repeat.

It's charming and it's been long enough since Persona 4 (2008!) that it's now comforting to return to the formula in a proper new Persona entry. In the intervening years, Atlus released four spinoffs.

So. The formula. You're a male high school student from out of town and in a dream sequence, you've signed a deal for magic powers. Your first party member is a guy (in this case, Ryuji Sakomoto) in your homeroom who's brash, terrible at homework and relentlessly horny. You, he and another male party member go out for some Animal House-style antics, usually a step above or below someone yelling PANTY RAID! The female characters are all well fleshed out, and of course, the only people the protagonist can date. More on this later.

This section is for those who have experienced the Persona series before: Now, the formula from the grindy, turn-based combat side. The first couple Personas (in-game enemies) are some combination of Pixie, Apsaras and a third Persona that uses fire. Pyro Jack shows up early. Around level 30, the Egyptian gods appear, beyond that, the Norse pantheon slowly emerges and you'll know you're into proper endgame when the Christian angels arrange themselves against you. By the absolute end of the game, you learn that the bonds you forge with your friends and acquaintances empower you to overcome the malevolent splendor of the final boss.

How the Persona team gets to that moment this time around is different.

Exploitation. Almost all of the Social Links you interact with are based on those people taking back power from persons in their lives that've extorted, manipulated or threatened them. In the case of a shoji player, it's her mother. In the case of a back alley doctor, it's her former boss. In the case of one of your female party members (Ann Tamaki), it's a fellow model.

It's present in the dungeons, too. The first dungeon is based around a physically and sexually abusive teacher (allegedly based on a real person), the second around a famous painter stealing his pupils' work and the third around a yakuza boss entrapping high school students. The next dungeon's my favorite, which I'll let you discover.

Screenshot from Persona 3.

Screenshot from Persona 3.

Now, back to our general audience: Persona 5's formula also includes the series' apparently-required scene of gay panic, where two of the most visible gay characters are older, predatory men who are used as a punchline. Persona 3's trans panic moment included the line "...Y-Ya mean, SHE's a HE!?" The two characters occur twice in the 90 hour Persona 5 experience, and while in the grand scheme of things that's mercifully short, the powerfully bad taste lingers.

On the plus side, the formula includes another Shoji Mero soundtrack, which exceeds the mold of coloring the game experience without breaking the immersion. The compositions and the performances of the artists beneath him heighten any scene in the game, while also being songs I'd listen to on their own. His soundtrack for the previous numbered Persona games were great, too.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Combat is largely unchanged, but the team added a couple traversal and stealth mechanics to the dungeon crawling. Generally speaking, they add verticality to the formula, which is welcome. Unfortunately, the camera sticks to whatever you're hiding behind, which restricts your vision when you need it most. It results in jumping out of cover directly into the field of vision of the enemy you're trying to ambush.

The stealth mechanic's flimsy enough that you can peek out of a corner DIRECTLY INTO THE VISION of a patrolling enemy, but since your lower body is technically under cover, the enemy doesn't see your torso-up, even if said-enemy could trip over it. The sixth dungeon is a miserable goddamned slog thanks to gate and lever puzzles. I wish the game did more with Medjed (A combination of 2ch [the Japanese predecessor of 4chan] and Anonymous) taking aim at your party. It doesn't.

I've got grievances with Persona 5, but they're overpowered by the fact that just a week after my partner and I completed the story in 90 hours, we returned for round two.

If this is the first you've heard of the series, you should start with Persona 5. It's the most forgiving and contains the most quality-of-life improvements. If you're a fan of Japanese role-playing games, I'd say go directly to the expanded reissue of Persona 3, called Persona 3: FES. That one is the most difficult, and also the most aggressively occult, of the Persona 3, 4, 5 trilogy.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Persona 5's opening cinematic recalls Cowboy Bebop, and there's a nod to the Ghibli catalog. Most of the game's aesthetics look like they're ripped from French writer Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin stories or the French Revolution—guillotines included.

That's what makes the Animal House and gay-panic moments of the game so disappointing. Maybe it's that Persona 5 has the veneer of sophistication because Wikipedia makes it easy to find information. I doubt that, but it can't be discounted. I imagine it's a thornier issue of Japan's homophobia (men can't kiss men on broadcast television) and the team's blindspots.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Outgoing game director Katsura Hashino thinks of Persona 5 as a superhero story, and I believe he's right. Persona 5's story is about exploitation and the realization of power fantasy, not so far off from DC and Marvel's bibliography. While superhero stories improve, slowly, with regards to non-white male representation, the process is slow and the ground gained is short. The same's true for Persona 5. The choice to draw Ann Tamaki always bent-over in combat for a better view of her red latex covered ass is exactly the same kind of butt-shot choice that superhero comics pencillers are criticized for every issue.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

Screenshot from Persona 5.

I dote on the superhero genre and I dote on Persona. In both, there's powerful stories I love and distasteful moments—like three milliliters of fresh vomit on a new shirt. There's more to say, and there always is (The nod to Frankenstein! The way Persona 5 knows its own formula and subverts it! The Ocean's 11 bullshit in November! A possible stand-in for Liberal Democratic Party leader Shinzo Abe!). But at bottom, the game's flaws and yucky moments don't overpower my love for the series.

I return to the numbers: 120+ hours, and I'm still itching to play more.