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Persona is a tricky series for me to discuss. Like most people, I got into the series with Persona 4, an RPG so good that it made me buy a Vita just so I could play the enhanced remake. Outside of that game, I haven't really played any other game in the series. I've played Persona 2: Innocent Sin on my PSP, but I never beat it. I own Persona 3 Portable as well, but I've never even touched that one. So you can say that I'm a fan of the series, but in the same way that I'm a fan of Silent Hill even though I've only played three of them.
Still, I've been eagerly looking forward to Persona 5. It's a massive continuation of the Persona 4 formula with a ton of style, some polished graphics, and a story that looked like it would be going an extra step beyond its predecessors. I've sunk dozens of hours into this game, and for the record, I have not completed this game yet. So why continue on with my review? Because I feel like with all of the time sunk into this game, my generals thoughts aren't going to change. I'm looking at the fundamentals of the game, and despite not seeing the credits roll, I have a fairly strong sense that I know how its going to play out.
To make a long story short, I love Persona 5, but it's not as good as Persona 4. In fact, I'd argue that it's significantly weaker than Persona 4 in some areas. And to illustrate that point, this review is going to pretty much be a long compare and contrast between these two games. Persona 4 may be the better game in my eyes, but Persona 5 does a lot of things right, and does some things even better than Persona 4.
Persona 5 is about a high schooler student that just moved to Shibuya. He was sent there because he was arrested and put on probation for saving a woman from being assaulted. Once he arrives, he's immediately treated with scorn and derision by his peers except for a few people that can understand and relate to him. He soon discovers though that he can go into a place called the Metaverse with the aid of an app, and while in there he gains magical powers. He meets up with a strange cat named Morgana who tells him that he needs to steal the hearts of of corrupt adults. Basically there are being called Shadows that inhabit the Metaverse. Shadows are born from human desires, and some Shadows are so strong that they can create palaces based on their own distorted values and morals, so you have to steal their hearts to make their real world selves confess their wrongdoings and wow this is an incredibly complicated premise and I haven't even scratched the surface of the plot.
So Persona 5's plot is complicated. That's the territory for a JRPG of this stature. However, the execution is really formulaic, but that's not always a bad thing. You'll find an evil person, learn about them, enter their palace, encounter their Shadow, then continue making your way to the boss room until you actually fight the big bad themselves. All the while you'll have free time to do side quests, up your stats, grind, and a whole host of other features. Describing a Persona game mechanically is a nightmare because each game is so dense to describe. Do I talk about the RPG mechanics in the palaces, or do I talk about the various relationships that you can boost in order to get perks in game?
Oh wow this is kind of overwhelming to discuss, especially to new players that have never seen a Persona game.
I'll be upfront in saying this, but Persona 5 is not an RPG for someone that doesn't have time on their hands. Plus, this isn't the game for someone who doesn't like meticulous mechanics and features. You will micromanage nearly everything in this game, but that has less to do with Persona 5 and more with the series has always been this way. If you're not prepared for a game that has as much depth and layers as this one, I recommend playing Danganronpa, if only so you can see what it's like to balance a bunch of relationships and gameplay styles at once. If you're cool with all of that, then read on.
So I'm going to focus on plot here for a bit because in a game as long as Persona 5, the plot is really the driving force here. The gameplay is good, and we're gonna talk about it, but in a 100+ hour RPG of this magnitude, we need to talk about the plot. Mild spoilers for the first five or so hours of this game and moderate spoilers for Persona 4.
So I mentioned how this game was pretty formulaic in its structure, but that's never been a problem for me because the execution is so damned fun. However, where Persona 5 struggles, and I mean struggles, is with its main characters. With a party of nine characters, I'm barely attached to any of them and I actually find a handful of them pretty annoying at worst, and I think the structure is to blame for this. In order to explain why though, we need to look at how Persona 4 did Shadows and dungeons.
In Persona 4, Shadows were still reflections of people and showed their desires, but there were two main differences. First, the Shadows were of the main characters, the characters that you play as throughout the game. Second, Shadows were representations of their true selves that they tried to repress. Sometimes they're outlandish, while other times they're more dark and deeply personal. Our heroes confronted these Shadows and by accepting that their Shadows were a part of them, then they could join your party and become playable. Just by playing the game, you got to know the characters intimately and see who they really are and watch them grow.
In Persona 5, the Shadows are of the villains. We get to know the villains extremely well and the villains are all well done, but they're all villains of the day. Once you beat a Shadow and their palace, you never see them again. Kamoshida, the first villain, is a fantastic villain that you truly do hate by the time you get to fight him, but because all of the development is spent on fleshing him out, we don't get a good chance to learn about our heroes. We only learn about how the villains effect them, and most of their opinions boil down to "they're a monster! They need to be stopped! I hate them!" Then once the villain is defeated, we're left with a hero who we don't know all that well and their arc already reached a climax by defeating their primary enemy. Then the game just moves on to the next villain for another character to defeat, rinse and repeat.
It's a shame tom because like I said, the villains are all great. They're fun, sometimes a bit too over-the-top, but they're still great to fight against and offers some memorable moments and scenes. It's just a shame that I'm thinking more about the villains than our heroes. So when we see Ryuji, our first friend, act like a punk, it's less charming and more grating because we don't know much about him besides he disliked Kamoshida.