Persona 5 is finally here. After many years of waiting and too many delays to count (it was originally announced for a 2014 release), we’ve finally got a new Persona game that isn’t a spin-off. All that waiting has paid off, because Persona 5 is very, very good – even if it falls short of the expectations that come with being a follow up to one of the greatest games of all time.
What’s apparent from the moment you turn on the game is just how stylish Persona 5 looks. From the acid jazz score, to the stark use of red against a black-and-white background, the presentation of the main menu alone stands head and shoulders above whole games. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though; Persona 5 is a tour de force of vibrant colour, smooth tunes, and inspiration from every counterculture art movement from surrealism to hip-hop. Without a doubt, it’s the best-looking game around, not because of technical achievement or “good graphics” but thanks to P Studio’s unmatched sense of art direction.
Far more than just some superficial set dressing, the art ties into a sense of rebellion that’s at the heart of the game. Persona 5 tells the story of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a group of teen outcasts who feel trapped and betrayed by a society where corrupt adults seem able to do whatever they please. With the ability to navigate “Palaces” born of people’s warped views of the world, the Phantom Thieves find their place in society as masked vigilantes who force criminals to have a “change of heart” and confront their sins.
Take the first villain as an example. Kamoshida is a teacher at Shujin Academy (where most of the Phantom Thieves go to school) and the coach of the volleyball team. In real life, he’s a violent, abusive teacher who’ll do whatever he can to push the team to victory, and his Palace is a manifestation of that distorted perspective: a castle where he is king, and all the students in the school are his slaves. By infiltrating this castle, confronting Shadow Kamoshida, and stealing his most prized possession, the Phantom Thieves force real-life Kamoshida to acknowledge his crimes, and confess under the weight of his guilt.
So the Phantom Thieves of Hearts set about to reform society, one corrupt adult at a time. But the question must be asked: is what they’re doing right? They certainly think themselves just, but they’re effectively brainwashing people into conforming to their ideals in the same way that they’re unable to conform to those of society. Through the veneer of a supernatural picaresque fantasy, Persona 5 explores vigilantism, conformity, rebellion, trial by media, and generational conflict in that thought-provoking way that’s typical of the series.
Where the main plot is very focused on those grand ideas, Persona 5 uses the series’ trademark Social Links (called Confidants, this time around) to explore similar ideas on a more personal level. As you play, you get regular opportunities to choose who to spend your free time with, deepening familial bonds and uncovering character stories. Yusuke is an art student trying to find his muse after being betrayed by his mentor. Hifumi’s an expert shogi player, but she has no interest in the fame being forced upon her by an overbearing mother. Futuba has PTSD and severe social anxiety after witnessing her mother’s suicide.
There are some 20 of these Confidants, each with a captivating story that ties into the bigger themes of corruption, betrayal, rebellion, and redemption. That said, I do wish that they were better integrated into the main scenario. Persona 5’s overarching story is very focused on plot and villains, with little time left for character building – and this is where the game falls short of its predecessor. In Persona 4, the characters were the story; here, they’re almost tangential to it. It’s all about the villains, the scheming, and the Phantom Thieves as an organisation, with the individuals who make up that group relegated almost entirely to the Confidant side quests. Each character gets a bit of groundwork when they first get introduced, but that quickly falls to the wayside in favour of more attention on the villains and their machinations. This is why, despite being rather thought-provoking, Persona 5’s main story can be a drag – it doesn’t have the heart to carry it through.
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