It can be a challenge to explain why the Persona games are so engrossing to someone who has never played one. How they consume your life. How they turn a grocery store jingle or the sound of rain on a window into Pavlovian cues, a reminder you could be playing right now.
On the surface, a Persona game sounds rather dull. For starters, they’re dungeon-crawling role-playing games, a genre about slowly and methodically making your way through monster-filled corridors, steadily growing stronger over dozens of hours. These are games that require patience. But that’s only half of the ingredients. What makes the series unique is how it stirs the fundamentals of a role-playing game into what I can only describe as a “teenage life simulator.” In addition to saving the world, you also have to perform the role of a typical high school student, studying for exams, making friends, and working part-time jobs. Think of it like Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with Final Fantasy, and you’re nearly there.
This delicious recipe — spiced with a stylistic swagger and some stellar writing — has turned the series into something of a cult phenomenon. After breaking out in the West with the release of Persona 3 in 2006, it has continued to grow with another main entry, and a handful of spinoffs. Persona 5, the first main entry in the series in nearly a decade, continues a tradition of refinement. It retains the essentials — style, story, and an impossible to pin blend of genres — but carefully streamlines and improves them. Which is to say: it takes something special and makes it better.
Much like in its predecessors, Persona 5 stars a quiet teenage boy who has just arrived in a new town. A morally muddy run-in with the law sends him from his home to the attic of a Tokyo cafe. It’s not an ideal setup — everyone at school thinks he’s a criminal, including his suspicious new guardian. His goal is to spend a year in the big city and prove to the adults in his life — teachers, employers, the police — he can live a clean, crime-free existence.
That isn’t really how things progress. A couple hours into the 100-hour story (yes, really), the young man, who you name, becomes the leader of a group called the Phantom Thieves. They steal hearts.
It’s a fairly convoluted setup that raises more questions than it answers, so I’ll keep this simple and concise: the protagonist and a steadily growing band of friends have the ability to venture into a parallel world called the “metaverse” that’s created by the “distorted desires” of troubled individuals. They decide to use this power for the public good, delving into the realm with the help of a magical smartphone app. While in the metaverse, they “steal the hearts” of the wicked by breaking into their unique dungeons that literalize how each villain perceives the world. A lecherous gym coach, for example, is the king of a castle filled with cruel machines that torture and sexually humiliate his pupils. By stealing a heart in the metaverse, the evildoer typically has change of heart in the real world, and they voluntarily confess their crimes — without ever knowing what caused them to do so, Inception-style.
The villains start out relatively small, but over time the thieves become part of an internationally sized story, fighting prominent hacking groups and getting mixed up with corrupt political leaders.
As with the rest of the series, Persona 5 is structured around a calendar. You go through your virtual life one day at a time, and different events and obligations transpire depending on the date. A typical weekday will start with you taking the train to school, eavesdropping on the latest gossip in the hallway, answering a question in history class, and then heading off to explore the metaverse after the bell rings. Many of these moments play as short vignettes; you simply watch and listen as a your guardian teaches you about coffee beans, or you grab a burger with friends in Shibuya. Sometimes you have control over what happens and when, but often you’re simply going with the flow. When exams come up, you have no choice but to sit through them. I always found myself looking forward to Sunday, the one school-free day of the week in Japan.
In many ways this structure is the antithesis of other big role-playing games. Series like Fallout and Mass Effect, and even the most recent Final Fantasy, are built with massive worlds and the freedom to decide what you want to do in them. You can lose yourself for dozens of hours exploring, ignoring the urgent mission to save the world while you collect materials or wander from one side-quest to the next. Persona, on the other hand, is structured and deliberate. Yes, there are a lot of things you could be doing, but you can’t do them all. It’s not a game about seeing everything. It’s about prioritizing what’s most important to you. Limiting your time, fittingly, makes your choices more precious. Once you get accustomed to it, this structure creates a pleasing rhythm.
Persona 5 is often joyfully strange and alien. In the metaverse, you dress like you’re attending a masquerade. You use toy guns as lethal weapons. One of your teammates is a talking cat. And the enemies are cartoonish depictions of mythical figures and spirits from across the world and throughout history. That’s why the structure is so crucial; it grounds the adventure and the characters. One night you’re running around a pyramid fighting unicorns, the next you’re sitting in the coffee shop after hours catching up on homework. The game is fixated on reality, and recognizes colorful abstractions — like video games — are simply a means to address larger questions. You may be fighting an abusive king, for example, but the villain and his world is merely a metaphor for the real-world issues of sexual harassment and the willingness of some adults to protect abusers to maintain the status quo.
Choice also plays an important role, though not in the way it does in most games. This isn’t Mass Effect or a Telltale game, where a character might love or hate you depending on a single line of dialogue. Often, when you’re given different dialogue options in Persona 5, they all basically say the same thing. Instead, choice amounts to how you spend time. If you want to become friends with someone, you simply make sure they get your attention. You can’t really screw it up if you put in the effort. But because there’s only so much time in each day, you’re forced to make sacrifices. It becomes a balancing act. Do you study before exams even though a good friend wants to hang out? Do you explore the metaverse or indulge your desire to learn the secrets of cooking a nice curry? Since each day is so short, often lasting just a few minutes of real-world time, it’s easy to tell yourself you’ll play just one more day, before realizing it’s 4AM.
What’s special about Persona 5 is how well everything comes together. The life simulation aspect and the RPG gameplay aren’t separate. For instance, having close friends will help you unlock more powerful monsters to summon in battle. Befriending the local doctor will get you access to new kinds of medicine, while learning to make great coffee provides a restorative drink for tough battles. Forcing a bully’s change of heart could help you make a new friend and open up an entirely new part of the story. Virtually every aspect of the game feeds into the larger story of your life as a teenager and role as the leader of the Phantom Thieves. Even the little details. Saving your progress is presented as keeping a journal of daily activities for your probation officer.
The basics of the game aren’t all that different from its predecessors, but the details have changed, and, for the most part, they’re improved. The dungeons are a particular highlight. Past Persona games featured procedurally generated dungeons, which changed every time you played, with new layouts and monster placement. But the main dungeons in Persona 5, called “palaces,” are all handcrafted spaces. Instead of grinding through a repetitive series of corridors, you explore well-thought-out locales, each inspired by a particular character’s psyche. There’s a sprawling museum with building-sized canvases and a flying bank populated with walking, talking ATMs. The venues are creative and clever, punctuated with simple puzzles to help break up all of the fighting. (Persona 5 does have an ongoing procedurally generated dungeon as well, called Mementos, which is somewhat optional and can be explored in between completing the palaces.)
The combat is also more accommodating in small but welcome ways. There are more kinds of attacks, including the introduction of ranged weapons like guns, that not only provide more options, but more opportunities to link attacks together in satisfying ways. The game still employs turn-based, menu-centric style of combat, but it’s done in a brisk and lively manner. Like the Shin Megami Tensei series (which Persona initially spun off from), you can talk with enemies in the midst of battle. Typically, they will beg for their life, and you can choose to invite them to your roster of summonable monsters, extort them for cash and items, or simply kill them. Collecting monsters is, particularly early in the game, the obvious strategy. They can be merged into other persona, sacrificed for upgrades, or trained to learn new skills. It’s kind of like Pokémon — but a lot darker.
Persona 5 also benefits from a fast start, something its predecessors struggled with. From the very beginning you’re thrust into the mystery of the Phantom Thieves, and it doesn’t take long before you start forming close relationships with the people around you. I found myself absolutely engrossed by their story, as the group slowly grows in importance and infamy. It tells a more complex and ambitious narrative than past games, and Persona 5 balances the rapid pace of a thriller with the more subdued momentum of a slice-of-life drama. It has a confidence blockbuster games so often lack.
The story is buoyed by a great cast of characters, who — in typical Persona fashion — start out as forgettable teenage archetypes, before revealing themselves to be layered, lovable individuals. Outside of the metaverse, the Phantom Thieves look like an anime Breakfast Club; from an angry ex-jock to the shoehorned pretty girl to the detached loner. As you learn about them, though, they start to feel like real people. The story wouldn’t work otherwise. Because for all of its goofiness, Persona 5 deftly deals with a number of dark, challenging topics, particularly around abuse and exploitation. That said, I do wish there was a slightly greater diversity of characters and stories. Persona 4, in particular, dealt with important young adult questions around gender and sexuality, and the absence of such subjects — and in certain cases, the inclusion of tasteless caricatures of gay men — is a misstep in a game dealing with contemporary teenage life and the power of empathy.
It’s also important to note just how massive a game Persona 5 is. As I said, it will easily take 100 hours to complete the story, though the game does an admirable job at keeping things fresh over that lengthy playtime. Each dungeon feels like a new space to explore, and characters, abilities, and other surprise features are introduced constantly. Sixty hours into the game, new members will still be joining the Phantom Thieves, and a very important skill doesn’t come into play until the fourth major dungeon. Should you go long stretches between play sessions, there’s an in-game story summary tool to recap what you’ve experienced.
For all of these quality-of-life improvements, Persona 5 is still an acquired taste. Much of your time will be spent listening to characters talk, and reading text messages between friends. Battles involve navigating a menu, and you’ll need to repeat the tasks of a teenage life — reading, studying, exercising — many times to fully build your character. Not everyone will find making a virtual cup of coffee fun after the 10th time. It’s still not a game for everyone, but its changes open it up to a larger audience than any Persona before it.
For those who love the formula laid down by past games in the series, Persona 5 represents the franchise’s apex. And for newcomers, it’s a chance to enjoy one of gaming’s best treasures — with little of its baggage. It defiantly ignores the open-world trend and instead holds steadfast to the idea that a more guided, linear RPG can still work in 2017.
As for me, well, the story is over. And yet, after 100 hours, I just wish I had more time.
Persona 5 launches April 4th on PS4 and PS3.