Persona is an unlikely candidate for blockbuster status. The role-playing series debuted on the original PlayStation in 1996, but didn’t really start cultivating a dedicated following, particularly in the West, until the release of Persona 3 a decade later. That game was initially striking because of its shocking imagery — high school students shooting themselves in the head with magical guns to summon monsters — but it also proved to be an addictive, arresting, and stylish combination of dungeon crawling RPG and life-sim. P3, along with its sequel, starred a group of teenagers fighting evil in their down time, while still dealing with the rigors of young adulthood. It’s a series where you can fight off a monstrous demon and go out for ramen with your crush all in the same day. P4 proved so popular that it spawned multiple spinoffs, including two fighting games and a music game.
The gradual growth of the series comes to a head next month when Persona 5 launches on the PS4 and PS3. Anticipation is high. Not only is it the first entry in the series in nearly a decade, but Persona 5 is also, along with last year’s Final Fantasy XV, part of an increasingly rare breed of big-budget RPGs from Japan. Its Japanese release date was announced during a lengthy live stream in front of Tokyo Tower, and for the first time, the game will launch on two platforms simultaneously. The quirky franchise is poised to expand beyond its cult following — and from what I’ve played so far, it’s the most welcoming entry in the franchise to date.
Like previous games in the series, Persona 5 puts you in the role of a new student at a high school. In this case, the quiet protagonist is sent off to live in Tokyo after some trouble with the law. His new guardian is a grumpy cafe owner, and you move into an empty apartment above the restaurant. Eventually you become friends with a few other students who all discover they have the titular power of persona, which allows them to venture into worlds created from the deepest, darkest desires of other people, and summon monsters to fight against the evil that dwells within. The students form a group, which they call the “Phantom Thieves,” with the goal of setting bad people straight by venturing into their desires and “changing their hearts,” essentially setting them on the right track.
Persona 5 starts with a bang. While most RPGs are a slow burn, taking their time to ramp up, Persona 5 kicks off with a huge heist sequence, throwing you into an escape before you even know who the main character is. It’s a bold and gripping debut, and it’s a great way to showcase the more exciting elements of the game, before jumping back in time. The heist actually takes place much later in the story chronologically, and Persona 5 regularly jumps ahead to that period, while slowly revealing the mysteries of how it actually came to be. From that electric opening, it quickly jumps into the first main story beat — a creepy teacher who appears to be abusing students, while everyone around him stays silent.
The structure of the game remains largely unchanged from past entries. The Persona games feature an intriguing mix of dungeon crawling — old-school RPG gameplay where you slowly make your way through monster-filled areas, while steadily becoming stronger — and a simulation of the life of a typical teenager. In the morning you ride the train to school, then spend your day in class, before deciding what to do after the bell rings. You might explore further in one of the dungeons, or go out to a movie with a friend, or maybe spend some time studying for the big exam or working your part-time job at a convenience store. What’s great about the Persona games is how these systems tie together; focusing on your school and social life will have a positive impact on your skills moonlighting as a monster hunter. The money you earn at work can buy a new sword for battle, while a relationship with a schoolmate could lead to more powerful creatures to summon.
While the core remains the same, Persona 5 makes some smart changes that make it more palatable for new players, or those who may not be as familiar with RPGs. For one, the shift in setting to a bustling virtual rendition of Tokyo makes it a much more interesting place to explore, with iconic landmarks like Shibuya and lots of cramped little alleys to stumble across. And since the whole city is connected by a sprawling rail system, it’s fast and easy to get around; once you’ve been to a spot you can simply fast-travel there the next time. The game also takes place in the present day, and characters all carry a smartphone with them, so some of the less important dialogue is smartly relegated to simple, quick text messages.
But the biggest changes are with the action. The main dungeons you’ll be exploring — called “palaces,” each based on a particular character’s psyche — feel much more elaborate and dynamic than in games past. There are plenty of simple environmental puzzles to solve (an aspect that feels culled from series spinoff Tokyo Mirage Sessions), and the new heist theme makes the levels more interactive. You can hide from monsters and sneak up on them, and in at least one dungeon you’re forced to disable security systems before you can proceed. Battles also feel more fluid. New abilities make it easier to chain together attacks, while the addition of ranged weapons provide greater tactical variety. These changes make the at times tedious process of exploring dungeons a lot more interesting. Even better, in addition to the one-off palaces, there’s also a bigger, ongoing dungeon located in the subway tunnels below ground, which you can slowly make your way through over the course of the game. The multitude of dungeons provide a nice contrast and some welcome variety.
The game is still a bit of an acquired taste. There are a lot of menus to navigate (though they’re easily among the most beautiful menus I’ve ever seen in a game), and you’ll be spending a lot of time reading dialogue and fighting through very similar battles. But Persona offers a sense of rhythm unlike any other game. It’s weird, yet compelling, and once you get settled into the flow it’s hard to put down. And Persona 5 eases you into that flow better than any game in the series. If it can keep that up for the entire experience, this might be the game to finally make Persona a household name.
Persona 5 launches April 4th on PS3 and PS4.