Even before you start playing, Persona 5 makes sure you know that it is just so effortlessly cool. A jazzy tune kicks off the opening credit sequence, where the names of directors and artists appear as street signs and graffiti on billboards. A top hat-wearing angel flies through the air, while a masked burglar rides on top of a rushing train. One character dances on an empty overpass, sliding across the asphalt as if they were figure skating; another grinds down a railing playing air guitar. The whole thing is rendered in a mostly red, black, and gray palette that gives it the feel of a manga come to life. I usually skip through these openings, eager to get to the game itself, but I’ve watched Persona 5’s brief intro sequence countless times. It’s a way to ease myself back into its stylish world before playing.
This confident sense of style has always been a part of the series. In Persona 3, characters summoned demons by shooting themselves in the head with magical guns, yet they still managed to look like the crew you always wished you could hang out with in high school. Persona 4’s teenage demon-hunters spent their nights investigating the occult while dressed like a J-pop group on the verge of breaking out — they even starred in their own slick music game spinoff. Persona 5 manages to top its predecessors stylistically, thanks both to a shift in setting and a move to more powerful hardware.
Unlike its predecessors, Persona 5 takes place in a real-world location, set in modern-day Tokyo. This means that in your off time, when you’re not fighting monsters, you can walk around the shops in Shibuya, take a date out for a meal in fashionable Harajuku, browse the retro gadgets in Akihabara, or explore the seedy dive bars in Shinjuku. Often, what you’re doing in those spaces is relatively mundane. You might be studying for exams with a friend, or grabbing some supplies at a drug store. But the visual design makes these moments feel cool, despite the fact that they usually aren’t.
There’s the way the characters stand around as if they’re modeling, even when they’re wearing school uniforms and loitering around a subway station. There’s the neon-lit streets and constant thrum of the J-pop soundtrack that make it feel like you’re wandering through a music video. When a phone rings or cicadas chirp, sound effects appear on-screen, as if you were inside a comic book. Catching a train means pushing through crowds of near-identical businessmen, making the cast stand out like a colorful school of exotic fish.
The character design is particularly important — Persona 5 stars an eclectic cast of misfits, but each has an aspirational look, the kind that almost seems designed with cosplay in mind. Even Futaba, a sheltered shut-in who barely leaves her room, wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of an alt-weekly, with her oversized headphones and collection of graphic T-shirts. The more fantastical aspects of the game take this a step further.
In Persona 5, the main cast are all members of a group called the Phantom Thieves, paranormal cat burglars who infiltrate the subconscious minds of evil-doers. And when doing so, they dress up like a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and The Matrix, run through a manga filter. Flowing black trench coats, virtual reality goggles, masquerade masks, and spiky leather biker jackets all combine to create a group that looks like nothing else in the RPG space or video games in general.
Role-playing games are filled with hours of repetition and busy work; Persona 5 isn’t an exception. This is a game that can take upward of 100 hours to complete, much of which is spent grinding through repetitious battles and fiddling about in menus. But its sense of style helps elevate the more tedious aspects of the experience. Battles — which are turn-based affairs where you choose actions from a menu — feel intense and dramatic.
Characters swing swords, sledgehammers, and whips with flourish, and perform combos by high-fiving each other in the middle of a fight. After winning, the team will strike a pose fit for an album cover. Even the menus look cool, with a design reminiscent of cutout text from a ransom note, and transitions that seamlessly shift from battle to exploration. In reality, the action is slow and methodical, but these stylistic touches make the combat feel not only exciting, but sleek and sexy.
All of these elements have been improved in Persona 5, in part from the move to PS3 and PS4. (The previous two games in the series debuted on the PS2 before expanding to portable systems like the PSP and Vita.) Persona 5’s world and characters are more detailed than its predecessors, its animations smoother and more exaggerated. Persona games have always looked great, but the move to more powerful hardware has allowed the series to make good on its visual ambitions for the first time.
There’s more to a game than how it looks, of course. Style can’t make a bad game great. And there’s certainly much more lurking under the surface of Persona 5, from its sprawling story to its engrossing take on role-playing. But it’s style that helps bind that all together, enhancing an already excellent experience. It makes the characters more memorable, the world more enticing to explore, the battles more exciting and dynamic. More importantly, it makes you feel cool while playing.