Persona 5 is a difficult game to review – not because of its quality or lack thereof, but because it's such an intricate release. It's a role-playing title made up of many different parts, and explaining each and every one of them in detail would take way too long.
With that in mind, we'll try to be brief: Persona 5 is a Japanese RPG. It has turn based combat, a broad cast of characters, and text boxes. The twist is that it's also partly a life simulator. Since you play as a highschool student, much of your playtime will be spent living out your day-to-day life as you attend class, socialise, and visit various areas in and around the game's modern day Tokyo setting.
On paper the concept of bolting an entire social life system onto a rather hardcore dungeon crawler may seem odd, but Persona 5 effortlessly combines these two key components. After being branded a criminal and kicked out of school, our teenage protagonist finds himself awakening to a spiritual strength. Just like in past Persona games, the main character is able to manifest his inner-self as a persona, a powerful otherworldly being that grants strange abilities.
With this newfound power, it's not long before the crux of the game reveals itself. Throughout this 80-plus hour journey, you'll be using your power to enter the twisted minds of corrupt people, whether they're mobster bosses, perverted teachers, or rotten politicians. Bit by bit, you look to reform society as the 'Phantom Thieves' – a group of anonymous teenagers who steal the distorted desires of Tokyo's most despicable inhabitants, thus changing their "heart" for the better.
It's a tale of friendship, belonging, and standing up against very relateable corruption. The plot plays out in an episodic fashion, with each new target giving way to fresh story arcs and characters. With the title clocking in at nearly 100 hours, this structure ensures that each chapter doesn't outstay its welcome, and there's always a satisfying conclusion or exciting twist just waiting around the next corner.
The overall plot of Persona 5 is nothing particularly special, but it's told in such a clever way. Background events are constantly in motion, and subtle hints at the overarching narrative are dropped so frequently that running through the game a second time will make you realise just how intricate the storytelling really is. Of course, this is all helped along by an absolutely brilliant cast of characters, both primary and secondary. From classmates to shady weapons dealers, the personalities on display are incredibly well realised. Genuinely caring about video game characters can be a rare occurrence, but we don't think we've ever cared this much about almost an entire cast before.
The icing on the cake is that you can interact with all of them. By spending time with each character and getting to know them, you'll gain access to bonus abilities and more powerful personas both in and out of combat. Basically, the bonds that you forge have a direct impact on gameplay – and that's what really ties the experience together. That said, while the advantages are nice, you'll be hanging out with these characters because you want to – not because you have to.
In fact, you'll only be doing a lot of things in Persona 5 because you want to. The whole game runs on a calendar, so your time is ultimately limited. Outside of major story scenarios, you're generally free to spend your time however you like both after school and in the evening. You can use this time to meet with friends, further explore a dungeon, or partake in some other activity, such as studying or visiting a maid cafe – obviously. Whatever you choose to do, time ticks away and the next day arrives without fail – then the process repeats. In many ways, Persona 5 is always asking you to make tough choices – you won't be able to see everything in one playthrough without resorting to some sort of strict guide, and that'd honestly take the fun out of forging your own path through the game.
Consequence is what the Persona series is all about after all. Because time is always falling away in chunks, it very rarely feels as though what you're doing serves no purpose. There are always goals to work towards – no matter how trivial – and this creates a hugely addictive gameplay cycle that has tangible rewards. Once the game's structure clicks, it becomes extremely difficult to pull yourself away.
The same is true of combat, which boasts quite possibly the slickest turn based battle system that we've seen in years. All of your standard stuff is here: physical attacks, magical spells, items, equipment – but animations transition so smoothly that clueless onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that they're watching an action title. Success in combat hinges on your ability to exploit enemy weaknesses. Truth be told it's a bit like Pokémon, only here you attack weaknesses in order to gain an extra turn. Hitting an opponent that's weak to fire, for example, will knock that foe to the ground, and if you're able to floor every enemy, you'll activate the 'hold up' mechanic, which allows you to unleash a devastating team attack or negotiate with your adversary.
Yep, the negotiation system is back from Persona's parent Shin Megami Tensei series, giving you the option of sparing an enemy's life in return for their assistance, money, or items – providing that you're able to actually convince them. Dialogue choices are abundant throughout the game, and although most only have a brief impact on conversations – you're often presented with some brilliantly comedic lines – they play more important roles during negotiations and when you're trying to build a relationship with someone. They may not offer branching narratives like they do in other titles, but their presence definitely allows you to set the protagonist's tone, which is always welcome when role-playing.
Moving on, it's hard not to talk about Persona 5 without at least mentioning Persona 4 Golden. The enhanced Vita re-release of the original PlayStation 2 title is largely considered a masterpiece – but it isn't without its own flaws. The game's dungeons are somewhat basic and uninteresting, but thankfully this is something that its sequel does infinitely better.
Being a Phantom Thief, there's an unsurprising degree of stealth to your work. You can take cover behind objects in order to ambush your enemies, for instance, and throughout your adventure, you'll encounter traps, locked doors, and other obstacles that you'll have to overcome. All of these new elements make for more engaging environments that have you constantly interacting with them – but their true strength lies is their design. Previously inaccessible paths lead back to areas that you've already cleared, and basic platforming sections open up some especially neat area transitions. Trekking through hellish mindscapes has never been so enjoyable.
Whether you're putting cognitive monsters to the sword, zipping around a secret reality, or trying to secure a hot date, Persona 5 is a startlingly cohesive experience. What truly cements everything, though, is the art direction. As far as presentation goes, the game is virtually unmatched. Graphically it's very much a PlayStation 3 port, but its sense of style and attention to detail is mind-blowing. Menus shift and bounce with every button press, character portraits are immaculately drawn, and even the victory screen following a successful battle is enough to make your eyeballs pop out of your skull. We've never seen anything quite like it, and we daresay that it's possibly the most stylish title ever made. Sometimes you feel like you're flicking through the pages of a comic book rather than playing a video game.
And as if you needed more sensory pleasure, the soundtrack is sublime as well. Once again composer Shoji Meguro has crafted something special – a jazzy, effortlessly cool selection of music that further solidifies the game's immensely confident tone. It's simply a joy to listen to.
Persona 5 sets the benchmark for modern Japanese RPGs: it oozes style, charisma, and polish quite unlike anything we've played. With this fifth entry, the series' trademark formula of dungeon delving and socialising has been perfected. Addictive, engaging gameplay, incredibly endearing characters, and a consistently rewarding narrative loop combine to create a spectacularly cohesive whole – whether or not you're already a fan of Persona. A masterpiece from top to bottom.