From turn-based to Musou to tactical, Atlus isn't at all interested in resting on its laurels when crafting the gameplay systems fuelling the Persona 5 series. It's impressive how the developer is able to reinvent those familiar mechanics and character abilities in a new light, making them fresh once more for a different take on combat. Persona 5 Tactica continues that impressive streak, but as the third game (or the fourth if we're counting Persona 5 Royal) in the tales of the Phantom Thieves, it's difficult not to feel a tinge of fatigue start to set in. A more stripped-back experience largely about the fights, Persona 5 Tactica satisfies — but only just.
More akin to Ubisoft's pie-in-the-sky mash-up Mario + Rabbids than XCOM 2, Atlus has opted for a somewhat casual take on tactical encounters that skips the randomised elements and complex features associated with the genre. You won't have to worry about your shots missing an enemy, and there's no base building to consider either. It's a relatively simple title when compared to past Persona 5 efforts — even Persona 5 Strikers — which is why it fails to reach the same heights Joker and co have managed in years gone by.
Persona 5 Tactica only ever consists of battles, menu navigation, and dialogue scenes. Gone is any sense of exploration; instead of touring an environment and picking out fights, they happen automatically in sequence. In between them are only ever opportunities to upgrade your party through menus at the hideout and conversations between characters — some optional and others that progress the story.
The omission leaves quite the gaping hole in the overall experience as it never feels like you can get away from combat for a breather. There's none of the relationship-building, city sightseeing, or high school class taking to distract you; even the side content is just more combat encounters with set requirements. The narrative justification is the entire game is set inside the Metaverse, but the game feels too basic compared to previous titles as a result. If you're not feeling the fights, there's absolutely nothing else to tempt you back.
For those who do enjoy their tactical undertakings, though, the combat does at least reach a good standard. You'll form a party of three with Futaba supporting and work your way to overthrowing leaders of Kingdoms (not Palaces) and their armies. Every member of the Phantom Thieves has had their toolset and slate of abilities ported over to Persona 5 Tactica, meaning they can all perform close-range melee attacks, deal damage from afar with guns, and use elemental skills.
Fights play out as you'd expect: you'll strategically position your party members around the map so they can reduce HP bars while taking cover when the enemy retaliates in the next turn. Objectives typically consist of defeating all the enemies on the map, reaching a certain point, or accomplishing something in a set number of turns. Along the way, you'll want to take advantage of trademark Persona 5 mechanics to get a leg up on your rivals.
The likes of the Baton Pass, One More, and All Out Attack have been given a tactical twist, allowing you extra turns and bonus damage on top of your standard moves. Factoring them into your playstyle is vital to success — even if the game isn't all that difficult — and they add an extra strategical layer that rewards spreading your party out as well as working out elemental weaknesses. All told, it makes for a satisfying and consistently enjoyable combat experience.
Atlus has gone the distance expanding customisation options, though, by letting you equip every party member with a second Persona. While Ryuji will always have Captain Kidd by his side and Ann can call upon the fiery strengths of Carmen, the campaign gives you the option of expanding each character's ability list by calling upon the powers of a second Persona. This allows you to work more elemental skills into your build (thus utilising more enemy weaknesses) and diversify your play. A welcome addition to the experience, the Phantom Thieves are handed the chance to tap into more power and variety, expanding your options during tough situations.
So while it lacks the depth and complexity of a Firaxis Games joint, Persona 5 Tactica can still go toe to toe with the better examples of the tactics genre in terms of customisation and sheer enjoyment. It falls short of an XCOM 2 when all is said and done, but Atlus has invested the time and effort to ensure the combat holds up against something like a Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.
If only there was a half-decent narrative to match it. Though it would probably be a bit foolish to expect a plot on the same level as Persona 5, this is still Atlus at the helm, and Persona 5 Tactica represents a significant step down in storytelling compared to the mainline entry. Instead of conquering Palaces and sending Calling Cards to the worst of society in the real world, the game ploughs through a series of Kingdoms that take place entirely in the Metaverse. The villains that rule them aren't nearly as interesting as they lack the real-world characterisation, and what they're up to in the Metaverse simply isn't gripping.
It makes for a tale that fails to add much of anything to the Persona 5 universe besides a few new entertaining characters. Erina, the leader of the Rebel Corps, joins the Phantom Thieves in their quest to escape the series of Kingdoms they face while the overall plot hinges on the disappearance of Toshiro in the real world. They're fun faces to have around the group that introduce a new dynamic and perspective to the Phantom Thieves.
The issue is those who are part of the famed secret club are starting to grow a bit stale, with little in the way of proper character development meaning these are pretty much the same personalities we’ve known since 2017. Of course, Persona 5 Tactica takes place just after the events of the original game so it makes sense why Morgana is still lusting after Ann and Futaba remains awkward in social situations, but fatigue is becoming a factor out in the real world after six years of the same interactions.
Though new characters Erina and Toshiro establish other viewpoints, the Phantom Thieves are still the stars of the show, and they continue to be their same old selves, meaning surprises and thrills personality-wise are at a minimum. It feels like Atlus has now scraped the barrel with its Persona 5 series; a proper, all-new sequel must be next.
Had the story and its established characters had the same transformation as the title's visuals, the experience wouldn't have felt nearly as dry. Just as stylish in its menus as the original game, this tactical spin-off goes for the chibi look seen in the Persona Q titles on Nintendo 3DS. It's quite the departure from the stylised but sharp character models of the PS4 title, but it works. The cute graphics make for a pleasant ride through the various colourful Kingdoms and complement the chipper nature of the Phantom Thieves.
Atlus has successfully translated the turn-based combat of its 2017 masterpiece into a competent tactical experience, though Persona 5 Tactica won't be heralded with the same praise. Consistently good during fights, customising your party and mastering its many stages is where the game is at its best. However, there's little to the title besides those skirmishes, and without any exploration or sense of character progression, this feels like the Phantom Thieves at the end of their tether. Joker and co have enjoyed a great run, but Persona 5 fatigue is well and truly beginning to set in.