By Assia Angelini
Last week, Atlus amazed us again with the latest installment of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. Persona 5 definitely does the series proud in its release on the series’ 20th anniversary. I had the opportunity to play the game and here are some of my first thoughts on it.
At the time of writing this, I’m at around the 35-hour mark, a target which is rapidly moving because I can’t put the game down. In my review of the game thus far I have made an effort to stay strictly away from any spoilers so that if you want to play the game after reading, you still can!
First off, the stylization of this game is amazing. Persona 5 sets itself apart in more ways than one. The thing that stuck out to me first was the game’s very strong sense of individual and personal style. Where Persona 3 and 4 had more neutral color schemes with their muted blues and yellows, Persona 5 goes bold with more saturated colors and a more pronounced individual style: from basic font choice to the interface of the starting menu, the in-game menu, and the even the shop menus. While Persona 5 sets itself apart with its confident style choices, its new presentation of familiar elements that make it recognizable as part of the series. I love the choices made for the style. It adds an entirely new layer of personality to the game and gives mundane parts of game play that we’re familiar with a fresh coat of paint and instills it with new excitement.
Tying into the style is the improvements in animation, especially to the 3-D in game models. There were frequent anime cut scenes in the beginning that gave way to more 3-D model-centric cut scenes. The animation is so improved and so smooth, we don’t even lose anything when it switches over to primarily 3-D model. The animation for the 3-D models has improved so much. The 2-D character portrait expressions and extended body language are reflected and expanded upon in the 3-D models, giving even more personality and depth to the characters. It’s so dynamic. And every bit of the posing with the 3-D models feels so purposeful in a way that reflects not only the style of the game but the personality of the character. This is apparent immediately in the start screen menu when characters are even just lounging around.
One of my favorite parts is the way that combats end and how there’s different backgrounds/interfaces depending on what type of battle it is, who ends it, and how. Even the 2-D character portraits are given a new dynamic presentation that adds to the presentation of the story and really gets the emotions across in ways that the previous more static emotion changes didn’t.
Another thing I really appreciate about Persona 5 is the story of this installment. The game makes it very clear from the beginning that you’re dealing with themes of corruption and rebellion. The student life aspect of the game that players of this series are familiar with is presented to you almost mockingly.
The game implements a mission objective in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and one of your first missions is to “live an honest student life.” Which, in light of how the main character is being treated and what he and his friends have been through, makes you realize how shallow these expectations of compliance are with a system that is immediately shown to be corrupt. Given current events, I find this whole overarching theme of rebellion against a corrupt system-with-power-over-you is just completely fitting. While it’s dark, it’s satisfying to be how realistically bleak your chances are and to be able to get this fantastic chance to set things right in a way that you and your friends otherwise would not have been able to. I’m really intrigued and excited to see how this story evolves and progresses.
The darkness of the story is mixed with moments of levity between you and your companions. It doesn’t reach the lightness of Persona 4 though, as the interface never truly lets you forget about all the problems plaguing the world.
Realistic rumor physics has sound bytes and dialogue popping up on your screen, mimicking how one might walk down the halls and know everyone’s talking trash about you. It really emphasizes the theme and adds to the world-building and immersion of the game.
Along with the story, I like the characters I’ve been introduced to thus far. Companions are, for me, arguably some of the most important factors in the game. Unlike Persona 3 where you aren’t necessarily close to your companions (you’re more like associates of the same club/allies moving towards the same goals than friends), Persona 4 gave off the feeling of closeness, and friends that were open and casual around each other to the point where it felt like a makeshift family.
In Persona 5, the thing that ties you to your companions is that you’re all outsiders without a place. In the same way that seeing your friends' shadow selves in Persona 4 encouraged closeness and camaraderie, this status as an outsider provides a common ground and already kind of allows for these bonds to be cultivated? There’s an easy sort of closeness that comes with a shared background and being happy to have found someone to stand by you. I’m really looking forward to seeing how all these new personalities meld together and the sort of relationship they each build with one another.
The gameplay for Persona 5 is some of the most dynamic I’ve experienced in the series. While Tartarus and the different Dungeons in P3 and P4 had different looks, the overall dungeon crawling experience was more or less the same. Persona 5 changes that up but in a way that really fits with the story that’s being told. The whole goal and team organization are different in this one: you’re playing the role of Phantom Thieves, and the team really ran with this theme.
So far, not only are the different dungeons aesthetically different but while the approach to each falls within a system/pattern, there are puzzles and interactions that set them apart from each other and doesn’t feel like more of the same. The very layout does this. You’re not just expected to go through maze-like paths, you’re forced to interact with the atmosphere that they present to you, which just makes you pay more attention to the differences. However, if you miss the standard dungeon crawl of the old games, that’s available to you as well in a place where prominent side quests take place. This place is more akin to the Tartarus experience in Persona 3 and acts as a place where you can additionally gather more personas, train, and complete social link-required side quests.
Persona interaction is mainly the same. The velvet room is standard, the look being tailored to the game’s theme and the protagonist's backstory/place of fate. Persona 5 takes a page from previous SMT games with demon bargaining for items, money, or personas. And this bargaining doesn’t feel out of place or out of character. With the emphasis on the story and the nature of shadows, it feels natural to be talking to them..
I am a big fan of the Persona series and through my first play through of this game, I admit, I’m not trying to be overtly critical. I’m just trying to experience it. That being said, there are some things that I have noticed that I’m not the biggest fan of.
My first pet peeve is one of the first companions that joins you, Ann Takamaki. I don’t really like when a game is pushing you to like a character without necessarily giving them any outstanding reason for you to do so, and I feel like they’re doing this with Ann. Your first animated cut scene with her it looks like the protagonist is taken with her looks, she’s a person of conventional beauty.
We’re told she’s ostracized by others rather than shown in the way that Ryuji and the protagonist are. Morgana, the cat mascot character, is immediately taken with her beauty and from then on refers to her as Lady Ann. Her reasons for joining you are fine. It makes sense. But, I don’t really care for the way I feel like I’m being pushed to like her a lot even though, as a character, she's average.
Admittedly, she's not treated well in school, and in the first major mission, she does go through some really messed up stuff. It was a great opportunity for depth, for showing her struggling with her problems outside of protagonist intervention. I feel like they expect me to care just by showing how much the people around her care, and not through making me feel for her story. I just get a conventionally attractive pretty girl with blonde hair and blue eyes and a spunky personality. It annoys me when the other characters keep fawning over her, or when her beauty is used to objectify her (which isn't necessarily her fault, but still). I like her maybe a bit more than Yukiko who I felt fit almost the same role. There are points when I genuinely like her, but they’re overshadowed by these larger issues I have with her characterization.
Thus far I am thoroughly enjoying Persona 5, and if you’re not already part of the hype, this is an open invitation for it.