There were a lot of fantastic games in 2017. The issue is, they tended to be massive games that absorbed you into their worlds, taking up many hours of your life. Prioritising the likes of Zelda: Breath of the Wild led to delaying a playthrough of, say, Persona 5. I know, I know, what a hard life.
See, around 10 hours into the Atlus-developed JRPG, there’s even slight guilt from not playing it before now; this is one of the most unique games from any year, let alone 2017. Persona 5 on PS4 is a massive and stylish game, and if you passed on it, it may be time to give it a chance.
So, those first 10 hours. They’re eccentric and brilliant, but really dense too. The first thing that hits you, right from booting up the game for the first time, is the art direction. It’s quite unlike anything else; whilst clearly Japanese and anime-styled, there is a certain boldness to the use of lines and colour. Before you even start establishing relationships in the game, you are drawn to the lively character designs. The feeling is that, sometime soon, these are characters you are going to think of fondly.
Which is incredibly apt, given that your character is trying to recall it all. The game starts, seemingly, at the end, where you play a Phantom Thief infiltrating an event – however, things go wrong and you get caught. An interrogation leads you to relive the many days building up to this. The many days, that is, as a teenage boy in Japan. This opening is clever in showing you the very basics of combat and traversal, in your failed escape, but also in conversation; the basics of your character are defined by that early interrogation, and it’s important to get a grip of these. Why? Because a lot more information comes at you later…
Persona 5 really starts back at the start of the story. This appears to be an excuse for you to shape your own story up until being caught, which is an intriguing story structure. Your character got incorrectly blamed for an assault, and has been moved to a new school and guardian (Sojiro Sakura, a café owner disgruntled at the whole situation). Your life becomes an effort to try and fit in, working out the trains to get to school on time, sorting out your room, and… wait, wait, come back!
School is Fun
Bizarrely, these tasks have a certain appeal to them, as you slowly get to know the characters and environments. The aforementioned art style is a big part of this. Conversations, for instance, have moments of expression and reaction to go along with the charismatic English voice acting. Even traveling to different locations has a quirky charm, with transitions of people going about their days. Tokyo actually seems to bustle with life, as you can listen to conversations, find out-of-the-way shops and more.
This is a JRPG, though, and there is a complete other side to this world. The Metaverse goes hand in hand with the world we are used to, where our desires are given a physical form. In certain cases, they form a Palace, complete with a shadow version of themselves, Shadows roaming the Zelda dungeon-style structure, and the source of their desires – a Treasure at the centre.
The early game sees you falling into this world on multiple occasions, and discovering how it all works – that goes for both the player and the character, as there is a lot of information presented to you. Persona 5 asks you to hold on and believe that you will be able to make sense of it, and once again the slick visual design makes that more palatable. In combat, characters can summon personalised creatures – Personas – to perform special moves. However, the main character has the extra ability to switch between different Personas, and therefore, different abilities.
In the first ten hours, you uncover a pretty disturbing sequence of events at the school, manifesting as a Palace to infiltrate in the Metaverse. As you go, you start to build your relationships with other characters that become involved – whether it is the enigmatic cat (yes, that is correct) Morgana, the rebellious Ryuji Sakamoto, or the defiant Ann Takamaki. Your time becomes a balance between preparing your team in the known world, and then pushing forward in the hyper-reality of the Metaverse.
Trial and Error
Progression in the Palace is limited by both stats and skill, which isn’t particularly well taught – my learning experience was from going too far, getting defeated, and losing a chunk of progress from a save point. There were many points of frustration in this first Palace (yeah, there’s gonna be more). A more forgiving way of hammering home the risk/reward gameplay would have been preferred.
The exploration and combat inside the Palace did, unusually for this game, lack some of the visual variety. Environments had a consistently murky look, in a way that reminded me of the dungeons in Skyrim. It’s only made more stark by the distinct character designs roaming inside. Hopefully, this will change as the game continues into other Palaces. Making up for this is the music by series sound director Shoji Meguro and company, which is especially striking in combat. The jazz elements, as well as flavours of rock and rap, are quite unlike the game music we are used to.
Some of the best genre stories present serious issues through a heightened version of reality, and this is what Persona 5 does with this first Palace. The conclusion to this section has some really serious elements, and my hope is that the game continues to combat tough topics amongst the colourful combat and engrossing everyday Tokyo.
Something that splitting the world in two does is highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each part. The clearer visual approach of the known Tokyo, and interacting with side characters in it, makes me prefer my time there and, subsequently, have a slight tinge of sadness whenever I have to leave for the Metaverse. The next challenge this game has is to make me enjoy the Metaverse, and the Palaces, as much as the simple joys of going to school. Yeah, it feels odd to write that sentence…
Persona 5 review coming… well, one day, if the game ever has an ending!