Do you know when people started to dream in colour? When colour started to appear on our televisions. Before that, people dreamt in black and white. How do we know this? We've been paying attention in class, and taking notes, of course.
Taken at face value, things like homework, exams, and classes are all hallmarks of the Persona series, and on paper, it shouldn't really work. Why would you, after a long and arduous day, choose to turn on your console at home, only to have to answer the teacher's questions in video game form? Why would you skip homework, only to do your homework in a video game? It may seem deeply irrational, but put all these notions aside. Persona 5 is the best year at school that you'll ever have.
Persona is a series that likes to take its sweet time, both in terms of pace and in letting you get to grips with how the various systems function and interlink. After all, for any film or play, the stage must be properly set before anything of dramatic value can occur. The characters and school setting must be introduced, and the weird and wonderful metaverse has to be explained. Rushing anything rarely makes for a good story, and more so than anything else, that's what Persona 5 wants to accomplish: telling a good story.
In many ways, the story of the game maintains many of the expectations that fans consider standard for the series; you're the new kid on the block, whom, for reasons we'll refrain from disclosing here, must spend a year away from your parents, living in the capital of Japan. Previous games in the series have been more interested in sending the player away from the madness of the city and out to a more rural setting, where the mystery had more space to develop around the locals. This time around the developers have aimed for something bigger. Yes, you're wandering around Tokyo, but that doesn't mean that there's no intimacy to be found amidst the more urban feel. The crisis is anything but local, as people all over Japan are involved, but the story never scales out of proportion. Even though the stakes are higher, the story never falters in its undivided attention on the main character, Joker, and the friends with which he surrounds himself. The goal is never to save the world. The goal is to save a friend in trouble, and if that means making the world a bit safer for innocents in the process, well then that's a secondary objective. It's in the personal relationships where you'll find the strength and the motivation to fight on, as Persona is a very personal series, and that's both in terms of your relationship to your friends and your enemies.
At the same time, Persona 5 also manages to turn a lot of expectations completely upside down. In previous installments, for instance, the characters have been "forced" to act, because their existence or well-being was threatened. In Persona 4, each and every one of your friends was in grave danger, and only by entering the mysterious parallel dimension could you save their lives. In Persona 5, you're the opposite of a passive observer who's being forced to act. The group decides to act proactively, fighting the criminals who manage to escape the law at every turn. They choose to challenge those who have clearly risen above the justice system, and so they take the law into their own hands.
All of a sudden deep and very relevant questions arise; is the group - The Phantom Thieves - righteous in circumventing the law? Are they just in their actions? These are questions that the game doesn't try to avoid, but instead it actively uses them as the foundation for its storytelling. It's amazingly refreshing and brave that they dare ask tough questions to the audience, where other games might have a tendency to have a one dimensional depiction of good and evil, and this bravery permeates the entire experience. The game doesn't steer around unpleasant subject matters, but tackles them head-on, and does so without ever undermining the importance of taking a stance on difficult subjects. Like Catherine before it, it never denies its responsibility of approaching these subjects in a faceted, careful, and mature way. It's truly refreshing to find something like Persona 5 that dares to do more. We see teachers do both physical and mental harm to students, mentors that abuse their authority over their pupils for personal gain, sex with minors, executives that pressure their employees to suicide, and so on. It's tough to say the least, but it's never included to get cheap mentions in the press; Persona 5 deals with everything with style and maturity.
In classic JRPG form there are enemies to be destroyed and levels to rise through. In Persona 5 there's two ways to become stronger: the classic JRPG way, and the personal way. The classic approach is by ﬁghting monsters, with every person having a persona, and only by knowing and believing in yourself can that persona become stronger. The main character, Joker, has the wonderful ability to hold more than one persona inside him - almost like having several personalities - and it enables him to switch persona to fit the opponent. The battle system is turn-based, as has been a hallmark of the series so far, and it's relatively easy to pick up, but noticeably harder to master, as is tradition with RPGs from Japan. Practically every enemy has a particular weakness, and using a ﬁre-based attack on an icy enemy will result in that enemy being knocked over and paralysed for an entire turn. When every enemy is neutralized, the team may begin an all-out, where everyone attacks every enemy at the same time. You may also spend your turn to ask a neutralised enemy for money, different items, or whether he wants to ﬁght alongside you instead.
Of course, during early proceedings you only have three accomplices with you, and the various enemy weaknesses are simple to understand. Slowly though, as the story progresses, and more ambitious youngsters join your crew, new strategic options emerge, and you'll get the ability to switch between various members on the ﬂy, so you always have the right attack for the right weakness. If you don't constantly maintain control over a given battle, it's often your enemies that do so. Weaknesses work both ways, after all, and an icy enemy can critically harm and incapacitate a team member should they have a ﬁre-based persona on hand. It's a simple system on the face of it, but it's also deeply tactical, and as you begin to experiment with items, team combinations, and spells, it'll quickly become clear that Persona 5 has made fine adjustments to an already stellar formula. This is turn-based combat at its peak.
The second way of becoming stronger is through your friendships, and only by strengthening your bonds can you truly fulfill your potential in combat. Your friendship with a scandal-struck politician, who is excellent at giving speeches, can teach you better rhetorical skills, and that'll help you ask for more money or items from neutralised enemies, for instance. Your friendship with a talented shogi player teaches you her strategies, and that gives you the opportunity to switch out crew members mid-combat. All friendships offer fantastic narrative depth, and a new ability with which you can explore and conquer the metaverse.
The diversity of the characters is also admirable. Whether it's an alcoholic reporter, a fortune teller who has lost faith in her abilities, or a talking cat, all of the characters feel credible and real enough that you'd want to get to know them, and ultimately help them. There's a huge number of characters you can initiate friendships with in Tokyo, and if you're interested enough to head into less-explored corners of the city, the game will constantly reward your curiosity. Even if you don't happen to run into a friend, a simple walk is worth your time. Persona 5 has not only managed to capture the look of the city, they've caught the very feel of it. There's students at the arcades, people rush in and out of busy trains, and they've made a good representation of the hustle and bustle of city life. Even the school itself is a joy to move around in, with gossiping school girls, popular boys spreading rumours about "the new kid", and teachers who maintain order in the corridors. If you've never visited Japan, this is as good a substitute as you'll get. If you've already been, prepare for nostalgia galore. Trust us. On our ﬁrst day at school we got lost on Shinjuku station when we had to change to the Ginza line. The game didn't tell us where to go, so we had to read the signs, as if we were there. Persona 5 is truly special, and it offers a faithful rendition of being in Tokyo.
The narrative is courageous, the characters complex, the battle system refined, and it's all wrapped up in one of the most stylish games we've ever had the pleasure of getting lost in. From the 'Start Mission' screen written in chalk, through to the menu design, everything is brimming with style and personality. This is a game that has an identity, and it wears it proudly on its sleeve. The music also manages to convey this style, as here the visuals and audio go perfectly hand in hand. If you're simply doing your part-time job in the ﬂower shop, the music is calm and soothing, while an exhilarating tune is hammered through when combat ensues. Composer Shoji Meguro has always delivered in terms of unforgettable soundtracks for the various chapters in the series, but here he somehow manages to raise the bar. Maybe it's because of the revamped graphical style, but somehow the audio and visuals align here more than they ever have before.
"Take Your Heart" is the tagline of Persona 5, and this is more than simply a mysterious introduction to the game's plot. Nay, it's a warning, because when you ﬁrst load up the game and bear witness to the ﬁrst cut scene, the game will have stolen your heart. Colour TV made us dream with colour, Persona 5 will make you dream of Japan.
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