The follow-up to the incredible Persona 5 Royal is leaving a little to be desired.
Being a fan can be rough. Persona 5 Strikers, of all things, made me realise this yet again. The spin-off from the Dynasty Warriors developers at Omega Force is a faithful sequel to the critically acclaimed Persona 5, which continues the story of the main game. It sounds like a dream come true, but it took me weeks to accept this product for what it is. That's not to say the development studio did a bad job - on the contrary. It's just that my heart beats for another game.
Both in terms of gameplay as well as from a narrative point of view, this is a direct continuation of Persona 5. The events start off half a year after the psychotic breakdown incidents ended. The Phantom Thieves are meeting up in Tokyo to spend their summer vacations together. Hours before these plans can be set into motion, Joker and his friends witness a mysterious foe stealing people's desires. It turns out that this event is no one of a kind incident, but the beginning of a major plot that takes place all over Japan. To investigate this striking series of changes of hearts, we are traveling across the country in a caravan.
The story of Persona 5 Strikers follows the formula of the JRPG very closely, but in some places it feels a bit rushed and less nuanced. The game's ending drags on for a bit too long, too, and the overall experience is more focused and action-oriented. After 50 hours of playtime I can now start New Game +, which is about the half of what Persona 5 has to offer. In terms of gameplay, this distillate has of course a lot in common with the JRPG. You read your way through conversations, explore detailed urban environments and have to manage your team in order to be able to fight properly with all nine playable characters.
The most obvious difference is the real-time combat system that Omega Force created from Persona's turn-based JRPG experience. In this new Musou hybrid the Phantom Thieves face hordes of Shadows on 3D battlefields and send them flying with fierce blows and acrobatic combat abilities. However, this gameplay is superficial, because it is built upon the main series (Shin Megami Tensei) RPG framework. What that means is that your mechanical skill isn't all that important if you don't pay close attention to the elemental weaknesses and resistances of your various Personas.
The mix of these two elements is more organic than it first appears. For example, many abilities require mana, so that you need to think carefully about how and when you use your skills. Successful combos, on the other hand, allow you to unleash elemental powers at no additional cost. This is essential in challenging battle, since otherwise your mana supply will run out too quickly, leaving you with fewer options. You can even skip most of the beat 'em up parts if you target the enemies' weaknesses with your spells and thus continuously interrupt their every action.
To be honest, I had quite some troubles putting that into practice, but ultimately came to terms with it. Fighting against lesser Shadows does not offer any challenge in the first half of the game, whereas boss battles require that you already understand the RPG part. Unfortunately, Persona 5 Strikers does not find the necessary balance between these two aspects and that can be quite frustrating. Fortunately, the fusion succeeds later on and after you collected a few strong Personas, the fights are becoming more strategic. You still need to learn and read the movements of your opponents but the mid game battles are becoming gradually more dynamic and fun to play.
To evaluate the technical presentation, it helps to look at the development process of Persona 5 Strikers. Koei Tecmo's development studio Omega Force started active production in late 2016, not too long after Atlus launched Persona 5 in Japan. The art and sounds are similar to those of the main game, because Atlus' very own Persona department (P-Studio) helped out with those. In Japan, the title launched one year ago, but the localisation process took a bit longer for overseas territories. In a few weeks, the latest adventure of the Phantom Thieves will finally be available with English audio and EFIGS subtitles, but a large part of the project feels outdated by today's standards.
For example, the image quality looks very rough on 4K screens and flashy colours are primarily used to paint over the low-resolution textures. The linear level design can't hide this fact either, but what is even more apparent is the cluttered HUD, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to keep track of what's happening. In the heat of the moment, speech bubbles and action commands cover up our field of view, distracting from more important things. While playing the PS4 version on my PS5 the console had no noticeable performance problems, no matter what happened on the screen. If Nintendo Switch and PC players will get the same experience, I cannot say, unfortunately.
By looking at some of the other things Omega Force worked on over the last few years, it is very noticeable just how much attention Persona 5 Strikers has received during its long development. The studio successfully managed to break down one of the very best (and most complex) RPGs of the PS4 and adapt that into their very own signature gameplay, all while continuing the game's themes, its story and characters. Despite the sum of its parts results in a much less coherent picture in my eyes, there are quite a few moments that will bring a smile to the series' long-time fans. But to appreciate those, you need patience to endure a few weak spots on the way.
7 / 10
The Phantom Thieves are back! Direct continuation. Gameplay offers its own twist. New comrades, lots of fan service.
Musou gameplay tied to a steep learning curve. Production values are below that of Persona 5. Inconsistent pace. P5 Royal is getting ignored.