There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Inner Light,” one of the best in the series, in which Captain Picard is struck by a beam of light from an alien probe and wakes up on an unfamiliar planet. He finds that he already has a life, a spouse and an occupation on this world, and he lives several decades in this other identity, learning how to play an instrument, having a child and coming to understand the workings of this alien society. In his old age, with his adult daughter beside him, he bears witness to the destruction of the planet’s star and the end of the world—before waking up on the Enterprise to find that only twenty-five minutes have passed.
This is the best explanation I can offer for what it feels like to play a Persona game.
Ever since the release of Persona 3 over a decade ago, the series has offered a unique spin on the traditional JRPG formula: the usual dungeon-crawling, turn-based battling and party management has been supplemented with a slice-of-life high school simulation in which you spend time with friends, catch movies at the local theater, go on dates and try to spend at least a little time studying for your exams. In the month or so that it takes you to play the game, you’ll live a year in the life of a Japanese high schooler with supernatural powers.
Persona 5 isn’t just the apex of that formula, it also folds in thematic elements from every previous game in the series to become a distillation of Persona’s essence: Technologies falling into the wrong hands and being abused by corrupt authority figures, public perception and the rumor mill distorting the very nature of reality, a mysterious public health crisis that threatens the nation, humanity’s complacency making it complicit in the end of the world—long-time Persona fans may recognize that as a run-down of the first four games in the series, but it’s all present here in Persona 5. And, as always, there is a group of high schoolers who are given extraordinary powers that they use to explore a distorted alternate world.
As I played Persona 5, I was constantly struck by how nimbly it handles this thematic synthesis. It’s hard not to compare it to another recent game, Final Fantasy XV. FFXV felt like developer Square Enix, unsure of itself, had looked on covetously at Western developers and tried to imitate what they saw in a bid to make themselves relevant. Though they found some small successes, on the whole FFXV is a jumbled, broken mess of a game that gets far more wrong than it does right.
Persona 5 is the direct opposite: Developer Atlus leans into all its strengths full tilt, creating not just a game with a strong central vision, but what is almost certainly the most polished and stylish JRPG I’ve ever played.
Persona 5 puts you in the role of a teenager who has been forced to transfer schools after an incident in his hometown has left him with a criminal record, establishing from the beginning that no good deed goes unpunished. As your protagonist tries to settle into his new life in Tokyo and stay out of trouble, he discovers that a mysterious smartphone app allows him to travel to the “Metaverse,” an alternate reality where the distorted desires of the corrupt are made manifest in fantasy “Palaces.” He and his new allies learn that at the center of every Palace lies the corrupted soul’s Treasure, and if the Treasure is stolen then the Palace will crumble and the person’s heart will change, causing them to repent and confess their crimes. Thus the Phantom Thieves are born.
As the game proceeds, you spend your downtime between heists living the life of an average student in Tokyo. Maybe you hang out with your buddy Ryuji after class and grab ramen at a joint he likes. Maybe you spend the evening at the batting cages, trying to hit a homer and improve your proficiency. Maybe you pull up a chair to the cafe counter and read a book. Maybe you work your night job at the beef bowl restaurant and try to get a little extra yen by remembering everybody’s order properly. Maybe you go see that cute fortune teller you have a crush on.
Persona 5’s Tokyo is lovingly rendered with verisimilitude, many of its locations closely modeled on their real-world counterparts. Even the fictional locations feel real, lived-in, and it’s extremely difficult not to become attached to them. Persona games sometimes get lumped in with other 80-hour epics like The Witcher or Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, but the scope of Persona is altogether different—those games are all large, broad, with enormous worlds to explore. Persona 5 isn’t large at all—it’s relatively tiny. Persona 5 is long. My first playthrough took 83 hours, and short of skipping cutscenes or trying to skirt by underleveled, there’s not much I could have done to curtail that. There are very few story-heavy games that plant you in a location and ask you to call it home for a year, and in that regard Persona games are much closer to Stardew Valley than to The Witcher. They’re games about cultivation, only in Persona you’re cultivating relationships instead of crops.
One of the biggest ways in which Persona 5 refines this formula is by changing how these confidant relationships fold back into the game’s dungeon-crawling side. Not only do they affect the strengths of your personas, they offer myriad other advantages: Spend time with a shogi champion and she might teach you how to escape from battle when you’re surrounded by enemies. Spend time with a back-alley doctor and she’ll start selling you medicines you won’t find in any store. Help a local politician with his campaigning and he’ll teach you how to negotiate with enemies. Hang out with your fellow thieves, and they’ll learn new moves to use in battle. The Persona games have always been about how friendships manifest as literal power, but it’s rarely been as tangible as it is in Persona 5.
When the time comes to infiltrate someone’s Palace and steal their heart, the action shifts to the traditional JRPG exploration and battling that the Persona series has always had, which has always been solid but has rarely been the games’ biggest draw. I wondered, going into Persona 5, if there was a way to improve that element and make it as exciting as the rest of the game. It turns out that the way to improve it is to make it unbelievably slick.
Summon your persona and the camera shifts and your character’s stance changes. Draw your gun and the same happens. If you can score a hit on an enemy’s weakness, you can “pass the baton” to a team-mate, tagging them in with a high five that never stopped exciting me in eighty hours of play. What Atlus has done with Persona 5 is to make navigating menus feel tactile and significant, making the usually-rote act of JRPG combat feel alive and exciting. If you knock every enemy down, you can launch into an All-Out Attack that sees the enemy silhouettes caught in a death tableau as one of your teammates strikes a cocky finishing pose.
That tangible excitement extends to dungeon navigation. Unlike in Persona 3 and 4, which had randomly-generated dungeon floors, every dungeon in Persona 5 is bespoke, surreal and beautiful. As Phantom Thieves, you’re encouraged to keep to the shadows, sneaking from cover to cover and leaping out to catch patrolling guards unawares. The act of moving between hiding locations is snappy, almost instantaneous, and it feels marvelous to leap out from hiding to tear the mask off an unprepared shadow and initiate combat.
Persona 5 is positively dripping with style, from its jazzy soundtrack to its top-notch menus, which you wouldn’t think would be a thing to call out in a game review but here we are. After I spent a few hours navigating Persona 5’s slick-as-hell menus, I think Final Fantasy XV uninstalled itself from my PS4 out of shame.
There are a couple minor complaints that I have about the game: Its use of a silent protagonist feels outdated, and like previous Persona heroes he ends up feeling a little too much like a cipher rather than a vessel for the player to pour themselves into—paradoxically, a little more characterization might better allow for that. The game bombards you with texts from your associates wanting to spend time with you, and it’s anxiety-inducing that you can’t respond with a “Sorry, I’m busy”—you have to leave the texts unanswered unless you’re going to go along with your friend’s plans. The flipside of the game being a synthesis of previous Persona titles is that it goes back to the same well pretty often in terms of plot beats and character archetypes, and if you’ve played previous titles then you’ll occasionally get a sense of déjà vu.
I wonder, too, how deeply Persona 5 will resonate in the West, because so many of its core conflicts are very much informed by Japanese culture. The game deals with issues like student suicide, internet fame (and notoriety), a court system heavily skewed in favor of the prosecution, and the responsibilities adult society holds toward the younger generation—all tensions which absolutely have their counterparts in American society, but which manifest themselves in unmistakably different ways in the States. The late-game narrative takes some turns that might feel Extremely Timely to an American player, but in reality are just a bit of synchronicity—although, given that the Persona series lifts its themes from Jung, maybe those bits of “acausal parallelism” are the most appropriate thing possible! Who knows what’s going on in the collective unconscious…?
Persona 5 might not be for you—maybe you’ve no love for the anime aesthetic, or maybe the notion of an 80-hour game with no open world isn’t your bag. Maybe you don’t like JRPGs!
But maybe, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend eighty-three hours with this game over the course of a month and sit there as the credits roll with an empty feeling in your chest, turning your year in Tokyo over and over in your head, thinking of the friends you spent time with and the struggles you endured together. Maybe, despite the unreasonable wealth of games that 2017 has afforded us, you’ll navigate back to the main menu and immediately select “New Game Plus.”
Persona 5 was developed and published by Atlus. It is available for the PlayStation 4.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.