Persona 5 Review: anime-teen drama offers emotionally-charged narrative

April 27, 2017

Warning: As of this writing, I have yet to complete Persona 5. It is a behemoth of a game that can take quite awhile to complete. Due to the amount of content I have completed, I feel there is more than enough to write and critique about this game. I must apologize for not being able to complete in time for this writing. This review will contain little to no real spoilers so as to keep this experience and its qualities unspoiled for potential players.

We live in a strange and at times overly bleak period of existence. Where the corruption of our governments and leaders seem increasingly insoluble, the generations are once again giving off a stink-eye against one another and our optimism overall for the future dims more than it shines. It’s not just America, as Atlus - the Japanese developer of the Persona 5 -series depicts a world set in Tokyo, which is at once beautiful and kitschy and yet pessimistic and drained.


One plays the teenage leader of a group of “phantom thieves” who wish to make the term “social justice warrior” not only legitimately honorable but remind us that we can make the world better if we act. The game is a masterpiece that challenges you both in gameplay and its ramifications.


This said Japanese teenager, of which his name is of the player’s choosing, is forced to go live in the big city due to being framed for a crime he didn’t commit: stopping a vile politician from molesting someone. This injustice eventually awakens something inside him - and likeminded high school students, the “personas” - entities that represent a repressed part of themselves that lie in their unconscious. With this power they seek to change the hearts of people who have desires so distorted, they poison the world they inhabit. If the adults are so broken or afraid of changing the world, you’ll have to step in as picaresque heroes of the mind.


Persona 5 is at best, a well-designed and intoxicating turn-based role playing game with brilliant gameplay and a tone and presentation that takes anime/manga like Lupin the III and Detective Conan plus movies like Ocean’s Eleven and Inception and blends it with a surprisingly easy to tolerate background of a high school drama. Despite being an ocean apart, the stakes, daily lives and habits of these Tokyo kids are overly relatable and at times, their obstacles feel almost painfully true to what we face over here.


The mixing of your protagonist’s life in the real world and his exploits in the cognitive “Metaverse”, create a dynamic to your time spent that is novel and appropriately nail-biting. Not only are you consistently given time limits to commit cognitive heists to rehabilitate the twisted hearts and minds of your foes;  you also have so much time to study for midterms and exams and grow relationships. That there is a near inexhaustive sense of tension to what you must do makes an experience that can easily surpass a 100 hours of playtime feel as engaging as you begin and as when you near the end. What supports this even further is the “confidant” system.


Over the course of the yearlong adventure, you will make metaphysical “vows” with individuals in the world. Improving these vows not only strengthens the power of different categories of personas you acquire. It even gives you extra advantages to yourself and your team members. Strengthening bonds allows teammates to perform incredible feats like taking a possibly fatal blow for you, knocking enemies out in a critical move or becoming just all the more reliable in combat. It feeds into a sense of progress that is dictated most often by what you decide must be done in your allotted time. It is both exhilarating and satisfying when you max out someone’s bond and become truly your partner in justifiable crime.


The combat and progression is further strengthened by the outstanding narrative that not only deftly explores the themes of Persona 5, but is not afraid to call out our heroes’ own convictions, holding them as accountable as the dark targets they face. There is little clichéd sense of kids being overly smart and the adults being bumbling idiots. They are smart people and they are not-so-smart people on both sides. They feel human even with the occasional overdramatic flare that comes with this essentially being an interactive anime. The English voice acting is utterly convincing and makes you right at home in this take on Japanese culture which in some great respects is not all that different from American culture.


No matter how many times you may face a spot where you have to engage in “grinding”(fighting enemies only for leveling up your characters statistics) or a part where the pacing may lapse a bit, there is always a strong conviction in both the protagonist and myself to see it through to whatever end. That’s especially good, because due to this being a turn based game, you will experience difficulties on your journey.


Almost nothing in Persona 5 seems out of place or inappropriate, save for maybe some steep difficulty. The music’s jazzy and bold soundtrack is some of the best I have ever heard in a video game, getting you as pumped for a boss or just as soothingly calmed on a way home from school/and or a journey through the Metaverse. Its characters are based on archetypes like the rebellious misfit, the stringent student president or the shy and introverted gamer/hacker but their realization ingame only supports the need to explore each other. They are lovable people to be around and you will often feel saddened when you miss the chance to improve your relationship due to time..


Above all else, no matter your thoughts on anime, Japanese culture or the complexities of the human mind, here is my advice to you: Wake up, get up and get out there and enjoy and challenge of life and its enemies and while you’re at it, play this game. It will take your heart away and you will not mind in the slightest.


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