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Persona 5
Score: 100%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
The Japanese role-playing game had a rough time with the seventh generation of video game consoles. It had a couple of shining moments; Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Lost Odyssey certainly come to mind. But certain standard bearers failed to keep the ball rolling. The dismal, vapid Final Fantasy XIII trilogy will likely not be remembered with any degree of fondness by anyone possessing an eye for gameplay and a mind for storytelling. Experimental titles like The Last Remnant and Resonance of Fate were generally regarded as failures, and the Tales series was content to stick to its own tired formula. But while the usual suspects were wallowing in what appeared to be a shared slump, Atlus managed to keep its head well above the surface. In fact, Iíd say that their efforts have done quite a lot to keep the genre thriving when it could have otherwise been on life support. And the funniest thing about it all is the fact that their very best work wasnít even developed for what was, at the time, modern hardware. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 are some of the most absorbing, challenging, and enjoyable Eastern role-playing games ever made. Thankfully, the JRPG has had a fantastic 2016 and early 2017: Final Fantasy XV turned out to be quite good and Nier: Automata turned out to be a game-changing, red-letter moment for the genre. So now that Atlus has left the PlayStation 2 behind (and incidentally, dropped the Shin Megami Tensei branding), what can be said about Persona 5? I would say it follows suit, but let's be real here: this series has now been leading the pack for the better part of a decade.

While Persona 5 exists as a PlayStation 4 game, it was not developed as one. While this kind of begs the question if the team will ever get around to developing for current hardware, it really doesnít matter. You see, Persona 5 doesnít really concern itself with tech. Instead, itís an exercise in raw, overwhelming style. Itís instantly striking and apparent throughout; thereís an astonishing cohesiveness and clarity of vision that never wavers. The entirety of Persona 5ís visual design is in service to that style; even normally mundane staples such as menus and loading screens. Itís a very welcome excess that helps the game come across as supremely confident, which, given its overall quality, it merits. Character models, from the heroes to the villains to the Personas themselves, are stunning in their complexity. While much of it is anime-inspired (per the seriesí roots), it rises far, far above what qualifies as standard for the medium. Thereís so much of this gameís visual design I could talk about, but you just need to experience it for yourself; there are so many delightful little touches and details that add up to ultimately help deliver a real treat for anyone with a keen eye for aesthetics.

Shoji Meguroís work on this series cannot be understated; even saying heís been there since the beginning isnít saying enough. Not only has he served as game director from time to time, but heís composed the music essentially throughout. With Persona 5, he turns in his best work to date, with an eclectic, layered soundtrack that draws inspiration primarily from acid jazz and funk. The battle theme, "Last Surprise," is a monster of an earworm that sounds like if Jamiroquai scored a Pam Grier flick. It is seriously fantastic stuff that fits the subject matter like a velour glove. I just wish there was more music than there is; recycling kicks into high gear once you pass the ten hour mark. Voice work is up to par for the series; which is both a pro and a con. Some characters sound kind of samey, in a way that only they can in English-dubbed anime. Sound effects are fine, but nothing to jump up and down about.


Gameplay:
Each Persona game begins with the main characterís displacement to a new area, but none have been as explicit or as creative about the circumstances as Persona 5. Our story begins in medias res, as the main character attempts exfiltration from what appears to be a robbery of some sort. Unfortunately, he is cornered and arrested Ė and worse, it appears that heís been sold out by one of his allies. So heís plunked down in an interrogation room and grilled by a special prosecutorÖ

Flashback to one year prior. It seems no good deed goes unpunished; your timely intervention on behalf of a stranger in peril has resulted in the accidental injury of the attacker, who unfortunately wields incredible power and influence. A single word from the guy, and you are now persona non grata (pun not intended, I absolutely promise). You are expelled from your school and transferred to Shujin Academy in the Tokyo city ward of Shibuya. The only person who will take you is the grumpy, middle-aged proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall curry and coffee joint. From there, you attempt to rebuild your reputation and reclaim your future, but there are some strange incidents erupting all about town involving individuals undergoing psychotic breakdownsÖ

As is the case with every Persona game, once you start going to school, you start to bond with a growing clique of friends. As is also the case with every Persona, game, certain crises begin to erupt around the heroes. Before long, the main characters discover the Metaverse, a cognitive realm where the intangible becomes very real Ė along with an amnesiac cat named Morgana, who is very savvy about the inner workings of the Metaverse. Of course, this is a Persona game, so in this realm, strange demons called Shadows wander, spoiling for a fight or under the conscription of more powerful entities. Naturally, our heroes face down their personal Shadows and gain the power of Persona, with the main character possessing the ubiquitous Wild Card power (allowing him to gain more than one Persona). Our heroes ultimately form a team that becomes known as the Phantom Thieves of Hearts; their goal is to force evildoers into a change of conscience by infiltrating their Palaces (products of the targetsí cognition) and stealing the source of whatever depravity consumes them.

Persona 5ís story is generally engaging throughout, provided you shut your brain off and donít think about its ethical implications too hard; considering the rant Iím about to put you through, I obviously failed at that. Maybe itís the result of culture shock, but Persona 5 is full of characters and situations that feel incredibly untrue to life (Metaverse hijinks aside). Its reductive views on justice are morally and intellectually bankrupt. It portrays most of its adults as alternatively corrupt, incompetent, and cowardly. Most disturbingly of all, it presents vengeance as a morally acceptable response to wrongdoing. The Phantom Thieves might justify their actions by using flowery language like "stealing someoneís corrupted desires," but one could just as easily say that they are violently stripping other human beings of their free will. Granted, the villains in Persona 5 are truly despicable (often outrageously, unbelievably so), and on purely emotional grounds, they absolutely deserve everything they get. But the more I played the game, the more I sympathized with the prosecutor. The story introduces other characters who share those sentiments, but each time, youíre forced to share in the brainless idealism of your crew and ultimately end up "proving them wrong." Persona 5 fancies itself a picaresque fantasy, but its characters donít behave like traditional picaros: theyíre just a handful of teens whose insatiable victim complexes would likely land them at a Bernie Sanders rally instead of in the vanguard actually fighting for the public good. At its best, itís The Breakfast Club meets Inception. At its worst, itís the ultimate millennial experience, and if itís not painfully obvious at this point, this Gen Xer just canít relate. Surprising, considering how well the series has communicated its characters and themes in the past.

Disclosure: Persona 5 is an incredibly long game, even for a JRPG. As of this writing, Iíve not yet finished it, and wish to make it clear that my current problems with the narrative do not in any way impact the score it has received. Or, for that matter, the fact that I still give the game an unqualified recommendation and strongly suspect it will end up high on (if not at the top of) my list of 2017ís best games.

When it comes to the core pillars of gameplay, Persona 5 is a cut above its predecessors in nearly every conceivable way. However, the most instantly noticeable improvement is level design. Unlike earlier games in the series, Persona 5ís Palaces are not randomized. Nor, for that matter, are they generally flat corridors full of enemies. No, Persona 5ís ambitious dungeon design incorporates elements that wouldnít be considered out of place in a Legend of Zelda game. There are puzzles to be solved, secrets to be uncovered, and loot to earn. Itís fantastic, and I canít wait to see where they go from here.

Once youíve stolen a Palaceís Treasure and initiated the change of heart, the Palace disappears, and you can never return to it. Donít fret, though; once you finish the first Palace, a lengthy network of procedurally-generated dungeons called Mementos appears. Here, you can attempt to change the hearts of lesser targets or simply grind for experience and loot. Mementos is central to the mystery behind one of Persona 5ís most important characters, so you would do well not to neglect this part of the game. Not that youíd want to; the combat is so much fun you wonít be able to go too long without it.

And, of course, thereís the social simulation aspect of Persona 5. When youíre not establishing infiltration routes and growing your Personas through combat, you engage in activities that help keep you a well-rounded student. Your options are fairly staggering: between part-time jobs, random diversions in the city, studying, and hanging out with your friends, thereís always something that you could be doing to grow your character. Thankfully, Persona 5 retains the seriesí bizarre yet incredibly synergistic relationship between its disparate gameplay systems.


Difficulty:
Atlus games are generally known for starting at difficult and building from there. Anyone whoís played a Shin Megami Tensei game in the last couple of decades can attest to that. Considering the gameplay formula that generally accompanies the dungeon crawler format, most of it could be mitigated by hours and hours of level grinding. Of course, when the experience is also incredibly story-driven, this becomes a bother very quickly.

Persona 5ís default difficulty level breaks from that dubious tradition by retaining the challenge while skimping on the punishment. The long, unbroken boss rushes and high-stakes marathoning of previous games feel like a thing of the past, now. If youíre a particularly masochistic type of player, you can crank it up, but for the first time in the series (at least, as far as the ones Iíve played are concerned), it actually feels reasonably balanced.

Thatís not to say that ordinary enemies arenít capable of bum rushing you into oblivion, because they very much are. Inattentive players will suffer the most, while the strategic planners will generally find success.


Game Mechanics:
If youíve played Persona 3 or 4, youíll find that Persona 5 lets you sink into the same addictive rhythms. You assume the life of a normal high school student during most days; you go to class, participate in activities, and socialize. Free time must be managed wisely if you want to get the most out of the experience. Growing your Confidants (essentially an improved version of the Social Link system) and engaging in self-improvement to build character traits yield incredibly valuable rewards in other parts of the game. If thereís one complaint I have about the social simulation, itís how the game frequently intrudes upon your freedom of choice. I cannot tell you how many times Iíve wanted to engage in a stat-boosting activity only to have Morgana arbitrarily decide that Iím too tired or busy. God, I hate cats.

Invariably, the Phantom Thieves will find themselves working against the clock in order to steal their targetís heart; near the beginning of each investigation, some external party will impose a deadline. If you fail to accomplish your mission by a certain date, the game ends. These deadlines come across as contrived most of the time, but given the gameís structure, the passage and management of time needs a certain urgency about it.

Dungeon navigation feels similar to that in past Persona games, but since each crawl is considered a full-blown heist, the game is able to justify a casual stealth element. As always, your enemies roam around the environment, and landing a surprise hit on them gives your entire party a free turn at the very beginning of the fight. If you sneak up on them without being noticed, a simple button press will launch a scripted ambush animation; you no longer have to worry about aiming a clumsy melee attack to get that advantage. However, if the enemy sees you, the security level will increase. There are repercussions to having the security raised too high, but anyone with more than passable controller handling skills wonít have much of a problem.

Combat in Persona 5 blends the best of its own series with one of the more unique elements of Shin Megami Tensei. Itís still a turn-based affair that has your party wiping out Shadows by discovering their weaknesses, knocking them down by exploiting said weaknesses, and unleashing all-out attacks that rarely leave anyone standing. Itís lightning-fast and extremely fun to watch, but thereís more depth to the proceedings than there ever has been.

First off, Confidant abilities unlocked through spending time with your friends give you incredible benefits; these Iíll simply leave for you to discover. Second, earning Personas in the field has been changed for the better. No longer are new Personas earned through post-battle mini-games; first, you must perform a Hold Up!, which only happens when you successfully down all of your enemies at once. Then, you must negotiate with the Persona you want. You can ask for money, items, or their service by examining their personality types and telling them what they want to hear. This isnít as simple as it sounds, but itís always bizarrely engaging.

And, of course, you have the Velvet Room, a dreamlike realm presided over by the hook-nosed Igor. Here, you can register, summon, and create Personas. In a seriously macabre twist, the process of fusing Personas involves executing them. With a guillotine. That aside, the system is just as appealing and rewarding as itís ever been; create a Persona under the arcana governing your strongest Confidant relationships, and the new Persona will instantly receive an experience bonus in direct proportion to that social linkís strength. Itís a great system that has always served the series well, and will likely continue to do so.

Persona 5, like its forebears, is an experience that is far more than the sum of its parts. And there are so many parts that it makes the head spin. Thatís how impressive this game is. Really, when it comes down to it, the only complaint I have about Persona 5 that canít be shrugged off or shunted aside is that its exclusivity dampens its exposure. And I want as many people as possible to play it.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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