Saturday, September 30, 2017

Persona 5

Before I played Persona 5, I knew next to nothing about the series. All I knew was that the Persona games were a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei games by Atlus and that Personas as a concept were similar in nature to Stands from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I had somewhat of an interest in playing one of the games, so I went with Persona 5 since the imagery intrigued me. When I got the Take Your Heart Edition on release day, I immediately began playing. About four months later, I finally beat what I now consider one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played.

In Persona 5, you play as a Japanese teenager who was transferred to Shujin Academy in Tokyo while on probation over false charges. During the school year, he and the students he befriends awaken to a power known as a Persona and form a group called the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. As they lead double lives as the Phantom Thieves, they travel through the Metaverse, accessible through a mysterious smartphone app, to steal the ill intentions of corrupt adults. At the same time, the group tries to investigate a series of mysterious mental shutdowns which they believe are somehow tied to the Metaverse.

In terms of story, Persona 5 is very engaging. It begins in medias res at a point where the protagonist is captured by police during a mission and interrogated by Prosecutor Sae Nijima. This quickly sets up a sense of mystery that lingers throughout the rest of the plot, as the player is tasked with figuring out which of their party members turned traitor and sold them out. As the game slowly catches up to the beginning, it becomes more character driven and explores the motivations behind each member of the Phantom Thieves and how they emotionally overcome the personal problems caused directly by the corrupt adults in their lives. There is enough material in the game for the player to become emotionally invested in each character, although one member of the Phantom Thieves is introduced late enough in the game that their development can come off as a little rushed.

The Phantom Thieves of Heart (L-R): Makoto Nijima, Ann Takamaki,
Yusuke Kitagawa, Protagonist, Haru Okumura,
Ryuji Sakamoto, Morgana, Futaba Sakura

Just as there is enough material to emotionally invest in the Phantom Thieves, there is also enough to truly despise many of the game’s antagonists. Many of these corrupt adults abuse other people, mainly the younger generation, in different ways and their actions, which mirror each of the seven deadly sins, help them stand out from each other. These actions range from physically and mentally abusing high school students to exploiting employees in horrible work conditions. For the most part, the story is very good at spending enough time with each antagonist, both in the real world and the Metaverse, to better flesh them out and present them as more than one-dimensional while also giving the players enough motivation to want to knock them down a peg.

What also helps with fleshing out each of the antagonists is the appearance of their Palace, locations within the Metaverse created from the distorted desires of particularly corrupt individuals. These palaces are a reflection of how these individuals view society and the world around them, including seeing other people as nothing but walking ATMs or viewing themselves as the ruler of a castle. Each Palace looks and feels different from one another in aesthetic, layout and gameplay gimmick. These Palaces also tie into advancing the story, as interacting with the real world can alter some aspect of the Palace and completing a Palace affects the individual who subconsciously created it.

While the story of Persona 5 is well-crafted and well-executed, it is not without its flaws. The game does a good job with fleshing out most of the antagonists, but there’s at least one, the ruler of the Fifth Palace, that feels a little rushed somehow. Without spoiling anything, the events preceding it ultimately make it feel like you’re entering a story already in progress as opposed to witnessing the story escalate from the beginning. There are also a couple plot twists that are handled very effectively, as they make even more sense in hindsight. However, one of them, the identity of the traitor, becomes easier to figure out the closer it comes to fruition. The other, which I won’t spoil, is most effective for someone like me who knew next to nothing about Persona, but the subtle hints leading up to it are only remotely detectable by players more familiar with previous Persona titles. As such, this twist came as more of a shock to me.

On the gameplay side of things, Persona 5 manages to combine elements from turn-based RPGs, dungeon crawlers, social simulators and visual novels into an engaging and cohesive whole. While this is the fifth entry in a genre which has no doubt mixed a number of genres together in the past, this particular combination helps Persona 5 stand out from any other game I’ve played in recent memory.

The part of Persona 5 the player is likely to spend a majority of their time on is the social simulation aspect. During the course of the game, the player simulates a full school year as a Japanese high school student. Apart from scripted events, the player is free to choose how they spend their time, including hanging out with friends, going to the movies, playing video games, reading books, crafting infiltration tools, working a part-time job, going to the clinic, buying and selling items and weapons, bathing, doing laundry, working out, fishing and more. Each day, the player may also receive texts from other characters, usually to ask if they would like to spend time with them for the day. Due the number of options the player has to fill time, it is very important to manage that time well, as they can only perform two actions out in the world, once during the day and once at night.

One night activity, the Big Bang Burger Challenge, has
a chance to increase a few Social Stats.

Spending time with various characters, or Confidants, throughout the year is important for advancing their Confidant Rank, which can provide a number of benefits both in and out of combat. For instance, you can gain discounts on medicine, the ability to swap team members mid-combat or a chance to instantly deal damage to enemies with a hail of bullets, among many others. It is also possible to romance any of the female Confidants once their rank is high enough, although this doesn’t have much of an effect on the game apart from getting an item and having specific options on a handful of select dates. It is also possible to romance all of them at once, though this is not recommended.

No matter how you choose to spend your time, there are a number of benefits. Most activities will increase one of five Social Stats: Knowledge, Precision, Guts, Charm and Kindness. Increasing each of these stats is crucial, as reaching certain levels will allow access to further Confidant Ranks, as well as gain access to certain jobs and, rarely, some slightly different scenes. Some will also provide a small boost to the player’s HP and SP, both of which are crucial to combat. Spending time with Confidants also allows the player to learn more about them, which helps the characters feel more fleshed out.

While the time management is an engaging and effective system, there are some small annoyances that pop up from time to time. There are certain stretches of time, be it exams or major story events, in which the player is unable to do anything apart from sleeping. Additionally, seemingly insignificant activities like doing the laundry or brewing coffee advances time, meaning that if you do those at night, you will automatically advance to the next available day. Should the player travel to the Metaverse during the day, they can’t do anything for the rest of the day except go to sleep. This annoyance in particular also makes it difficult to craft Lockpicks, which are the only way to access some of the treasure found within Palaces; it is also mitigated once a particular Confidant is maxed out, but the annoyance is there nonetheless.

Apart from the social simulation, the player will spend the rest of their time dungeon crawling. This is done through accessing the numerous Palaces throughout the story or exploring Mementos, a realm within the Metaverse which represents the subconscious will of the general public.

As previously mentioned, each Palace acts as a representation of the hearts of each of the antagonists and are all designed accordingly. No two Palaces feel alike, which lends them a sense of individuality through their layout, aesthetic and unique traps and challenges. Apart from the theme of the seven deadly sins, a central theme dictates the feel of each Palace, such as an Egyptian pyramid or a high-stakes casino, with enemies designed accordingly. The puzzles which challenge the player during each Palace also have a good amount of variety to keep the player on their toes and aware of their full skills as a Phantom Thief. For instance, the theme of the heroes as thieves means that players will need to sneak around for some segments in order to avoid or ambush enemies. However, there are certain moments, especially towards the end of the game, where the puzzles feel tedious. Standout examples are the confusing airlock puzzles in the fifth Palace and the tediously long mouse puzzles in the seventh Palace.

The exterior of the first Palace.

While Palaces have theirs ups and downs, it should be noted that there is a rhythm to completing them, which can affect how much time you have to spend on other parts of the game. The player has to spend at least one day exploring the Palace to find the location of the treasure, then they have to use a day to send a Calling Card and then one day to defeat the boss and steal their treasure. One annoyance related to this is not the time it takes, but the fact that the game seems to pressure you into completing the Palaces as fast as possible, no matter how you want to pace it. Additionally, you can’t return to a Palace after completing it, so you need to make sure to explore every nook and cranny you can for items and sellable treasure.

During the game, the player will receive requests to steal certain people’s hearts and change their ways. These requests are fulfilled by making trips to Mementos and locating the Shadows whose hearts must be changed. Upon defeating these Shadows, you gain a useful item. Unlike the Palaces, Mementos is a procedurally generated dungeon resembling a Subway system with over 60 floors total, but can only be accessed in groups based on which Palaces you have successfully cleared. Since the floors are procedurally generated, no two floors look exactly the same, even if you go back to a previous floor. Spending enough time in Mementos can give the levels a very same-y feeling anyway, although it nonetheless maintains a dark and tense atmosphere, especially since later groups of floors take on a darker color palette and the pathways are covered in thicker black fog.

As the year progresses, various weather conditions will occur, including Pollen, Rain, Heat Wave and Flu Season. These weather conditions not only have an effect on certain activities in the real world, such as gaining extra Knowledge from studying while it’s raining, they also have an effect on Mementos. For instance, during a Heat Wave, there is a chance that enemies will start off inflicted with the Burn status during battle. Additionally, if a player lingers long enough on a floor in Mementos, a highly powerful enemy named The Reaper will show up and chase the player. Should the Reaper make contact with the player, it will trigger an optional, and very difficult, boss battle, but the player will be rewarded handsomely should they succeed in defeating him (hint: The Reaper is not immune to the effects of weather).

When it comes time to do battle, the player engages enemy Shadows through a turn-based combat system centered on finding and exploiting their weaknesses in order to knock them down. Should the player successfully knock down an enemy with a critical hit, they’ll trigger a “1 More,” which allows them to make an additional action during their turn. One possible action is a Baton Pass, in which the player can pass the “1 More” to another party member, provided they have gained the Baton Pass ability, to provide a stat boost during that turn. During the course of the game, the Baton Pass becomes an invaluable technique for helping to dispose of the increasingly difficult groups of enemies. Additionally, enemy Shadows are also capable of using a “1 More” on their turn, so you’ll need to be careful.

The Combat UI in Persona 5. Every action is a single button press away.

Should the player successfully knock down all enemy Shadows, they’ll trigger a Hold Up, which allows the player to perform a Negotiation or an All-Out Attack. During a Negotiation, the player can speak with enemy Shadows to get them to join their cause as a Persona or give away money or items. In an All-Out Attack, all available combatants will perform a joint attack to deal a massive amount of damage to the enemy. Both Hold-Up options have their advantages and balancing both options throughout the game is a good skill to learn. However, it should be noted that trying to convince a Shadow to join your side during a Negotiation can be tricky, since the player will need to use the personality types of each Shadow to their advantage to figure out how best to answer the questions each Shadow asks during the process.

If the player is unsure of a Shadow’s weakness during combat, they can analyze them to better plan which actions would be most effective. However, unless you’re using a guide the first time you encounter a particular Shadow, you’ll need to go through a bit of trial and error to determine which elements or types of attacks they’re weak or resistant to. Even then, when certain Shadows are re-used under special circumstances, their resistances won’t show up for analysis. Additionally, it can be frustrating to fight Shadows with no specific resistances or are resistant to physical, aka melee and gun, attacks, as the fight will respectively take longer to complete or you’ll be forced to expend more SP than you may have wanted to.

One innovation that really stands out is how the player selects an action during combat. Rather than scroll through a number of menus like in traditional turn-based RPGs, every single command is now only a single button press away and is mapped intuitively to the controller. This not only allows the fights to flow at a much faster pace, but also allows the player to consider all of their options upfront. As a result, you can very quickly go through the minimal button presses to perform an action if you already know what to do, or you can take as much time as you need to pore over every action; what helps is that there are enough button presses that you can back out of an action before you commit.

No matter how the player goes through the flow of battle, they should never forget that the state of the Protagonist has an effect. If the Protagonist is dizzy or under a negative status effect, a Hold Up can’t be triggered. If the Protagonist dies, the player receives a Game Over and will need to restart from the last Safe Room in the Palace, which can effectively erase several minutes to potentially hours of progress depending on how often the player has saved their game. This can be frustrating in the early game, when the player is at their weakest, but becomes somewhat less of an issue as the player grows stronger through gaining higher levels or acquiring new, more powerful Personas.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the game is the use of Personas. Each party member has their own Persona, whose appearance in some way represents their psyche. Each of them also specializes in a different element, like Ryuji Sakamoto’s Captain Kidd specializing in Elec and Morgana’s Zorro specializing in Wind. The Protagonist, however, is able to switch between multiple Personas including his own, Arsene, or any of the Personas acquired through Negotiation with Shadows. The resistances and weaknesses of each Persona also have an effect on the user, so this should be taken into consideration with determining each character’s equipment or which Persona the Protagonist should use at a given moment.

The Protagonist's initial Persona, Arsene.

Apart from Shadow Negotiation, one other way to obtain stronger Personas is through Persona Fusion in the Velvet Room, a space where Igor and his twin wardens, Caroline and Justine, reside. By selecting two or more Personas via different execution methods, the player can create a new Persona with abilities of its own. The player can transfer a select number of abilities from the materials to the fused Persona, so they may need to decide carefully depending on what sort of Persona they need. Persona Fusion is a very useful tactic, though it does have a couple annoyances. While it makes sense for the most powerful Persona from each arcana to be locked behind maximizing different Confidant Ranks, some of the most powerful Personas in the game require fusions of already hard-to-create fusions, which can consume both the player’s time and Yen; you can retrieve Personas you have already captured/created from the Persona Compendium by paying a proportionate amount of Yen.

There are other features of the Velvet Room which I didn’t try, including Itemization, Network Fusion and Strengthen, so I am not fully aware of how they exactly work or what the full benefits are. Depending on your playstyle, these options may be worth checking out.

The use of Personas outside of battle brings me to the Visual Novel aspect of Persona 5. Most cutscenes are rendered in this style, with text and often the speaking character’s portrait placed over in-game action. When hanging out with Confidants or answering test questions, the player makes a decision from a list of options. Most of the time, these decisions have no bearing on the main story, but can determine how quickly the Confidant will reach the next rank or how many points go into a Social Stat. This is where Personas come in. When answering questions from Confidants, each answer has a point value from zero to three; answer the questions the way the Confidant likes and you’ll earn the most points. However, if the Protagonist is carrying a Persona whose Arcana matches that of the Confidant, each question will automatically be worth one additional point. Planning this ahead of time is the key to maxing out Confidant Ranks faster, especially when combined with giving the right gifts, if the player has enough Yen to buy them.

Like some modern games, Persona 5 features an online mode unrelated to multiplayer, but to the community’s collective player data. By connecting with the Thieves Guild, the player can check on what decisions the community made throughout each day, including how they spent their time or what answers they gave to each test question (this feature is unusable during exam periods). This is a useful feature if you’re unsure of what to do next or if you want to know if you’re increasing your level at a good pace. You can also use the Thieves Guild to quickly get out of a hostage situation, although that only ever came up once in my entire playthrough.

What stands out the most from Persona 5, and what makes it so memorable, is its style. The art direction is unique to Persona, featuring characters with an “anime” style, but designed such that they feel like they could actually exist, and Shadows whose designs pull influence from several cultures and histories. Characters are not only instantly recognizable and uniquely designed, but the Phantom Thieves give off an undeniable flair that makes the player feel like a stylish thief. Add to that an absolutely catchy acid jazz soundtrack and boss music that just won’t quit and you get a game that’s easy to get sucked into and hard to put down. It helps that the graphics are very well-rendered for the art style, including the detail on enemy Shadows, and the voice acting is pretty good at expressing the emotional range of the characters.

The detail helps bring the city of Shibuya to life.

Before I end this review, I need to make a note about this game’s length and difficulty. I played the game from the day it came out in the US and it took me a total of 146 hours and 32 minutes across four months and eleven days to complete it. The amount of time was largely due to other commitments, but I’m aware that it will take a minimum of at least 100 hours to get through the initial playthrough. There is a New Game + option with some additional content, but I’m hesitant to start one due to how long it took the first time.

As for the difficulty, there are four modes, Safety, Easy, Normal and Hard, as well as a fifth downloadable difficulty, Merciless. These difficulty levels mainly affect damage taken/received as well as money and experience earned. However, Safety will make the game essentially impossible to lose and once you’re playing on that setting, you can’t change the difficulty again until the next playthrough; normally you’re able to change the difficulty setting on the fly to suit your needs. The game can be unforgiving at times, which can also feel very rewarding when you finally make it past a difficult section.

I will admit that around the third Palace, I lowered the difficulty from Normal to Easy for the sole purpose of completing the game faster. I did, however, play against the final boss on every difficulty I could, including Merciless, and found that higher difficulties forced me to prioritize certain Personas, as well as healing moves, above others I would’ve normally used on lower settings. Merciless also didn’t feel completely impossible in this case, though maybe because my party was at Level 99 and I had written down all the relevant resistances for the fight, so I knew exactly what to do at that point. Make of that what you will.

There are also multiple endings to Persona 5, most of which are Bad endings that activate when a Palace isn’t completed in time or the player makes the wrong decisions when close to unlocking the True ending. On the final branch before the True ending, it is possible to get a completely different outcome which, while relevant to the story, feels very anticlimactic in relation to the main goal. The True ending is actually pretty hard not to get and leads to another section of gameplay, the final boss battle and a very satisfying conclusion.

Persona 5 is undoubtedly one of the better games put out this year, if not one of the best. The story and characters are very engaging, the visual style is very eye-catching, the music is addictive and the combat system is one of the best I’ve ever used. The mixture of genres gives the game a unique and immersive atmosphere that can be hard to put down and very hard to forget. While there are some issues here and there, they do nothing to diminish how fun the game is or how memorable the story and characters are. It would be very hard not to recommend Persona 5, even to those who wouldn’t normally play JRPGs. It may take a while, but the experience is certainly worth it.

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