22nd Apr2020

RETRO-spective: Persona 5

by Xenia Grounds

When it comes to great storytelling, the medium doesn’t matter. It can be a movie, television show, video game or animation. The most impactful stories take people on journeys that are potentially capable of changing the direction of someone’s life. For me, something that did this was Persona 5. When this game came out, I was in a pretty horrible place in my life and becoming pretty apathetic towards the world around me and where my life was heading. After I picked this game up, I was reminded of things like wanting to leave the world better than how you found it, following your own path and doing what’s right even when the world is telling you ‘No!’ and I’ve not looked back since. It’s the reason why I was encouraged to keep on pursuing being a writer instead of playing it safe which has led me to becoming a reviewer for Nerdly and turned my passion for writing into an actual profession for me both here and for other places.

Now I am playing the remaster/remake Persona 5 Royal but considering that the game is much longer than the original release, it’ll take a few months before I finish it. The original was a hundred hours long and the remake adds about thirty or forty extra hours on top. I figured that talking about the original would be a good compromise and to convince people who haven’t played this magnificent JRPG to give it a shot. I highly recommend getting Persona 5 Royal because it’s everything people loved about Persona 5 except it’s dialed up to eleven which I didn’t think would be possible considering I think the original was a masterpiece.

In Persona 5, you play as Joker (his canonical name can be a source of debate among fans so I’ll stick to Joker in this review) who is the leader of a group known as the Phantom Thieves. The story starts in media res. It shows that you are eventually betrayed by someone in your group and arrested for crimes that we don’t know about. During a brutal interrogation, Joker has to go over how everything started and more importantly how things escalated to being a wanted man. I didn’t know anything about Persona 5 going in and I recommend that newcomers go in like that too because it pays off in amazing ways so that’s all I’ll share about the plot.

The story of Persona 5 is incredible because it has great things to say which are very relevant for the modern world. For example, one of the things made apparent very early is that you’re an outcast as Joker. For all intents and purposes, Joker is extremely ostracised over an incident in his past where he did something with good intentions of helping someone but ended up getting screwed over because he unfortunately crossed the wrong person. The end result has left him being viewed as a burden by adults and a dangerous individual by most of his peers even though he is neither. It gets you emotionally invested in Joker very quickly because this never goes away even if you’re a model student in your high school and can hit close to home if you’ve ever been the outcast. Other things that the game addresses is how society judges people who want to shake up the status quo, this damning idea that young people shouldn’t stand up for themselves against authority figures because they should do what they’re told even if it’s wrong, how apathy and standing back to seeing something horrible can be just as consequential as the action itself.

It’s not just Joker who suffers this type of horrible treatment as all the characters who join the party or serve as confidants are victims of selfish adults or society at large. Some have more issues than others but the motivation of the Phantom Thieves is to make the world better by stealing the hearts of corrupted people and making them repent for some very unforgivable crimes that they would’ve got away with had they been left alone. There’s definitely a morally grey area in their actions because what they effectively do is brainwash these individuals into having a conscience but the alternative means that more innocent people suffer so it’s not hard to overlook that part.

The gameplay of Persona 5 is addictive. The gist of personas is that the main characters awaken Personas which basically serve as the form of a character’s rebellious will that have been kept hidden from the world at large. Most characters only have one but Joker is capable of having many which is what makes him special and leader of the group. You get more Personas by convincing shadows into lending you their power and from there, you can strategically build a powerful team that will make most bosses much easier if you give them the right skills.

When you’re being a Phantom Thief, you enter the hearts of people and get through their cognitions/palaces to steal the source of their distorted desires so they admit to their wrongs. When you are infiltrating palaces, it’s a return to turn-based combat as your party makes their move first and then the enemies/shadows attack afterwards. It’s a bit more involved because part of the strategy is finding out what the shadow you’re facing are weak to. Once you attack a shadow with their weakness, your character gets to attack again or you can have a baton pass which means another party member gets to move and unleash a more powerful attack in the process. If you hit the weakness of every shadow then you can unleash an all-out attack which does high amounts of damage and normally ends a battle. Once all enemies are downed, you can even hold up these shadows for an item or money and even convince them to be one of the personas you use in combat if you choose the right answers to their questions which you can guess based on their personality. It’s all about getting things done in style with Persona 5 because the moves are flashy, everyone looks and moves like smooth criminals, the smooth jazz music is blasting (You’ll find it pretty hard not to sing along with ‘Last Surprise’ during battle) and once you hit the right rhythm then you feel like you’re gliding through it.

The other part of the gameplay is what you do during your usual life. As mentioned before, Joker is a high schooler and has to balance that part of his life too. This can include having stronger relationships with confidants who provide you with things that are very useful for palace exploration or discounts on things you need. Each day is timed in Persona 5, most actions like activities or getting through a palace take up time. You only have a certain number of days to complete a palace or it’s game over so always make sure that it is your priority for the month. Personally, I recommend finishing the palace first and then focusing on the slice of life stuff like bonding with your friends, pursuing romantic relationships if you desire it, studying for school, doing work for a part-time job and much more. It’s pretty hard to max out everything in your first run of Persona 5 so New Game+ really helps because you get to keep all your stats, personas and you can max out your rank with confidants much easier. I’ve completed Persona 5 four times (which means over four hundred hours of playing) and I never platinumed the game so trust me when I say you’re in for a challenge if you’re a completionist.

One of the most acclaimed parts of Persona 5 is the soundtrack. From the highly motivating opening theme ‘Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There’ to rock-esque ‘Rivers in the Desert’, the blood-pumping anthem ‘Life Will Change’ and the sombre and melancholy ‘Beneath the Mask’, Persona 5 is not short of tracks that will be stuck in your head for days. I still listen to the OST for this game very frequently over three years later because it never fails to motivate me or bring a smile to my face. It’s not just the lyrical pieces that are highlights. The instrumental tracks while walking around the city or the palace themes are also incredibly memorable and always help set the tone for wherever you go. Some even provide subtle characterisation like ‘Beneath the Mask’ for Joker which plays almost every night and during certain days. With the lyrics, it captures how heartbreaking it must be for him to get through life in Tokyo basically by putting up a mask. That said, some sound bites are so repetitive that you could make a drinking game out of them although I don’t recommend that if you respect your liver.

It’s hard to cover absolutely everything that goes into making Persona 5 a great game. If I did then this retrospective would never end. It’s a game that is highly addictive from the minute it starts no matter how many times you go through it. You never get enough of the aesthetics and the action is downright intoxicating because it’s so empowering with its message of taking down a corrupt system so a better one can be created. It has rewarding combat, complex characters, important themes and messages to deliver. By the end, you’ll be tempted to take a page of the Phantom Thieves book and get rid of any masks and be your authentic self with no fear.

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