(This spoiler-free review is based on 22 hours of gameplay with the PlayStation 4 version of Persona 5. Settings: English text with Japanese audio; Hard difficulty)
MANILA – It was back in 1996 when Sega subsidiary Atlus released Persona, a role-playing game for the PlayStation about high school students who summon manifestations of their psyche to defeat supernatural enemies.
The franchise did not enjoy a cult following outside of Japan until Persona 3, which was launched for the PlayStation 2 a decade later. It introduced the system of Social Links, where the main character can fuse more powerful Personas by strengthening his relationships with others. The game made an impact with its combination of dungeon exploration and life simulation.
Fast forward to 2016, the fifth installment in the Persona franchise was released in Japan and was met with both critical acclaim and commercial success. Gamers from the rest of the world only got their hands on Persona 5 this month, and it was definitely worth the wait.
Persona has been around for 20 years but it is still considered a niche Japanese RPG franchise, not receiving as much attention as, say, Final Fantasy.
But Persona 5, touted as a Game of the Year contender, might just give the franchise its breakout moment.
If there is one thing I remember about the Persona franchise growing up, it’s stylish. From the dark and edgy Revelations: Persona to the light-hearted Persona 4, each game is pure eye and ear candy.
Atlus was able to reach the pinnacle with Persona 5, with its red and black aesthetic permeating everything from the battle commands down to the loading screens. Add to that the acid jazz tracks of the brilliant composer Shoji Meguro (he’s been on board since the first Persona game) and you’ve got yourself a game that’s dripping with style.
Need proof? Watch the game’s intro below.
Persona 5 is set in Tokyo, and the game follows the geographical detail of the city pretty well. Expect to see the famous crossing, the dog statue, even the vending machines and the homeless people whenever the main character drops by Shibuya.
It’s hard not to compare Persona 5 with another recent JRPG, Final Fantasy XV. While it’s a great game worth the 10-year wait, Final Fantasy XV at times lacked cohesiveness and direction, perhaps a result of Square Enix’s attempt at appealing to as many fans as possible.
Persona 5, on the other hand, is oozing with confidence. Atlus leaned on what it knows best and was able to create a polished game with a strong central vision.
That said, Persona 5 may not be for everyone. Some might find the game too anime-ish, others will probably be turned off by its turn-based battles.
But even if it’s not an action RPG, Persona 5 delivers the adrenaline rush with its well-developed story and characters – a bunch of high-schoolers who become masked vigilantes in an alternate realm, setting bad people straight by venturing into their desires and “changing their hearts.”
The game’s writers did not hold back in presenting players with real-life issues such as sexual harassment, suicide and art plagiarism, with plenty of funny moments in between.
Gameplay-wise, Persona 5 is not as easy as it looks. Those who have played Atlus games before know that the developer is notorious for giving players a challenging time.
Still, it provides options with its five difficulty settings – Safe, Easy, Normal, Hard and Merciless. The last one, Merciless, is downloadable on the PlayStation Store and is intended for a second playthrough.
One of the many great things about Persona 5 is that it brought back the negotiation system from the first game in the franchise. This means players can win battles not only through force, but also by recruiting monsters (called Shadows) into their team or asking for items.
And just like its two predecessors, Persona 5 requires a balance between dungeon crawling and relationship building as each contributes to the strength of the main character.
Players can’t stay in the supernatural realm all the time – they also have to study for exams, take part-time jobs, hang out at diners and even go on dates – testing their time management skills.
Persona 5 may be an acquired taste for some, but once you get settled into the flow, it’s hard to put down.
If you’re looking for a challenging game that is brimming with emotion, style and attitude, this is it. It is safe to say that Persona 5 is one of the best JRPGs ever made.