Persona 5 has style. It's something I knew going in, having played the previous two entries in the series and seen various trailers and screenshots for the new one out of Japan. But seeing is one thing; I actually got to play a brief snippet of the English language version of the hotly-anticipated JRPG, and I think it's going to be one of the most surprising games of 2017, even for those who think they know what to expect.
Persona 5 is one smooth operator. Its colors explode off the screen with a comic book-like verve, giving the things we normally take for granted like menus, interface, and even text the same kind of love and affection as its highly-detailed anime protagonists. You don't just get text messages; your phone slides on screen at an angle, text messages popping up like they would on an actual phone. You don't just button mash your way through the list of spoils earned at the end of a battle; your main character runs down the hall as money and numbers burst forth as if he were hopping through pages of a manga. I cannot stress this enough - when it comes to style, Persona 5 is in a class of its own.
Style without substance is just empty calories, but Persona 5's story and its combat system appear to be just as filling as any entry in the series. Like previous games, Persona 5's story stands alone, though it shares the structure of prior games. Combat is still turn based; you're still gaining demons (aka Personas) to equip for different abilities; you're still a high schooler hanging out with friends in the real world to bolster your Social Links to fuse more powerful Personas, and so on. Persona 5 takes all of that and elevates them in ways that make for a much better experience.
For one, Persona 5 drops the procedurally generated maps of previous games for fully hand-crafted dungeons. This makes each dungeon feel unique, and allows the designers to weave story moments inside its halls much more seamlessly. There's also a much more natural progression of flow between the real world and the demon-infested dungeons. In Persona 4, it was easy to just blast through a dungeon, get to the end, and then just pass time in the real world (often spending several in-game weeks) waiting for the story to finally let you progress. Now, you'll often find barriers within Persona 5's dungeons that require you to head back to the real world and talk to people, solve puzzles, and figure out what you need to do to continue on.
Persona 5 also takes a few cues from Shin Megami Tensei - the series Persona spun-off from - as well as the recent Persona-adjacent Wii U exclusive Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Rather than gaining new Personas by flipping cards over at the end of battle, now you can actually talk to the monsters you fight. Hit them with an attack they're weak against, and you'll have a chance to confront them and force them at gunpoint to give up items or money - and sometimes even convince them to tag along and help you out. Persona 5's battle menus do a lot to help you in this regard, informing you of what enemies are weak against or resistant to before you cast your spell, along with a wealth of other stats and info. There's a lot to take in - even more than other Persona games, now that each party member has their own character-specific gun that they wield - but Persona 5 wants to arm you with all the knowledge you could possibly need at a given moment. And of course, it's all displayed in that signature slick manga art style.
Persona 5's story aims to shake things up as well. My hands-on time was fairly light on story, but I learned that the main protagonist is kind of a bad boy - he's got a history, and certain events cause him to relocate to Tokyo where he attends a reform school and is under close scrutiny by the faculty there. He's a far cry from the goodie-two-shoes of Persona 4, or the blank slate of 3. The story also seems to do a better job of getting you into the game much more quickly - it still has to set up its characters and locations, but you won't spend the first two hours of the game just tapping through dialog boxes like you did in Persona 4.
I wish I had more time to spend with Persona 5, to really get a sense of how everything fits together and flows, to really soak in its menus. God. I'm gushing about menus. But that's how considered Persona 5 feels, where even something as mundane as an equipment screen is dripping with pop art panache.
Persona 5 is launching in North America and Europe on April 4, 2017 - barring any more unfortunate delays, of course.