Teenagers saving the world is a well-worn trope of JRPGs, but the Persona series has always put a unique twist on it by blending fantastical dungeon crawling with mundane real-world obligations. The teens of Persona not only have to battle demons, they have to do homework, work part-time jobs, and get to bed at a decent hour. The last entry in the series, Persona 4 Golden is a confident, incredibly well-crafted adventure with gratifying combat and a cast with personal issues immediately recognizable to anyone who ever endured high school. It was the absolute pinnacle of the modern JRPG, seemingly impossible to best. To Persona 4 Golden, Persona 5 has one thing to say:
"Hold my beer. I got this."
Persona 5 is astounding. Each one of its elements - the writing, the music, the combat, the damn menus for crying out loud - is precisely tuned to work with everything else to create an experience that's perfectly realized from the moment it begins. Its structure is so well-balanced and seamless, it's as if it sprang, fully formed, from the collective unconscious of its development team… which, given the game's plot, would make a fair amount of sense.
A group of high school students gain the ability to enter the minds of people with distorted desires for wealth or power or sex, in order to 'steal their hearts' by swiping the symbolic representation of their obsession. They fall into this power accidentally, but eventually choose to use it to improve a society that, from their perspective, is being ruined by adults willfully turning blind eyes to cruel and heartless behavior. Where Persona 4 is about teenagers coming to terms with their individuality and who they are as people, Persona 5 is about civic responsibility - now that you know who you are, how are you going to use that to make the world around you better?
This message plays out with increasing depth over the game's 90-plus hours, as The Phantom Thieves battle their way through the 'palaces' that represent the psyches of their targets. The dungeons in previous Personas are randomly generated, so while each one has a different aesthetic from the others, the design is largely irrelevant. In Persona 5, however, each palace is hand-crafted, with enemies, traps, and puzzles placed to provide opportunities for stealthy escapes and ambushes. You are a thief, after all, so the whole point is not to be seen. Ambushing enemies or avoiding them altogether lets you slip up to the treasure on the QT, but being spotted will raise the alarm bit by bit until one wrong move will get you tossed from the palace completely, forced to return on another day. The need to be more aware of your surroundings as you explore your target's innermost thoughts makes the combat feel far less mindlessly grindy, despite the fact that it never really changes all that much.
The combat is turn-based and pleasantly complex, giving you plenty of ways to bash your opponents to bits. In addition to your hand weapons, you can summon personas (think demonic Pokemon) to fight for you. Though your companions can only control their own persona, you can carry a whole posse in your pocket, switching between them at will to best suit the confrontation at hand. You'll eventually gain the ability to fuse personas to make a brand new creature that inherits some of its parents' abilities; some of the strongest personas in the game can only be obtained through fusion. The experimentation of mixing monsters has always been one of Persona's biggest draws, and you'll happily spend many hours in the Velvet Room tinkering with possible combinations to add to your lineup.
I've already mentioned how exceptional the core story of Persona 5 is, but every aspect of the game's narrative is outstanding, including the many ancillary folks that you can make into 'confidants' in the newly-named version of social links. Strengthening your relationships with other people in turn strengthens your personas and even gives you access to new moves in combat, but you'll find yourself following up with characters as much to learn more about them as to enjoy the bonuses their friendship provides. As varied as they are, each one feels genuine - even the talking cat's worries are immediately familiar, so carving out time to spend with your confidants is a pleasure instead of a stat-building chore.
The reality is that you simply won't have time to get to know everyone you meet in Persona 5, because there is just so damn much stuff to do, and all of it is meaningful. Swing for the fences at the batting cages, study for exams, go fishing, visit a maid cafe, watch X-Files DVDs, work a shift at the flower shop, do your laundry, brew some coffee - all of these these activities benefit you in some way, and cramming them into your schedule in between infiltrating palaces and building relationships is a constant tension in the background as you play. More than just a mechanic, though, the plethora of activities underscores how alive the locations of Persona 5 are. These are places modeled on actual neighborhoods in Tokyo, after all, and have been given a loving attention to detail that makes you feel transported.
Persona is just about perfect in every way it can be, with the sole exception of its pacing in the final acts. The last two dungeons are a slog, forcing you to solve a series of similar puzzles long after they've lost their ability to either challenge or intrigue. It's an aggravating misstep at what should be the most thrilling part of the entire journey, but the revelation of the villain's true identity reinvigorates the sluggish pace before it loses all momentum. It should also be mentioned that players already familiar with Persona's basic format will likely find themselves feeling constricted by the game's opening hours, which gently ease newcomers into the many, many different systems at play. It's a fair frustration, but the tradeoff is Persona 5 being an ideal entry point to anyone new to its peculiarities but intrigued by its promise.
Other than that, Persona 5 is simply phenomenal. The voice acting is outstanding, the music is genius, the art style is so slick it'll raise your personal coolness level just from being in close proximity to it. Playing Persona 5 will make your hair glossier, increase your vocal range by an octave and add 7.32 years to your overall life expectancy. Play it enough times and you'll likely not only be able to levitate but also make a perfect omelette while in midair. It's that good.
This game was reviewed on PS4.