In another timeline, Persona 5 Strikers could honestly just be Persona 5. Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors-inspired spinoff somehow replicates the atmosphere and style of Persona 5 while streamlining or gutting several systems and trading its turn-based combat for the iconic screen-cleaving action of the Musou games.
Persona 5 Strikers is as uncanny as it is exciting, and after playing the first chapter of the game, I need more – in the same way that I'd need to see more of a three-headed fire-breathing giraffe in part because I genuinely can't believe my eyes.
It is good to be back
Persona 5 Strikers is the latest spinoff in the Dynasty Warriors franchise, often called the Musou series in Japan. These are known for over-the-top action that pits absurdly powerful characters against entire armies of bad guys. Other well-known spinoffs include Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors.
After spending 120 hours in the original game and another 160 in Persona 5 Royal, I know what Persona 5 feels like. It feels like one of the best JRPGs ever made and one of my favorite games of all time. And from the minute I booted up Persona 5 Strikers – literally the opening screen – I felt right at home. This is it, buddy. Persona 5 feels like this. As it turns out, the essence of Persona 5 has nothing to do with its combat. It's the homey city, the infectious music, the gorgeous menus, the memorable cast. That's what makes Persona 5 so great, and the same qualities elevate Persona 5 Strikers far above your everyday spinoff. It's a proper sequel forged from entirely new material.
Persona 5 Strikers picks up a few months after the end of Persona 5 (with no connection to the events of Persona 5 Royal) as the Phantom Thieves gather once again to combat Metaverse skullduggery. People are losing their minds and a Siri-like smartphone app called Emma seems to be the cause of it, or at least the vehicle for it. Some suspect that the Phantom Thieves are responsible for this second wave of... well, not quite mental shutdowns, but more like distorted changes of heart. So to clear their name and put a stop to the mental attacks, the gang teams up with a loose-cannon investigator named Zenkichi, as well as an adorable AI companion named Sophia, and embarks on a cross-country, justice-serving road trip to address Metaverse-related incidents around Japan.
After solving the first of these incidents, I can say that the plot follows a very familiar structure: you investigate strange occurrences, locate and then cat-burgle your way around the distorted mental fortress of the one responsible, and finally send a calling card before the big heist. There are some key differences, though, such as the fact that we're now exploring Jails rather than Palaces and we aren't on any sort of time limit.
From the way you approach each case to the stakes surrounding them, Persona 5 Strikers feels like slipping back into a comfy bed. It's more Persona 5! Huzzah! I get to spend more time with all the characters I fell in love with in the previous 280 hours of playtime, not to mention some new ones who I'm rapidly falling in love with. But obviously, the way you go about defeating Shadows this time around couldn't be more different.
Diet Persona with a hell of a kick
Persona 5 Strikers is my first Musou game, but I know the series by reputation and got the gist of things pretty quickly. This is a third-person action-RPG where your attacks have hitboxes the size of Texas and hordes of enemies are queued up like grass to be mowed down in the flashiest manner possible. And wouldn't you know it, decimating entire crowds of Shadows with the Phantom Thieves and their Personas is just damn cool.
You have access to everyone pretty much from the word Go, and building the right party of four to counter each area's enemies is great fun. Every Phantom Thief feels different to play, and you can take control of anyone in your party at any time. Thus far, combat mostly consists of punctuating strings of normal attacks with different special attacks. There is some nuance, though. If you hit an elemental weakness or land a critical hit, you can down an enemy to launch an AoE All Out Attack. Racking up damage and regularly swapping characters will also build energy for a special Showtime finisher. On top of that, some moves create openings to launch yourself to distant enemies and perform aerial attacks. Paired with environmental tools, this turns combat into a hectic mix of proactive combos and reactive follow-ups where you're never without baddies to batter.
It really feels like game design voodoo how well Persona 5 Strikers has translated the ideas of the original game to totally new systems. Persona fusion, for instance, works mostly the same way, just with fewer Persona and combinations available. Social Links and stats have been replaced with a universal Bond meter that lets you unlock incredibly useful passive bonuses. Of course, without Social Links, we need a new way to level our fused Personas, which is why we now have Persona Points primarily gained through masks dropped by enemies. Again, this is basically a condensed version of the systems in Persona 5, and while it's not as involved, everything flows together very well.
Combat is deliberately more chaotic, but Persona are smartly woven in as a strategic element that breaks up the button-mashing. You can pause time at any point to analyze your enemies, summon your Persona (or as Joker, change Personas), and use an appropriate special attack. Spells cost precious mana while physical attacks cost HP (which will recover over time if you don't take damage), and as I learned the hard way, you have to balance the two to avoid burning out and running into a boss fight with no mana. Persona attacks basically come down to some form of AoE, but you've also got access to essential support and healing skills.
I've mostly been playing as Joker so far because his ability to change Personas is as OP as ever, plus it's fun to see which special attacks different Personas perform on regular combos. I also really like the new girl Sophia, who attacks with yo-yos and floating armaments straight out of a mecha anime. Every character unlocks new attacks as you play them and I've yet to find anyone I actively dislike, so I'll probably spend an even amount of time with the other Phantom Thieves while making Joker as strong as I can.
I'll put up with almost anything if it means more Persona 5
The flavor in Persona 5 Strikers is absolutely incredible, but I do have a few issues with the moment-to-moment action. The screen can get so messy that it becomes impossible to keep track of enemy attacks, and getting hit with an ailment-causing spell out of nowhere has led to more than a few instant KOs for me. The difficulty feels a bit uneven all over, honestly, to the point that I quickly dropped it from hard to normal to reduce the number of cheap deaths.
Balance is not helped by the fact that most bosses have health bars twice the size of Texas, and with so little mana to go around, the optimal strategy seems to be using melee-focused Persona that increase your normal attack damage. This clashes with the strategy of exploiting elemental weaknesses to unleash All Out Attacks, and it makes some bosses really drag on.
There's also some jank to the Jails themselves. They have intermittent 2D platforming sections that are easy but clunky, and the range at which you can jump into cover to hide from or ambush enemies feels really inconsistent. Lastly, Jails are dotted with checkpoints that you can use to return to the real world and refill your health and mana. This sounds nice, but with no deadlines to meet and therefore no penalty for leaving Jails, this makes me wonder why checkpoints can't just refresh my party and save me some loading screens.
None of these issues are deal-breakers, but they do occasionally make me long for the tightly designed turn-based combat of Persona 5 Royal. That said, the power fantasy of tearing through hundreds of enemies is very potent, and the highs of Persona 5 Strikers have more than made up for its occasional lows for me. More than anything, I can't stress enough that this feels like a sequel to Persona 5, so I'll tear through it warts and all just to hang out with the Phantom Thieves again. Seven hours was nowhere near enough; every cell in my body is telling me to play more of Persona 5 Strikers.