Persona 5 is not perfect. Yet I feel that despite some rough features, it is still an excellent video game.
I have some friends who have never played Persona and I found describing it to them to be difficult. My reductive description of the game to them was “Japan: The Video Game” and that seemed to be enough for them, but I regret my classification. It is true, that Persona games are unapologetic about being Japanese, something that many games brought over to the USA cannot claim (note: I’m not arguing that they should be, I do not think that every game needs to be about USA Town, USA). You are a Japanese teenager, going to a Japanese school, in a Japanese town, doing Japanese things. The game is translated into mostly-competent English, but it isn’t truly “localized.” I think, though, that the Persona series at its best manages to be something that’s relatable to someone from any background and any country, so I hate to sell it so short by focusing on where the game comes from, and anyway, the games in the series usually go out of their way to explain make things that may be culturally unfamiliar to gamers from other regions, which makes the games have a pleasant, welcoming feel.
Persona 5 still manages to tell that universal story that is relatable to a teen who has struggled under difficult adults. However, I do think, compared to other Persona games, at least, Persona 5 falls a bit short in being as inviting to people unfamiliar with Japan. This is in large part due to the translation not being as solid as some previous games in the series, especially early and late in the game which makes these sorts of mistakes are more noticeable and distracting. There also is less “here’s an explanation of something that everyone in Japan would know already” of previous games. Maybe this is a good thing. It is after all, 2017, and the internet exists and I can easily learn about these festivals that the characters are attending, and the food that they are eating and the parties that they are having. Maybe, like super hero origin stories, this cultural handholding just isn’t necessary anymore. And I definitely don’t feel that games should have to bend over backwards to make sure my poor little USA Guy feelings are considered. The only reason it is noticeable to me, though, is that previous Persona games managed to so brilliantly remain Japanese while still being extremely accessible that it is noticeable that this is not the case in Persona 5.
I also would’ve liked to see the game–which is boldly non-conservative in many of its stances–be more risky with the types of relationships it allows you to pursue. The game does walk the line of the protagonist forming a relationship with another boy in the game, but runs away from it, which just felt awkward in 2017. Also, with a previous game including the ability to choose gender, it just was strange that they didn’t include this feature in Persona 5, and having played through the entire game, I didn’t encounter anything that seemed to absolutely required you to be a male character (as the game director stated) . I am not the person who normally stands upon the soapbox for these things, but in a game that’s so relationship based, and so based on dealing with issues that teens deal with, and that so vocally rejects adherence to the traditional, it just feels out of touch to not have these options available.
The block on streaming of the game was also disappointing to me. I’m not totally sure I would’ve streamed it anyway, simply because so much of what I do in the game feels so personal, but not even being allowed to do it (they updated the game to allow more streaming at some point, but I was already past the allowed juncture) felt like an unfair, out of touch restriction.
Cultural consideration is not the only area where Persona 5 just doesn’t quite meet high bars set by other Persona games, but still manages to do better than most other games in general. The characters you interact with and form bonds with feel complete and have believable motivations, for the most part, and socializing with characters in the game can be more fun to do than actually playing the “game” part of of the game. I don’t think the relationships were as compelling as previous entries in the series (or in some cases that distinct from them), but they still were much more interesting than your typical game. I don’t typically enter into relationships in games anymore (unless the game forces you to do so or you have a severe gameplay penalty for not doing it), but by the end I did legitimately care about several of the characters and choosing one to have a relationship was a tough choice (although perhaps it’s a knock on this game that there wasn’t one person who stuck out to me as THE ONE to be with as in other Persona games? I dunno).
There are areas though where Persona 5 excels where other Persona games did not. The combat is the best the series has ever had, and unlocking features of the combat through socialization is smart; I never felt forming relationships was a waste of time in previous games, but it’s inarguably important for gameplay reasons in Persona 5. There really wasn’t a reason in some of the earlier persona games to not just hold one button down throughout all of the combat. Persona 5’s combat had much more variety (without losing some of the rock-paper-scisors elemental fun). I found myself enjoying battles more, and having more fun consistently controlling my entire party, instead of just letting the game play itself as in some of the earlier games in the series. At its core, though, It’s still turn based combat (which I realize is a deal breaker for some people) but it’s done in a smart way, perhaps the smartest in a non-Final Fantasy game.
Further, The new system of individualized, static Palaces coexisting with Momentos (this game’s name for the procedurally generated dungeon area of previous games) is an excellent change. While not every Palace is perfect, they now are story relevant, which is just not something that previous games had. In previous games, I always did find something relaxing about grinding through the procedurally generated dungeons and I’m glad they still are there as an option in this game.
As I said earlier, I do think the story has some universal relevance. The protagonist and his friends increase their impact from a local, high school level to the highest political levels in Japan in what felt like a very realistic fashion. And the mistrust of adults and their institutions was relatable, and I thought the political commentary was very relevant, especially to what is happening globally at the moment. I did enjoy the sort of small-stakes nature of previous Persona games, but thought 5 did a nice job of increasing the level of character impact without losing the fact that you’re still living through a high schooler’s story.
Ultimately, despite any criticism I have for the game, I still did play it for 140 hours, and came pretty close to diving right back in after I finished it. As my attention span for games decreases every year I age, it’s rare that something could hold my attention so long, especially with all the other great games out there right now. I think it comes down to the fact that most games just aren’t able to to deftly handle relationships the way that Persona games do, and even if Persona 5 falls short of some of its predecessors, it still achieves more than most games manage to do. I wouldn’t recommend someone play it who hates turn based RPGs, but I think just about everyone else could have some fun with this game.