I’ve got a confession. I have been writing my Persona 5 Diaries entries after I beat the game. Because of this, I feel they are disingenuous, as they are written through a veil. They feel like I’m recollecting events, rather than having anything interesting or fun to say. They weren’t very fun to write for me, as I felt there was no passion behind it. So, I decided, rather than stretch my thoughts over the course multiple articles, I will condense them into a single, longform piece that has a lot of heart and effort put into it.
WARNING: I will spoil EVERYTHING about this game. There are a lot of details I want to cover. I believe it is important to discuss every factor of Persona 5, as it is often a combination of thousands of tiny successes that allow a piece of media to stand above others. This is game special to me, and a clear winner for Game of The Year 2017.
Part #1: Obligatory “Persona 5 vs. Every Other Game In The Series”
Is Persona 5 the best in the Persona franchise?
Sorry for the anti-climactic answer. But I believe that each game in the series has aspects that make it greater than the others. At least, between Persona 3, 4, and 5. All 3 of these games are great, but none of them are superior than the other. They never can be. Even Persona 6 won’t be a complete improvement over Persona 5. It’s impossible.
But, why is that? Because each Persona game is a deeply personal and subjective experience. Although every player undergoes the same main storyline, dungeons, and progression, the experience they have, and the time at which they decide to play the game will always influence their judgement.
Each Persona game exudes polish and care. They are incredible experiences that have immense effort poured into them to make every minuscule system and action matter. None of these games are lazy in any regard, and each piece of the puzzle is meticulously included for a purpose.
Out of Persona 3, 4, and 5, here are my brief thoughts on where I think every game excels in:
Persona 3’s Exceptional Qualities
Persona 3’s best aspect is the incredible, hour-and-a-half long final boss battle. However, that fight is something that could only have worked in the time frame it was released. In 2006, when PS2 JRPG’s were still using the roots of their PS1 predecessors for inspiration, Persona 3’s final battle was a spectacle very rarely seen. Having a giant god in the form of Nyx come down, set to one of gaming’s best tracks, is an imcomparible feeling. But, it’s a feeling that was fleeting, and very few gamers can experience it anymore. That’s because big, epic bosses are normal now.
Persona 3 also goes for an incredibly depressing and isolated tone from the other Persona games. While consisting of the usual Persona hijinx and comedy, there is an underlying gloomy atmosphere. The core colour of the game is a cool blue, and a lot of the tracks are slower and somber. The core concept of the game, The Dark Hour, which is a hidden hour in the day where people turn into coffins, is very grim.
A divisive aspect, and one that I am personally ambivalent towards, is that every party member in your troupe doesn’t get along very well. A common JRPG trope is to have everybody be the best of friends and use friendship to overcome their obstacles. People in this game have festering hatred for one another, not at all helped by the fact that everybody lives in the same dormitory. They are always together physically, but the emotional rift between them is present. Petty scuffles, minor disagreements, or explosive arguments tear them apart piece by piece. They are not a cohesive core, but rather, shattered individuals.
The game also tackles nihilistic themes of suicide. I initially thought that shooting oneself in the head with a toy gun to summon Personas was simultaneously the cheesiest and edgiest thing. However, as the game progresses, it’s a fitting allegory to suicide and the complex teenage angst that pushes the main group to the edge of depression.
I also believe it is the most vital that the main characters are teenagers in Persona 3. Having uncontrollable hormones and emotional tendencies means they are prone to irrational decisions and bouts of rage. They are capable of empathy and understanding, but are the most susceptible to their emotions, regardless of how much they may try and hide it.
Persona 3 is the most distinct of the three games. It establishes a specific tone, and, while it may be boring and depressing to some, allows for insight into the overlooked part of the teenage struggle.
Persona 4’s Exceptional Qualities:
Persona 4 has the strongest cast of main characters. They all have distinct personalities, they all have subtle nuances to them, and they are all charming. I was never irritated by a single one of them, and it felt like I had great friends. They are virtual characters, but it felt like they were real, and that’s quality immersion.
Persona 4 was also the most consistently entertaining of the three games. It was certainly more upbeat compared to Persona 3, what with its core colour being yellow. This is helped also by the main cast, who get into the most hijinx out of any of these games. The best moments of Persona 4 are the cross-dressing at the Cultural Festival, the terrible curry at the camping trip, and the visit to the love hotel. These great, memorable moments aren’t present in Persona 3 or 5.
If there is one weak aspect to all three of the games, it is the main villain. They usually appear out of nowhere, or are either completely bland. So while I don’t think Adachi is an amazing antagonist, I do think his motivation to murder others being “Because I can” is better than “I want power.”
Persona 5’s Exceptional Qualities:
So, what is Persona 5 better in? Pretty much everything else.
An objective improvement that Persona 5 has over its predecessors is its phenomenal gameplay. In previous games, dungeons were a series of procedurally generated linear hallways with an occasional bump in the road. It is just a rush to make it to the next floor every time.
Persona 5’s dungeons are hand crafted, and this makes them so much better. They are much more polished, their environments actually adhere to their themes. A massive bank in Persona 5 has a huge vault guarding its treasure, but Persona 4’s secret base is full of hallways.
There’s also the obvious style and flair in Persona 5. Every aspect of the game from the menus to critical hits in battle are oozing with style and finesse. It makes every action gratifying, as there will always be something exciting attached to it. This game makes me feel cool going through menus. What other game does that?
The world outside of dungeons in Persona 5 is phenomenal as well. Shibuya is constantly bustling, Akihabara is illuminated by screens and arcades, and Yongen-Jaya is filled with shady denizens. There are so many more areas to explore, and the NPC’s in the world are constantly progressing and changing. People react to the Phantom Thieves and their actions. Society influences the Phantom Thieves, and it feels that unnamed NPC’s really matter.
To bring up my previous point that it matters what time you play each Persona game, I want to say that, although I do think I probably like Persona 5 more than Persona 4, I have greater memories with Persona 4. Persona 4 came at a time for me when I was clueless and in high school. I would spend long nights mulling over Persona 4 on the Vita, playing it on my bed until I fell asleep. It was the perfect escapism for me. It was happy, and it made me happy.
When I played Persona 5, I was nowhere near that mindset. But, I know for sure, that if I played Persona 5 at that tumultuous age, I would fall equally in love with it. Because these games are personal. They tackle human issues rarely seen in modern gaming. These games resonate with people, because these anime drawings are very real and fantastic.
Part #2: Modern Humanity
So, let’s divulge the characters in Persona 5, now shall we?
Any time a piece of media tackles teenage adolescence, it very rarely works. Young Adult fiction can fall into the trap of making them too emotional or quirky. Teenagers in fiction can feel like cliche dispensers or pop cultural references. The most egregious example of this is Life is Strange. The teens do not feel like real people, but a much older adult’s interpretation of youth. If Persona 5 had that effect, its core message of rebellion against “shitty adults” would be lost. The dialogue in Persona 5 could have become trite garbage like this:
Ryuji: Man, these shitty Matilda-esque adults! They’re creating a real cyberpunk network, eh?
Yusuke: A Warhol interpretation of mine allows me to see the dank-ness of that hypotenuse.
Ann: Let me take a selfie.
(I’m so sorry for writing that exchange. I cringe reading it, and I wrote it.)
In Mass Effect Andromeda, for example, everybody is way too quirky and trendy. They don’t feel like individuals, but a series of checklists that need to be fulfilled for mass appeal. We must include “X” amount of gay characters, and “X” amount of “XD so ramdumb” character quirks. We must never veer from this formula. What if we sell less than 5 million copies? What will the EA overlords do to our children?
So, seeing people have clear personalities, interests, flaws, goals, and motives parade around Persona 5 was so satisfying. Can I describe Ryuji as a hot-headed, rebellious kid who hates adults and the corporate system? Or, can I call him a tough guy with a soft heart? The answer, is neither. Because what about that time where the main character was just sitting in his bed at night after a stressful day, and his phone rings. And he receives a call from Ryuji, just checking on him. It was such a small moment, but it gave so much life to a guy that I previously hated. None of the other characters just ask you how you’re doing. Ryuji has angry fits, but he’s aware of them. He’s not that bright, but he doesn’t think he’s an obnoxious genius. He is aware of his limitations, and relies on others for protection, and does his equal part to ensure that everybody in the group is safe.
Having Persona 5 take place in modern Japan enables NPC interactions that speak to contemporary issues. One of the best parts of Persona 5, and one of its central themes are rumours. Society is constantly judging and gossiping about the Phantom Thieves, and the main character especially. By the end of Persona 4, you save the world, and the entire school and town loves you. By the end of Persona 5, you still save the world, but nobody cares. You were never important to anybody other than your close friends. That reinforces the theme of isolation, and it is perfectly reflected in the ending, where you aren’t sent off on a train with all of your loved ones, but rather, voyage on a road trip with your closest friends.
The constant rumours of society feel realistic in a game littered with anime influences. It makes sense that Shujin Academy would call Ann a whore and “Kamoshida’s bitch” for spending so much time with him. In reality, Ann is fulfilling his desires to prevent her best friend from getting abused. But society doesn’t see that. And, so often in reality as well, society’s ignorance is what spreads.
And oh my god, it is so liberating to see modern teenagers not depicted as being obsessed with their vanity and their fucking cell phones. Yes, people check their phones in Persona 5, but they do it realistically, and at the same frequency as any other human being with a phone usually does. But nobody is written as being obsessed with their phone, or sucked into “the digital world.” There is no “smart phones make dumb people” propaganda. Ann, for example, is a model, and could have easily been depicted as snooty and arrogant about her beauty and status. On the flipside, it would have been equally lazy to give her traits that are the antithesis to the model stereotype, such as smarts, skills, and athletics. Ann is so great because she is a blend of these two polar opposite philosophies. She’s pretty and is aware of her beauty, but she also plays video games, eats a lot of junk food, and knows how to be kind to people, and she is fiercely loyal to those who matter to her. Nobody is a trope. Everybody has layers to their humanity. It’s sad that an anime game, which generally has the most concrete cliche characters, can write better individuals than 90% of western developers.
And no, that isn’t me being a weeaboo.
Persona 5 also uniquely tackles internet culture in a great way, because of how real it is. The real-life Phantom Thieves site is cancer, but the one in-game is essentially an anonymous forum with a moderator. The content there is exactly as you expect, and goes through this progression:
Phase 1: Very few followers, everybody really positive about you, and hopes you grow big. Community is great, and there is little fighting.
Phase 2: Begin to gain more traction and more ravenous and dedicated fans appear.
Phase 3: You’ve reached the peak of popularity, and now people send you death threats and dox threats. People are incredibly passionate and attack McDonalds employees for your sponsored sauce.
Phase 4: You get exposed by something, and people start to turn against you. You probably get a lot of articles written about you, and everybody claims they always hated you.
Phase 5: Complete irrelevancy. Zero fans. You’re a dead page. You don’t exist anymore to the world.
I’m sure if you’ve been savvy to internet culture, you’ve seen people go through this journey. It’s depressing that it happens, but a lot of YouTubers end up becoming dead pages.
This is why the Phantom Thieves’ popularity is so powerful, because it is observable and relatable. People come and go, trends appear and die, and some people have 15 minutes of fame and cannot uphold it. It isn’t people’s fault for losing interest in something, it is the creator, or in this case, the Phantom Thieves, for not adapting or adhering to their group’s interest.
Public reception does matter to the Phantom Thieves and it makes the main cast so much more interesting. They’re loser teenagers who get this massive surge in popularity, and it goes to their head. That’s more relatable then showing them on their phones constantly. Having their adolescent minds infatuated with approval and happiness is teenage-hood. Immaturity and stupid love is teenage-hood. Not memes and terrible pop culture references. These people aren’t immaculate souls obsessed with justice. Good-heartedness matters to them, but they have selfish desires too.
The Phantom Thieves are people, and society are people too. They’re human, not modern Bioware characters.
Part #3: Never a Dull Hour
My final playtime for Persona 5 was 105 hours. I maxed out every confidant, but I hardly did any of the other additional side content. I very rarely talked to the NPC’s in-game, and I mostly fast traveled everywhere. Despite one of the longest gaming experiences I’ve had, it was incredibly addicting, and I was thoroughly entertained for every single hour of the game.
In comparison, I spent 9 hours on Shadow of the Colossus, and it was one of the most dull experiences I’ve ever had. A controversial statement, but it is important, because I want to use these two games as comparison to detail why Persona 5 was so enjoyable.
The biggest reason, is Persona 5 consistently rewards the player for every single action they take. Say you want to go to the batting cage in Persona 5. You get a reward if you hit all 5 of the baseballs. You get an even larger reward if they are all home-runs. However, what if you get a few strikes? You don’t get the prize, but you still get a boost to your Proficiency stat. You failed, but you didn’t waste your time. The benefit you could have achieved was better, but the failing alternative still provided you a boost to your stats, and your progression in the game. Every single stat-boosting acitivity, confidant discussion, battle, every story event progresses the game in some way. You are in a constantly evolving world, and everything is always changing.
In Shadow of the Colossus, you just kind of walk everywhere. Nothing about the world or landscape evolves after you beat a colossus. You don’t get any new abilities. You don’t get much in the way of story. There is no satisfaction or change. The boss fights are great, but that’s all there is to the game. That’s 20% of it. 80% of the game is bland travelling and slow navigation. It’s not engaging.
Persona 5 also has a multitude of goals that seem unattainable, but are actually perfectly paced to be achieved by the end of the game. For example, maxing out every confidant in the game was super intimidating to me at first. I wondered how I could ever do it. But with the help of Chihaya’s Rank 7 ability, I was able to max every social link. It’s easy making friends when a fortune teller hick-lady casts voodoo magic for you.
Persona 5 does have a concrete goal to beat the game, but there are so many things to work towards. It can either be getting every Persona in the game, completing Mementos, beating the secret boss, beating The Reaper, maxing every stat, unlocking every location, and much more. The content is bustling, and none of it feels flat or under developed. It feels like every system was placed and paced so well, so you always feel like you’re trying and discovering something new on every single one of the hundred+ in-game days.
Shadow of the Colossus, has a single goal: defeat the colossi. Nothing more, nothing less. This is perfectly fine for a short game, but it does get dull when it doesn’t encourage exploration and experimentation. Ride your horse the exact same way you have been for the last 8 hours. 60 dollars please.
Persona 5 makes every hour count, and it made me lose sleep during work days. I would play and stay up for hours and hours at a time. I didn’t talk to my friends. I just wanted to keep playing Persona 5. It was so much fun. It was a drug that lasted for 100+ hours. It was like, love, or something. A drug like that.
Part 4: All the Little Things
If you ask me what makes a game truly special, it would be the small little polished touches it does. Continuing the trend of using other games for my explanations, on a surface level, Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas look nearly identical, except one has an orange filter, and the other has a Matrix Filter. But I like New Vegas more because it has a more cohesive and realistic world. There are a lot of nuances to every group and faction in the game. People have stronger identities, and a lot of locations are bland farms and reserves. But I love it. Because it makes its world feel real and tangible. It is like everything is there for a purpose.
Big surprise, Persona 5 has a lot of meaningful little touches as well. Here’s a quick list of little polishes that escalate Persona 5 above other games:
When the main character wins a battle on his own, he looks around, does a sheepish smile, scratches his head, and runs.
When you date one of the Phantom Thief girls, and you’re asked if you have considered marriage during your final exams, the girl you’re dating blushes.
Every NPC you talk to changes their dialogue in progression with the game. Any time the Phantom Thieves take on a culprit, their dialogue changes.
All of the comments on the Phansite change and reflect the current tone of the game.
Every single movement through the menu is slick and pops. It makes just selecting items gratifying. No other game does that.
The internet references aren’t cringe-worthy and awkward. Very few games can do that, and make them feel natural.
Every critical hit and loading screen is popping with flourish and style.
When you’re meeting with the Phantom Thieves, each individual member is doing an action to reflect their personality. Ryuji is reading a Shonen manga, Yusuke is eating an obscure snack, Ann is on her phone, Futaba on her laptop, Makoto studying, and Haru sippin’ that drank.
There’s a lot more, but if I kept listing them, we’d be here all day.
Part #5: Dungeon Crawling is not Dumbgeon Crawling
The weakest part of Persona 3 and 4 was the dungeon crawling. They were procedurally generated hallways that almost never changed from that. The environment around you was themed, but it almost rarely spiced the gameplay up.
Persona 5 rectifies this problem by having each dungeon hand-crafted. They all have a unique theme, and they all have puzzles and terrain fitting of it. The Casino level has gambling, the bank requires you to elaborately open a vault, the castle has guards patrolling it, etc.
Although the levels are more linear, it does not matter, since the quality of the experience is much greater. Although “procedurally generated” means each floor in Persona 4 is technically different, it does not feel that way at all. They’re all the same hallway with enemies repeated over and over again. Which, is serviceable. It obviously isn’t ideal, but it gets the job done.
But Persona 5 sets a new standard for gameplay for this franchise. The dungeons were always the weakest part of Persona 3 and 4, and to see this get solved, and have it be equally on par with the rest of the game, makes the entire experience consistently amazing.
Part #6: Oh right, this is a game!
Despite my previous topics of discussion indicating otherwise, Persona 5 is a video game, and thus, it has video game aspects. Let’s talk about those.
First and foremost, let’s talk about what approximately 40% of the game is: random battles. I’m always apprehensive when it comes to exceedingly long JRPG’s, and their battle systems are the reason why. Final Fantasy 10, for example, has a great battle system that requires strategy and attentiveness. And, as much as it pains me to say it, Skies of Arcadia has a fairly slow, generic battle system with little tactics.
Persona 5 thankfully falls into the former, and it is because of one, small system within battles: enemy and player weaknesses.
In Persona 5, if you hit an enemy’s weakness, you get a free turn. If, after this, you strike another enemy’s weakness, you keep going. Your objective every battle becomes a metagame of getting the best chain going, and it captivates the player.
But, if you don’t have an enemy’s weakness, Persona 5 has that covered with the Baton Pass system. After you strike a weakness, you have a chance to swap to another party member without losing your turn. This party member then gets a damage boost to anything they do. Now, this party member you passed to can hit another enemy’s weakness, baton pass, and give another party member EVEN STRONGER moves! Every battle is like a flow to try and get this going and optimize your damage.
To prevent all battles from being a steamroll, however, enemies can and WILL pull that same chaining trick on you. Sometimes they can be merciful, but most of the time, they are deadly judges who will cast their might upon your entire party.
The weakness chaining necessitates attention from the player. There is an option to “rush” in Persona 5, which has every party member attacking over and over again really fast, but I almost never used it. I was too scared to leave myself vulnerable and die. Because, 99/100, you will die if you rush. Bad times.
But my personal favourite part of combat, and what further incentivizes downing opponents, is the negotiation system. After you knock down and strik every opponent’s weakness, you can hold a conversation with them. All enemies have personalities and are willing to talk to you about their life and desires. If you are able to stay on their good side, you can get money, and item, or more importantly, have that enemy join your team. It adds another layer of tactics to battle.
Although it did take me about, 50 hours to actually grasp how negotiation works.
The non-palace content, particularly the confidants, is where a lot of my enjoyment with Persona 5 came from. Simply socializing, playing arcade games, studying, reading books, and eating massive burgers gave me a lot of enjoyment, and reminded me of the free time I had in high school and the whimsy it provided. All of the great memories came flooding back to me as I played, and it made me comfortable.
Ultimately, my favourite part of Persona 5 is how it makes me feel. It has everything I love in video games, and everything I grew up with. It has a great RPG battle system, tons of engaging side content, gorgeous flourish and appearance, unforgettable music, and story and characters that are rivaled by very little.
Persona 5 will go down in history as one of 2017’s best video game’s, one of the best JRPG’s ever, and a testament that there still is a massive audience for games like these.
Please don’t let JRPG’s die gaming world.
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