Top positive review
Not as good as Persona 4 or 3, but those are tough acts to to follow and Persona 5 does its thing well
Reviewed in the United States on February 7, 2018
Persona 3 and Persona 4 are two of my favorite video games ever made, and I love video games. I was a kid when those games were first released on PS2, and I caught up with them as an adult, but when Persona 5 was announced, delayed, and delayed again, I was right there on the hype train with everybody else. I bought this game three times: this preorder on Amazon, and then twice on PS4 on release day. That should give you an idea of how excited I was for this game. It didn't live up to 100% of my hype, but my hype was astronomical anyway and Persona 5 can still stand proudly above 99% of other games available on modern platforms.
As the set-up of this game was detailed before release by Katsura Hashino, the director/co-writer of Persona 3, 4, and 5, it sounded like Persona 5 was taking on a more caper-like tone, downplaying the heavy slice-of-life that Persona 3 and 4 are known for. This is accurate, as Persona 5 feels less like a bunch of teens attempting to lead a normal life in between fighting monsters, and more like a bunch of very determined young men and women dropping everything to fight for good with their new power. Make no mistake, Persona 5 is very much still a Persona game, and so it's still much, much more meandering and slower-paced than the average JRPG, but the strokes are less broad than those of its predecessors, and I welcome the slight change of pace. The most exciting part of Persona 5's release is seeing how many new fans are being introduced to the series, and the tighter focus on being a vigilante superhero is surely part of the reason this is the most accessible Persona game yet. Seeing all of the new young folks falling in love with this game because it's so radically different and more mature compared to the multitude of generic otaku fantasies out there is proof to me that Persona is still the best, even if the previous two games are closer to my heart.
One example of this tighter focus I'm talking about is the Social Links, which have been renamed "Confidants" in this game. In Persona 3 and 4, Social Links were often as simple as hanging out with a friend and occasionally having "deep talk", but while Social Links did have game-play benefits, Confidants are even more complex and rewarding. Entire game-play (combat and time-management) mechanics are locked behind Confidants in ways that feel slightly forced, but logical and great fun to discover (hanging out with a shogi player allows you to figure out how to switch party members mid-battle, for example). A part of me wants to say that making each Social Link beneficial in a unique way can undermine the idea that the player should follow Social Links solely based on how much they like the character behind it, but I'm probably just a curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.
One area which I can definitively say is better than it's ever been is combat. The combat UI is masterful in how expedient it is. No other turn-based RPG feels this slick. The brilliant "One More!" system is still here, and it's still electrifying in a way that no other JRPG is. I do miss the three types of physical attacks from 3, but while 4 had only one, this game has two - and the other is guns! Sick! On top of that, there are now two more magical elements, and the elements Bless and Curse are no longer composed solely of low-accuracy one-hit-kill skills (which never worked on bosses anyway). If your top priority in a Persona game is the combat, rest assured that Persona 5's combat is superlative among JRPGs. (However, the battles themselves don't feel as challenging as they did in 3 and 4... noobs are still getting their butts kicked, but for series veterans, the challenge is downplayed and that's disappointing.)
My top priority in a Persona game is the story, and while I never expected Persona 5 to touch me as deeply as 4 and *especially* 3 did, there are even still things that got in the way of my enjoyment of the story. For the record, none of my problems are with the premise. From the very beginning and all the way to the end, Persona 5 is a story about not being afraid to stand up against a system that's fine-tuned to beat people into submission, and even if this can be described in other words as "rebellious teen-agers", which is nothing new, I had full confidence that Hashino and his team were capable of writing a story of this tone that was still nuanced and mature. And you know what? They did! Persona 5 is a game about a bunch of horny Japanese teens fighting yellow-eyed specters of the adults they hate with Pokemon borne from their emotions and rebelling against society with the literal power of friendship - and it has a talking cat in it - and it still manages to be more intelligent and mature than the vast majority of video games. Ever since it spun off from the Megami Tensei franchise in 1996, Persona (if you can't tell by the title) has been influenced by Jungian psychology, which portrays people as being basically formed from archetypes, and being interconnected through the "collective unconscious" - which is literally name-dropped in the game - so maybe this psychological angle is something that Persona 5 borrowed rather than earned, but it's still great at portraying a society controlled by corruption at every level, even the personal. If you want a really cool take on the "rebellious teen-agers" story, look at this game.
Like I said though, I had problems with the execution of the story. The game begins with a cold open, which sets up a whodunit that you'll have your eyes and ears peeled for through the story, but the pay-off is not much compared to the time you spent looking out for it in the many, many hours up to this point. In a way, it sorta has the opposite problem of Persona 4. Persona 4 was also built on a whodunit, which I felt was handled very poorly, but when the culprit is revealed to be the villain they are, they become very compelling. Persona 5's whodunit is barely even a "mystery" in how simple it is, and when the lid is blown, for a minute the game actually seems to be making fun of poorly-executed mysteries, which is funny in a twisted way, but it doesn't change the fact that the game pretends it's a real mystery for a very long time. Then, when the culprit is figured out, they kinda drop the ball. Actually, they're more interesting after this point, but they were mind-numbingly dull before, and their character as a villain is pretty half-baked. I would've preferred for it to not be the open secret that it ends up being.
Speaking of characters, for the first time in a Persona game, I actually disliked some of the main characters in this game. Persona 3 and 4 were astonishingly good at characters, to the point where even if I disliked a character, it was just because they were the type of person I don't get along with in real life. The main casts of both games felt like real kids, kids that I might have been friends with if I had spent more time in high school getting out instead of playing video games. In Persona 5, an alarming number of the Phantom Thieves felt utterly dispensable to me, which is a crying shame. This is perhaps the biggest blight on this game's complexion to me.
One last issue I had, sadly, is the localization. I want to make it perfectly clear that I have nothing but respect for everyone at Atlus USA for taking on such massive projects as they do, and delaying the North American version of this game fully aware of the Internet backlash they'd incur. I'm certain they care about delivering a quality product and take pride in what they do, which makes me all the more uneasy to say that I didn't like this game's translation. I don't speak Japanese, but I do speak English, and people in this game kinda don't talk like people do. It's like everybody in this game has one inflexible way of saying something, which definitely feels like a translation from Japanese that wanted to be "accurate" without taking the liberties that a good translation actually MUST take in order to translate the spirit - not just the words - of the original. Persona 3 and 4 have great localizations, and while those were done many years ago, it's still sad that I look at a couple of PS2 games and then look at Persona 5 and see it as a step backwards. I think Atlus USA were scared of taking liberties because anime fans seem to actually prefer these kinds of stilted, so-called "accurate" translations. For my money, it makes people sound like robots. Persona 3, in contrast, made the actual robot character sound too human!
I've spent a long time talking about problems I had with Persona 5, but it's because I care. I'm long-winded when it comes to things I love, and I love Persona. Like I said much earlier, new fans of the series are being made with this game, and I think that's wonderful. Persona 3 and 4 are not perfect either (... okay, Persona 3 is), but they are extremely tough acts to follow, and Persona 5 is a worthy successor for a new generation. I recommend it to anyone looking for an RPG of truly epic length and ambition.