"Whereas Persona 4 effectively presented an idealized simulacrum of Japanese high school life, Persona 5 feels like anything but. "
Things aren't going so great for Persona 5's hero. After raising his fists to a violent drunk to prevent a sexual assault, said drunk, who also happens to be a powerful politician, presses charges against him, resulting in his probation and expulsion from school. His parents, under the monetary strain of his legal fees, temporarily exile him to the guardianship of family friend Sojiro in the fictional Tokyo district of Yongenjaya. Your mission, if you choose to accept it: Stay out of trouble for twelve months to avoid a harsher sentence. But things are never that simple...
Right off the bat, Persona 5 feels in stark contrast to the series' last few entries. Whereas Persona 3 and (especially) Persona 4 effectively presented an idealized simulacrum of Japanese high school life, Persona 5 feels like anything but. Our hero is not the charismatic new transfer student, but rather an object of scorn and derision. Rumors spread fast in high school, and the protagonist's noble act of crime stopping becomes exaggerated to outright falsehood; students in the hall whisper of his violent temper and drug abuse, while teachers show zero patience or understanding. Whether it's fear or disgust, one thing is overtly clear: You are not wanted here.
But this isn't just an adolescent cruelty simulator. This is a Persona title, after all, so it's not long before our hero discovers there's something going on beneath the surface, in a parallel world called the Metaverse. Within the Metaverse stand twisted Palaces, in which a person's darkest desires are made manifest. Under the guidance of a mysterious (and adorable) cat
-burglar named Morgana, the protagonist assembles a ragtag group of fellow outsiders to form the Phantom Thieves, a heist collective set on "stealing" the malice from the palaces of exceptionally cruel individuals, to force a change of heart. Their first target: a sadistic gym coach bent on the expulsion of our heroes. This threat of expulsion is Persona 5's first time limit; steal Coach's malice before the next board meeting, or it's curtains — and Game Over — for you.
Finishing a dungeon within a time limit is to be expected from Persona's formula, though how
these dungeons play out is a welcome change. No procedurally-generated floors of nondescript corridors here: The first dungeon, a medieval castle, is magnificently designed. You crawl through a grate to get in, slink through corridors, escape a subterranean gaol, and run up a magnificent staircase in search of the coveted treasure. Just wandering around this castle is a joy; it boasts a high contrast look that makes deft use of bright colors, complimented by your stylish party's slick movement and the phantasmal footsteps they leave in their wake. There are also some light adventure game elements that come into play; an early sequence tasks players to return a series of books to their proper shelves in a library to reveal a secret passage.
However, you can't just waltz in like you own the place. Palaces are patrolled by a range of foes, and Persona 5 adds light stealth elements to its dungeon navigation. It's essential to sneak up on enemies to trigger a preemptive encounter. In turn, if an enemy gets the jump on you, you're the one who ends up in an ambush— a highly disadvantageous position in an Atlus RPG. Getting caught by foes also raises a security meter by 15%. Each victory lowers the meter by 5%, but if that meter hits 100%, you're kicked out of the Palace and the day ends. Fortunately, the stealth system happens to be very thoughtfully designed and quite lenient. Each room has plenty of spots to hide, you can quick-dash from cover to cover, and there's a short window when a foe sees you before they go on high alert.
But let's go back to the battle system for a moment. If you've played recent Persona titles, you know what to expect here. Combat is turn based with an emphasis on striking your opponent's weakness to knock them off balance and gain an extra turn. Knock down every foe in an encounter and your party surrounds them and holds them up. From this position, a few options become available: You can trigger an All-Out Attack for massive damage, or, in a surprise return, you can negotiate with a foe in an effort to persuade them to give you items, money, or to join you as a new Persona. Yes, that's right, no faceless shadows to be fought this time. Rather, a whole host of classic Shin Megami Tensei deities. Not only is it wonderful to see all these classic Kazuma Kaneko designs in HD for the first time, the fact they can be recruited makes Persona 5's possibilities feel endless.
As I reached my tenth hour with Persona 5, my progress through Coach's Castle was halted by an obstacle that required two artefacts to pass. Held by demons in the adjoining room, I stealthily peered out from behind a door frame...when an enemy I hadn't noticed rushed me from behind. Suddenly, I found myself at the mercy of a group of succubi who cooed in delight as they charmed my entire party. I was helpless but to watch my seduced teammates wail on the protagonist until his HP dropped to zero, sending me back to my last saved game. I couldn't wait to dive back in. Yep, this is a Persona title, all right.
Persona 5 is, finally, available now. Be sure to check back in a few weeks for our full review.