Something much more different for this month’s What’cha Been Playin’. Instead of discussing games I played last month, I’m focusing on one game I played last month, and that’s for a simple reason. Outside of the occasional Picross 3D before bed, Persona 5 is the only game I played through the entirety of April. I managed to complete P5 — the true ending — with a time of 79:21 spread across a few hours shy of three weeks, which is insane for me. I rarely play games so obsessively anymore — some days, I stayed home and played for hours straight — and that’s doubly true for JRPGs, a genre that I struggle to stick with.
This post is devoted to Persona 5 — what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, along with favorite moments and characters. There’s little structure, but a grouping of topics. The second half will contain spoilers, located before a warning, while everything above the warning is spoiler-free.
Let’s chat for a moment about Persona 4 Golden and Persona 5 as outliers. JRPGs are, in concept, wonderful, but a dire combination of linear adventures, brain-dead stories, and boring characters dragged down my excitement to the point where I can’t recall the last JRPG released before 2012 that I’d consider memorable. That’s not for lack of trying, too. I’ve purchased quite a few of ’em, most of them critically acclaimed, but manage only a week or so before I lose interest. And I know they’re good games. I might’ve struggled through Final Fantasy VI on GBA repeatedly, but I wouldn’t argue that it’s not excellent.
The allure of Western RPGs likely didn’t help. Oblivion and Fallout 3, for their many faults, offered freedom unmatched by most JRPGs, while Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect provided the illusion that my decisions impacted story and characters. I gobbled up their more freeing games, happy that I no longer felt as if rigidly following the developer’s script.
Then came Persona 4 Golden, which I never expected to win me over. What would make this JRPG so different from the many I previously tried playing and lost interest? Regardless of the exact reasons, Persona 4 latched hold of me almost immediately and didn’t release for over 84 hours. Yay, I thought, surely I’m in the right headspace to enjoy JRPGs again. Not quite, and again not for lack of trying. Bravely Default, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions are but a few Japanese RPGs that I genuinely enjoyed, but ultimately struggled to continue.
That prompted a new concern: was Persona 4 Golden a one-off? How much did the PlayStation Vita, a handheld, contribute to my enjoyment of P4G? Persona 5 is on a home console, so will that matter? Almost 80 hours with Persona 5, I got my answer: Persona 5 is my favorite Japanese RPG since Persona 4 Golden, and I might’ve enjoyed it more than P4G. Regardless, I’m not blowing smoke when I say that Persona 5 is incredible.
It managed to bump Breath of the Wild for likely my favorite game of the year, which is nothing to sneeze about.
I love and loath the day-to-day progression of Persona 4 and 5. What I appreciate is that I rarely feel as if I’m not making progress towards that inevitable date where the game ends, and I’m offered a mostly stable number of activities. School begins the day, but afternoon and evening activities are up for grab. Do I spend the entire day running through a palace or split the day by building friendships? Or maybe I tackle that obscenely large cheeseburger and increase my social stats? Persona 5 limits these activities at time, mostly in service of the story, but you normally know that the next day brings. That allows easy planning while keeping forward momentum.
That hard endpoint does deprive me of getting to know everyone, however. I only unlocked every Confidant for two of the Phantom Thieves before running out of time. Poor Haru barely spent any time with Joker before everything came crumbling down, and that’s frustrating for someone who spends a tad too much time unlocking support conversations in Fire Emblem. I like these characters, and I want more time getting to know them. Is that selfish?
That said, it could be worse. I jumped back into Trails of Cold Steel, which shows days passing as if on a calendar, similar to Persona. My problem is that Cold Steel often, at least right now, jumps ahead by several days or more, robbing me of opportunities to interact with the cast. Robbing… that’s what it feels like. I have no idea of how deep into Cold Steel I am (I just started the second field trip), but damn it, I want to build these friendships because the characters are what I’m enjoying most about the game. (It’s definitely not the battle system.) If time continues jumping forward, how many changes will I get to spend time with my classmates?
So Persona 5 could be more frustrating with its structure.
Playing amateur detectives was fun, but donning masks and acting as gentleman (and lady) thieves is much cooler. They dive into corrupted hearts and jump from balconies to chandeliers or into air vents to bypass locked doors, eliminating Shadows along the way. They reach the source of the twisted distortion — the treasure — before sending a calling card. The target becomes aware of the impending theft, and that’s when the excitement truly starts. The excellent music increases the tension and anticipation for the inevitable boss battle. Sure beats to hell jumping into a television.
I appreciate how you’re fighting against corruption by forcing a change of hearts, but the theme of casting off societal restrictions particularly resonates with me. My own stories focus on people who don’t comfortably exist within normal society, so it thrills and inspires me that Persona 5 is full of such characters, including most of the Phantom Thieves. The game doesn’t offer the deepest exploration of such topics, something that’s been pointed out by naysayers, but that’s hardly the point. I mean, would Persona 5 be any better without tackling those themes at all?
Your instructions: hide behind corners and other objects that shouldn’t allow anything resembling stealth, and hope to hell enemies don’t suddenly pace between the same two feet directly in front of you. Or unmask the Shadows so that they transform into their true forms, whether it’s a noble knight or a penis riding a chariot, and beat the shit out of them before they’re given the opportunity to attack. Repeat until safe room and/or treasure is discovered.
Enemies walking past Joker and his companions skulking directly in front of them is rather silly, but the so-called sneaking mechanic effectively killed one of the more tiresome song-and-dances from Persona 4. Specifically, trying to score a “player’s advantage” by striking a Shadow’s back, but being discovered and running away until the enemy drops the chase and turns away. Now you wait patiently for an enemy to move into striking distance and attack, assuring “player’s advantage” in most cases. And that’s great at getting through palaces as effectively as possible.
So how much do I pay for Atlus to patch this system into Persona 4?
I understand that tutorials are necessary for Persona 5, a game dense with systems, but it’s my understanding that they’re still a nuisance in New Game Plus. That’s frustrating at best. I mean, I completed the damn game only a week ago, so I’m quite familiar with the different mechanics. You’re wasting my time by tossing up those tutorials instead of giving me the option of removing them entirely. In fact, tutorials are what’s keeping me from replaying Persona 5, something I’ve been yearning for.
If The Legend of Zelda can muster enough faith in the player to completely remove the training wheels, Persona 5 can at least give me the option to drop prodding me with info I already know.
Sometime ago, I complained how Fire Emblem Fates amped up the frustration by not including a save point between the final levels, calling it unnecessary and abusive. Towards the end of Persona 5’s last palace, I was suddenly reminded of that post, and not for any happy reasons.
Without revealing too much about that sequence, you’re given only two save points during that final sequence — at the start of the area and at the end, right before the final boss. Between those two points are four mini-bosses of varying difficulty, along with the usual enemies scurrying around. By the time that I reached that second save, my group was completely tapped of SP, and that includes backtracking to the first save where a character is available to heal the party.
The final mini-boss, which combines abilities of the previous three mini-bosses, is the real bastard. He’s a strong motherfucker capable of attacking twice in succession, creating moments where it builds strength for an attack and attacks without giving me an opportunity to defend. It’s also capable of becoming fully healed by weaker enemies it spawns, erasing upwards of twenty minutes (or more) of progress because I was a turn too late. (Fortunately, as I found, they’re quite susceptible to a physical attack that Haru had, allowing me to quickly dispatch the healers, but it was a long, frustrating journey to discover that.)
By comparison, the final boss was actually easier, if only somewhat. In the very least, it couldn’t heal itself. Anyway, to further illustrate my frustration with that fourth mini-boss, allow me to share a series of tweets that I wrote during that battle:
Everything, including images, past this point features major story spoilers.
Read at your own risk.
Sending calling cards is well and good, but hijacking the airwaves across the country (or at least Tokyo) and warning Masayoshi Shido, and the public, that they’re aiming to steal his heart was pretty badass. It helped that they were garbed in their Phantom Thieves costumes and cast in shadow. Unfortunately, as everyone who’s finished the sequence that follows knows, changing Shido’s heart ultimately makes little impact on the threat hanging over the Phantom Thieves, which kills some of the impact of the video message in hindsight, but it’s still a fun moment for a group that’s operated in the shadows.
Of course, this leads to…
For every handful of lighthearted moments, Persona 5 has a few truly uncomfortable situations (for instance, every female Phantom Thief except Futaba faces unwanted sexual advances shortly after being introduced), but the one that impacted me most occurred towards the conclusion when Tokyo has merged with Mementos and devolved into a hellscape not unlike you’d find in a regular Shin Megami Tensei game. Then, being forgotten by the entirety of the population, the Phantom Thieves themselves collapse onto the ground in pain. No sooner does their arms and legs start to vanish before they puff out of existence entirely.
This is a situation unlike any we’ve seen throughout the game. Whenever faced with an obstacle, our heroes have options that allows them to proceed, but not in this instance. They’re completely powerless, and any bravado they had is gone as they themselves fade away, supposedly dying. And I, the player, am equally powerless to help these characters who’ve endeared themselves through the course of many, many, many hours. I only watch as they cry and plead in the face of their own mortality before Joker is alone. Then he’s gone too.
Obviously, that wasn’t the end.
Of course I recognized that Igor has a new voice, but for a franchise where characters summon aspects of themselves to assist during battles, a new voice for the enigmatic owner of a room that exists inside, er– the point is Igor is essentially a supernatural being, so a new voice isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. The Velvet Room changes, so why can’t he? Add in that the Japanese voice actor for Igor passed away prior to Persona 5 (more on that in a moment), I figured that Atlus went a different direction for the character and decided to have the English version emulate.
What I did gradually notice is the almost robotic delivery of Igor’s lines, as if created by a voice processor. It’s not obvious with every conversation, but enough that I began wondering if something was up with Igor. The revelation that the Igor I interacted with throughout the game was a fake didn’t occur to me, however. I caught the scent of deceit, but never realized where it led. Until I accidentally discovered outside the game that Igor was a fake, that is.
As I mentioned, the Japanese voice actor for Igor starting from Persona 3, Isamu Tanonaka, passed away in 2010, so Atlus reused audio from previous Persona games. Not a bad decision considering how little the genuine Igor is present. That didn’t happen in English. Instead, Kirk Thornton replaced Dan Woren and Vic Mignogna.
Futaba is the little sister who I wouldn’t mind having. Quirky and naive, yet endearing with a kick-ass penchant for hacking, code name Oracle quickly became one of my favorite companions. That she’s voiced by Erica Lindbeck, whose wonderful acting helped make Your Lie in April one of my favorite anime in years, helped considerable. She attaches herself to Joker so quickly, calling him her “Key Item” and hiding behind him whenever a stranger appears, that I couldn’t help from becoming fond of this strange girl.
In fact, she filled the role of little sister so easily that the idea of romancing Futaba feels weird. The size difference between her and Joker only heightens that impression (no pun intended). Regardless, I wish that I could’ve completed Futaba’s Confidant, but alas, I ran out of time.
When it came down to the perilous decision of which female character to romance, Makoto Niijima came out as a strong contender due to a mixture of being serious, intelligent, and earnest, coupled with a naivete towards people her own age. The result is a girl who’s easy to root for, yet delights with a dorky side that makes for funny scenes. That combination is on full display in the romantic scenes because she’s inexperienced at the dating thing, but so damn sincere about it.
Of all the possible romances, I view Makoto as a strong fit for Joker, or whatever semblance of a personality we see from him. That being said, I barely interacted with the fortune-teller Chihaya, and I never met Hitumi Togo, so I can’t judge their compatibility with the cipher that is Joker. So, yeah, Makoto is the best. Futaba is a close second, but as I mentioned above, she’s more of a little sister.