The Phantom Thieves are on a mission to steal the hearts of the most notorious criminals in Tokyo. From a High School teacher who harasses their students to a money-grubbing mobster, no villain's heart is safe in Persona 5.
If you've played any other Persona game in the series, this one fits nicely into a familiar gameplay and story structure but adds enough twists to make it a fresh experience. The story starts quite abruptly as the protagonist is trying to escape from the cops in what looks like a glitzy casino, jumping from chandelier to balcony to window. It's definitely a unique start to a JRPG and it shows off Persona 5's style and unique level traversal right from the get-go. Unfortunately, you eventually find yourself being interrogated by the police who ask you questions about stealing hearts, taking down criminals and a group called The Phantom Thieves. Before the conversation gets far, time rewinds to the real beginning of the story.
Throughout the plot, time will suddenly pause and fast-forward then rewind again, switching between the moments you spend romping around Tokyo in typical JRPG fashion and moving forward to the present where you're stuck in a room being forced to give up your accomplices. The dungeon exploring and everyday life of being a student can get very involving and when the screen suddenly starts changing to shift to the present, you're forced to remember that your actions have consequences. It's a simple and effective way to break up daily life at Shujin High School and shake up the story every now and then.
Time management is important because you want to make sure that you're using it effectively to build relationships with the right people, raise your social skills and intelligence, increase your battle level, learn new skills, find and buy items, and complete side quests. As you can see, there's a lot to keep you busy throughout and you won't often find yourself bored. That being said, there are occasions when there's simply no fighting to be done and you'll find all of the other activities can get a little monotonous. However, these times only occur when you complete a main dungeon quickly and that doesn't typically happen often considering you need to constantly improve your level and array of Personas in order to make progress.
You unlock a new dungeon when you and your friends (The Phantom Thieves) decide upon your next target. It has to be someone in the public's eye so that when you take them down and change their heart to help them see their reprehensible ways and atone for their sins, you might get some credit for it (anonymously, of course). Every target has their own dungeon that houses a treasure at its core and it's up to The Phantom Thieves to steal it thus destroying the dungeon and the evil heart that it represents.
When you unlock a dungeon, you'll get a new party member who joins your group and is typically a victim of the criminal. The dungeons themselves each have their own unique flavour and are themed to match how a given criminal sees a certain area of Tokyo. For example, the abusive High School teacher's dungeon is a palace where one of the students walks around in a bikini and everyone grovels at his feet. The layouts are interesting and provide a lot of cover which allows you to stealthily attack enemies. You'll find yourself climbing cabinets, crawling through vents, hiding behind statues, triggering switches and stealing keycards in order to traverse through the dungeons and find all of its treasures. However, none of the puzzles are difficult to figure out and it would have been nice to have some more adventure elements that force you to think such as how it was done in the spin-off Tokyo Mirage Sessions.
Persona 5's battle system is typical of any Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game where you must focus on enemies' weaknesses in order to take them down (such as elemental weaknesses or melee and gun attacks). When you hit a weakness, you get one more turn and so on. However, if an enemy hits a party member's weakness then the same can happen to them and things can go bad quickly. The fact that the battle is over and you have to load your save once the protagonist bites the dust is very frustrating. A couple of times, an enemy continuously unleashed the same multi-hit attack that struck all of my party members and it kept hitting one of them critically. Inevitably, it wore down the HP of the protagonist quickly and the whole party soon perished... and in a regular battle, too!
Having said this, you have the potential to do the same to the enemies as well. When you can keep chaining attacks to down all of the enemies then do a special attack to take them out in one swoop, it's quite satisfying. I enjoyed the abilities that do massive damage on enemies that are frozen or shocked as it forced me to strategize on the tougher ones. You also have the option to pass the baton to another team member when you hit an enemy weakness. Doing so will increase the attack power of that person's next hit.
Recruiting demons to join your party is easier than in other Persona games as most of my negotiations here ended favourably. Maybe I'm better at reading between the lines to say what the demon wants to hear or maybe they toned down the difficulty, I'm not entirely sure. Either way, it's a welcome change because it adds to the fun of collecting an array of personas then combining them to create more powerful ones and unlock new abilities. Treasure demons are a new addition which can only be found by breaking certain items then chasing them. Once you catch one, you'll notice how awesome it is as it will have a ton of useful abilities but then you'll realise that you can only use them to forge with other demons which is fair considering the power you would suddenly have if they were directly useable. You can transfer some abilities when forging so having a sudden selection of abilities to transfer is very handy. You also get extra experience for defeating a Treasure demon even if you fail at recruiting it.
Persona 5's cast of characters is an eclectic group of High School students with varying backgrounds. They all have something in common in that they feel misunderstood and have been treated unfairly by others. Seeing fellow classmates being abused is what sparks their interest in taking down bad guys. I wasn't really a fan of the character Ryuji with his constant whining about how grownups are all unfair. It's quite a childish way to think and forces you to remember that this is a group of kids in their mid-teens. Other characters, however, have more interesting traits such as the gutsy Makoto and the amazingly artistic but strangely quiet Yusuke.
The villains do a great job of making you hate them. From the start, I found it hard to watch some scenes where the teacher would abuse students and they would shrug and walk away in silence covered in bruises. When you finally steal a villain's heart, it's extremely satisfying seeing them grovel for forgiveness and knowing that they're heading to jail for a long time. The fact that you are actually changing the lives of people with a lot of influence means that your group gets a lot of attention from the police and there's a constant tension as to whether a character will do something to slip up and let them know the real identities of The Phantom Thieves. The group wants fame but only if it means staying anonymous and not getting into trouble with the law.
When you're not fighting and collecting personas, you can complete a multitude of activities to occupy your time. You can take on a part-time job to earn some extra cash, go shopping for new equipment and items, take a clinical trial to test out a new formula at the doctor's office and many more things. Activities that involve raising your social skills such as guts, knowledge or proficiency often involve a mini-game of some kind which is a great way to mix up the gameplay every now and then. You will also want to ensure that you're raising your relationship levels with your party members (among other characters) by accepting requests from them to hang out, completing favours or giving them gifts. As you increase these levels, you'll raise your proficiency with a certain type of demon that the character is affiliated with as well as learn new abilities that will help you in battle.
Visually, Persona 5 is one of the most stylish games I've ever played. Its bold and colourful graphics all the way down to the detailed snappy animations and transitional loading segments pop off the screen. When the party is in a dungeon, their outfits change to something akin to a catwalk with each fitting the personality of that character's persona. The acid jazz soundtrack complements the visual style nicely and conveniently allows you to leave your Jamiroquai albums on the shelf as you play. However, the tracks tend to repeat far too often to the point where you may want to turn down the music. It doesn't vary at all between battles and with each track having such a unique feel to it, hearing the same thing repeated over and over can get irritating fast.
I must say, The Phantom Thieves surely stole my heart as I've had a ton of fun with Persona 5. However, a few nagging features and the fact that the dungeons could use a little more complexity means that it doesn't quite top my list of favourite JRPGs.
- + Unique flashy art style and soundtrack
- + Entertaining dungeons with stealth elements
- + It's a lot of fun taking down villains that you love to hate
- - Game over when the hero dies is a pain
- - Standout music repeats too frequently
- - Dungeons could do with some more noodle-scratching puzzles, etc.