For the sake of abandoning all objectivity, I will admit that Persona 5 is one of my favorite games of all time. That’s a problem with writing about JRPGs, I have to put in dozens or hundreds of hours just to hit that end screen. I can tell you that Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is a garbage game that I completed, because it only took like 15 hours to complete. If I’ve finished a JRPG, it’s safe to count it amongst my favorites. If I’ve replayed it, oh, we’re in danger.
But when I talk about my favorite games, there is usually a through line, the ability to customize. Give your player the freedom to choose how, where, and why they play. I’m a lifelong fan of Pokemon for the ability to endlessly customize my team, different weapons or fighting styles in Skyrim can offer hundreds of hours of replay value. My favorite game of all time, Breath of the Wild, lets you play the story in any order you like, or ignore it entirely.
The thing about Persona 5, though, is that it’s short on that. You can make the decision to get a bad ending if you fail to meet a deadline, relent to the villains’ demands, or you can pick which girl you want to romance (or how many). Other than that, you play the same dungeons in the same order, events fold out the same way, and there’s no options to play differently.
However, Persona 5 offers a different kind of experience that has cemented its place among my favorites, and it’s one I never knew existed before I played it. Persona 5 lets you live an anime.
For this essay, I will be using Persona 5 Royal as the basis. I’ve played it more often and recently than the original, and it’s improved on nearly every aspect of vanilla P5. This won’t carry much in the way of spoilers, either, but I won’t be outright avoiding them. Considering the game spoils nearly every villain and you get to choose what leisure activities you engage in, though, it’s not harsh on spoilers.
The Persona series abides by a few conventions, like how you play as a group of high school students who unlock the ability to traverse the human heart. People’s thoughts, beliefs, and behavior create an alternate reality called the Metaverse, where their desires and perceptions of people come to life in the form of Shadows. Shadows often embody concepts from mythology and folklore, but anything that can be perceived can be a Shadow, including people.
A Shadow is as much a part of the person they resemble as the part they show to the rest of the world, it’s just the ugly side. If a person can come to terms with that, or “find their spirit of rebellion” as the game describes it, then their Shadow joins them as the power of the Persona. In Persona 4, a character might literally confront their Shadow, but every Phantom Thief discovers their other self in a clash with an authority figure, befitting the game’s themes of rebellion. In addition, each character’s Persona bears the name of a famous outlaw or trickster, like protagonist Joker’s Arsene, or rival Akechi’s Robin Hood.
The main character, whose canon name is most often referred to as Ren Amamiya, is falsely accused of assault and sent to Shibuya to serve a year of probation. While there, he comes into conflict with the school PE teacher, who has been preying on his students, while Ren and his friends discover the ability to enter the Metaverse. While there, they take on the mantle of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, and steal the distorted desires straight from the hearts of evil people.
In between Palaces, the concentrated centers of perversion where Joker and his team operate, he forms bonds with each of the Phantom Thieves, what are otherwise called Confidants. By spending time with a Confidant, he can improve their overall teamwork and gain new skills. He also attends school and works on his social stats like guts, knowledge, or charm, which in turn help him bond with the Confidants. The story unfolds as the Phantom Thieves discover there is another Metaverse user killing people’s Shadows, triggering them to experience mental shutdowns.
If you’re familiar with slice of life anime, then Persona 5’s Confidants will remind you of the hallmarks of the genre. Joker and his friends experience the different neighborhoods and hot spots around Shibuya, as well as simple trips to the movies, the ramen shop, or the maid cafe, if you’re so inclined. Plus, you have to unlock the special menu to get every trophy, which is the only reason I went there five times.
You can unlock new areas to explore as the game goes on, or by progressing in your relationships with the various Phantom Thieves and accomplices that Joker recruits, or even by reading travel magazines. There’s always something to do, especially on a second or third play through where your social stats are maxed out, and you are free to spend all your time with Makoto, or whatever you guys did.
The school sections are kind of dry, like the trivia questions they throw out, but the exceptions come in the school events, like the trip to Hawaii, the park cleanup, and school festival and after-party. The Phantom Thieves also gain a new member with each Palace, and will host a welcoming party, like making hot pot with Yusuke, or going to the beach with Futaba. This part of the game is where it really feels like an anime, even if Haru’s trip to totally-not-Disneyland has an unfortunate interruption.
I mean, if you have ever looked at a slice of life anime and wistfully thought, “if only”, then Persona 5 is the closest you can get. You can probably tell by this blog that I was super popular in high school, so I can only appreciate it as an outsider, though. It’s not something I would have ever thought to want, but I can appreciate it better now that it has been so fully realized.
But anime is not all about dating Makoto, school festivals, going to the arcade with the boys, or dating Makoto. There’s plenty of activities to be had that have nothing to do with Makoto, and that’s a crime. However, shonen anime is somehow still popular despite the blatant lack of student council presidents with a motorcycle Stand, so Persona 5 manages to do a pretty good job of emulating that too.
Each Palace as well as Mementos, the center of the public’s consciousness, is loaded with Shadows big and small. Like any good shonen anime, each Phantom Thief has a distinct fighting style so you have to switch out your roster often. True to shonen anime, though, the protagonist is overpowered, as Joker has the wild card ability that allows him to capture Shadows and wield them as new Personas.
There’s a painful lack of good phantom thief anime going around, even if we’ve had good substitutes like Great Pretender. Still, it’s a Tuxedo Mask shaped hole in my heart that demands to be filled, and Persona 5 doesn’t disappoint. Joker and his friends creep along the walls of each Palace, dart between hiding spots, and use a grappling hook to make a path where there is none. Even when the rank-and-file Shadows don’t pose a threat to you, it’s often more fun to hide, if only so Joker can burst from the shadows, rip their face off, and say, “I’ll reveal your true form” for the 50th time that break-in.
I’ll admit I enjoy the life sim aspects more, but the variety between the dungeon crawling portions and dating Makoto portions is what keeps Persona 5 feeling fresh even after a few hundred hours. Once you’ve gotten the hang of each part, neither of them sticks around for longer than you want them to. I know I said Persona 5 doesn’t have the same freedom as something like Breath of the Wild, but letting you engage in as much or as little combat or visual novel antics as you want is its own kind of boundless freedom.
The enduring popularity of Persona 5 speaks to how effectively it captures everything you can love about anime. It doesn’t matter if you’re in it for the fights, the good times, or the dating Makoto, it excels. My only complaint is that Joker’s addition in Smash did not come with 90 hours worth of conversations to each of his matchups.
Persona 5 has succeeded far and beyond previous entries in the franchise, though I know part of that is the simple unavailability of those entries. Persona 4 Golden got a PC port last year, but you’d be out of luck if you wanted to play any of the other games and you don’t have the consoles they were released on, or the hardware and know-how to emulate them. I usually don’t advocate piracy, but a series this popular shouldn’t block off its historical titles like this.
Persona 5 significantly improves on the groundwork of its predecessors, and Royal manages to improve even on its original with dozens of quality of life adjustments. If you haven’t played the original, Royal is still an excellent starting point, especially now that the spin-off/sequel Persona 5 Strikers released globally just last February. It’s never been a better time to get started on being a Persona fan.
If you’re a fan of anime, and you probably are if you’re on this blog, Persona 5 is the perfect game for you. The start can be slow, but that’s true of most of the Persona games, or any game with visual novel elements. If anything I said here piqued your interest, you owe it to yourself to pick the game up.
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