Audacious, riotously stylish and immensely entertaining, Persona 5 moves the franchise out of the PlayStation 2 (and Vita) and although not technically a reboot, is a great jumping-in point for newcomers to the series. Retaining the Persona penchant for teenage drama fused with magical combat and liberally sprinkled with quirky characters and storytelling, Persona 5 is a colorful, brash and epic-length game that is delightful and maybe a bit exhausting. Ultimately, what might be the most impressive thing about Persona 5 is that it effortlessly meshes so many moving parts without grinding too many gears.
Like previous Persona games, the both the driving story and subtext of Persona 5 are generational conflict and the essential inequality of power between adolescents and adults, represented by enemies and other-worldy, Metaverse dungeons being manifestations of the adults' most ignoble traits. It isn't the most subtle allegory to turn an abusive coach into the lord of a slave-filled castle, for example, but it certainly rings true that the young occasionally feel imprisoned by school or trapped by the demands of unreasonable authority figures. Persona 5 doesn't shy away from teens' dark and often justified view of adults as power-mad manipulators, nor are its characters afraid to challenge the status quo.
Persona games often center on the story of the archetypal newcomer, in this case a player named protagonist (eventually called Joker during dungeon runs) who arrives at a new school in Tokyo with a shadowy past. Arrested for allegedly assaulting a rich gentlemen, the largely silent player character is sent away to live out a year long probation period in a new environment, always with the threat of additional punishment looming overhead should he stray from the law. Of course, it doesn't take him long to recognize that there is both human and magical evil afoot in his new school, and to gather a band of magic-using compatriots -- the self-proclaimed Phantom Thieves -- to fight it.
It's easy to summarize the trajectory of Persona 5's story and gameplay, but in practice the game is a curious combination of snappy action tuned to the attention deficit, and languid storytelling and pacing that demands -- and eventually rewards -- patience and the willingness to settle in for the long haul. Like all the Persona games, the story is told day by day and very deliberately introduces characters, combat, and other system loops...and sometimes, not very well. Despite an hours-long tutorial, stealth and ambush attacks, for example, remain confusing and awkward to use for some stretch of the game. Players who are used to mainlining through the critical path of an RPG, ignoring side quests and optional content will need to rethink their methods. All of Persona 5, from answering obscure questions in class to visits to the local noodle shop, is critical path.
Playing Persona 5 is a commitment of dozens of hours, and while those hours are always filled with something of ultimate import, I did find myself becoming impatient with the game's stolid insistence on avoiding shortcuts. At the same time, I couldn't help but admire how every system resonated with every other and no activity really felt superfluous.
Players familiar with the series will generally feel at home with the game's turn-based combat mechanics -- albeit tweaked by the addition of a few changes -- and the use and manipulation of the Persona themselves, magical allies that can be captured, trained, and fused into new combinations not unlike a mature version of Pokemon. Unlike previous games in the series, the story dungeons this time around are not randomly generated but intentionally designed, which makes them more interesting, more precisely paced and easier to maneuver through. There are also randomly generated dungeons that can be used for grinding and practice, and there is even a "Safety" mode for players who are more interested in story and want to cakewalk through the combat with maximum reward and minimal risk.
Persona 5's distinctive visual presentation is a combination of colorful 2D anime-style art and 3D models, both of which sometimes look simultaneously lacking in detail and garishly bold. While the story moves at a measured pace, the screen is almost hyperactively filled with movement. I wasn't always a fan of the localized dialogue, which didn't always ring true to the characters and contemporary setting, but the voice work and music, especially, never failed to impress.
Although Persona 5 deals with the everyday angst of your average, magic-wielding teenagers, it is epic in almost every conceivable way, from its combat to its sprawling and surprise-laden story. While some of its large cast of characters strike a sour note and its gameplay can challenge the impatient player, Persona 5 somehow manages the improbable feat of being both an ultimate reward to fans of the franchise and a perfect gateway to newcomers.