On My Shelves: Persona 5


"We will definitely take your heart!"


The Persona series of JRPGs, the most successful component of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, is simultaneously unique in its approach, and at the same time something of a perfect distillation of what makes console JRPGs work. I have previously reviewed Persona 3 and Persona 4, as well as Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game spinoff of 4 which had startlingly deep story and character elements. Those prior experiences set a terribly high bar for the sequel to clear.

It succeeded.

Like its predecessors, Persona 5 takes place in Japan, and centers around a high school student and a group of his friends as they are drawn into a conflict that takes place in a shadowy second world that most residents of our own are unaware of. In Persona 3, it was not so much an alternate place as a time – the Dark Hour, an extra hour that occurred between the strokes of the second hand at midnight, but that only certain people could perceive and act within; in Persona 4, it was an alternate world behind and beyond the screens of the televisions that are themselves windows to worlds of illusion and dreams.

In Persona 5, the secondary universe is a distillation of many of the concepts Persona has included since the beginning – the Jungian concept of the Shadow, the masks people wear to hide themselves, the idea of the collective consciousness that is shaped by the entirety of humanity and the emergence of archetypes that are generated therein. In Persona 5, the heroes literally enter a cognitive world, a world generated by people's beliefs and desires, and confront the essence of corruption made manifest.

This is really startlingly well-done in the game, and the artistry of the concept and its execution within the context of a console RPG continually impressed me. As always, of course, I enjoyed the various character storylines, building "social links" that had both story and game significance, and these drew me into the story and anchored me to the characters and their goals and dreams.

Persona 5 isn't entirely without flaws, but they are minor (or else not so much flaws as something inherent to the subgenre). I don't mind the dungeon-crawl aspects – it's been in all the Persona franchise as well as others – but I did find the various puzzles tiring. There were a few points where I really found myself wishing hard for Grand Theft Auto's option to "just move on" after failing at something several times in a row.

As always in Persona, building "social links" through associating with people and interacting with them is a vital part of your life in Persona 5. These can be your close friends, teachers, shopkeepers, and even enemies on occasion. The male protagonist (apparently assumed het-cis in this) can also choose to romance any of the female social links. BE WARNED! Unlike Persona 3, where all you had to do was max a social link to make it possible to go to the next young lady and romance her, or Persona 4 original version, where you didn't even need to be that careful, in Persona 5 you would be well advised to stick to ONE romance and keep the other links as just close friends. Because on Valentine's Day, Hell will come calling if you're playing Casanova.

Also as always in Persona, one of the central features is the Velvet Room, occupied by the long-nosed mysterious man/being who calls himself Igor, and in this case two identical twin girls who work as prison guards – because here, in the Velvet Room, you are a prisoner seeking "rehabilitation". Players of prior games will note that his voice has been changed in Persona 5 – it's very deep and rich where it used to be high-pitched and creepy.







The game starts in medias res, with your character in some kind of masked thief outfit infiltrating and escaping a hotel – only to be captured. You get beaten and interrogated, threatened, and eventually get a chance to sign a confession. Then you transition to the main game – which takes place some months before!

One interesting wrinkle in Persona 5 is that for the first time you don't start as an upstanding, or even neutral, character from the point of view of the world: you're a convicted criminal, whose juvenile status is the only thing that kept you out of the real jail. You're under probation and directed to go to a school with a pretty tough reputation.

You aren't even living with your family; you've been sent away, to board with some guy named Sojiro in his coffee house. Every adult regards you with grave suspicion and mistrust; the other kids at the school quickly learn your background and have a similarly standoffish attitude, mingled with some considerable trepidation.

And then – on your first day of school – something happens… you find yourself in front of the school… but it's no longer a school, but a castle. You and another boy, Ryuji, are captured by the guards of the castle and put in a prison; Ryuji recognizes the ruler of the castle as Kamoshida, the school's gym teacher. Threatened by Kamoshida and his frighteningly supernatural guards, you suddenly find a power awakened within you – the power of Persona, manifested as "Arsene", a representation of the Gentleman Thief. With this power you and Ryuji are able to escape… and encounter a third mystery, a talking cat-like being named Morgana.

Escaping doesn't solve your problems or answer the thousand questions you have; you find yourself back in the real world, but now late for class and barely able to evade getting arrested.

You've already met one of the big reasons your school sucks: the gym teacher, a former Olympic medalist named Kamoshida who's the superstar of the school and basically able to get away with anything he likes because he's expected to keep the school's sports team on top of the rankings. He is a vain, arrogant, petty, lecherous bastard; his pettiness is shown in the fact that he's actually the one who leaks information about your character's background, apparently for no reason other than that he can and no one will stop him. He doesn't seem aware of what happened in that nightmare fantasy world, but morally he seems little different – and just as dangerous to someone on probation.

It seems that you're in for one of the suckiest years ever; at best the adults tolerate you, at worst they have it in for you, most of the other students want nothing to do with you, and just one mis-step could get you sent off to prison for real. And getting in Kamoshida's way? He'll frame you if he's annoyed enough.

But Morgana has a way to solve these problems… if you dare re-enter that alien Palace world. If you're determined, and very good, you can reach the center of the Palace, where Kamoshida keeps his Treasure – the central, focal thoughts and beliefs that have made him what he is now. Steal his treasure, you remove what has distorted his thinking and twisted his morals. If you do that, he will repent of his evil and confess.

The idea of changing people's hearts – their very personalities – by removing their distorted desires is both highly creepy and strangely attractive, and plays directly into one of the primary themes of Persona 5 – the mistrust of the young for the old. In fairness to the characters of the "Phantom Thieves", as the group becomes known, all of them have direct experiences with adults who go beyond mere jerks to full-on villainy in ways that range from the completely petty to the epic. And the protagonists do emphatically try to use this power only for good ends, not simply further their own goals.

Still – even within the game itself – it's made clear that this is a dangerous and frightening power. Young people like our protagonists, who are still at the age where they really do think things are or should be simple and straightforward (I remember being that age, after all) might well grab it and use it in such a straightforward manner, but it implies far more terrifying possibilities for those who are more willing and able to use it to its full potential.

Obviously, you will eventually encounter those who do use it in exactly that fashion. Interspersed between your daily adventures are interludes where your future imprisoned self is being interrogated by a determined young woman; it is clear that she is your only potential chance to escape, but you don't even clearly know what happened (as a player) for quite some time. But as time goes on, it's obvious that what happened is that some much more powerful enemies are behind your capture…

And as one more note: there is a reason Igor's voice is different.

I highly recommend Persona 5; it is a worthy entry to the franchise and at least as good as its predecessors!


Your comments or questions welcomed!