It was an unenviable task. Persona 5 was released in April as the follow-up to one of the most finely crafted JRPGs of recent years: Persona 4 had tight dungeon design, a simple but likeable narrative and a collection of activities that never made the game feel limited or unfocused. From the outset, the fifth game wants to show you that it has bigger plans – you unlock a vast number of locations, there are several simple minigames to play, the narrative is denser, the world is more detailed and the dungeons are more elaborate. Together with your fellow phantom thieves, you must change the hearts of corrupt individuals by exploring “palaces” that represent their innermost perceptions of themselves and the world they’re in. For the most part, it’s business as usual – you study in the mornings, explore dungeons outside of school, and when there’s no target you can hang out with friends or indulge in stat-boosting activities. However, the dungeon crawling has seen the most significant overhaul, with changes both good and bad.
Persona 5 – fighting words
When you have a target and a palace, you navigate from room to room as you map out the palace, take out enemies, level up, and locate the “treasure” of someone’s mind. This is at its best when you’re doing the classic Persona thing – fighting battles and opening doors to new floors. Those battles still work with the same elemental weakness system that was so satisfying in the earlier games, but Persona 5 also overhauls the “negotiations” of the first game. Knock down opponents (by using elemental attacks the opponents are weak to) and instead of performing an all-out attack (a special move that damages all foes) you can talk to them. Depending on the foe and your responses, they could get angry and resume the battle, run away, give you an item or become a Persona that you can summon for your own use. With Shuffle Time gone, this is now the only way you gain new demons – each one offering skills (elemental attacks, physical hits, buffs, nerfs, status ailments, healing etc) that can be used in battle. It’s more satisfying than it was in the earlier games because each negotiation only has a small amount of multiple-choice questioning compared to the multitude of reactions and emotions in the first game.
Also satisfying is the planning of each change of heart. Find the treasure of someone’s palace (by battling through each floor to the end) and your team heads back to base to plan a proper infiltration. This lasts one in-game day and culminates in some of the most enjoyable boss battles in the game; most of these special battles have triggers in the arena that require party members to temporarily leave the main fight, but if the setup is successful then the battles get turned around and the party’s damage output ramps up. It’s a thrilling twist on the usual Persona boss format, and it’s great to see a JRPG where boss fights almost feel like a reward.
Persona 5 – locked doors
However, before you can face a boss you must negotiate the palace environment, and these are more complex layouts than the dungeons of previous games. Persona 4 sometimes turned a race to the stairs into a meandering backtrack to find a miniboss who would drop a key, and Persona 5 builds on this philosophy with more cunning locked door conundrums. Sometimes you’re just finding a switch to flick or a duct to crawl through, but other locked doors involve puzzles and minigames. Not all of these are that successful – a pitch-black maze in one area became a bit wearing and one later puzzle with weird transformative fog overstayed its welcome – but others have more enjoyable sequences. The successful implementation of these puzzles, locks and minigames isn’t necessarily down to how challenging they are, but more to do with how they suit the pace of the rest of the palace. If you weren’t a fan of P4’s locks or the gimmicky warp rooms in Yukiko’s Castle and Void Quest, you might not like P5’s offerings, but fortunately the lowlights are few and far between.
One returning feature that’s more successful is the scattering of save points within dungeons – P4 wasn’t very generous with its save points, but here you find “safe rooms” every few floors where you can manage the team, save, warp to other safe rooms (or out of the dungeon) and discuss your progress with the party. To begin with these feel like convenient checkpoints that save time, but later on the complex dungeons and trickier battles make every safe room discovery a welcome relief – when you’re deep in a palace and your resources are drying up, there’s nothing more satisfying than being informed that there’s a safe room nearby, allowing you to record your progress and leave the palace safely.
If the party has no target in the main story, Mementos fills any additional need for dungeon-crawling. A vast labyrinth of simpler rooms, it brings to mind the atmosphere of Persona 3’s Tartarus, and is a great way to build experience and do more negotiations to get a new Persona or two. Whilst it’s less of a priority than other activities in the game, you might well find yourself coming back to it if you’re between palaces and your dungeon-crawling itch can’t be scratched. Mementos does have occasional fixed boss encounters, but the world’s regions are somewhat less elaborate than the storyline palaces, making them a much snappier fix of dungeon crawling.
Persona 5 – too much of everything?
The more I played of Persona 5, the more I felt like it wanted to be the ultimate Persona experience – it wanted to be all things for all people. Do you miss the earlier games’ negotiations? Here are some negotiations. Do you want more minigames and places to travel to? Here they are. Did you like the eerie atmosphere of Tartarus? Welcome to Mementos. It’s as if the developers felt that the only way to expand upon P4 was to literally expand the game and offer more of everything. In some cases this results in more ideas that don’t quite work – certain puzzles felt like padding, and some minigames just felt clunky – but at the same time it results in a polished game with lots to do.
Critics have said that this feels more like iteration on a template as opposed to being a true refresh of Persona, and I can’t argue with that… but if you want more Persona, this is something you can pick up and try. If I were asked whether I like this more than P4, I’d have a hard time saying yes because of those slower exploration sequences – however, failing to match P4’s winning formula doesn’t stop P5 from being an utterly charming and engrossing experience, and if you’re after a deep, polished and varied JRPG, it’s well worth your time.
Persona 5 is out now for PS3 and PS4.