Monday, May 15, 2017

REVIEW - Persona 5 (PS4/PS3)

The year of long delayed games continues!

Before anything, let me tell you how I felt going into this game.

I'm not a huge Japanese role playing game fan. I've played quite a lot of them, actually finished very few, and truly love only a couple of them. I hate random battles. I tolerate turn based combat. And my appreciation for the tropes and archetypes of the genre has coincidentally dropped since I stopped regularly watching a lot of anime.

But something compelled me to preorder Persona 4 Golden when it was announced. This was weird for me in a number of ways, not least of which is the fact that preordering a game is (and always has been) for chumps. Call it destiny, or the fact that I desperately needed something to play on the Vita, but whatever it was I fell for that game hard. I fell in love with the story, the characters, the setting, the music, the art design. Even the turn based battle system kept me enthralled for the over 100 hours I spent with the game. When I finished it, I went through a period of mourning. What was life even supposed to be without Persona 4 in it? It had become not only one of my favorite games, but my favorite game.

So yeah. When Persona 5 was announced, I was interested. But the game had a lot to live up to. My main concern was the question of "am I really a Persona fan, or am I just a Persona 4 fan?". I had tried playing Persona 3 many years ago and bounced off of it.

But now, 112 years later, Persona 5 is finally out. And I've played it. And it's good. It's really good!

The game casts you in the role of ENTER CHARACTER NAME HERE, a high school student on probation for the horrible crime of intervening in the assault of a young woman. So he has to move to a new town, a new school, where everyone is scared of him and says nasty things in hushed tones as he passes. The "stranger in a strange place" idea has always worked for the series, but it's pretty harsh to be treated like such a piece of trash as soon as you step off the train.

OK, next time I'll just find a clock if I want to know the time...
In fact, the whole opening act of the game has a very dark cloud hanging over the whole thing. Persona 4 dealt with a series of murders in small town, but somehow managed to keep the whole thing light and affable. Persona 5 features sexual harassment and assault, physical abuse, and suicide, all the while being treated like a violent psychopath just for trying to help someone. The sense of humor only manages to keep it a hair above soul crushing. So when the opportunity arises to actually do some good and start handing out some justice, it's easy to take up the call.

Here sir, have some more justice. I have plenty.

You and your ragtag team of vigilantes become the Phantom Thieves, a group tasked with entering the metaphysical hearts of evildoers and changing their entire personality via a magical phone app. It.....makes a bit more sense in context.

In these dungeons (or Palaces as they're known), the representations of the owner's true feelings, you run around and fight stuff of course. Unlike previous Persona games' randomized and sort of generic feeling dungeons, P5's are all unique and lavishly produced environments with different themes based on the owner. There are puzzles to solve, and there's now a big emphasis on stealth. You can crouch behind corners and furniture, jumping from hiding spot to hiding spot. Then you can catch an enemy off guard, giving your party first chance to attack.

Battles play out in a turn based manner, with enemies waiting patiently while you wreck their shit. Each of your party members has a Persona, which in theory is a reflection of their soul personified but in practice is just a badass looking Pokemon that they can use to attack. But unlike your other, lesser Phantom Thieves, your player character can use any Persona he feels like, including any enemies you find along the way.

"I am thou."
"Thou art I."

"Got to catch them all."

Combat is heavily element based, everyone having strength and weaknesses. Hit an enemy's weakness and they fall to the ground. Hit all the enemies' weaknesses and you're pretty much running the show. With all of the enemies on the ground, you can attempt to recruit one to your side via a weird series of multiple choice questions, ask them for money or an item, or just wipe into nonexistence with a flashy screen-clearing all out attack.

Flashy is a good way to describe the entire game. But not a great one. I don't know how you would describe the visual design of this game. Every single frame is dripping with an overload of artistic flair. I remarked about Persona 4 that it had a very strong sense of style, with even the menus being nice to look at. Persona 5 makes Persona 4 look like a Powerpoint slideshow written entirely in Comic Sans. I don't know if the art director had a personal vendetta against right angles or what, but everything in the game is a black and red soaked, jagged and moving feast for the eyes.

Screenshots don't really convey how much the screen is just pulsing and spinning at all times. It's a sight to behold for sure. Admittedly there are times when I wish they'd reined it in a bit with the production. One such example is that the game makes a very noticeable ping when you're near an object you can interact with. Anyone who's played an RPG knows how helpful that can be. But when you're running around an area with tons of stuff to look at (and oftentimes multiples of the same thing, with the same dialogue), all the racket this makes can sound like a dubstep song in reverse.

Special attention must also be called out for the music. The series has become known for its great jazzy soundtracks, and Persona 5's is no disappointment in that regard. Almost every song has been stuck in my head since I started playing, even though I mostly don't understand the Engrish lyrics.

A large part of the game is spent outside of the dungeons, and that mostly involves doing everyday things like going to school, studying, hanging out with friends, and doing part time jobs. All of these activities raise various stats or progress relationship storylines. The game is on a fixed schedule though, and you can only do so much in a day. This can easily lead one to feel overwhelmed, or like they're playing in the "wrong" way. And this can be a hard thing to overcome. The key to enjoying Persona is to accept that unless you're slavishly following a guide as to what you should be doing down to the second, you're not going to see everything the game has to offer. And that's OK. The game has enough great content that you won't feel like you're missing out.

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