This is the conclusion of our Game In Progress review for Persona 5. It contains spoilers for the entire game. You can read the other entries here.
Video games struggle with length. All media do, but in film you’ve got a rough ballpark: 90 minutes if you can keep things tight, three hours if you’re stretching out or directing a Transformers movie. Records have sat between a spartan 30 and a leisurely 70 minutes for years now, and TV shows have two rough lengths—an hour or half that.
But games? Games can be a couple hours, from art games like Journey to an after-thought shooter campaign. Many strive to hit a sweet spot of 10-20 hours, but we lavish attention on people finding ways to beat them quickly via speed-runs or to beat them incredibly slowly, returning again and again for years or even decades to perfect them. Role-playing games prioritize length as a sort of qualitative yardstick: 50 hours seems to be an unofficial bar to clear, but some stretch on for multiples of that, particularly if the player gets obsessed with completing everything they have to offer.
The Persona games are long as hell, but moreover, they’ve always done something with that run-time. It’s not just their tight, addictive nature and how these massive stories are broken into easily digestible but compulsively playable morsels. It’s the way they bury secrets and tells in their early moments that play out dozens of hours later, or the way relationships that began around hour 20 are tested around hour 60. The notion that Persona 5 would be 100 hours has been paraded around since long before its release as an unmitigated positive. If previous Persona games could pack such love and artistry into 75 or so hours, wouldn’t another 25 hours be even better? What might these writers and designers do with the extra leeway?
It turns out: Not a whole lot. In a strange inversion from past games, the most richly designed portion of Persona 5 is its dungeons and demons, not the cast of characters we get to know aboveground or the caper we go on with them. The Palaces in the back half of the game—particularly the Eyes Wide Shut debauchery of the cruise ship and that final hallucinatory trip through Mementos—benefit from laser-tight aesthetics and the nightmarish absurdity of the new demon designs, but after all those hours, Persona 5’s story does not add up to much.
Its first big twist lands with a thud—the notion that a traitor infiltrated the group was barely seeded, and the fact that it was the sketchiest possible member did not make the reveal any more impactful. Every other plot point throughout the game was hammered into the player’s head via text thread, overheard conversations, and chorus-like reprisals from each of the many party members. The story spins its wheels for hours at a time, including the entirely disposable Haru arc, the interminable vacation interlude, and the most transparently formulaic confidant plot lines in the series, the majority of which introduce a one-note conflict (around level three) followed by a predictable climax (around level seven) and a happy resolution (around level nine). All those walls of text, so promising in the game’s early going and so deflating as you realized the inanity of their translation and localization, were a sort of room-temperature morass by the game’s back end, an endless thicket of brambles to cut through before getting to the next boss.
That gauntlet of bosses, taking up the game’s final half-dozen hours, is sublime, but I confess: If I didn’t owe you this conclusion, I never would’ve slugged through to see them. That most of us do not complete most of the video games we play can feel, at times, like a dirty secret, a source of shame. It’s possible to calculate how many hours of Steam games you still haven’t experienced, which, along with our terminology for completing them—“beating” them—helps to explain the medium’s troubled relationship with length. We conquer them; they owe it to us. It took me a long time to feel okay with bailing on games, just as it has with books, movies, and TV shows. Hell, I’ll drop an album after three tracks if it makes my ears hurt. If the Persona series has shown us anything, it is that our time on this Earth is limited, and we should spend it as well as possible. There’s too much beautiful stuff out there to waste time on art that isn’t speaking to us.
So, yes, I would’ve bailed on Persona 5. And I can tell you the exact point, too:
Sae pushes you to confess, listing your team members and asking you to connect them to the Phantom Thieves. And I would’ve done it. Fuck ’em! I was tired of this game, and I still haven’t beaten Zelda or even played NieR: Automata. Plus, it’s summertime, baby. I got shit to do. Maybe I would’ve told myself that I’d circle back on the game someday, but I may have just called it a game. “I honestly expected you to have more of a backbone,” Sae spits at you after you sell out all your teammates. Not this guy, Sae.
There’s not much room for branching storylines in Persona games. They vary wildly in how they play out, but that’s based on which portions of the story you choose to see, not what you do within them. In Persona 5, this bad ending—as well as another, later opportunity to tap out, in which you make a deal with the Igor and damn humanity to a sort of spiritual imprisonment—is treated as a mere alternate ending, making it easy to reload before the branching pathway and continue on toward what the game calls its “true ending.” Structured this way, you can see all the conclusions out, but this is a bit facile. What I truly deserved was the image of my protagonist brained alone in an interrogation room after 75 hours or so of effort. What I truly wanted wasn’t the happy ending I got; I would’ve been content with imprisoning humanity, ensuring my own fame, and getting back to collecting Korok seeds.
I delight in these good bad endings. Catherine—this game’s predecessor and better, in many ways—had a total of eight endings. I ended up with some milquetoast shrug of a positive one, but some of its other conclusions are legendary, including one all-time masterpiece where you go to hell and ask Satan if you can marry his daughter. In another one, you get rich and go live in outer space, apropos of nothing. That is a goddamn ending—and Catherine made you stick with it.
One of my favorite bad endings is in Bloodborne, a game I loved but played as cheaply as possible. Defying its immaculate combat design, I cheesed up all my levels by grinding in glitchy, soon-to-be patched-out spots, and sprinted, walkthrough in hand, from checkpoint to checkpoint. I summoned help before every boss, then hid behind them as they did the work, probably eating snacks as I did so. And so, when the game’s final boss offered a chance to quit, asking me to kneel before him as he rises from his wheelchair and uses a gothic scythe to end my suffering amid a field of moon-lit poppies—I took it. This was a role-playing game, after all, and my role in Bloodborne was coward.
Quitting a game is okay, even more so when the game itself offers you the opportunity. The whole point of this medium is interactivity, so why not own the decision of when and how to bail? When a game deserves more than that, or gives something back to you, by all means, scroll on into the hundreds of hours. (I’ve still got some question marks on my map in Novigrad that are nagging me.) But if not, free yourself of the burden of even thinking of completing a game. Quit games often, and do so merrily.
Quit Persona 5, too, unless you want to see every last one of its dungeons and bosses. Its final stretch is hopelessly overcooked, drawing its game-long sledgehammer-subtle theme of corruption and reforming society into an elaborate metaphor about society’s complacency—the true enemy being not corruption, but the conformity that allows it. The willfully imprisoned masses are similar to the endless sheeple of Catherine, although, rather than the deeply specific gonzo conclusions that game reaches, the “true” ending of Persona 5 ends up being an insistence upon the malleability of existence, the notion that literally everything in our world is a mere product of our perceptions. This is a popular enough idea today, its most innocuous form being the “wish yourself rich” philosophy of The Secret and its most dangerous form the “choose your own reality” of alternative facts and Trumpism. Persona 5 is not equipped to confront these issues, and doesn’t try. I find the philosophy repugnant, but Persona 5 treats it lightly, an almost confectionary note to end things on as the gang drives along a glistening beach. Is any of it real? Does any of it matter?
Many artworks of the past couple decades have ended with this specific bit of ambiguity, with the nature of the real world held in sway—think of the spinning top in Inception, or those harrowing final moments of The Lobster, or even the conclusion of The Sopranos. But Persona 5 treats this not as a reflection on an internal state, as those did, but as a fundamental truth, a foundational principle of reality unlocked by—how else?—beating a boss. Ryuji even muses that this ability is the true nature of “aesthetics”: not the pursuit of beauty, but rather, the ability to reform the world as we want based on our whims, dispelling corruption by believing in a world without it.
As a means to fight corruption, I prefer journalism, history, science, and organized dissent. Persona 5 is a featherweight, and it doesn’t need to touch any of those in its plot, but it also doesn’t need to conclude in its final, “true” moments that none of them matter in comparison to the power of positive thinking. A featherweight should not be 100 hours. For all the game’s beauty and brilliance, it’s twice as long as it should be, a pompous sense of inflation that it can’t come close to fulfilling. I’d rather have bled out back in that interrogation room, a few dozen hours earlier.
Developer: P Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4