Welcome to our Game In Progress coverage of Persona 5. Over the next several weeks, Internet Culture Editor Clayton Purdom will be playing through the long-awaited latest entry in Atlus’ acclaimed high-school role-playing games. As always, we invite you to play and comment along (once the game is released on April 4).
It’s been almost a decade since Persona 4 came out. (Nine years, but who’s counting.) That’s a long time in any medium, but an eternity in video games, where annualized sequels are supplemented with a steady trickle of year-round downloadable content. To take a full console generation off, as Persona did, is an unconscionable indulgence. True, Persona 4 was polished and rereleased in near-perfect form for Sony’s portable Vita console in 2012, and the team did release a low-key classic in its psychosexual block-climbing game Catherine from 2011, as well as a handful of spin-offs developed by other studios. But the fact remains that it was 2008 when people first got their hands on Persona 4, and it’s now 2017 and Persona 5 is just coming out. And holy shit, it’s great.
If you have never heard of or invested in the Persona series, the first thing to know is they are a singular experience, ostensibly balancing the day-to-day decision-making of a Japanese teenager—who to have a crush on, where to get a job, what sports to play—with the pressures of occasionally fighting and befriending demons in an endlessly shifting nightmare labyrinth. But that doesn’t really capture the whole appeal of these games, because, in practice, they are created with a polish that simply needs to be felt.
This is particularly true of the game’s writing, which evokes the smartass teenage soap operas of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Dawson’s Creek at their best, as well as the writing of the game’s greater, psychology-obsessed mythos, which suggests a Lynchian underworld layered atop the real world, a place where our darkest desires are manifested and confronted. The games use the pressure-cooker anxiety of being a teenager to comment on the archetypes we use to construct our selves, alluding liberally to Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious but also pulling in Japanese folklore, occult symbolism, pop-art iconography, and a brand of pure gonzo eccentricity seemingly without precedent. One of the first bosses in Persona 5, for example, is a literal dick head—the circumcised tip of a man’s penis. You kill it with wind magic.
These are stories told across an unusually long arc, with plot lines that rise and fall convincingly across that entire runtime. They refuse to tell stories any way but through direct, forward action, with each new investigation or idea meted out through elaborate adventures, careful planning, and white-knuckle confrontations. They write out everything—every hard talk, every argument, every flame-out, every insecurity, every stupid joke. It’s all in there, lived out by characters that can be in foul moods, go through half-assed phases, and quietly develop new characteristics. This richness is part of why they could take a decade off in between games: They require a rare investment in time and emotional space even among the high standards of Japanese role-playing games, a genre that prides itself on depth and length.
The grand masterstroke of the Persona games—what renders them so compulsively playable, night after night, month after month—is the way the real-world psychodrama interconnects with demon-bashing and dungeon-crawling. Relationships forged in your after-school job might lead to a stronger demon working for you in the netherworld; plot points subtly introduced early in gym class might find their resolution in a boss battle. (That is exactly what happens with that dick head, for example.) The arcana of the battle system is such that one bad fight can damn near kill your entire squad, and, while the core rule of a JRPG is that you can always grind up a few levels to beat something, in Persona you can also do that by being a better, more productive teenager. The snaking path toward making out with your crush is thus more than mere melodrama. It doesn’t just feel life-and-death; it is.
This mechanical synergy, as well as the series’ equally famous crisp visual design and sprightly lounge-rap soundtrack, were all codified in Persona 4, which means that Persona 5, at least in its first dozen or so hours, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Many of its most prominent changes feel minor in print—you have guns in battle, and are newly tasked with prioritizing stealth while dungeon-crawling—but they work together to paint your team as infiltrators performing a series of heists told in flashback. Those heists are now in tightly designed, thematic dungeons, rather than the randomized sprawl of previous games’ underworlds—although there is also a big randomized underworld in which you can easily lose an afternoon.
The new game is slightly more generous in how you can spend your time, with more options at night, for example, but I’m midway through the second dungeon and still unlocking whole, vast mechanical systems. I haven’t even been able to get a job yet, but I am pleased to inform you I nailed my first round of exams. Persona 4 featured a notorious multiple-hour opening stretch of non-interactive dialogue before you got to play anything, and while Persona 5 gets you fighting much sooner, it’s still in no rush to unleash all of its systems on the player.
As for the writing itself, which reached its apex in Persona 4 Golden—one of the funniest, most characterful games ever designed—I’ll say the jury is still out. Aspects of its translation seem slightly less nuanced. I’m not sure anyone there actually knew what the word “cognition” meant, and some of the banter and insults lack the sharp snap of its predecessor (“Are you hallucinating from an overdose?” one character yelps, apparently in lieu of the more common “Are you high?”).
At the same time, it feels even more invested in its writing than before. The dialogue is as frequent and long-winded as ever, but characters in every hallway and bustling street have long, regularly updated conversations for you to listen in on; random blobs of text pop up on the screen as you run throughout the city, and the loading screen posts random comments from a hypothetical online forum. None of it repeats. The game is set in Tokyo this time rather than the traditional quiet countryside town, and its designers seem determined to recreate the entire rabble of a city, blasting the noise of lives being lived in all their variety across the screen through sheer mountains of text.
My only real concern is that there is no overarching plot line with the pull of Persona 4’s whodunnit or even the mystery of Persona 3’s “Dark Hour” phenomenon, but a few seeds have been planted that may develop into a similar conspiracy. I’ve got a very long way to go before I can make a judgment on anything like that, anyway. The gauntlet of Persona 5 will be a true test of our Game In Progress format, and I have no idea how many installments even make sense on a game like this. As in Persona itself, life may intervene; I may get sidetracked or need a breather, or I may complete the whole thing in a feverish, monthlong obsession, as I did its direct predecessor. We’ll figure it out together.
But one thing is clear, even as the game continues leisurely revealing itself some 20 hours in: It’s a new Persona game, worthy of its name, full of snappy trip-hop; a cat that turns into a bus; demons sitting on toilets; luxurious Saul Bass menus; shockingly evil antagonists; pentagrams; guillotines; starry-eyed crushes; bowls of ramen; accidental boners; unexpected pop quizzes; senpai noticing you; pretentious assholes and sad businessmen and kindhearted teachers; fourth-wall-breaking asides; and sexy, magical outfits. It’s a game in which you will think, “I should spend the night at the bath house so I can level up my charm and more directly hit on my classmates,” and then you won’t be able to because your talking cat won’t let you.
It’s a new Persona game. It’s here, and it’s great.
Developer: P Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4