Welcome to the second part of our Game In Progress review of Persona 5. This entry discusses light structural issues with the game up through the end of the second Palace and contains some plot details through the end of the first Palace. You can read our first installment here.
Writing is what matters in a Persona game. The general high school demon-hunting design and bright, J-pop aesthetic were crystallized back in Persona 3, after which the game’s creators could only really iterate. What matters—what’s sacrosanct—is the writing. It’s how they fill in that outline.
Structurally speaking, Persona 5’s writing is as good as it has ever been. This isn’t slight praise: A game like this is essentially a multi-volume epic, the length of several seasons of television all cobbled together into a single coherent arc, with many plot points shuffled up based on the decisions you make with your afternoons and evenings. My first few months in the game-world will have undoubtedly played out very differently than yours did—the disgraced goth doctor gets as much of my time as she needs, and Mishima, who provides all-important experience-point boosts, gets a response any time he contacts me, while I’ve utterly ignored my supposed best pal, Ryuji. I spend a lot of time in the bathhouse and doing the cheeseburger challenge. Maybe you’re spending time in the library and kicking it with Ann. That it holds all of these competing plot lines together while still pushing its larger story forward is a masterclass in interactive fiction, breaking all of these vast narratives down into compulsively playable bite-size chunks.
I said last time that I wasn’t sure if Persona 5’s larger story had the same mysterious hooks as previous games, but this one is slowly gaining on me. The decision to tell it all in flashback totally changes the player’s expectations. We’re told in a present-tense interrogation scene who each Palace belongs to long before we even meet the character who will serve as its boss, seemingly robbing us of some sense of suspense. But the life here is in the information gaps created by this premature reveal—figuring out each Palace owner’s wrongdoing and the form of their treasure, and the secret-laden architecture of the Palace itself, all becomes part of a series of discoveries. This more discretely chunked structure also breaks up the game’s notoriously long runtime, with each Palace offering its own self-contained arc. There is some larger malaise crippling Tokyo, and the writers continue to seed plot points patiently, like Niijima’s slow-boiling investigation into the Phantom Thieves’ activities and the true nature of Sae.
And yet, Persona 5 is clearly wanting when it comes to its dialogue. Something about the repartee of party members feels decidedly unpolished, with banter sounding alien and plot points conveyed more obtusely than they need to be. It’s not that it’s necessarily worse than other games—it’s that it feels on par with other translated games, as opposed to the noticeably sparkling sense of wit in previous Personas. Other people seem to be noticing it, too. An online compilation of examples made by one translator has turned into a thread on the problem.
This is much more damning for a Persona game than it would be for almost any other, given that one of their primary draws is how much the player enjoys the company of the characters. That’s still present, in part, but it’s hard not to see the party members as flatter and slightly less characterful than they would’ve been with a sharper pen translating them. You can see some of it still there, beneath the translation. When Ann, a model, shows up to be painted by a creepy guy and she’s dressed in dozens of layers of clothing, thus negating any of his desire, it’s a visual gag that lands cleanly. In one-on-one confidant-building scenes, you’re tasked with choosing between multiple responses that will work better based on your understanding of the characters. On a friendly date with Ann, flattery worked initially, but I got a little too bold and overdid it on follow-up compliments, clearly weirding her out. (Ann puts up with a lot of shit in this game.) I totally misread the moment, and the fault was my own. Later, I knew she was wary of such blatant flattery.
Part of this varying quality may be the sheer quantity of writing here. It floods out of the screen constantly, shouted at you from every character on the street and even on loading screens. Some incidental writing is very good—like the realistic, blithe anonymous online comments “this has to be fake, lol” or “admin must be trolling.” Some important voiced dialogue is very bad, such as the internet-famous line “Mr. Kamoshida’s too nice for not abandoning a punk like that” or the early expository comments “Your rehabilitation determines if ruin can be stopped.” The way the main characters discuss the primary plot arc, of “changing the hearts” of Tokyo citizens through “cognition,” lacks the clear-cut depth and specificity of previous games’ arcs.
You’re left suspending your disbelief—this random group of teens just wants to do good, apparently as a form of rebellion—in a series known for slaving over motivations and psychologies. There are a lot of fans of the translation out there, too, who say it’s much more faithful to the customs and diction of the actual Japanese language, but it’s hard not to wince at the too-frequent typographical mistakes, like calling a character “a scum” (that link contains a plot point). The demon-recruitment conversations are utter nonsense as well, but that’s part of a rich tradition within the games. Still, combined with the wildly varying quality of the rest of the dialogue, it’s distancing in a way it doesn’t need to be.
It assuaged some of my fears, at least, seeing professional translators confirm that something was off here, that I wasn’t just viewing previous games with rose-colored glasses, but the disappointment trickles down into a lot of aspects of my day-to-day in-game life. Did previous games feature so many transparently inconsequential dialogue choices, for example? It seems almost everything you’re asked to weigh in on here comes down to different versions of the same answer (“Yes” versus “Probably”; “Let’s stop” versus “Let’s pick things up tomorrow”), and the responses you get in return would all work for anything you’d chosen.
The game’s larger plotting is still appealing, though, and the quality of the dialogue may be something that only sticks in my craw. But it’s definitely taking me longer than in previous games to find characters I legitimately want to spend the next 60 or so hours with. Fortunately, the combat remains as crisp as ever, and in one noteworthy category Persona 5 is clearly the best in the series: dungeon design. Both the architectural nightmares of the main Palaces and the randomized abyss of Tartarus are peerless, and I’m eager to see what surprises they reveal. Once I knock out a couple more Palaces, I’ll be at the halfway mark—which seems like a good time to check back in and talk about the holiest quality of any Japanese RPG: its grind.
Developer: P Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4