Welcome to the third installment in our Game In Progress review of Persona 5. You can see the rest of our coverage here. This installment goes up through the end of the fourth Palace, but it contains no huge spoilers aside from the nature of those Palaces and some confidant relationships.
Last weekend I baked a cake. It came out—well, it was inedible, and I threw it all away on Sunday, but the point is that I did it. I walked to the store, bought the ingredients, came home, mixed them, let it cool, then iced it. I baked it!
However, aside from that, what I did the past week was play Persona 5. I played it when I got home from work and hours after I would’ve normally gone to bed; I played it when I woke up on Saturday and throughout halftime during NBA playoff games; and I played it at night, on my Vita (god bless it) while my wife watched The Great British Bake Off (hence the cake). I’ll play it tonight; I’ll play it tomorrow night; I don’t really have any plans besides seeing The Fate Of The Furious to contend with, so I pretty much plan to play it every night for the foreseeable future. When I look back at the year of our lord 2017, there will be a black line drawn through April: the month I spent playing Persona 5.
Bafflingly, despite this, the world is already soaring past me when it comes to progressing through the game. I’m not sure if my real-life time management skills are bad or if I’m spending too much time farting around with possible Persona fusions, but somehow, my free time can’t seem to keep pace with my ambitions. Of course, this is the very nature of the Persona games themselves. Despite their complicated demonological arcana and overarching psychological themes, they’re really about one thing: spending your time well. Game designer Sid Meier famously described games as “a series of interesting choices,” and in Persona, that choice is “How will you spend the afternoon?” You could continue wooing a paramour or spend some quality time with a teacher you like. You could try to eat a big cheeseburger, or you could go hit a baseball. You get one choice among dozens. How will you spend it?
Pretty much anything you do will minutely level up some in-game stat, so it’s hard to go wrong, but it still leads to excruciating coin flips. This taps into a uniquely modern anxiety, in which we are urged to constantly multitask and streamline in an effort to achieve peak productivity as a form of self-actualization. Your every afternoon and evening in Persona is an unrepeatable opportunity to get better at something, and so once-innocent interests like sports, food, friends, and even sex are all reduced to a transactional logic, measured out by how they help build an ever-better you.
In real life, the people who live this way are the wild-eyed biohackers downing buttered coffee, street-legal Adderall knockoffs, and Soylent gruel in an obsessive quest to become the perfect neoliberal producer-subject. This is all easy enough to satirize and disdain, but only because it’s a system we’re all a part of. It’s why we’re obsessed with podcasts and books on tape and smart watches and productivity methods, demanding an always-on, always-connected relationship with our internal productivity quotas. Persona games brilliantly equate normal video game statistics with real-world popularity and productivity, but its fifth entry goes one step further, with much of its plot built around gaining popularity for your squad via Klout-style online prestige. (This was also a core plot point of Watch Dogs 2 and Forza Horizon 3, among other recent games, suggesting that the marketing and creative departments at these companies are sitting a little too close together.)
Every second, then, is a chance to become better, popular, stronger, more liked. It renders Meier’s “interesting choice” of how to spend your time compulsively wrenching, but then, role-playing games have always had a complex relationship with the player’s time. For decades, they held your time over your head, functioning as something of a Skinner box by demanding that the player put in increasing amounts of time to level up various stats in a repetitive but addictive loop of grinding. A good, big RPG necessarily implies dozens of hours spent grinding, thus inflating their runtimes to better match the ostentatious scope of their fantasy stories. While many RPGs have found ways around the grind, letting you level up through exploration and dialogue and even progressing without violence, Japanese RPGs hold the grind sacrosanct; it is a necessary acquired taste for playing one. The appeal of the Persona games is that they take that grind above ground, making the advancement of the story and the choices you make every day a seamless, essential part of it. You’re always progressing, getting better, improving your stats.
In most JRPGs, you square up the grind ahead of you and plan not to circumvent it but to get through it as efficiently as possible. How can I get the most of the item I want? Does it make sense to buy this armor now, or wait until I get more money from later enemies? How can I maximize the amount of experience points I get in a given hour of grinding? (It’s hard, again, not to envision the biohacker set performing the same evaluative equations toward their work hours.) Persona 5 is devilishly canny about the player’s thirst for efficiencies, offering them at a tantalizingly slow drip without ever exactly feeling like, well, a Skinner box. Almost every confidant relationship leads to a slightly streamlined grind, whether it’s as fundamental as Mishima’s experience-point bonus or Takemi’s medicine discounts or something slightly more abstract, like Yusuke’s demon-fusion assistance. All of them, in their way, ladder into slightly less time spent grinding—the faint knowledge in the back of your head that, while you’re still churning a bunch of gears slowly forward, they are now moving better, more smoothly, and almost imperceptibly in your favor. There’s a polish to this experience in Persona 5 that can’t be overstated. You play the game within a greater ambient awareness of these numbers and how they’re progressing.
The backdrops for all this gear-churning have become much more elaborate, too. Much has been made of the Palaces of Persona 5, the massive psycho-sexual dungeons in which you fight and befriend demons, and they do represent this installment’s biggest departure. Full of right angles and impossible dream-logic spaces, they recall the anything-goes level design of early 3-D games, and, now that I’ve completed half of them, it’s clear how they’re scaling precipitously upward in ambition. The massive clockwork core of Kaneshiro’s bank was awash in a constant blizzard of fluttering paper money, while the knobby corners and grid-like puzzles of Futaba’s pyramid recall the eerie desolation of early Tomb Raider or King’s Field games. With a set of SP-boosting bandages on my characters, I cleared those both in a single, feverish sitting, clucking my tongue with delight at the overwhelming efficiency of beating a whole Palace in one afternoon. (The delineation between an in-game and real-life afternoon is becoming increasingly moot.) The term “Palace” is, translation problems be damned, remarkably suggestive of the operatic grandeur these 3-D spaces seem to be arcing up toward, even including a haunted, midnight-green netherworld of doomed, money-belching ATMs before the bank Palace and a whole damn side city you could explore before the pyramid.
And yet despite all the obvious attention lavished on these Palaces by the designers, there’s something alluring about Mementos, the gnarled, optional set of dungeons you can take on when you’ve got a spare afternoon and a hunger for some red-meat stat-boosting. The randomly generated levels look and feel an awful lot like the dungeons of earlier Persona games, which often seemed to be almost afterthoughts. But there’s clear affection for them here, and, juxtaposed with the more tightly designed Palaces, you can see why. As you descend further and further into Mementos, they become slightly more depraved. Their routing gets intestinal, the dead ends look less like abandoned train tracks and more like portals into some neglected corner of hell. They disintegrate, just like your afternoon does. Sure, they’re boring—there are no puzzles to solve or set pieces to witness, just an endless descent into the abyss, punctuated by almost systemic “targets” who mostly represent a little more EXP than usual—but they remind us why we call these things dungeons in the first place. The very notion of an afternoon spent sinking into them should feel punishing, like something of a gauntlet.
You emerge from them—how else?—fitter, happier, and more productive, as is the fate of all hard workers in a Persona game. “This is my true self!” Yusuke cries in battle, and the idea is that, through hard work and thoughtful planning, you too can unleash the artist (or model, or student, or friend, or lover) lurking within you. There’s an easy, almost comical juxtaposition between the overwhelming clarity of that moral and the fact that the games themselves demand the player spend 100 hours of their free time pretending to be a demon-fighting teenager going on dates in Japan. For all the game’s greater theme of “rebellion,” its sheer length and playability may be its most subversive aspect, demanding you play-act as the very hyper-productive multitasker the game itself seems to reject. After all, the developer’s prior game, 2011’s Catherine, glamorized the life of an immature slacker, whiling away the hours eating pizza and getting drunk on weeknights. It’s like the Persona 5 loading screen warns over and over throughout the game: “Take your time.” It’s hard to tell if they’re trolling you with it.
Developer: P Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4