Spoilers for the entirety of Persona 5 ahead. The other Persona games are not spoiled in this post.
Persona 5 is a game for Japan. It talks to Japanese people and it was made by Japanese people. It’s set in Japan, and it appears to address issues facing Japan today. I thought I should get this out of the way as quickly as possible, because when looking critically at Persona 5, it’s near impossible to escape the feeling that you just don’t get it. And it would be ethnocentric to assume that Persona 5 should cater to my own, Western-liberal ideas about society. This game is inherently Japanese-liberal, and so, while I cannot ever hope to fully understand it in the same way it was made to be understood by its target audience, I can at least give readers of this review the knowledge of where I’m coming from. With such a deeply political game, I think that’s necessary. That said, let’s jump straight into it.
The opening act of Persona 5, is, to my mind, a near pitch perfect introduction to the game. Much like many recent JRPGs (Final Fantasy XV and Fire Emblem Awakening spring to mind), the game starts with an in media res action platforming section that simultaneously sets up the thrill of the game’s best moments while also establishing the game’s narrative as a series of flashbacks told in an interrogation room.
The interrogation device is there really as a tone setting piece; its implications in the grand narrative are negligible, other than to provide a little clue as to the trick the Phantom Thieves end up playing on Goro Akechi. Once that’s done, you’re placed back in control of Joker, the game’s protagonist; a convict sent to live in Tokyo under the supervision of the grouchy but lovable Soejiro Sakura (it’s here where the Persona 4 comparisons start, but not where they end, sadly).
The main conflict of the first act takes place inside Joker’s school; the PE teacher Kamoshida is an exploitative bastard who preys on his female students and abuses his male ones. You know the time is right to stop him when his actions end up causing one student to attempt suicide, and one of your teammates is blackmailed into having sex with him. It’s a dire situation; one that makes Kamoshida perhaps one of the most hatable villains in any game I’ve played in a long time. It’s true that perhaps the game slips up in not naming Kamoshida’s most grievous actions, but that’s only notable because of how well the rest of the arc handles the themes of sexual assault and rape.
It’s also a fantastic introduction to the theme of the game, which is ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’. Some have simplified this to simply ‘rebellion’, but I think (most of) the game itself only seeks to deal with this particular aspect of the larger theme of ‘rebellion’. When you reach Kamoshida’s Palace, the game really kicks into high gear; the music is fantastic, the visuals are on point, the battle system is fine tuned Megaten fun and the dungeon itself is hand crafted; a huge step up from the randomly generated maps of previous games. While the puzzles may be simple and the action platforming not at all skill-based, the style that it oozes is good enough for me. The entire opening is incredibly confident and completely won me over. This, I was sure, was my game of the year.
Of course, we’re only 656 words into the review, so I’m sure you’ve guessed that it didn’t stay that way. Sadly, you’d be right. The next villain on the Phantom Thieves’ list is world-famous artist Madarame, who steals from and exploits his students, passing their work off as his own. This extends to his latest student Yusuke, who is to become the newest member of the Phantom Thieves.
Madarame is simply a step down as a villain from Kamoshida. In stakes, he’s a step up; his brand is world-famous, and the number of people he exploits is far more wide reaching. By the end of the arc, we even find out that Madarame let Yusuke’s mother die, but by this point it’s too late for us to hate Madarame as much as we hated Kamoshida. Stalin was right when he said that ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ As Persona 5 continues, its villains increase in scale, but this lessens their impact as villains. I find it hard to care about all the nameless workers Okumura exploits, but very easy to care about the attempted blackmail of Ann, one of my friends. Of course, in order for the idea of ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’ to advance, the villains must grow in scale. But the game fails to effectively handle this, because we are often robbed of seeing the personal effect of these villains’ actions. We don’t meet an employee of Big Bang Burger and most egregiously we never really see people affected by Kaneshiro’s actions; he’s not even related to Makoto, whose introductory palace this is.
In a game of diminishing returns, it seems likely that Shido, whose evil deeds have the biggest effect on the largest number of people, would be the worst villain in the game. I don’t think that’s quite the case, luckily, but Shido is certainly underwhelming as a final villain. On the personal stakes, at least, he succeeds in being hatable. He has personally wronged us by accusing us of a crime we didn’t commit and has killed Futaba’s mother and Haru’s father, so while he still doesn’t quite reach the level of detestability as Kamoshida, he’s no teddie bear either. But on a grand scale, Shido never quite convinces as the poison for Japan he is meant to represent.
Here, by the way, is where it gets tricky discussing this game as a Westerner. The truth is, Japan’s political problems are different from those in England and America. The scandals that Shinzo Abe gets into are certainly different from those of Donald Trump. So I must just remind you that I’m not a scholar on Japanese politics, but that the game focuses so much on them, that I still need to address the subject. Shido is bad for Japan because he is corrupt. He kills people, he has ties with the Yakuza, and he says one thing to the electorate but in fact, he cares nothing for Japan, imagining it as a sinking country where he is one of the few survivors. You could say that this is a similar situation to Abe, who campaigns on vague promises and statements in order to win an election and institute unpopular changes, such as his efforts to change the Japanese constitution to something more militaristic. I’ve seen a great comparison between a poster of Shido found in his palace to a poster of Shinzo Abe, showing that the game does indeed have some political satire and wit. But ultimately, it fails to hit as hard as it could, because the game doesn’t quite have enough to say about politics aside from that corruption is bad and we should be more aware of it. Take the US version of House of Cards; the message there is similarly unclear and slightly without too much of a point behind it. But it does have a worldview to portray; a cynical and exaggerated look at the politicians who lead, and what really motivates them. Shido never really reveals his true ambitions to us. Most of his dialogue is standard evil guy monologues.
The game also fails to portray a valid alternative to Shido. There is one obvious candidate for who the developers clearly think is what politics should be about; Toranosuke, a disgraced politician who becomes a fast friend to Joker and the Phantom Thieves. In his confidant story, we can see that he’s someone with integrity and passion, someone who sticks to his beliefs. We can see that this is the sort of politician to gun for. In a way, he becomes the Japanese Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn; not a perfect politician, but someone with a firm belief in their values. Except, of course, that Toranosuke has no values. His speeches are made up of the exact same meaningless platitudes that make up most of Shido’s speeches. Both seem to spout the exact same apolitical, bipartisan garbage about the children being our future and the key to making Japan great again. And yet Persona 5 berates the public for loving one and encourages the public to love the other.
I think, that despite making a politician the big bad, Persona 5 doesn’t have much to say about politics. This isn’t automatically a problem per se, because it simply uses politics as a way to explore its bigger themes, but I think it belies a larger lack of depth within Persona 5. 
I think this leads nicely into talking about the game’s main theme. Persona 3 and 4 both had strong central themes explored within the main narrative and the social links. Persona 5 has a good concept for a central theme, but it falters slightly on the execution. I said at the beginning that the theme wasn’t just rebellion, it was more specific than that; that it was actually ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’.
Well, here’s where it gets a bit complicated. That’s certainly the theme up until the end of the 7th Palace, at which point the scope widens to become ‘the individual versus conformity’ with the introduction of Yaldabaoth as the God of Control and the final boss. This is a similarly interesting theme, one explored by the Persona series’ main branch, the Shin Megami Tensei series. Those games are all centred around the choice between ‘Law’ (i.e. conformity) and Chaos (i.e. individuality). In those games, the choice is up to you between the two paths. Neither ends in happiness, but both options are available. Persona 5, in the SMT canon, would be a chaos route story; the Phantom Thieves are rebels; first against exploitative authority, and then against conformity. While Shin Megami Tensei games give you the option to choose your path, Persona 5 chooses it for you. This is not a bad thing; Persona 5 has a point to make, and I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. The problem comes because the developers for some reason need to question the actions of their protagonists. Here’s an actual conversation from the game, taken from before Shido’s palace;
Makoto: What we’re about to do is just, right…?
Joker: Choice between (It is.) and (Yes, they’ll see soon).
Morgana: That’s right. Have we ever acted outside the scope of justice?
Makoto: You have a point.
Yikes. Consider the point of that conversation. The game seems to desperately want to appear to be raising some sort of problem with the Phantom Thieves’ actions, but can never bring itself to do it.
So, the way I see it, the game has two choices. Firstly would be to ignore the actions of the Thieves altogether and just tell the player that they’re in the right. Secondly would be to properly explore the issue and convince the player that they’re in the right. The game does neither, but could so easily do either.
Let’s start with the second option. If only there was already a character in the game that could serve as an ethical opponent of the Phantom Thieves. Maybe one whose role in the story started off that way but became a character that was completely under-utilised and instead used simply as a way to copy a more successful twist from Persona 4… oh wait Goro Akechi. Lots of people have complained about Akechi’s role in the story and I agree with pretty much all the complaints. Akechi has pretty much nothing to do once the twist that he’s been working for Shido is revealed. He turns into a hired gun with daddy issues and an annoyingly placed boss fight. His relation to the protagonist is aiming to be the same as the relationship between the murderer in Persona 4 and Yu (two sides of the same coin), but without the same context and build up from that game, the entire thing falls flat. Before the twist, however, Akechi has promise. He’s also a fighter against injustice, but believes in the rule of law to do so. If he continued in that way, then he could serve as a much better antagonist for the Phantom Thieves. Both are enemies of the injustice of the world, but they are opposed in how they combat it. Then, you can more fully explore the issue of whether what the Thieves do is just.
If they just ignored the problem all together, that could also have worked; but the game might need to change its basic mechanics in order to do that. You see, Makoto in that conversation is correct. There is a problem in the actions of the Phantom Thieves. Persona 5 claims to value individualism, but only if you conform to its sense of good. In changing the hearts of villains, the Phantom Thieves strip them of their individuality. So, when I said that Persona 5’s theme was ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, I think what I mean is that that is what the game’s theme should have stayed. Persona 5 is not equipped to handle a theme like ‘individual versus conformity’ because its main mechanic of stealing hearts runs counter to that.
So, because this has been a slightly complicated point to write and read, I’ll try and sum up. Persona 5 is able to handle a shallow idea like ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, because there isn’t too much to discuss there. There are predefined good guys and bad guys, and we don’t feel awful about changing a bad guy’s heart in order to stop exploitation and death. But when the game switches gears to hint at the idea of individual versus conformity, or when it hints at it even before the Prison of Regression, we see the inherent contradiction at the heart of Persona 5 – its heart stealing good guys are forcing conformity onto its villains. So Persona 5 cannot handle a deeper theme, even though it wants to. Remember how I said at the end of the politics chapter that Persona 5 has a lack of depth? This is yet another example of it.
The game has other ways of making it look like it’s saying something deeper than it actually is. Most of this comes in the final hours of the game; The Prison of Regression and the fight against the Holy Grail, who is actually the “God” Yaldaboath playing a game with Igor. I think this section of the game actually does pretty well making its themes and ideas clear. The Prison of Regression is a well done visualisation of the idea of the stranglehold of conformity. Meanwhile, the idea of a God created by the desires of humanity is also a great idea for a final boss in a chapter where the theme focuses on rebellion versus conformity.
Even this, however, has its problems. One is still the aforementioned contradiction of the Phantom Thieves’ ability to steal hearts; that it is its own kind of imposed conformity. The other is the creation of Yaldaboath itself. Yes, he is said to have been created by a human will for conformity, but the game falters about how much he has control over humanity. It’s him who is said to create the Prison of Regression; him who talks about his own subjugation of humanity; him who makes the deal with Igor. While he may have been created by humanity, some of that message is robbed of its power when he is talked of at all as autonomous. It’s still much better than Yaldaboath being completely autonomous, and this might seem a bit of a nitpick, but I do take some umbrage with the way that Persona 5 talks about the God of Control. Even that name is contradictory to the point Persona 5 wants to make. Surely ‘The God of Conformity’ or ‘The Created God’ would have been better titles to give it.
At the same time, of course, I realise the need for Yaldaboath and Igor to have the ‘game’. That’s because Persona 5 references the myth of the ‘Trickster’. In short, the Trickster is supposed to expose the shadow of man and spur change. It’s all based in myth and examined by Jung (whose influence is felt all over the Persona series) and it’s also much too intellectual for my feeble mind. Neverthelesss, I think that it’s here where the theming of Persona 5 is the strongest. Certainly, this makes sense in a way that spans the entirety of the game; the Phantom Thieves building fame and exposing the shadows of society, until they realise that despite the shadow being bought to the eyes of the people, they reject it, forcing the Phantom Thieves to steal the treasure at the heart of Mementos. But this isn’t something that is really tackled until the end, and it doesn’t explain away all the problems I’ve mentioned before. It’s where Persona 5 feels its most confident, but this confidence is a small part of a 90 hour experience wherein most of its other attempts at theming are less successful.
Ok, so I think that’s most of the heavy stuff done, so let’s move onto what makes a heavy exploration of politics and rebellion tick; the characters. Persona games often develop their main themes within character arcs that can be accessed through confidant links, but Persona 5’s are perhaps my least favourite in the series. Bear in mind that being the lazy games critic that I am, i failed to play every single confidant story, so it could be that actually Shinya Oda’s would have blown me out of the water, but I can’t talk about that, so apologies on that front.
Of the 15 that I played (I completed less, of course (this also does not include Igor or Sae’s confidant)), I would say that perhaps 8 included a proper exploration of the theme, which is more than half, but disappointing nonetheless.
Of those I did play, the worst is certainly Ann Takamaki’s – a strange exploration of the life of a model that has a disconnect in character between main plot Ann and confidant plot Ann. It also fails to recognise the more interesting story of Ann’s relationship with Shiho. In one particularly frustrating moment Ann and Shiho meet on the roof to discuss Shiho’s recovery, and Ann talks about how she will improve as a model for some reason I can’t quite figure out, but she seems to believe it will help Shiho… this entire confident story is a complete mess, so I’m not going to try and work out what they were aiming for, but its appearance in a game that’s had so much time and energy put into it is certainly disappointing.
Other confidant stories similarly miss the mark. Makoto’s social link focuses mainly on a dilemma facing her friend, a character who is never properly fleshed out, or even given an illustration. Meanwhile, more interesting aspects of Makoto’s character such as her relationship to her deceased father, and her struggling with her sister’s high expectations for her, are only touched upon briefly.
A few confidant stories I really liked are also present; Tae Takemi’s has a smaller stakes story about an abuse of power within the medical system, and Hifumi Togo’s story deals with the pressure of being a model far better than Ann’s; while also adopting the parental pressure to succeed story from Makoto.
When talking about the characters, clearly the most important are the Phantom Thieves themselves. It’s them who we play as, and them who we’re clearly meant to bond with the most. Sadly, the Phantom Thieves have a team-building problem. These guys feel much more like a group of workplace proximity associates than friends. Sure, in their individual social links you feel like a friend, but together the team fails to gel. Characters really only get to shine during their individual arcs – once those are done they’re reduced to one-liners. Haru loses her father over the course of the game, but by the end I imagine you’d have forgotten that. She doesn’t really seem to be all to phased by it, and this is true of every character. No matter what they’ve been through, by the end they’ve all become one-note.
The opportunities for team-building are there; the Hawaii trip becomes a bit of a missed opportunity by relating most of your time to be spent with your romantic partner of choice, but where the game misses the mark most is in the text conversations. These read less like a group chat and more like an email chain between a bunch of very repetitive colleagues. No one ever has fun in these text chats; there are no funny photos sent between friends, or just casual conversation. It’s all the same stuff we’ve heard before and during every palace; ‘do you think this will work??’ ‘No idea, we’ll just have to wait and see’, repeated ad nauseam. Sure, some found the long goofball sections in Persona 4 boring and longed for the plot to continue, but this is why the text message system would have been such a good solution to this. Alas.
The writing as a whole in this game is pretty dire. Everything is much too long, too repetitive and often poorly translated. Once again, most of these cracks start to show themselves as the game continues. This, of course, isn’t a problem with depth. Instead, it’s part of a related problem Persona 5 suffers from; length.
But before we move off the topic of characters completely, I think it’s worth giving a shout out to the returning feature of romance-able characters. As always, half of Persona concerns living the daily life of a teen, and that includes romancing your fellow classmates. Starting a relationship in Persona 5 comes with a creepy new twist this time around; you can now choose to date some of the hard done by adults that make up some of your social links; including your teacher Kawakami. I don’t think this is a simple issue to address; I think this article (http://kotaku.com/persona-5s-sexual-relationships-can-get-complicated-1794282996) has a better stab at it than I could, but it certainly made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in how these women all seem to be at the lowest point in their lives.
The issue of dating those older than you is a complex one, however; what isn’t complex is how dated Persona 5’s other sexual politics are. For a game about rebellion against social norms, for instance, why can’t I make my character be gay? Persona 5 has a member of the Phantom Thieves (artist Yusuke) be strongly hinted to be homosexual, but never allows you to take your relationship with him further than platonic. What’s worse is that the only other gay characters that show up are both perverted old men played for laughs. I’ve heard arguments that these men aren’t meant to be the be all and end all of gay people, and that judging them as such would be the equivalent of saying Persona 5 sees all straight men like it sees the rapist Kamoshida. But Persona 5 is filled with shining examples of straight men, and only 2 examples of openly homosexual men, both of whom are perverted gay stereotypes who prey on the main character and Ryuji.
This is probably also a good point to mention how Persona 5 treats its female characters. Both Ann and Hifumi have confidant links involving a career as a model, while Kawakami’s involves her dressed up as a maid and calling you ‘Master’. Taken on their own, these wouldn’t be a problem; Japanese teen idols are incredibly popular, as are maid services. But Persona 5 has other slightly problematic portrayals of women. Only one of the Palace bosses is a woman, but she’s also the only one who isn’t really evil; she too is a victim of the system. In Persona’s world only men ever have the power to be able to exploit. Special mention should also be given to Ann’s Phantom Thief outfit, which blurs the line of good taste. Of course, she’s based off of the Femme Fatale character, but her poses and outfits seems more geared towards making the player stand to attention than putting the enemies off guard. I think any rebuttal to this argument can be put to bed by simply showing off her defeated pose, which is frankly embarrassing.
I notice I haven’t really talked much about the gameplay yet, so let’s make that the final topic of conversation. As always in Persona games, gameplay is split between dungeon crawling and living out the normal life of a Japanese teenager. Let’s start with the dungeon crawling aspect, seeing as its been given the biggest change since Persona 4.
The battle system remains pretty similar; still fashioned in the mould of the post-Nocturne press-turn based gameplay. Some problems remain; such as the faults of the SP system that can be too easily broken, and the few unfair bits of palace design. The palaces themselves are clearly a step up from the randomly generated dungeons of yesteryear, but they are also slightly too streamlined. Almost every puzzle you encounter is explained to you multiple times, which often takes the joy out of solving them for yourself. Worse, the game still thrusts you into Mementos, which are, to all extents and purposes the same randomised dungeon crawling that Persona 5 initially appears to have left behind. It just feels regressive, and makes going through Mementos more like a necessary chore than a pleasure.
I know I said I was done with thematic discussions, but it’s worth mentioning that Palaces lack the internal logic of previous games’ dungeons. Every time the game wants something unexpected to happen, they can do it with the only explanation being that no one really knows about what’s going on so just suspend your disbelief and roll with it. This isn’t a huge complaint, but every time something happened that seemed unexplainable within a cognitive world, I found myself wishing for some kind of internal logic; especially when the game tries to fit itself into the heist genre, a genre which requires the viewer to know exactly what’s going on in order to appreciate the clever tricks the heroes pull.
The out-of palace gameplay, however, really impressed me. It’s not too big a change from the activities found in previous games, but I was interested to see how they’d handle a city setting, myself being an inhabitant of a large city. The answer is; surprisingly well. Instead of creating an open world that would have always felt too small, you mainly travel in the same set of streets and locations. Because, of course, that’s how real life in a city works; you spend most of your time in the same few streets, and rarely go beyond the same couple of destinations, except with friends. Aside from the texting problem, I think technology is handled very well in this game. You don’t often notice this, but being set in the 2010s this game had to recognise the importance of technology in the life of an everyday teen. Of special note are the surprisingly numerous number of internet posts on the Phantom Thief chatroom, that emulate internet speech much better than they have any right to.
In amongst the gameplay lies the game’s fantastic visual design. This is a real treat to behold. It really speaks to my aesthetic sensibilities and is extremely fluid and stylish. I especially appreciate the way the main menu moves around, with Joker shifting into different poses depending on the option. I can understand that for some it feels a bit busy, but for me, it just works. That said, like the smooth and stylish jazz infused rock soundtrack, it does get old after 100+ hours of play. As much as I love the work of Shoji Meguro, when you’re still hearing the exact same 30 seconds of battle music 90 hours in, no matter how great the track is, you get sick of it. In fact, just so that I could avoid this problem, I bought one of the overpriced DLC tracks just to hear a different tune during the casino palace. I think that it’s actually here we get to the heart of the issue, so let’s finally wrap up this review.
Persona 5 is a long game. A very long game. Being long isn’t by itself a problem. Lots of good games are long, including previous Persona games. But here’s the problem; Persona 5 is both longer than Persona 4, and has less to say. When you subject someone to a plot for that long, you have to have a plot worth spending that much time over. But as I hope I’ve already proven, Persona 5 is, for the most part, shallow. It values style over substance, which is a problem only when it’s this long and the style never changes. Persona 5 is still a fantastic game, brimming with smart design decisions and an enjoyable story. Some of its thematic devices work much better than others. But when it goes on so long, it invites you to peek beneath the surface; to think about its overall themes and the nuances of its story… and that’s when you find that actually, there’s not that much there.
Or maybe I’m just an ‘effin adult who doesn’t get it.
 ‘Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
 Of course, the game seeks to undermine my definition of its theme by calling all the villains ‘shitty adults’, but judging by the number of confidant links that show how adults are also held down by the system and those in power, I think the game merely does itself a disservice by having Ryuji simplify the message into ‘kids rule, adults drool’.
 This could be a cultural problem; karōshi (lit. death from overwork) is something that affects more people in Japan than in the West; it’s possible that the Okumura plot line works much better if you know someone who is a victim of an exploitative work environment. That said, the overall point of villains being more effective if they’re closer to you still stands.
 I’d love to give the game credit and say that the reason that both Shido and Toranosuke have similar speeches is because it’s message is cynical and anti-political, but judging from Toranosuke’s storyline I hesitate to give it that much credit.
 Bear in mind that this is all explicitly a problem with the English translation of Persona 5. For all I know, the Japanese version is more explicit in its political theming.
 As well as a neutral path, but that’s not really relevant here.
 I want to move on now, but something I failed to mention is the idea of the 8 Evil Thoughts represented by the 8 Palaces in the game. I think this idea has some potential, but it’s only really explored in the names of the trophies. The correspondence of each palace to its deadly sin is shaky at best; Sloth is attributed in the game to Mementos, but could also work for Madarame, who leeches off the work of others, or even Futaba, who hides in laziness rather than face her problems etc. So, the idea is strong, but the execution is lacking.
 It’s probably not a great sign that I’m having to do so much apologising and qualifying within this review lol
 Especially if you’re Ryuji.
 Unless you’re me when I was at school
 With the Kawakami confidant and the Sojiro confidant you can make an SP restoring coffee most nights, and with the Tae Takemi confidant you have access to SP restoring patches that grant small boosts in SP after each move.
 I’m going to sound like a whiner if I put this all in the main text so I’ll relegate it down here; Akechi’s boss fight is awfully placed – Here’s the thing; it’s not necessarily annoying because it’s difficult, it’s also annoying because it’s always a sacrifice of a more interesting fight. If you knew beforehand that there would be two bosses to fight, then you’d approach the first one in a more conservative and thoughtful manner, which always leads to a more interesting fight. But by not telling you this, you’re basically screwed if you did what was the natural thing to do and go all out on a difficult boss – so punishing the player for doing what comes naturally to them. Which is just kinda shitty. The problem is that loads of RPGs do this, but it’s just an artificial and annoying way to boost difficulty that’s become normalised as a standard in the genre. Also when you get spotted by an enemy, often another one spawns in front that takes you by surprise, but I was never 100% sure what triggered this to happen, and it would often happen in tight corridors or places you couldn’t easily escape from. Combined with an enemy that can inflict despair on all party members and it becomes too high a punishment for being spotted.
 Maybe that was their plan all along.