This article contains spoilers for both Persona 4 and Persona 5.
Persona 5 released internationally over 3 months ago and, looking back at the initial reception, it seems to have been rather aggrandised. There were hyperbolic claims that Persona 5 represented the holy grail of JRPG’s, a 10/10 masterpiece, or was setting a new bar for the genre. It all seems a bit much now. Depending on how you look at it, Persona 5 is either a pretty good £40 music album, or a mediocre (if stylish) attempt at a Nolan-esque reboot of Persona 4. One that lets you try and have sex with your teacher.
The Persona series has an unusual structure, particularly in the way it uses the repetition of days and weeks as the backbone of all its more fantastical action. For an example of how something like this can work, we could listen to Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts, which uses repetition to accentuate changes within each of its movements. When things become stale a small but significant change is introduced, transforming and revitalising it. It pounds a melody or beat into the audience’s head only to later change it and subvert their expectations. The repetition is why it works. You willingly listen to the same lines of music be repeated again and again, waiting for something to shift. You don’t know when and you don’t know what but you know something’s coming
This is what it should have been like to play Persona 5. But the problem is, nothing changes. Persona 5 marches religiously to the same tune that Persona 4 set and opts for style over not just substance, but everything else. It overstays its welcome for more than half of its 100 hour-run-time and the repetition goes beyond stale to become simply tired. The game's structure puts the same beats on repeat, with no twists, no turns and no surprises. All motivation to continue playing is soon burnt out. It's scant consolation that the finale involves the script going into the shredder.
For a story-driven and character-led game, this is a serious problem. The story and world are the core of a linear RPG’s appeal. Doubly so for a game where combat goes no further than holding R1 and occasionally pressing X. The cast has to be compelling, the player has to care about them, and the unfolding events have to maintain your interest.
But I find it difficult to care about characters like Ryuji, an obnoxiously loud, gormless albatross whose main interest involves perving on every female he knows and forcing tedious paragraphs of exposition. There’s a reason it takes a supernatural event for him to make a single friend.
Persona 5 has this difficulty all the way through it, of simultaneously trying to say something profound about young people, their burgeoning hopes, rich inner lives, and developing sexuality — and then sexualising its underage cast in order to push the plot forwards. One of the occasions involves an aged aristocrat, which is just all sorts of gross. It's strange because Persona 4 handled teenagers' burgeoning interests with what felt like a much defter touch, even a tad more dignity. Perhaps if Persona 5’s cast spent less time bombarding the protagonist with group chat messages they would have had something more substantial to say.
Persona 5's story is, at least, ambitious. It taps into one of the best elements of the Agatha Christie 'whodunnit,' the knowledge from the very start that there is a traitor in your midst. Somebody close will betray you and the rest of your group of friends: the self-titled Phantom Thieves. Exciting stuff for a game all about friendship.
This had the potential of adding a new layer to Persona's tired dynamic, making the player suspect everyone like they were a character in John Carpenter's The Thing. As the relationships deepen, so does the doubt: everyone's a threat, especially the ones you really like. It’s a shame then that this element was effectively kneecapped straight out of the gate: Persona 5 introduces the idea then, just as quickly, leaves it behind.
The traitor’s identity is made clear almost immediately upon their introduction, so much so they may as well have used Persona 4’s antagonist. From a certain angle, that is exactly what they did. Big spoilers ahead, but you knew that coming in: Tohru Adachi (P4) is a detective you get to know and become close to throughout the game, who is eventually revealed to be the killer and betrays you. In Persona 5, Goro Akechi is a detective you get to know and become close to throughout the game, who is later revealed to be the killer and betrays you.
Their names are 4 letters apart and sound phonetically similar, a deliberate echo. It seemed so on-the-nose I expected a red herring, the game using an established precedent to set up expectations which it could later subvert. Unfortunately not. The differences between the two antagonists are superficial.
By the first dungeon’s end, a beat has been firmly established, the combat fleshed out and the narrative structure set. And it is a strong start. As has been noted by others, Persona 5 is more focused on the villains than its previous iterations, with a monster of the week kind of deal. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Persona 4’s villain is a fan favourite after all. Our first bad man, Suguru Kamoshida, a power-mad volleyball coach, showcases the game’s most damning pitfall.
The game goes to great lengths to highlight how much of a dick Kamoshida is and why you should think so too. They then reveal that Kamoshida physically and emotionally abuses his students: these actions being overlooked by the rest of the teaching staff perpetuates the abuse and prevents students from speaking out. Kamoshida’s twattery escalates even further and he sexually assaults a student. This is all culminates in a suicide attempt from atop of the school roof.
Having this guy as the introductory villain makes sense. There is a lot to introduce at the start of the game, and being overly ambitious with the first antagonist would have tripped up the pacing. The opening chapter is black-and-white, it's clear what has to be done. Like with Akechi, it also creates a precedent that can later be subverted.
The problem is that Persona 5 never goes beyond Kamoshida. This is how every villain is treated throughout the game. None of them are developed beyond escalating their actions as well as hinting at some tenuous link to the bigger baddies. Their motivations are never realistically justified and boil down to simply “I’m evil lol.” To return to the real world for a moment: people aren’t bad, they just do bad things. Nigel Farage genuinely believes that Brexit will be a good thing for the UK. For a game riding on its villains, that basic level of nuance is a necessity. Having antagonists that are basically Skeletor variants is a monumental disaster.
Persona 5’s plot focuses on the idea of justice. A great premise considering the game's unique gimmick of stealing and forcefully changing people’s hearts. Exploring this concept should challenge not only the characters' idea of justice, but the player’s preconceptions too. Games can put you in different and difficult situations, and force you to face the consequences of your actions.
Alas, the Phantom Thieves are a morally righteous group of vigilantes. They are driven by what they perceive is just and because of this they spend an exorbitant amount of time beating their gums on the subject. In an effort to remain true to their ideals, in order to act, they require unanimous agreement that stealing a person’s heart is an objectively good thing to do. This particular individual has to be stopped and, after a lot of talking, this group has the right to do it.
The Phantom Thieves’ sentimentality is nothing more, however, than an excuse. Their decision to steal someone’s heart is always just a pragmatic solution to ensure their survival. The cast are backed into a corner by every single villain via some impending catastrophe such as expulsion, arrest or some other form of blackmail. The Phantom Thieves don't really have anything to do with justice. This hypocrisy, while hinted at, is never explored or even addressed in the game.
So much time is spent discussing their actions, the fact that they never get challenged is astounding. This is the defining feature of Persona 5's story, endless open goal opportunities where the ball's smashed off the post and hits the striker in the face.
Upon their defeat, every boss had the opportunity to reveal that, in spite of the Phantom Thieves’ belief, their intentions had been altruistic. That their actions, while selfish in appearance, were in fact fueled by good intentions. This would have created difficult positions, at the least some ambiguity.
Before you fight, the villains give an insincere reasoning for their behaviour that logically makes sense. After the fight, it's revealed that it was nothing more than a disingenuous excuse for them to be scum. The reasons are real and could have been legitimate, but are just thrown away for the bad-guy-is-bad line.
Some examples. One dungeon sees you going after a man named Masayoshi Shido (seen above). A corrupt politician who is a few steps away from becoming Prime Minister. Shido — who bears a striking resemblance to Senator Armstrong — sees Japan flooded and views himself as a captain, steering the ship through its remains. When you finally confront Shido it turns out that his true motivation was his own raging narcissism and lust for power. Both of which had already been made clear to the player 10 hours previous.
However, Shido’s half-hearted justification is that he saw himself as a Noah figure. He believed that he, and he alone, could save and steer the people of Japan through a coming metaphorical storm. This is good, as far as villains go, you can empathise a tiny bit with that thinking. A complicated issue such as running a country is the opportunity where the young Phantom Thieves could have been forced to face their own ignorance on difficult matters, and just how far the idea of justice can go. That reality isn’t black-and-white. But it’s not to be, and Shido is instead treated with the nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Another boss is Kunikazu Okumura, the CEO of a fast-food company. His employees are portrayed as overworked and disposable. The title of the music track that plays in the dungeon is 'Sweatshop'. Those who cannot keep up have to go. But instead of tying this to the idea of modern business in a wider sense, the pressures every company faces to be competitive, and how this affects employees at the sharp end, we just get the usual greedy CEO steretype. Now, I'm not here to defend overpaid CEOs. But there is more commentary possible on Japan’s problematic work culture and environment than “CEO wants more money.”
The biggest failure of all, was undoubtedly Ichiryusai Madarame. A renowned painter who, while suffering from artist's block, plagiarised his other student’s work in order to continue providing for his orphaned pseudo-son and protege, Kitagawa Yusuke. But this wasn’t enough for them to survive, so Madarame was forced to risk his entire career by forging and selling illegitimate copies of his famed masterpiece. The guilt Yusuke felt after being confronted with the damage Madarame’s plagiarism had caused his fellow pupils pushed him into joining the Phantom Thieves.
This is what is established in the game at least, and it's brilliant. But they proceed to piss it all up the wall. Turns out Madarame didn’t need the money and he didn’t give a damn about Yusuke, he was just a vain greedy old bastard. Oh, he also killed Yusuke’s mother over a painting. They just throw that one in there at the end, because Persona 5 needs to eliminate every single one of Madarame’s redeeming qualities. Every single time, the villains in Persona 5 are made into un-empathetic monsters. It’s becomes deadeningly boring.
There are many reasons for Persona 5's hugely positive reception, it is an unbelievably stylish game, but if you're looking for an RPG with a great story and characters it may be a huge disappointment. Every time your hopes are up for an interesting plot development, or an exciting battle, Persona 5 comes in like Garth Marenghi and makes it terrible. All to the music of a quite phenomenal soundtrack, making the experience of playing it akin to enjoying the heat from a glorious dumpster fire.
Persona 5 does have serious charm. Pictures of cosplayers and fanart are posted at an incredible rate, and elements like its battle UI do feel a little like the future. Some players connected with the characters more than I did, and others got a kick out of the faithful recreation of Tokyo’s locations such as Shibuya station. Hey, there are even people who liked the combat.
For me Persona 5 is a missed opportunity: a game and world that did so much right then, for whatever reason, was too timid to follow through. There is a lot to love here, but it feels like that's mostly superficial. As you spend more and more time with Persona 5 you realise that maybe it's not the friend you once thought. Maybe it thinks about things in overly-simplistic terms. And maybe it thinks it knows how the world works, but all it really has is stereotypes.