Persona 3 established a phenomenal structure for long-form narratives favoring day-to-day moments over a more unified epic struggle. The two games which followed expanded upon the concept by building complex narratives spread across the entire length of the game, all while diving deeper into the central theme of what it means to create a persona. Persona 5 comes off as a maximalist piece, eschewing the everyday presentation of the two previous entries for a stylish take on life in the big city.
Few if any games have such jaw-dropping visual design. Even navigating menus is a striking experience. Of the many games I have now written about, I don’t think anything else has made me want to highlight the interface. These are screens which can be acceptably utilitarian, after all. Yet Persona 5, never wanting to drop its aesthetic for even a second, imbues these with motion and color. Most works have their own grand aesthetic goals, but few have ever been so all-consuming.
The Phantom Thieves is one of the coolest video game parties around. The Persona games typically tell the story of a covert group fighting comparatively minor evils under the cover of a mysterious world. The masquerade is a much larger element of this story, with the Phantom Thieves loudly announcing their operations to the world. This sense of public anonymity is a unique and tense structure. Additionally, their goals feel a lot more active. Many JRPGs games, including the other Persona games, revolve around the idea of fighting back against evil. Here, the Phantom Thieves are the instigators, fighting for what they think will cause a better world. This helps add an edge to their moral position which casts them in a complex light.
Persona 5 also makes the many stray elements all feel more strongly connected. Even the non-party social links have a more meaningful connection to the task at hand, giving benefits beyond stat increases for personas of the same type. Befriending someone like the doctor Tae Takemi can feel more beneficial than focusing on party members. Everyone from the protagonists to the antagonists to the bit players play a notable role, and it’s hard to find another game with this big of a cast with such consistently well-defined characters.
On a gameplay level, the biggest change is that the dungeons are now defined instead of randomly-generated. Thus, every section is more intricate. With the dungeons representing the inner workings of the game’s many villains, the defined structure can help to better symbolize their mental processes. This also allows more big events to occur midway through a dungeon. All of these palaces have a distinct atmosphere, from an art museum to a bank to a spaceport. Meanwhile, those who like the randomly-generated dungeon crawls still have Mementos, a journey through a twisted subway system representing the city at large.
Otherwise, Persona 5 is largely more of the same thing. But with such a strong structure and so few games attempting this general idea, more of this is a great thing. Balancing the daily life between forming bonds and tackling the monthly dungeon is as fun as always. The key part of Persona 5’s stellar features is that they are largely a horizontal evolution. The three Persona games since the third are all clearly part of the same series, yet their atmospheres vary enough that none feel like a direct attempt to simply outdo what came before. Like Final Fantasy, the best Persona game comes down to taste; do you prefer the rural slice-of-life murder mystery of Persona 4 or the aggressively stylized urban heist narrative of Persona 5? It’s easy to love both without either feeling like too much of the same experience.
Persona 5 is simply as cool as video games come. This is what Tetsuya Nomura wishes his nonsensical designs managed to pull off. Sure, the Phantom Thieves may look a bit silly running around in fox masks, but the performative nature of creating an outward persona gives a lot of leeway. The structure of the Persona series is simply phenomenal at incorporating a lot of concepts spread over an extended period. While I sometimes question the apparent need for video games to keep getting longer, every second of Persona 5’s 100 hours feels earned.