The Persona series is an odd one – the spin-off franchise to a spin-off franchise of an obscure Japanese game about demons, it's become far more successful than its parent or grandparent. Take this fifth entry, for instance – despite the last entry being released almost a decade ago and the core series skipping an entire console generation (except in Japan, where this is released on PS3 too), anticipation has only grown.
One of the most extraordinarily enjoyable and challenging games of the year.
The reason is bluntly simple: Persona is really, really good, and Persona 5 is a distillation of everything great about the games. Dropping the 'Shin Megami Tensei' prefix, P5 dives into the heart of the series, with a complex and mature storyline exploring the psychology of its cast, while delivering some of the most robust JRPG gameplay on the market.
In some ways, P5 is a dark twin of its precursor. As with Persona 4, you play a nameless silent protagonist (although his name in the Japanese manga adaptation is given as Akira Kurusu) moving to a new town, and getting involved with new friends and an interdimensional battle represented via the medium of philosophical and psychological abstracts, and, er, tarot cards.
Here though, the quaint rural idyll of fictional Inaba is replaced by the mean streets of Tokyo, and the caring family you move in with is substituted for a gruff café owner paid to take you in. The tone throughout is more mature too, with subplots involving political corruption, sexual abuse by teachers, and the gulf of power between adults and teenagers. Most of the action takes place in the Metaverse, an alternate dimension filled with Palaces – dungeons – representing the corrupted desires of adults. The metaphor could scarcely be clearer.
Appropriate for its themes of teen rebellion and rejection of authority, P5 is effortlessly stylish, with director Katsura Hashino making the most of Shigenori Soejima's designs and the anime aesthetic to overcome the PS3 roots of the game. Skillful art direction and a brilliant use of colour and contrast makes it stand out, becoming far more visually striking than would be expected of a cross-generational title.
Like earlier entries, battles are turn-based, but with a twist. After partnering with a Persona – a sort of demon of the psyche, reflecting your internal desires – attacks can be performed, but they'll often draw on your health points as much as skill points. This creates a nice ebb and flow to combat, as you balance which pool to draw from, risking powerful attacks at the cost of your own vulnerability.
Attacks, Personae, and enemies all have elemental attributes, and exploiting foes' weaknesses triggers a very satisfying chain move system. Hit a demon weak to wind with a wind attack, for instance, and you'll get a '1-More' bonus attack – chaining these allows you to dominate battles.
But crawling through dungeons isn't really the point of Persona – it's all about the people you meet. Between your experiences in the Metaverse, you'll foster friendships with classmates, building a team known as The Phantom Thieves. The passing of game time, and how you choose to spend it and with whom, affects your relationships, which in turn can power up your psychological alter egos. These sections make the game feel more life-sim than RPG at times, but they're fundamental to the experience, and help develop the cast.
The game retains one of the most frustrating flaws of its predecessor though, that of rigid pacing. There are times when you desperately want to move on, but instead have to work through drawn out dialogue sequences or lengthy scripted sections where you're unable to save. It's also odd that Japanese audio is a DLC extra (thankfully free though), especially when forced to listen to several brutalised pronunciations of Japanese names and places in the English dub.
On balance though, these are small prices to pay for what is one of the most extraordinarily enjoyable and challenging games of the year. Persona 5 is a masterpiece – and hopefully we won't be waiting nine years for more.