What Persona 5 Does Right

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Persona 5 released in 2017 to worldwide acclaim. It propelled the Persona franchise to the global spotlight like never before and has since sold 3.2 million copies, and that number isn’t even taking into account the sales of the remastered version, Persona 5 Royal, released in March of this year. After playing the game twice myself, I’d like to take a look at what I think are the reasons behind its huge success. 

I became interested in Persona 5 after seeing just a few clips of the JRPG back when it released. A few clips was really all it took for me to take note of this game and that’s because of its instantly recognisable style. Every single thing in this game looks great. From the characters and settings to the effects, the huge amount of care put into the design is very clear. The most obvious example is actually the user interface (UI). The menus are amazingly vibrant and stylish, using animated transitions, a striking red-dominated colour palette, and an eye-catching punk fanzine-inspired font. They manage to be fun to navigate, contextually relevant, and intuitive all the while, cementing the menus as one of the hallmarks of Persona 5’s identity. There’s also an abundance of imaginative visual effects that make doing absolutely everything a lot more satisfyingUI design may not seem like a big deal but considering that the menus and effects are visible for the vast majority of the time spent playing the game, good design can greatly improve the overall experience. In this case, the UI is what grabbed the attention of me and many others in the first place, and it doesn’t disappoint in-game. I would love to see other developers take notes and strive to make even pausing their games funI did spend more than a few minutes during my playthroughs just going back and forth in the menus, and I regret nothing 

A 70’s punk fanzine (left) against the Persona 5 battle UI (right)

As for the settings, most of Persona 5 is set in Tokyo, and while the Tokyo present in the game is well-made and seems quite accurate, there’s not much to say about it—it’s just Tokyo. Where the settings become a bit more interesting is in the Palaces; crazy imaginary worlds born from the distorted cognitions of the various villains. Our main cast act as modern-day vigilantes, infiltrating these Palaces as self-proclaimed “Phantom Thieves”—think Inception—to force upon these criminals a change of heart. Variety is achieved in spades as each one of these Palaces features a different theme representative of the owner’s distorted desires. For example, the Museum of Vanity, the Palace of a plagiarising sell-out artist, is grand and obnoxious, full of solid gold vases and statues. While some Palaces were not as interesting as others, I very much enjoyed exploring all the different environments and was always anticipating what would come next.  

The character designs are similarly commendable. There’s a lot of variation while still maintaining realism, and you can for the most part tell what a character’s personality is by how they look. As for whether that serves to praise the expressiveness of the character designs or criticise the depth of the characters themselves, my answer would be both, but that’s beside the point. 

The allies and enemies of the game manifest themselves as the titular Personas, effectively monsters (they’re described as “a manifestation of your inner self, or something nonsensical like that) with designs based on figures from legends, folklore, and religions. What makes the Persona designs amazing is how new and original ideas are incorporated into old and familiar designs to create unique characters. The designers seem to have plucked inspiration from countless sources, taking various modern styles and aesthetics and mixing them with the traditional designs of the legendary figures depicted, combining old and new in ways that I would never think of, let alone manage to make cohesive. For example, Sandalphon and Metatron are robotic angels made entirely from silver and gold, while Melchizedek’s design imagines what an archangel would look like if it also happened to be a Power Ranger. Seiten Taisei combines punk with Chinese folklore legend Sun Wukong, giving the Monkey King a mohawk, an upturned collar and a cape, while the design for Robin Hood reimagines him as a superhero. Additionally, the pirate Captain Kidd’s head and his swords on his chest form a skull and crossbones, a replica of the one on his hat, and he stands on his pirate ship like a skateboard. On paper it’s hard to believe such outlandish ideas work but taking a look at the designs reveals that they somehow come together seamlessly.  

The inspirations behind these designs are so obviously displayed. Anyone will recognise that Robin Hood’s logo on his chest is almost derivative of Superman’s, and the individual parts that make up Captain Kidd are far from original, but the way these familiar ideas are put together in so many new and interesting ways makes the Personas, in my opinion, the best part of Persona 5’s design. 

Next up is the music, which I’m surprised I’ve managed to refrain from mentioning for this long. Persona 5’s soundtrack is the best part of the game in my opinion, and that sentiment doesn’t seem at all rare among the fanbase. Each Persona game has a fairly distinct style to its soundtrack, and the newest instalment’s genre is decidedly acid jazz. This means it’s got an abundance of amazing bass lines, which work perfectly with the electric piano and guitars, all held together by drums. Various other sounds that I couldn’t quite place are heard every now and then too, and I’ve had a bit too much fun trying to find out which instruments they each come from—so far I’ve discovered the existence of the vibraphone, jazz organ, koto, and zurna. The vocalist Lyn Inaizumi is incredible on the handful of songs she appears on while the instrumentals are incredibly catchy and perfect mood-setters, the majority of them being laid back and relaxed while still very musically interesting. They also make great studying music, which is always a plus. 

The soundtrack was probably the most important contributor to my overall enjoyment of the game. It elevated every second of gameplay, making everything that much more exciting. I even enjoyed taking exams in this game because the exam track is just that good. After listening to the soundtrack for an uncountable number of hours inside and out of the game, it has not gotten old in the slightest and I will undoubtedly be listening to it for years to come. 

Persona 5 (as well as 3 and 4) have two distinct sections of gameplay, dungeon-crawling and daily life. The former is good by all means (it makes turn-based combat surprisingly interesting) but the game is easily at its best when it’s simulating the seemingly mundane. Aside from the fact that you play as a consciousness-invading vigilante, you’re also a normal high school student, and the game reminds you of this by giving you loads of time to mess around in the city. You can spend time with friends, get a job, go to the cinema and so much more, which makes exploring the world and discovering everything it has to offer so much fun. I’m specifically interested however in the first thing I mentionedspending time with the various side characters. There are about a dozen Confidants, side characters found in various places around the city, who each have their own story that develops as you spend more time with them and strengthen your bond. Doing so also gives you unique advantages and abilities that can help you out in battle, give you access to better equipment, or help you use your limited time more efficiently. For example, you can become the assistant of a has-been politician and learn how to better negotiate with enemies by listening to his speeches, or learn the value of the tactical retreat by learning shogi from an aspiring pro.  

I really like this system. You’re lured into spending time with each of your Confidants by the promise of new abilities, but in doing so you also uncover new depth to their character and aid them in each completing their own mini character arc, usually ending with some noticeable optimistic-yet-realistic character developmentSome of the characters are also just so much fun to hang out with, which leads to the situations and interactions often being surprisingly endearing and even funnyDespite a lot of the characters being fairly simple, I became really invested in (most of) them, and I eventually found that crucial to my enjoyment of the game and especially of the ending. In my first playthrough I didn’t pay enough attention to the Confidant system and because of that I left the game unsatisfied, but after I realised my mistake, I replayed the game on New Game+, using what I learned from the first run to be much more efficient with my time and to get my priorities straight. I had intended to max out all my Confidant bonds and complete various other achievements, and in the end, I had reached rank ten with all but one Confidant (so close!)causing my opinion on the ending of the game to do a complete 180.  

Yusuke, the best character

This also speaks volumes about the replay value of the game. Persona 5 is a long, long game. Despite spending 120 hours completing my first run, I discovered just as much, if not more new things the second time through. Even now, after just over 230 hours of playtime, there are still some things I want to go back and do. Granted, a sizable portion of the replayability is due to the very in-depth fusion mechanics, which might not be as appealing to players who don’t get enjoyment out of spending an ungodly amount of time becoming incredibly overpowered in order sweep the floor with all the hardest bosses, but I won’t get into all that now.  

Contrary to what you might gather from its almost too dedicated fanbase, Persona 5 is not perfect and does have some noticeable flaws, but that’s almost irrelevant when it does so many things so much better than anything else on the market. For me, it’s the three things I mentioned above that seamlessly come together to elevate this already great game to a new favourite of mine. If any of this sounds interesting to you, go ahead and give Persona 5 a shot; it’s well worth the investment.  

Photo credits:  Atlus co., Ltd