Persona 5 Import Preview: Two Hours and I'm Already Hooked

Can it just be February already?

I'm about two hours into Persona 5 and I only sort of know what's going on. I know that the main character had a run-in with the law, that there are strange things afoot in Tokyo, and... is that teacher naked under that royal cape? Yep, it's definitely Persona.

I kicked off my time with Persona 5 yesterday via a stream, where I joined with a bunch of other readers in enjoying the initial hours of Atlus's opus. Normally I wouldn't import a game that I'm planning on reviewing in just a few short months, but I just couldn't wait. Besides, Jeremy said I could expense it (thanks boss!)

What I've found so far is both familiar and very different. The basic premise is much the same: You star as a new transfer who is attending a Japanese high school by day and battling the supernatural by night. You can make connections with your fellow students, work odd jobs, and study - all of which bolsters the superpowered Persona within you. It's a formula that has proven extremely successful for Atlus, vaulting the series out of the RPG fringes in America and into the limelight.

But in other respects, it's very different. Unlike Persona 3 and 4, Persona 5 is set in a recognizable location—namely, Tokyo. And unlike in previous games, your character is not an instantly popular newcomer, but an outcast branded as a criminal. It even starts differently, opening with a chase through a casino that sees the main character leaping from chandelier to chandelier before finally getting nabbed by about a hundred cops. The bulk of the story is treated as an extended flashback as we're shown how he got to that point, with periodic returns to the interrogation room serving to frame the story.

The shift in tone is aided by the stylized presentation, which features probably the most attractive user interface I've ever seen in a game. Its hand-drawn profile shots and cut-ins, slick transitions, and stylish info boxes are beautiful while doing their part to build up the overall mood. It's hard to describe just how gorgeous Persona is, but take my word for it when I say that that this game is just a pure delight in motion. If we're getting a hundred hours of this, then the seven years we've had to wait are well worth it.

Persona 5's impressive presentation helps to mitigate its somewhat slow start, which lays the groundwork for the hundred hours or so to come. Though a bit faster-paced than the glacial Persona 4, we're still treated to our hero moving into his new home—a coffee house in a Tokyo alley—meeting some of the cast, and commuting to school. We also get glimpses of strange events, such as a subway derailment that occurs when the train driver is seemingly possessed by a demonic force. And, of course, this wouldn't be anime if we didn't get period cuts to a strange old man behind a desk who is apparently pulling all of the strings.

But while Persona 5 takes its time, I wouldn't exactly say that its boring. The groundwork it lays is interesting; and while it took a good 45 minutes to get to the first real battle after the intro, I wasn't exactly checking my watch. Atlus knows how to set up an intriguing mystery, and that is once again evident in Persona 5.

Things start to pick up when you arrive at school to find it replaced by a mysterious castle. With your new companion—Ryuji, who is kind of a cross between Persona 3's Junpei and Persona 4's Kanji—you venture in to find spear-bearing demons and, um, an interestingly dressed teacher who has seemingly been possessed (or perhaps is an avatar of some sort, like the shadow forms in Persona 4). Upon your escape from the castle's dungeon, you find Morgana—the cat-like mascot following in the footsteps of Persona 4's Teddy, who both introduces you to this new world and helps you to escape it.

Your initial run through this castle serves as your introduction to the game's first real dungeon as well as its first major arc—a common Persona trope. Where Persona 5 differs, though, is that this dungeon is clearly hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated like in the previous games. That enables Persona 5 squeeze in some traversal puzzles and more interesting level geometry, both of which serve to vary things up and make dungeon runs feel like less of a grind.

You also get your first real introduction to the battle system here, which is similar to that of Persona 4 in that you battle demons with a combination of weapons and powers granted by the story's eponymous demons. As in the previous games, your goal is to find a demon's weak point with physical and magical skills (and guns!), which grants you an extra turn to attack. Battles are brisk and usually end within a minute or two; but lest you get too confident, demons can occasionally hit hard and do some serious damage to your party. They usually show up in the second or third dungeon, though, which is when you really want to get into the Persona fusion—the signature system underpinning much of the game's mechanical depth. It's here that forging connections with your classmates pays off, as it lets you get more powerful demons faster, which is the most expedient way to become stronger in Persona.

Following your initial exploration of the castle, the game proper finally gets going in earnest as you start attending school, the first day which concludes with a trip to the rooftop—a familiar meeting location in Persona. There Ryuji wonders if the run through the castle was just a dream and ponders whether it can be recreated. Of course it can be recreated, which leads to the deeper mystery of just what the hell is going on. It's all very Persona in that respect, and it's great.

I'm on record as saying that I'm a huge fan of the last two Persona games—particularly Persona 4—and while Persona 5 is already fairly different from either of those games, it still made me feel right at home. Once I dispensed with the intro and finally started attending school in earnest, all I wanted to do was keep right on playing through the first arc and beyond. I've gotta say, if this is how I feel while playing Persona 5 in Japanese, then I really can't wait to play it in English.

We've been waiting a long time for Persona 5, and the hype leading up to its release has been unbelievable among the fanbase in both Japan and North America. I'm not going to say that it lives up to the ridiculous expectations being put upon it after just two hours, but I will say that I'm legitimately blown away by the care Atlus has put into its presentation. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it's already the most beautiful JRPG I've already played. Your move, Final Fantasy XV.

Seriously, can it just be February already?

Tagged with Atlus, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Previews, Role Playing Games, USgamer.

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