In my preview of Persona 5, all those weeks ago, I deemed the latest romp from Atlus as a game with “unfuckwithable” style. As the game evolved from then on, I only saw that statement grow more true. As I loitered in gun shops, struck a home run at an indoor baseball range, and negotiated demons to join my persona ranks, every glimmer of menu was finely embellished. In critic Nate Ewert-Krocker’s review of Persona 5 for Paste Magazine, he wrote, “After I spent a few hours navigating Persona 5’s slick-as-hell menus, I think Final Fantasy XV uninstalled itself from my PS4 out of shame.” Which, honestly, sums up the fresh JRPG's abrasive finesse itself.
Persona 5 wields a look that’s so singular in every asset of its being, that it’s nearly impossible for other games to compete. There are no other menus like the magazine-clipped letters that trickle within Persona 5’s. There are no battle interruptions that roll out like a frenetic, pristinely illustrated manga panel. Persona 5 knows RPGs are often a tedious slog of browsing menus, but turns that tired assumption onto its own head, making its UI one of the most prominent showcases of making it—I’ll say it again—unfuckwithable.
However, the Persona series is no stranger to strong UI, or even a dance with color theory. Persona 4, with its flourishes of yellow, swam across screens and ushered in pops of hope and happiness, which emanate from its eclectic investigative team. Persona 3, with its morose palette of blue, coupled the series’ trendy change in direction with a grimmer palette to match its reassessed style, and the game’s waltz with death. Persona 5’s emblematic crimson red is a color often associated with survival and will power, cozying itself in the prevalent themes in the game of breaking out of society’s expectations. The Persona games before it adhere to the grim-dark world of Shin Megami Tensei, before Persona 3 ushered the series into a new slick era. An era of sleek UI design, that is.
There are other games in recent memory with purposeful and polished UI design. Nier Automata, a game of 2017 that took me by complete surprise, has menus that are embedded in the psyche of the androids you control. They're simple, clean, and most of all, incredibly beige. Your extra abilities are rendered as “chips,” which you can “install” via the menu. Upon waking up for the first time past the prologue, another android assists you in rebooting your new shell—a task that consists of setting up your brightness and other game settings, only expressed via its narrative scenario. Nier Automata plays with its UI beyond this too, in ways I will not spoil.
On another spectrum entirely, Life is Strange is an adventure game about teenagers fumbling through life, except with supernatural abilities, a missing girl, and an end of the world twist tossed into the mix. In Life is Strange, its heroine Max catalogues every teeny tiny aspect of her life in her journal. Her friendships, her life, her polaroid selfies, all the blunders she faces are scribbled down. And her journal happens to be where the game’s menus and other interactions lie as well. Despite other grievances I have with the game (*coughs* you can’t give a narrative-driven game a pass for its good intentions when they’re pedaled by extremely horrible dialogue), its menus feel right at home, and I can imagine the artistically inclined Max actually doodling in them if she were real. It rings similar to Persona 5 even, where saving is marked by writing in your probationary diary, recollecting your days.
Persona 5, like all these games before it, are the rarities that care about the UI its players will have to navigate time and time again. In Nier Automata, it feels like another notch on the game’s already subversive belt. In Life is Strange, it feels pertinent in its realm of woeful teens. For Persona 5, everything feels like another calling card that the Phantom Thieves themselves might send, but with a touch more pizazz.
All too often, a game’s UI (including and beyond its menus) exists in a vacuum. Where the only aesthetic similarity is a vague stylistic adherence, and nothing more. In decades' past, this was a difficult constraint due to resources, of course, and technological limitations. Where nearly every JRPG was plagued with those dang simple blue boxes for text until the 3D era reared its head. It’s only been in the recent years—what with the emphatically cool Splatoon, or before it, the anarchic pop of Jet Set Radio—that games’ UI is being tapped as another essential stylistic component to thread a game together. To tear out of the vacuum it was born in, and shimmy its way into the forefront of game design and not be tossed off as an aside. Good UI design will get you far, and Persona 5 may be the most successful beacon of that truth to date.