Note: I tried to write as broadly and vaguely as possible in this preview because of spoilers, but I do talk a bit about the game's opening scene, some characters, and some of its new mechanics. If you want to go in blind, be wary! And obviously don't read any previews.
There’s an unfuckwithable coolness in the air when I play the opening 20 or so hours of Persona 5. Persona 5 is, in every essence of its carved-out blend of the JRPG and slice-of-life genre, a Persona game; just like its widely adored predecessors Persona 4 and Persona 3. But even more so, it’s a showcase of unmatchable lavish style. As if its developers saw the praise of the pristine design that permeated within Persona 3, Persona 4, and Catherine, and proceeded to say, “Hold my drink,” before cooking up something even more jaw-dropping. The result is a game where just its menus will dazzle you, but it's everything else that takes your breath away.
Persona 5 immediately plops you into the fanciful boots of a nameless protagonist (I named mine Chip Skylark, in accordance to my tradition to naming RPG characters after something I’ll regret 50 hours deep). He’s in the midst of a casino-bound robbery of sorts, and he’s wearing a masquerade mask, a devilishly good-looking floor-length coat, and a smirk on his face. When he runs forward, he sometimes slightly adjusts his crimson red gloves. Our protagonist is cool and confident just like the hero of any Studio Trigger-produced anime. Or perhaps better compared, just like the game he resides in.
Persona 5’s initial set-up throws you into the heat of phantom thievery. You’re leaping across chandeliers, you’re battling shadows, and you’re doing it all with impeccable style as a Shoji Meguro track soundtracks your sly escape. The turn-based battles in Persona 5 are quick, fun, strategic. You summon your Persona not by flinging a Tarot card or putting a gun to your temple: but by painfully ripping off a mask that removes your skin in the process (and might be the most metal thing I’ve ever seen).
In keeping with the game’s overt Arséne Lupin-inspired motif (the coffee shop you live at is literally named Leblanc), every menu looks like a thief's calling card: from your pause menu to your battle options. All-out attacks leave shadows gushing blood in a silhouette in the distance, as a character cheekily poses victoriously with a smirk in a still screen. If you hit an enemy’s weakness, suddenly—guns drawn—you’re talking a shadow into giving you an item, more money, or joining your personal team of personas. If you’ve played other Shin Megami Tensei games, then demon negotiating is nothing new; but in Persona 5 it’s implemented seamlessly. And there’s something inherently cool about being the charismatic thief who will also smooth talk and rob their enemies blind if given the chance.
At its core, Persona 5 is still a game about wrestling with what it’s like to be a teenager, and all the baggage that comes with that (from crushes to exams—you know the drill). I can see my protagonist scribbling down something in his afternoon diary like, “Dear diary, my teen angst has a body count.” Up to the second Palace in Persona 5, our hero struggles through exams, maintaining friendships, eating enormous burgers, and taking down two nefarious Palace owners (dungeons where evil doers’ seedy desires manifest; similar to the Midnight Channel’s manifestations of human consciousness from Persona 4). And given the nine(!) years it’s been since we saw a proper entry in the Persona series, it all feels like visiting an old friend.
Persona 5 is a game with morally complex heroes. There’s your smart-ass, outcast protagonist. There’s Ryuji, your punk-styled partner-in-crime, with a backstory that justifies his anarchic rage at the world. There’s Ann, the blonde, bright-eyed girl whose beauty intimidates everyone around her, thus alienating her. There’s Morgana, the cat-like pal you encounter in the first Palace, and joins your team as a friend (Persona 5’s answer to Persona 4’s Teddie and Persona 3’s Koromaru). Later, the aspiring young artist Yusuke joins the ranks. The band of Phantom Thieves, the name they dub their Persona-summoning team, all have something in common: they’ve all been screwed over by adults and the establishment, and they seek justice.
And Persona 5 knows about what it’s like to be victimized as a teenager. Adults are awful and take advantage of you. They’ll ignore you, ostracize you, make you feel worthless. They, like the Will Smith song says, just don’t understand. Adults are positioned as the constant enemy, whether they’re the heads of Palaces or others you encounter in your daily life. And teens, with wits and Persona-summoning to spare, are the only ones who can steal their hearts and save the day.
It’s easy to compare Persona 5 to its predecessors Persona 4 and Persona 3. In a lot of ways, Persona 5 is shaping up to be an amalgamation of the two. The darker shift in tone leans more into the ominous, apocalyptic vibe of Persona 3, though the game establishes a more grounded end-goal, like the whodunit of Persona 4. The procedural dungeons of Persona 3’s Tartarus take shape in Persona 5’s semi-optional Mementos (a series of randomized dungeons that you trek through via your very own catbus). And despite residing in the big city of Tokyo, the Phantom Thieves have a narrowed focus on their local targets, with a bond more akin to the Investigation Team of Inaba. Where Persona 3’s central theme is mortality and the inescapability of death, and Persona 4’s is the importance of friendship, Persona 5’s thematic thread appears to be justice, and the wishy-washy definition that can take hold.
Of course, Persona 5 has all the blessed mundanities you know from past games: from watching a movie in a theater to spending time with a Confidant (Persona 5’s version of Social Links). One of the first things you do in Persona 5, beyond its exciting opening, is lovingly banal. My protagonist is on his way to school on his first day, and I have to navigate him through a maze different from the casino-bound chandeliers I leaped across in the game’s opening: the metro stations of Tokyo. He waltzes through the JL stations, scanning his commuter pass frequently. I realize we were walking the wrong direction, turn back, paid closer attention to reading the signs, and found our way to the correct line to make it to school.
And honestly, aside from its singular, ever-stylish look, that’s what makes the Persona series so special. That it’s not just about saving the world, saving a town, or saving innocents from omnipresent evils: that it’s about enjoying the quieter things in life too. That you can befriend the local controversial experimental doctor, work a part-time job in Shibuya, or enjoy studying at a diner with your friends before a big test. And you can take on demonic shadows in the dead of night. And like its predecessors, Persona 5 makes its slice-of-life elements purposeful—anything you partake in will likely boost a stat, or inch you closer to a Confidant, thus making your Personas more powerful.
There’s still so much more I haven’t seen in Persona 5 (in addition to more that I plain cannot talk about yet). But in the meantime, I'm hardpressed to point out a game with more flair. Its sluggish start, instead of feeling slow, eases you into getting to know the characters. And so far, it's made turn-based battles energetic and fun (and honestly, may just be the most fun I’ve had with any turn-based game). I’m still working through Persona 5, and you can expect my full thoughts (beyond the game’s second Palace) when our review of the game goes live on March 29th, 9 a.m. PST.