Like night follows day, like rebirth follows a demon's execution, "upgraded" iterations of Persona games follow the original release. Persona 3 has FES, Persona 4 has Golden, and Persona 5 brings us Royal, all decked out in shades of blood and ebony.
Like previous Persona upgrades, Persona 5 Royal isn't a sequel. It's better to think of it as an "ultimate" version of the game that you buy as a whole experience in lieu of downloading new content piece by piece. Roughly 30% of Persona 5 Royal is new territory. There are two new confidants (including a new party member) and a new semester. There are new Personas, a whack of new items, and certain storylines have been overhauled. There's a new area—Kichijoji—that's full of fun distractions. It also has a shop that turns piles of throwaway sooty armor into useful items, praise God. Palaces and boss fights have been tweaked. Mementos received some extra care and is now a lot more interesting to explore thanks to challenges issued by a mysterious (and adorable) boy named Jose.
This is just a brief summary. If you're a Persona 5 superfan like myself, you'll feel the perfect mix of nostalgia and wonder as you visit your favorite locales and take note of the big and small changes around you. Yes, you're looking at another 100+ hours of your life, easy, but I've been waiting for the "upgraded" version of Persona 5 since I finished the first game in 2017. I'm sure some fellow fanatics have likewise been itching to regroup with Shujin Academy's misfits and outcasts.
Persona 5 Royal is also the way to go if you're interested in joining the Phantom Thieves for the first time. Persona 5 is still one of the most stylish RPGs on the market. While there are scattered moments in Persona 5 Royal that demonstrate not everything about the game has aged wrinkle-free, it won't disappoint you if you're looking for a deep RPG that's as much about forming connections as beating up monsters.
Like its predecessor, Persona 5 Royal is political as hell. The core theme is still all about corruption and manipulation, and the tendency for society's strongest to prey upon the weak. The "Phantom Thieves of Hearts"—that's you—are capable of slipping into a twisted dimension where the desires of particularly heinous people take physical form as "Treasures." When these Treasures are stolen, the target's pride crumbles, and they confess their crimes in public.
Authority is the enemy in Persona 5 Royal. Most of the targets you go up against are cruel beyond description. You start with a haughty gym teacher who sexually abuses his female students and beats players who don't perform to his standards. Next, a famous artist who plagiarizes his students' paintings is confronted. There's also a mob boss who runs a sex trafficking ring, and a CEO who runs a burger empire on the backs of his miserable employees. Adults who can potentially speak up for their kids clam up because they don't want to risk their livelihoods.
When director Katsura Hashino developed Persona 5, he had Japan's politics and problems in mind. "Persona 5 is unabashedly Japanese, going so far as to cover Japanese politics a bit," Hashino told USgamer Editor-in-Chief Kat Bailey in a 2017 email interview. "I can’t imagine what kind of response that will garner from western fans."
Turns out western fans are extremely responsive. Persona 5 was a smash hit worldwide. Though Japan's social and economic problems are unique to its culture, they're still relatable on a general level. "Playing Persona 5 feels especially salient in today's political climate, no matter where you reside in the world," USgamer senior editor Caty McCarthy writes in her review of the game. "Here in the United States, with the ongoing BlackLivesMatter movement among dozens of other like-minded movements, coupled with a frankly controversial leader in office, the country has followed a similar fashion of showing intense opposition to discrimination, hate speech, and the abusive people that reside in places of power."
There's no denying playing Persona 5 Royal triggers a strong wish that someone in the real world will somehow develop the power to "steal hearts." Society wasn't in a good place when Persona 5 was localized in 2017, but Persona 5 Royal is joining us while we're adrift in the fog of the COVID-19 virus pandemic. And Trump's attempt to poach a potential vaccine for exclusive use by the United States tells you everything you need to know about the state of the leaders who are supposed to be our guides in this difficult time.
Even in 2017, Persona 5's villains felt a little too on-the-nose, like bad guys in a Saturday morning cartoon. Playing Persona 5 Royal in 2020, however, I barely sense a jot of exaggeration from Kamoshida's acts of cruelty, or from Kaneshiro's sneering threats to ruin the Phantom Thieves' lives. Over the past year alone, we've seen the system break down time and time again when people in positions of power are called on to take consequences for their actions. The people in control of our lives answer to no one, and they don't care who gets caught in their talons as they struggle to cling to their authority. They will never apologize, never confess.
It's hardly an even trade-off, but that's why infiltrating Palaces in Persona 5 Royal, cleaning out the bad guys' sins, and turning them into sobbing, simpering messes feels more satisfying than ever. Justice and mercy might not exist in the real world, but it's alive in Persona 5 Royal's metaverse. Whenever you call up a Persona to mangle a corrupt teacher or CEO, you experience the rare feeling of being in complete control of the world's problems. It's a rush.
Sex, Lies, and #MeToo
Persona 5 Royal's political storyline "angries up the blood," to quote The Simpsons, and bringing society's foulest predators to their knees is excellent motivation throughout its 100+ hour campaign. But one of the most unfortunate aspects of Persona 5 carries over into Royal: Despite the game's firm call-out against sexual harassment, all the ogling and catcalling at party member Ann Takamaki remains intact.
Ann Takamaki enters the metaverse as "Panther," a fiery fighter in a tight leather catsuit. Ann is one of Kamoshida's victims, so it'd be easy to accept that her cognition dresses her up in revealing clothes to take back the power Kamoshida siphoned from her. Unfortunately, Ann seems confused and embarrassed about her catsuit, and a choice potential story point is ignored in favor of lewd comments and jokes. Worse, Ann is coerced into posing nude for a painter shortly after Kamoshida is brought to justice. The nude painting never happens—and to be honest, Ann's attempts at stalling are funny—but there's never any acknowledgement that Ann, an abuse victim, might not be up to the task. We just get more of the "Ha-ha, tee-hee, isn't this naughty" giggling from the game's narrative.
I don't want Persona 5 Royal to erase the original game's uncomfortable story points. Instead, I'd like to see it talk to the audience like we're adults. Persona 5 Royal's politics hit hard; I don't think there's any place for silly boobie jokes that belong in discount shonen anime. I don't object to a storyline where Ann must pose nude if the Phantom Thieves hope to unlock the door that lets them access the second Palace. I just want acknowledgement from Ann's friends that she's gone through an extremely rough time, and that posing is a very big ask. From there, Ann reflects on her own strength, and decides to build herself up by taking the request—or she decides it's not in her, and the team helps her find an alternative.
Just as Persona 5 Royal's political story points now resonate like a big brass gong that's been struck by two-by-four, its sexual themes also look different in the light of today's cultural climate. The #MeToo movement has shifted considerable focus onto the struggles that women endure in life and in the workforce: everything from catcalling on the job to being expected to trade sexual favors for success. Watching Persona 5 Royal's flippant treatment of Ann's abuse made me want to shrivel into a little ball, crawl into a hole, and die.
Atlus' localizers have already demonstrated they're willing to change scenes where sexual harassment is played for laughs: the infamous scene where Ryuji is chased around by two stereotypically gay men is changed to the men encouraging the punk student to become a drag queen in Persona 5 Royal. Not everyone is going to regard the change as the perfect solution to the first release's gay panic, but at least the "joke" is no longer "Ha ha, gay men are goofy and gross." I doubt a revision of Ann's scenario would please everyone, but at least sexual harassment wouldn't be a punchline.
The story for Persona 5 Royal revolves around the internet, social media, and online culture. The Phantom Thieves enter the metaverse using an app. They track their popularity via message board comments. More than one antagonist threatens to "leak" information about their identities and crimes via pictures and recordings captured on smartphones.
Despite our hyper-connected world, it's interesting to note how some of the internet culture portrayed by Persona 5 in 2017 already feels aged. It's not enough to be seriously distracting or cringe-worthy, but when I see some of the acronyms users employ on the pro-Phantom Thieves "Phan-Site," it's enough to make me remember Persona 5 is already ancient in internet years.
Lord knows I'm not an expert on "Chan speak," and I'm not saying absolutely nobody types out "pics or it didn't happen" anymore, but when I see old acronyms these days, I see them in an ironic sense. In example, someone on Twitter might type "My cat blepped today," and someone will rightfully respond "pics or it didn't happen." It's still a call for proof, but in a much softer, general sense than it was in 2017.
Again, the diminishing relevance of Persona 5 Royal's internet slang doesn't detract from the story overall—definitely not on the level of the jokey response to Ann's harassment. Still, it'll be interesting to see how the slang affects Persona 5 Royal's narrative and atmosphere five, ten years from now.
Life Will Change (Except When it Stays the Same)
Despite my disappointment over missed opportunities to give certain story points the weight they deserve, Persona 5 Royal is still one of the best RPGs of this generation. Its style and sound are unmatched. Its story makes you furious, but the ability to actively do something about a world's problems—even if it's not your world—is immensely therapeutic. That alone makes it a good jumping-in point for Persona-curious RPG lovers who ache to kick God in the kidneys but lack the physical means of doing so. Just bulldoze your schedule before you start; all the added content in Persona 5 Royal hasn't made the already-hefty game any shorter.