I have confession for you: As much as I ultimately loved Persona 4, I never really cared for its dungeons.
For me, at least, the dungeons were kind of a nuisance—something to get through so I could get back to building social links and attacking Rainy Day Special Mega Beef Bowls. Often, I would blitz a dungeon in a single day in an effort to get through it as fast as possible. I was determined not to waste a single day that could be spent enjoying the day-to-day activities that I considered the real core of the game.
Spoilers for the first two dungeons in Persona 5 follow.
So far, Persona 5 has been different. I've actually enjoyed the dungeons, which feel like an arc unto themselves. They tie into the themes of the story in a way that Persona 4 never quite managed.
It begins when you meet Suguru Kamoshida—a former Olympian turned volleyball coach who is tormenting the athletes at the main character's school. You first glimpse him when he offers your character and a mysterious girl—later revealed to be Ann Takamaki—a ride to school. The scene represents Kamoshida at his most relaxed and disarming, but also serves to put him in a position of dominance. Interestingly, both of Persona 5's initial villains are riding in cars when they're first introduced, highlighting that they have the money and power to purchase what is a luxury item in Tokyo.
It doesn't take long for Kamoshida to establish himself as a significant foe. He's a petty tyrant who instantly dislikes the main character, and he immediately spreads word of the his criminal record. In the Metaverse, an alternate universe that literally reflects the emotions of the real world, his desires manifest as King Kamoshida—a leering figure wearing nothing but a royal cape and pink bikini underwear who literally treats his charges as slaves. The fight to expose Kamoshida in the real world is mirrored by your progress through his dungeon, which is depicted as a castle.
Immediately, Persona 5 separates itself from its predecessors with intricate, bespoke dungeons featuring thematically appropriate traps—a far cry from the barren hallways of Persona 4. Rather than simply trying to reach "the end," your goal is to perpetrate a heist and steal the villain's treasure, which is the manifestation of all their twisted desires. In Kamoshida's case, it's a crown representing his belief that he rules the high school like a king.
The path to the treasure is a long series of obstacle-ridden rooms and corridors, occasionally broken up by locked doors and even a few light puzzles. A new cover mechanic gives it a bit of a stealthy flavor, enabling you to leap out from behind a wall and engage enemies at will. Respite is found in safe rooms, which you can beam back to at your leisure from the dungeon's entrance, giving you incentive to break up your expeditions into discrete chunks.
As in the previous games in the series, it's theoretically possible to take the dungeon in one sitting, but it's not easy; and even if you make it all the way through, story gates will occasionally force you back into the real world. In the second dungeon, for example, a locked door forces the gang to scout the villain's house, subsequently revealing his secret—he is a scam artist who profits by selling copies of his most famous work through back channels. Armed with that knowledge, you can then unlock the mental block and press onward into the second part of the dungeon.
Things get progressively stranger as you delve deeper and deeper into the villain's psyche. Kamoshida's castle becomes fragmentary and confused as you get closer to his treasure, with tiles floating in the air and staircases erupting from the floor. The second dungeon—a sprawling museum filled with cheap art—has you navigate a room by running through a series of portraits, then drops you into an M.C. Escher-like series of staircases in which you can only advance by properly identifying the correct version of the villain's stolen painting.
As you progress, you have multiple encounters with both the real-world and Metaverse versions of the antagonist, firmly establishing them as Bad People Who Really Need to Go Down. Kamoshida is especially odious, driving a student to attempt suicide after Takamaki refuses to have sex with him, then moving to get the main character and his friends expelled. In Kamoshida's castle, the shadow version of Takamaki is reduced to a seductress wearing nothing but lingerie and cat ears, illuminating his real opinion of both Takamaki and women in general. When all is said and done, you really want to end him.
The climactic moment comes when you finally establish an infiltration route and prepare to send a calling card—a message that alerts the villain that they are about to be exposed, making their treasure appear so that it can be stolen. When you deliver your first calling card, Kamoshida flashes briefly to his alternate self and delivers a simple challenge: "Come... Steal it, if you can!" As if you need any more reason to be hyped for your final showdown.
When you enter the dungeon for the final time, the music shifts to an instrumental version of "Life Will Change," the driving Shoji Meguro tune that plays the first time you see the Phantom Thieves, heightening the mood still further. In true Persona fashion, King Kamoshida transforms into a gruesome monster—a melty Cronenbergian horror with horns, rolling eyes, and a really, really big tongue. On the face of it, this fight isn't so different from other battles in the series, but it does differ in a couple key respects. First, Kamoshida isn't some faceless shadow demon, but a villain who torments you for the first several hours of the game, making him eminently satisfying to kill. Second, there's a neat bit of strategy in which you have to send a party member to steal his crown while he's distracted, accentuating the idea that you are thieves stealing a treasure.
The initial chapter culminates in Kamoshida bursting into a school assembly and tearfully confessing his guilt for all to see. It's slightly cheesy, but it's cathartic to watch him sob on his knees as he admits his sins, giving the final scene the character of a morality play. It's the idealized version of what we'd like to see from some of our real-life villains, particularly politicians.
When it was all done, I felt slightly exhausted but satisfied. It was similar to the feeling that I would have whenever I finished a season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, accentuated by the fact that both the dungeons in Persona 5 and the seasons in Buffy are dominated by a primary villain. It was markedly different from the feeling of relief I had whenever I finished up a dungeon in Persona 4, or reached a milestone in Persona 3's Tartarus. I wasn't just trying to get through the dungeon for the sake of getting it done. It felt like a fully-fleshed out part of the story.
Up until this point, dungeons have felt like kind of a necessary evil in Persona 3 and 4—something that you would finish for the sake of advancing the story, but wouldn't necessarily look forward to. The bland textures, randomized layouts, and grinding floor-by-floor progression didn't help. Persona 5 clearly improves on that.
"We wanted to fill the dungeons in Persona 5 with thrilling sequences that suited the Phantom Thieves theme, with challenges that would require the protagonist to consult his teammates to overcome," director Katsura Hashino told me when I asked him about the dungeons earlier this month. "We also that thought people who played the previous game would appreciate a drastic change to the dungeon system. Because gameplay in Persona 4 was balanced between high school life, the major story sequences, and dungeon exploration, we kept dungeons randomly generated in service to resource allocation. It was a big decision to change that approach for Persona 5. We thought it would give the game additional appeal to even more players, making it the culmination of Atlus’ RPG pedigree. This thought process let us concentrate on development with a clear goal in mind."
I wouldn't necessarily call Persona 5's dungeons my favorite part of the game—I'd still rather be wandering the streets of Shibuya when it comes down to it—but they do represent a rather substantial step forward for the series. At the very least, they no longer feel like an overt weakness.