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A Persona 5 Catharsis

Joshua Carpenter

I've been struggling with how I feel about Persona 5 since I finished it. It's a game with eight years of expectations hanging overhead, and that sort of hype is difficult to meet. The hype existed for good reason: Persona 3 was a revolutionary game merging classic dungeon crawling the Shin Megami Tensei games are known for with dating sim elements that games like Tokimeki Memorial pioneered back in the 90s. It combined these elements with a unique sense of style and a soundtrack that perfectly captured the mood of the game. It stood out from the beginning when you enter the midnight hour, humans turn to coffins, and SEES members pointed gun shaped evokers at their heads to summon Personas. Persona 3 changed the way JRPGs were made, to the point where JRPGs are now influenced by Persona more than by modern Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games. Persona 4, coming just two years after Persona 3, was the evolution of Persona 3's revolution. Persona 4 expanded social links to the entire main cast and most importantly improved the battle system by giving the player control of the entire party instead of just the main character. So, while it didn't change the formula like Persona 3 did, it improved and refined the gameplay to make it palatable to a wider audience.

Coming into Persona 5, I was hoping for something on the order of the revolution that Persona 3 delivered to the JRPG scene. Of course, that wasn't terribly realistic, so I was expecting at least another small improvement over Persona 4, further refining of the formula that Persona 3 created. Unfortunately, I don't think Persona 5 even reached that level; merely providing more Persona with a new set of problems.

Before diving into criticisms, there were some things that I thought Persona 5 did well. The art design continues to be a strength as it is unique, interesting, and fitting for the game; I appreciate how the developers incorporated the style throughout the game, even down into the menus and loading screens. The battle system, even though there were only a few tweaks made from Persona 4 such as the Baton Pass and mapping the controls to individual buttons, continues to be one of the quickest and most fluid turn-based system in RPGs. I also thought the overarching plot was generally well done, and I especially appreciated the attempt to incorporate the modern political problems of Japan into the story. Finally, Morgana was a fantastic mascot character and easily my favorite of the main cast; he stands up with the best of the characters from the Persona series, and I really enjoyed his story and character development.

Unfortunately, that's where the positive ended for me with Persona 5. I should start out by admitting that a good bit of my negativity toward Persona 5 comes from a lack of connection with the main cast outside of Morgana. It's difficult for me to put my finger on what's causing that because there aren't any characters that I dislike and I don't think any of the characters are poorly written. †For whatever reason, these characters were just a big pile of meh for me, and it's difficult to get through a hundred-plus hour narrative experience when you only really care about one of the characters involved.

I do think there were some flaws with the characters that weren't just a result of my personal taste. Specifically, the LGBTQ representation was glaringly bad. I don't expect Japanese media to be the best on these issues, but none of the main cast were openly gay and the only gay characters in Persona 5 were the over-the-top men who hit on Ryuji. I know Persona 4 wasn't perfect on this either, Yosuke's reactions to Kanji come to mind, but at least I felt like there was deftness in how Kanji and Naoto's characters were handled to balance that out. In Persona 5, the only time this comes up is as a "laugh at the creepy gay people" joke and that was gross.

While there weren't any characters that I disliked, Haru Okumura was a non-entity for me in this game. I know it's hard to add a character late in a game and have them feel like an integral part of the cast, but I feel like the developers dropped the ball completely with Haru. There is simply no development for her in the early part of the game; if you look she is in the background in a few cutscenes and a couple of random school characters mention her and that's it. The Persona team did a really good job setting up Naoto before she becomes a party member in Persona 4, and my memory of Persona 3 was that Shinjiro and Ken were introduced well before joining the team. Haru just shows up, she is so quiet that I never got a good sense of her character, and for some bizarre reason the developers decided to lock almost her entire social link behind level 5 Proficiency. Since I didn't reach that level until the end of the game, I never saw her story and didn't use her much in battle because all the bonuses that went with leveling up confidants were locked out. It was an odd decision that annoyed me playing the game and I still can't come up with a good explanation for it. Along with all of this, there are also major spoiler issues having to do with the game's antagonists that could likely fill another entire editorial and it's still a bit soon for writing about major plot twists.

Moving beyond the characters, I also was surprised to have problems with the mechanics of the game. The palace designs, while visually impressive, were not beyond reproach. I think that incorporating stealth mechanics into the personalized palaces was obviously a perfect thematic fit since the game is about a group of phantom thieves, unfortunately the implementation of the system was janky. It was jarring in the very first palace to have the camera stick on walls and to not be able to manipulate it with ease to see the enemies you were hiding from. Maybe it sounds like a petty complaint, but attacking enemies from stealth to gain an advantage, and perhaps more importantly to avoid the enemy attacking first and getting an advantage, is key in Persona dungeon crawling. When the stealth worked and you were darting from hiding point to hiding point it was great, but then you would dart into stealth and be staring at a wall and unable to get the camera pointed at the enemy and everything comes crashing to a halt. It was an unpolished mechanic that I was surprised to find in a Persona game. Also, I think it got worse as the game moved on as later palaces didn't seem to be designed as well to incorporate the stealth mechanics, leaving the player running across large areas with nowhere to hide or fiddling with the aim trying to find the narrow spot that would allow you to "jump" forward. It felt like the developers ran out of time to polish this mechanic and just incorporated it fully into the game regardless, a sin that would be easier to forgive if it had not been eight years since the last game.

Poor pacing was another problem I had with Persona 5. Persona 3 and 4 were both long games that had some pacing problems of their own, but a few decisions by the developers made things worse in Persona 5. The addition of demon negotiation added lots of dialog for very little gain. Admittedly, I've never been a fan of this mechanic; it always sounds better in theory than in practice. †Being able to talk to demons, bribe them, convince them to join you sounds cool, but I find it ends up being tedious. I'm sure itís great for the people who are attempting to 100% the compendium, being able to specifically target demons to recruit, but if not these are boring, repetitive conversations that you are required to have all too often. I will say this is the least offensive implementation of this mechanic that I've experienced in an Shin Megami Tensei game, but I just don't think it's worth hundreds of boring conversations for the few times I might smirk at something a demon says.

I also felt that pacing between the story and dungeons was poorly handled. This is a problem that appeared in Persona 4 as well, because the dungeon crawling takes place during the day, it competes with social links for your limited in-game days. This lead me in Persona 4 and 5 to attempt to limit the amount of in-game days spent in the dungeons so I could maximize the amount of time I had available to spend working on social links. This leads to long stretches of dungeon crawling followed by long stretches of story with no combat. Now, I know this is partially my own OCD that's leading to this sub-optimum gameplay style, but the Persona team has already handled this better back in Persona 3. Persona 3 had a physical condition system where the main character and the other party members would become tired after too many battles in Tartarus. After an hour or so, the game would essentially give you a nudge to break up the battles with some story, and because most of the social links were during the day while Tartarus runs were at night, there wasn't much pressure about leaving and coming back the next in-game day. I assume Persona 4 and 5 dropped this because dungeon crawling moved to the day out of realism since the characters are all living at home instead of in a dorm. I like realism to ground a game as much as the next person, but this seems like an area where the developers should compromise a bit for fun and pacing. Maybe in the next Persona game there could be a time mechanic where you could do five floors of a dungeon and still have time for a social link, or I don't see a reason why the developers couldn't wave their hands and say that time works differently in the dungeon so that dungeon crawling doesn't prevent you from doing other things. The developers already seem to recognize this as a problem as the ability from maxing the Temperance confidant allows the player to engage in other activities at night instead of having Morgana telling you that you are too tired to go out.†I guess as I get older, I just want to be able to play the game, experience everything I want to see, and move on to the next thing as I have less and less patience for gameplay contrivances that get in the way of that.

Finally, the problem that exacerbates all the others for me: the length. Persona 5 was way too long for my tastes; it took me 130 hours to beat the game on easy. I know that I'm not the fastest player in the world, but I beat Persona 3 in 100 hours and Persona 4 in 90 hours, and I played both of those games on normal difficulty. Considering the length of the story, I don't think the developers needed both individualized palaces and the Mementos random dungeon crawling. I appreciate that they were trying to create specialized palaces that worked with the stealth mechanics and still have random dungeons for the series fans, but it was just too much. After a five-hour palace that I crammed into one in-game day, did there really need to be another ten floors of random dungeons to explore? Suffice it to say, this was the first time with a Persona game that I was ready for it to be over long before it was.

Saying this makes me feel like a crotchety old man, but when a game asks you to spend hundred-plus hours with it I expect the game to be a homerun. Unfortunately, Persona 5 missed the mark for me. I think a great deal of that comes from my failure to connect with the cast. When you are struggling to have fun with a game, which I was toward the end, the flaws really stick out. After eight years elapsing since Persona 4, I expected the execution to be improved and I think they are going in the wrong direction in several areas: character setup, LGBTQ representation, stealth mechanic implementation, dungeon pacing, and the overall length of the game. Hopefully, it doesn't take the Persona team eight more years to take another crack at the formula, and after writing this, I'm hoping they come up with something closer to Persona 3 than Persona 5.

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