Most of the time, gaming is a fairly solitary activity for me, but on occasion, there are games that my wife enjoys watching me play enough to drag her away from Final Fantasy XIV for an hour or two at a time.
Last year’s Persona 5 was one of those games, and thus rather than focusing on it as I do with the Cover Games for each month, “we’ve” been playing it rather casually over the course of the last year or so. The other night, we finally reached the end.
What better reason to reflect on a game that, according to some, represented a great renaissance for a Japanese games industry that had supposedly been “kind of bad” for years?
Persona 5 is good. Really good. The whole thing oozes with a sense of style quite unlike anything else out there, even outdoing its immediately recognisable predecessors with ease. The combination of its excellent, personality-filled character designs, Shoji Meguro’s trademark J-pop/funk/hip-hop fusion soundtrack for the series, the most orgasmic UI design in existence and a compelling, contemporary story makes for a great experience.
And yet, somehow, I find myself a little surprised that the mainstream masses — for once, press and public alike — latched on to this game so readily.
Why? Well, a number of reasons, really — perhaps most noticeably for me the fact that more so than any other Persona game, Persona 5 absolutely loves to talk. And talk. And talk. We’re talking sometimes upwards of two or three hours without actually “doing” anything interactive — least of all crawling dungeons, battling Shadows and collecting Personas, ostensibly the main “point” of the series to some. Previously, Persona 4 was notorious for taking several hours to really get rolling and both 3 and 4 in particular are very dialogue-heavy when you take the Social Link component into account… but Persona 5 throws up lengthy, mandatory narrative sequences every few in-game weeks, primarily to establish the cast’s motivation to continue with their quest into the next main “episode”. In great detail.
As a fan of visual novels, this aspect of the game of course doesn’t bother me personally in the slightest — but it does surprise me a little that this didn’t draw more ire from mainstream commentators and players. We live in a world where people will bounce off something as accessible and enjoyable as Ace Attorney because it is “too much reading”, for example, and where Hideo Kojima’s seminal Metal Gear Solid series is still the object of ridicule among some quarters for its lengthy cutscenes. And, indeed, where plenty of people complained about the aforementioned Persona 4’s lengthy opening sequence.
The reason for Persona 5’s heavy skew in favour of its narrative content is down to the fact that it is telling a rather complex, ambitious story. Previous Persona games have had no qualms in touching on mature, contemporary themes, but Persona 5 goes further than any of its predecessors. The first main “villain” of the game is a sex offender, after all, and the subsequent targets of the Phantom Thieves don’t get any less loathsome from there.
When dealing with complex and sensitive subjects — particularly those that may well have touched the lives of those experiencing the story — it’s important to handle them delicately and with respect. In Persona 5’s case, this means exploring them in detail, particularly through how they affect everyone involved in terms of their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. Dismiss something as serious as Kamoshida’s sexual abuse of his female students too quickly and the story just feels like it’s being edgy for the sake of it; explore it in detail, however, and you’re going to have to spend some time acknowledging the complexity of the situation.
The upshot of all this is that the hefty narrative buildup for each of the main episodes of the story leads to the more interactive parts of the game carrying real meaning. By the time you’re taking the Phantom Thieves into the Palace of any of the game’s villains, you have a solid understanding of who this person is, what they’ve done, who they’ve hurt — and perhaps a hint of why they’re doing this sort of thing. Even the most loathsome of the game’s villains aren’t one-dimensional caricatures; they all raise some interesting questions and discussions.
Unfortunately, the same cannot quite be said of the more incidental missions that occur in the game’s main ongoing dungeon, Mementos. This huge, gradually expanding and randomly generated dungeon represents the collective unconscious of the general public, and consequently after a certain point in the story you often receive requests to head in there and change the heart of random other people who are being real shitheads. These little mini-stories, despite often involving some serious cases of crime and abuse, don’t carry anywhere near the same feeling of “importance” as the main clashes of the narrative — perhaps understandably so, as otherwise the game would get even further bogged down under its own weight than it arguably already is — and consequently feel a bit like a missed opportunity to say some more meaningful things, especially when they form part of the “Confidant” side stories.
This aspect aside, the Confidant part of the game is very good, both in a narrative and a mechanical sense as well as helping the game world as a whole feel very well fleshed-out. Narratively, the Confidants cover a wide spectrum of different people who all have their own interesting and emotionally challenging stories to tell. Given the game’s central theme of youthful rebellion against stuck-in-its-ways adulthood and a potentially harmful status quo, it’s interesting to note how many of the Confidants are adult-age compared to the Social Links from previous games in the series, but it makes a certain amount of sense; part of the Phantom Thieves’ aim throughout the story is to show those adults that there is a different, “better” way to approach life on your own terms, and seeing each of the Confidant stories through to their conclusion allows you to see a person coming to terms with an aspect of their life and, in many senses, being “reborn” with new opportunities. They also, more often than not, include more than a hint of “don’t judge a book by its cover”, particularly when it comes to the stories of characters such as the protagonist’s homeroom teacher Kawakami.
Mechanically, meanwhile, the Confidant system differs a little from Persona 3 and 4’s Social Link system in that reaching various milestones in each of the available relationships now unlocks various passive abilities that can benefit you in various ways. The Confidant links with your party members unlock useful, practical abilities such as being able to “pass” your turn in battle to them after you hit an enemy’s weakness and earn an extra attack, while your relationships with the more incidental characters might allow you to purchase a wider range of items, customise your equipment, provide yourself with various buffs to both your battle and social statistics or even provide random chances of beneficial effects occuring under specific circumstances in dungeons or battles.
These bonuses provide considerable incentive to explore as many relationships as possible; much like Persona 3 and 4 it’s extremely difficult to manage your time effectively to max them all out in your first playthrough, but the fact that abilities unlock at various milestones prior to them being maxed mean that this stings a lot less when you reach the game’s final months with no hope of reaching a number of these chains’ conclusions!
Returning to subject matter for a moment, one interesting thing to note is that while Persona 5 drew a fair amount of praise for tackling its story’s more challenging issues with grace and sensitivity, it is by no means the first or only Japanese game to have done so. On the contrary, in fact, a lot of the games from the last 10 years or so that have regularly been dismissed by mainstream critics as mindless fanservice (or, worse, pornography or even illegal material) actually explore this sort of challenging material in similarly good faith without treating it as a joke or something to be cast aside.
Of particular note among titles we’ve covered here on MoeGamer are the Senran Kagura series’ exploration of the conflict between the normal, natural desires of teenagers and the pressures that the society in which they live impose upon them; Criminal Girls’ deep dive into psychological trauma and how difficult it is to learn to trust again; Dungeon Travelers 2’s depiction of one culture honestly attempting to understand another very different one; Blue Reflection’s narrative about coming to terms with a “disability” of sorts; and countless others.
Hell, even the Neptunia series features a secondary villain who is a paedophile, Rance makes us ask whether a “hero” who does reprehensible things is really a “hero” at all, and Gal*Gun’s extended cast includes individuals who struggle with self-esteem issues, integrating into a foreign culture, expressing themselves and indeed learning basic competence in the fields society expects them to excel in. And this isn’t even getting into the wide range of visual novels that challenge society’s sexual “norms” — particularly powerful works when they come out of a culture still regarded as staunchly traditionalist such as Japan.
But I digress. Point is, Persona 5 is just one of many games that tackles weighty themes and handles them well; the only difference is that, for one reason or another, Persona 5 is a game that attained mainstream acceptance. And it’s good that it did; its story about deciding things for yourself rather than just getting swept along with the “popular opinion” on things is a particularly timely one, especially as we live in an age where the slightest misstep on social media can bring an outraged hate mob — 95% of whom are just following a bandwagon — down on you like a ton of bricks.
Persona 5’s narrative as a whole is actually a rather interesting contrast to its predecessors, whose protagonists tended to work somewhat “in the shadows” (no pun intended) and on a more personal scale. Here, meanwhile, the Phantom Thieves are actively trying to get noticed, and many of their struggles later in the game come as a result of their attempts to gain notoriety backfiring on them somewhat. In some ways, it’s an interesting twist on a superhero narrative — powerful, heroic types who conceal their true identities and change things for the better, but which those in power fear because they run the risk of upsetting a delicate status quo that favours a privileged elite. The game’s choice of a realistic urban setting in Tokyo rather than the country town of Persona 4 or the smaller city of Persona 3 helps very much with this feeling, too, since superhero narratives are often associated with huge metropolitan areas.
The story itself strikes a good balance between the believable and the fantastic, allowing the latter to act as metaphors for real issues in society. The design of the various antagonists’ Palaces in particular are extremely well-crafted to reflect their personalities and the reason they became the way they are — and from a game design perspective, the fact that they’re hand-crafted rather than randomly generated makes them contrast very nicely from both this game’s Mementos and the long periods of procedurally generated corridor-wandering from the previous two games.
All told, Persona 5 is an extremely well-crafted game that very much deserves the praise and plaudits it gets — it just remains a little surprising to me that it attained those plaudits in the first place, given that it is far from the first game to tackle the themes it explores or indeed structure itself in such a narrative-heavy manner. And, moreover, certain aspects of its presentation and structure mean that I most certainly would not recommend it to everyone — particularly not to those who enjoy more in the way of “instant gratification” in interactive gameplay terms — which makes it all the more surprising it enjoyed such universal, widespread acclaim on its original release.
Ultimately I guess it doesn’t really matter all that much, though. Persona 5 was — and is — a big win for Japanese gaming in the mainstream zeitgeist, and should be celebrated as such. Now if we could only convince those people who enjoyed it to look a little deeper into what our friends in the East have been offering up on a plate for some time now, hmm?
More about Persona 5
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