What is Persona to you? Do you regard its titles as stylish portrayals of Japanese culture? Dating simulators? Chances to live an idyllic school life? Second chances to impact society? Or do you prefer to view the series in more utilitarian terms such as “jRPG games”? Do you tend to focus on spending time with the characters and being a social butterfly or would you prefer to spend most of the play session inside dungeons to grind to a higher level? All of these perceptions and approaches speak to the versatility of the Persona series and allow for players to shape their playthroughs into their own unique experiences. The second life offered by Persona games provides its titles with a platform to truly impact its players.
I have often seen Persona games help people through difficult moments in their lives — myself included. In fact, it is often one’s first exposure to the series that becomes the most meaningful for this very reason, even if it does not remain the most objectively polished game as new entries are added over time. In my case, my first exposure to the series was Persona 4: Golden for the niche Playstation Vita handheld. I was instantly charmed by the game’s unique stylistic presentation, as well as the complexity of the themes it attempted to tackle. Given that this was my first Persona game, this was far from an unusual reception and before long the next mainline installment to the series, Persona 5, ushered in a new coterie of newcomers to the series to find themselves charmed the same way. As with all mainline entries to the series after Persona 3 (a turning point in the series that first introduced the social-link system), Persona 5 was an immense hit — so much so that, during my visit to Japan earlier this year, it was functionally impossible to wander around Akihabara without seeing an advertisement for Persona 5: The Animation; setting aside the digital displays showcasing the cast in Akihabara Station and the immense billboard prominently displayed along the Chuo-dori, I even had the pleasure of sitting in a limited-time pop-up cafe themed after Persona 5 at one of the Sega buildings.
The praise garnered by Persona 5 is well-deserved of course. The music is memorable, the graphics are vibrant, and even simply navigating the game’s menus sends stylish animations splashing across the screen. The level of detail with regards to the game’s recreation of Tokyo and its transit system is phenomenal and, as ever, the immersion to the society portrayed in game splendidly lays the groundwork for rich, impactful storytelling. Yet, as I played through my preordered copy of the Persona 5 Take Your Heart Edition, it did not take long for me to start feeling that something was amiss. The game in front of me certainly looked like Persona — the gameplay was awash with abundant mythological references, the battle system was familiar, and the series’ defining mechanic of social-linking functioned exactly as expected. Still, the game did not sit right with me, and as I continued to play, the vague nagging feeling within me quickly materialized into a sentiment that, if one looks carefully amidst the mountains of praise posted online, can sometimes be found voiced by older Persona fans such as myself. Simply stated, the story trips over itself in its ambition and ends up falling short of its own themes.
For the purposes of this post, I will not spend time dissecting and detailing the themes of this game as I believe they are fairly straightforward, but also because there are numerous resources online that can explain some of the allusions made in game. Rather, I would like to instead discuss the manner in which the themes are offered by the game and how the story proceeds to uphold (or disservice) the notions set up by the story. Central to my thoughts on this manner is my honest opinion that Persona 5 shoots itself in the foot from the very beginning.
Both Persona 3 and Persona 4 open with the arrival of the main character to new surroundings. Although Persona 5’s main character similarly finds himself arriving to a new place of residence, unlike the previous two installments, Persona 5 opts to open with an exciting in medias res sequence. As the player is thrust into helping the Phantom Thieves make their getaway, the sequence cleverly doubles as a tutorial before ending with the main character being apprehended by the police. Shortly after, it is revealed that one of the main character’s so-called “confidants” sold him out, thus landing him in custody for interrogation and establishing that the game’s events would be retold as a flashback. Therein lies the crux of the problem in Persona 5’s approach to telling its story.
Persona 5’s presentation is indisputably fresh and exciting — after being thrust into a dangerous situation, the player is left wondering what possible set of events could have led up to the Phantom Thieves being betrayed. Additionally, as the game progresses, frequent callbacks to the interrogation sequence reminds that the cast’s innocent, yet progressively larger-scale exploits would soon lead to very real consequences. It is a story-telling method that is quite different from previous installments in the Persona series, but this innovative new approach also brings with it some fatal flaws. In past Persona games, the absence of a flashback sequence reinforced the sense that “living” within the societies portrayed in-game allowed for events to unfold organically; plot twists and surprises were exactly as they appeared, with no forewarning. In Persona 5 on the other hand, the player already expects that the Phantom Thieves will eventually find themselves in a sticky situation. While this alone is not so bad, what truly disrupts the game’s organicity is the fact that the start of each new chapter opens with prosecutor Sae Niijima not only revealing the antagonist of the upcoming arc, but also overtly foreshadowing what was soon to come. A particularly blatant example of this is seen at the start of the Okumura chapter, in which Sae alludes to the fact that something went wrong during the mission.
In the world of tabletop roleplaying games in which dungeon masters meticulously write storylines to be traversed by their players, there is a criticism termed as a “railroad plot” used to describe poorly written stories that force players to follow a particular sequence of events. Although such games are by nature open-ended, “railroaded” campaigns will combat deviations from the dungeon master’s vision of the story through the use of cheap plot devices that will instead make the players follow a set progression of events. Though I would not go so far as to compare Persona 5’s story as a whole to such writing, the staggered flashbacks alluding to future events certainly serve to give the game’s progression an air of restrictiveness. I should point out too that the story’s progression within the individual arcs in Persona 5 is no different from the manner in which the writing unfolded in previous Persona titles; it is merely the structure of Persona 5’s presentation that so affects the feeling of openness that has come to be a staple of the societies portrayed by Persona games in the past.
Story aside, the tunnel-vision bestowed by the game’s presentation also extends to the day-to-day activities that the main character can engage in. The most obvious example of this can be found in the character Morgana’s penchant for making the protagonist spend his night sleeping rather than engaging in other activities — even those that he could easily complete in his own room. In fact, the cat’s insistence on going to sleep felt so unnecessarily overbearing that Morgana’s apparent distaste for the night has spouted several memes that may be found on social media. As I played Persona 5, I would scribble down notes akin to annotating a novel and, somewhat humorously, I can see that quite early on during my playthrough I wrote down “Morgana railroads you hard.” Besides Morgana, the game also inexplicably offers non-choices throughout the story to further muddy the openness of the game’s environment. I distinctly recall that shortly after discovering Mementos, I was asked what I wanted to do, with my two options being “let’s do this tomorrow” and “let’s stop for today.”
Now even despite the lack of surprises and the restrictiveness of the storytelling, the entire work could still be salvaged if the reward for finally reaching the end of the flashback — the moment in which the story first opened — proved to be a grand payoff, yet even here the game trundles along with more of the same. During the interrogation sequence in which the protagonist’s answers to questions are critical in determining the outcome of the story, the game makes it very obvious as to which answers are the “correct” ones, going so far as to strongly hint that the main character answer again if he picks the “wrong” choice; Persona 4 in particular did not hesitate to toss the protagonist over to a “bad ending” route if the player made the wrong decisions and used this mechanic as a boon to its central theme of examining the various layers obscuring “truths”. (On a side note, I noticed the game also used this sort of prompting when the protagonist became close to initiating a romantic relationship with his female confidants.) Even setting the story aside, I could not help but feel as if the game missed a massive opportunity with the way it presented the escape sequence that had earlier opened the game as its tutorial. As the sequence proceeds, the game opts to reuse the exact same cutscene animations — at the very least I feel that watching the action from a different camera angle would help highlight the broader understanding the player had regarding the game and its characters as they traversed the familiar sequence.
Even so, poor presentation does not necessarily lead to discord with a work’s themes. Persona 5 is a commentary on social injustices and the circumstances in which individuals may accept them — either in committing them or resigning themselves to their fates. One of Persona’s greatest strengths is its ability to portray everyday, relatable themes and show the characters, as you get to know them, overcoming their difficulties. Most often, these stories are told as part of the protagonist’s social-links and the optional nature of these mini arcs in turn serves to strengthen the bond of the player with these characters. In light of Persona 5’s theme, I was pleased to see the manner in which the social-link confidants’ stories were set up around the injustices they faced and looked forward to seeing how they would overcome them…
Earlier in this post, I referred to the manner in which players of tabletop roleplaying games can get “railroaded” during their campaigns through the use of flimsy plot devices and cop outs. In Persona 5, the first social-link that I completed outside of the main cast was that of Yuuki Mishima and I was honestly pleased with the story it offered. Little did I know however that Mishima’s story is very much an outlier from the standard pattern that the other social link arcs would follow. Imagine then, my disdain as I found out that time and time again, these arcs would utilize the Phantom Thieves’ ability to steal the heart of problematic individuals to make the central conflict vanish; the confidants’ problems were solved with a wave of a magic wand. To me, this was an utter disappointment as there was so much potential for these stories and so much room to commentate on dealing with the injustices of society in a natural way. In the end, the utter cop out made the social-links feel as if they had no other purpose than to serve as game mechanics to help progress the main character’s story.
If I am to touch on the subject of “magic” used as plot devices in Persona 5, I would be remiss in failing to mention the concept of “cognition” itself in the game. The premise is, in all honesty, quite an intriguing one. The very notion of palaces shaped by one’s twisted desires is quite clever (and reminiscent of the shadow characters in Persona 4), with the manner in which they could be affected by the subconscious of their real-world counterparts an especially fresh new twist to the dungeon system from previous games. Things began to get murky however when the story attempts to introduce concepts such as the consequences of palace owners dying in the metaverse or the extent to which the cognitive world can be manipulated by its inhabitants. A number of these thoughts are not fully explored and while these loose ends can most certainly be waved aside for the sake of story progression, they become difficult to ignore when they are party to the climax of the story; the cognitive world becomes a massive gimmick in the decisive moment when the Phantom Thieves fool Goro Akechi into thinking that he has murdered the protagonist.
Akechi too practically comes across as a walking plot device, largely only existing for the purpose of apprehending the protagonist in the first place. As his betrayal is revealed, his masterstroke of apparently bringing large amounts of the police force into the metaverse to make the capture is riddled with questions pertaining to the entry mechanism itself (especially considering that the Phantom Thieves entered the cognitive world on multiple occasions while standing outside in broad daylight), coming across once again as shoddy writing relying on the metaverse for a cheap cop out. This disappointment during the climax of the game is unfortunately topped only by the manner in which the protagonist avoids getting murdered by Akechi by sending him to the cognitive world without his knowledge; the implications surrounding the creation of the cognitive copy of the main character, its actions, and its ultimate death are not explored. In the end, the mechanics of the cognitive world end up feeling malleable, akin to the manner in which the protagonist of the card game anime Yu-Gi-Oh! would occasionally worm his way out of sticky situations by drawing a card from his deck that had never once been previously mentioned, yet allowing him to achieve victory.
Even from a presentation standpoint, Akechi’s role in the story is fumbled before the game even reaches its title screen. Although the opening cinematic is a little odd in the way that it chooses to only focus on the first five members of the main cast, Futaba, Makoto, and Haru still make an appearance while Akechi is conspicuously absent. Though, let us for the moment dismiss this as an inconsequential omission and, while we are at it, also set aside Akechi’s inconsistent presence in official promotional artwork depicting the main cast. What truly caused Akechi to fail as a story element was the game’s decision to implement him as an automatic social-link. By the time he would join to fight alongside the Phantom Thieves, his social-link is already leveled to rank six. Some of the greatest plot twists regarding party members in video games through the ages have attained such distinction due to being completely unpredictable. A famous example is Final Fantasy VII with Aerith’s sudden death and, as a more familiar example, the passing of Shinji in Persona 3. In these games, the aforementioned characters’ fates were never hinted at until their loss and were devastating as a result. In the case of Akechi however, the fact that his automatic social-link made him come across as a story element, coupled with the knowledge from the game’s opening sequence that the Phantom Thieves were soon to face betrayal, the culprit could not have been more obvious. Somewhat fittingly, as the cast engages in a final showdown in which Akechi reveals his motives, the confrontation amounts to nothing more than a glorified cutscene and his character is discarded after exhausting its use as a meager plot device — any loose ends regarding his story are never fully examined.
As the game proceeds to its conclusion and the Phantom Thieves succeed in saving society from distortions of the human condition, Persona 5 comes to a quiet close. Society is saved along with all of its imperfections; injustice persists in the world around them, yet the cast finally has a chance to distance themselves from the supernatural and entrust the future to respectful adults. This is, I believe, one of the sentiments that Persona 5 did a wonderful job of portraying — everything about the bustling Tokyo metropolis depicted in game carried with it an air of pragmatism. Be it the music, the conversations overheard from others, and even the ending sequence as the credits begin to roll, the game does a fantastic job in avoiding the wistful or nostalgic tones of its predecessors to instead convey a mood that is far more evocative of modern, everyday urban society. The sentiments echoed by Sae too at the end are strangely devoid of a thematically cliched outlook towards a better future and instead focuses on her — as well as the other leaders of society — need to keep trying to lead society in the right direction. Imperfections are embraced, society is allowed to march onward, and the faintest glimmer of hope is instilled that people do, in fact, possess the power to stave off injustices to change society for the better.
In a strange way, this sentiment is encapsulated by the numerous flaws in the game’s storytelling itself, although I would not go so far as to assert this as an intentional stylistic choice. On numerous occasions, the writing’s shortcomings serve as a disservice to the player and the story’s presentation causes the narrative to trip over itself and lose impact. As the magnitude of the game’s ambition caused it to become more and more top-heavy, the sprawling writing struggled to convincingly convey an impactful meaning behind its story — a feat that was masterfully accomplished by previous Persona games.
Despite all this, I would like to point out that I actually did enjoy playing Persona 5. Flaws aside, the presentation is immaculately stylish, the battles are satisfying, and the re-creation of Tokyo is satisfying to explore. As I reviewed gameplay footage in preparation for writing this post, I found myself feeling the same sense of excitement I had felt when playing through the game for the first time. The praise that Persona 5 has garnered is absolutely warranted and the joy its characters have brought to gamers around the world is undeniable. Immense success does not preclude flawlessness however, and the manner in which Persona 5 sacrifices coherence for theatrical splendor has the installment coming off more as a passively consumed superhero movie on the silver screen rather than the transformative, involved experience offered by Persona games in the past.