The Phantom Thieves Are Back
With a slew of sequels and spin-offs across its twenty-four year legacy, the Persona series remains remarkably relevant. Much of this vitality is rooted in the franchise’s ability to balance tradition with innovation. Mirroring the characters who invigorate each successive iteration, each Persona title starts with stock high-school characters fated with saving the world, reflecting role-playing convention. But the assortment of approaches across the franchise are what makes the games so special. Power is embedded in each student’s inner psyche, exposing concealed attributes to their fellow classmates and players. Consistently, these reveals are augmented by meticulously-crafted mechanics that make almost every step of the journey stimulating.
While an incremental improvement would have been gratifying, 2017’s Persona 5 offered an exponential advancement, extending one of the best role-playing experiences of the last ten years. From plot to procedure, P5 was nothing short of a rousing masterpiece. But efforts like Persona 3 FES and Persona 4 Golden demonstrate P-Studio’s inclination to revisit, revamp, and reissue their mainline entries. With the release of Persona 5 Royal, the Setagaya-based team add enough amendments to renew the game’s reign for a new decade.
This Royal Isn’t Stepping Down
Aware that the genre often favors lengthy introductions, Persona 5 Royal still steals a page out of the action-game playbook, exhibiting a sequence that flaunts the exhilaration to come. Delivered in medias res, we first meet the nameable protagonist making a dashing escape from a heavily guarded hyper-real Tokyo casino. It’s here that new players will encounter design decisions that make P5R a fluid experience. Although leaps across a series of rafters and taking cover behind environmental objects to elude a vigilant guard are all handled by nothing more than button presses, it’s all handled without hesitation.
The grappling hook used to hoist yourself up becomes a pleasing addition to the protagonist’s arsenal in P5R. In dungeons, it adds a new wrinkle to exploration, permitting access to the alcoves that have been added to dungeons. Accumulation of a collectable known as Will Seeds grants access to new character skills, offering a delightful dividend for those willing to reconnoiter each venue. When players do face the introduction’s first instance of turn-based combat, it feels invigoratingly dynamic, with selections triggering an elaborate animation that channels the fluidity and swiftness of a fighting game. You’ll also encounter another addition, the Showtime Attack, where two teammates come together and perform a flashy special that inflicts am abundance of damage. Another cool appendage is the inclusion of Disaster Shadows. Although much tougher than most of their enemy counterparts, killing them triggers a detonation that injures adjacent adversaries. Like many new elements, it adds another risk-reward decision to role-playing that provides a healthy amount of autonomy.
“Your Rehabilitation Will Soon Begin”
Soon, the story shifts to eight months earlier, establishing the lead’s backstory. When the protagonist witnesses a young girl attacked by a creepy older man, chivalrous action ensues, prompting an injury and lawsuit from the aggressor. Subsequently, he’s expelled and forced to live with a quirky café owner before enrolling at a new school. After arriving at his new abode, he’s ushered to the Velvet Room, where returning Persona personality Igor states that the lead must rehabilitate before impending ruin takes control over his life. Without giving too much away, redemption is pursued by The Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a puckish group of social misfits who form the main cast.
Like its predecessor P5R still centers on classmates getting to know, and subsequently change the world around them. It’s a plot that incorporates the traditional tribulations of teenaged years and incorporates poignant ruminations on physical and emotional abuse, suicide, and drug use. More importantly, the game’s overarching theme of purging corruption from the world might sound tawdry in print but is remarkably affecting in execution. Yes, it’s a JRPG where teens are tasked with saving the world, but in this case- redemption is rooted in the metaphorical, fashioning an entirely exquisite experience.
“Show Me Your True Form!”
With Royal, you’ll follow P5’s premise, attending Tokyo’s Shujin Academy as a transfer student. But here the academic year offers another semester, extending a plethora of new events and holidays to boost your standing with Confidents (more on this later). Now, alongside Akihabara, Shinjuku and Shibuya, you’re able to skulk around Kichijoji, seeing more than just Inokashira Park. One of the most interesting new pursuits to be found is a darts mini-game, which uses the DualShock 4’s motion functionality. And while a game a billiards might been like an engaging new way to socialize, gameplay feels underdeveloped.
Story is also articulated in several noteworthy ways. Confidents return, offering an analog for Persona 3 and 4’s social links, allowing players to spend their recreational hours building rapport with a variety of other characters. Each Confidant is fully voiced and comes from a broad cross-section of society- potentially providing players with a stat boost in an interconnected area. But the incorporation of these associates is far more than just a reductionist simulation of relationships. Nearly each has a fascinating backstory and enough idiosyncrasy to make them seem more like actual people than conventional game characters. Much like life, there’s not enough time to get chummy with everyone, so you’ll have to make some difficult decisions in your social affairs.
P5R injects two new characters so seamlessly, that newcomers might assume that Taukto Maruki and Kasumi Yoshizawa were always part of the plotline. The former serves as Shujin Academy much-needed counselor, with dialog that plumbs into his psyche, as well as the headspaces of the rest of the cast. For a game that’s immersed in internal thoughts, Maruki upraises some of the game’s most thought-provoking elements. Likewise, interaction with Kasumi, the academy’s other new transfer student help to further develop the protagonist. If you’re a returning P5 player, you’ll probably view her inclusion with skepticism. But she’s is every bit as adorable, and you’ll have probably have to fight feelings as the academic year passes.
Re-releases that add a significant amount of new material can often be thorny propositions if you’ve played the original game. In short, if you never played Persona 5, Royal is a requisite role-playing experience. It takes an already amazing experience and fleshes it out in thoughtful ways. It can be overwhelming early on, with new elements layers upon existing ones. But if you’re looking to plunge headfirst into a pensive plotline, P5R can’t be beat.
For returning players, Royal’s approach to new content is skillful. Initially, we’re given teasing glimpses of additions. As the plot continues, you’ll gradually encounter an ever-increasing amount of new exposition. In all, there’s at least 30 thirty-hours of story to sift through, as well a wealth of quality of life changes. Boss battles are less tedious and pleasantly, Morgana isn’t always bugging you to go to bed. Also, you don’t worry to worry any disruptive changes in the game’s dialog. While some YouTubers might have tried to rile things up, the script edits are so inconsequential, that I didn’t even notice them.
So, unless you just recently played Persona 5, P5R is absolutely worth a double-dip, especially for franchise fans.
“That’s the Only Way I Will Learn to Capture the Essence of Emotion”
Narrative is also ingrained in the game’s dungeons, called Palaces, that recall the representation of character consciousness from Psychonauts. Here, P5R shakes up tradition, shirking procedurally generated corridors for intricately engineered structures that interweave puzzling, exploration, and even stealth components. Since each embodies the mind of a troubled adult, milieus contain their own distinct enemies, dilemmas, structures, and security systems. While divergent in style, each extends a fervent sense of satisfaction as players work their way through the palace.
Once each Palace have been overcome, they’re no longer available for re-entry. Players who need the need to level-grind or capture any foregone Personas can venture into Mementos, P5’s procedurally-generated venue. Initially, the location is rather shallow, but beating Palaces gradually unlocks deeper levels, ensuring the possibility of augmentation to help confront resilient enemies. Devoid of the puzzles that are common in Palaces, Mementos is a perpetually tempting time sink, especially with the quality of combat. With PSR, you’ll find Jose, a new character who’ll covert found flowers and stamps into rewards for you, like extra EXP. Then there’s the Thieves’ Den, a cool little habitat that allows for a bit of player customization.
“Witness My Resolve!”
Progressively, P5R’s battles oblige elemental advantage, typically found in one of the protagonist’s Personas or the single Persona carried by party members. With the ability to apprehend new manifestations of internal psyches and fuse existing ones into more powerful forms, there’s a wealth of flexibility in the systems, endowing players with a fulfilling sense of control. Landing critical hits additional dominion, with the game’s baton pass maneuver, allowing players to swap turns with another character, potentially permitting a killing blow.
Most importantly, battles feel fantastically fluid given P5R’s prodigious programming and design. With your repertoire of tasks mapped to the face buttons, decisions are instinctive, lending smoothness and snappiness to every encounter. And while user interfaces don’t usually earn mention, P5R’s menus deserve lavish praise. Somehow, the game intermingles an assortment of styles in a unified, vibrant theme. But more importantly, each feels amazingly sinuously, whether you are making a dialog choice or sorting out you inventory. They’re so smooth, don’t be surprised if you find yourself scrolling through options, just to revel in the painstakingly precise pattern of clicks each emits.
“Justice? Righteous!? Keep That Shit to Yourselves!”
Like previous Persona entries, your nocturnal life might be spent in dungeons, but your days are largely autonomous. Much of the allure stems from P5R’s sense of autonomy. Whether you prefer working to earn some spending yen or would rather recreating to earn stat boosts, the choice is years. But masterfully, there’s always the nagging sense of passing time courtesy of the in-game calendar. While you might fret over time limits in games, Royal’s are necessary, reminding players of the fleeting nature of our lives and how important the decisions we make are. While it’s not heavy-handed, the game has me second guessing my real-life decisions, which is pretty unusual for a video game.
With preparatory design dating back as far as 2009 and a substantial amount of development on the PlayStation 3, Royal’s visual still impress. Peer past the rare low-poly object, and the title offers one of the most authentic recreations of Tokyo outside of Yakuza 0. Whether you’re venturing through the lively Shibuya, the otaku paradise of Akihabara, or through Kichijoji’s lantern-lined alleyways, P5R delivers a dazzling amount of detail. Complementing this output is a stylized aesthetic that bleeds coolness, while Shigenori Soejima’s character design articulate the personality of the Phantom Thieves as well as any dialog.
“Everybody Wears a Mask Deep Within Their Heart.”
Sonically, frequent franchise composer Shoji Meguro offers an aural array of delectable ear worms. From a new opening song that extends another spirited, jazzy, Lyn Inaizumi-vocalized number to rocking boss battles, the game’s musical stylings are delightfully diverse. More importantly, the variety manages to avoid feeling disjointed, with the sound complementing and occasionally adding nuance to the on-screen action.
In the West, Japanese role-playing games have flirted with popularity, but have never quite matched the critical mass experience during the late ‘90s. The original Persona 5 presented an enthusiastic challenger that offered an accessible and immensely enjoyable experience. Persona 5 Royal builds on this, extending more than a hundred hours of pure role-playing bliss.
Persona 5 Royal was played on the PlayStation 4
with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release date: March 31st, 2020
Price: $59.99, physical or download, via PlayStation Store
Language(s): Japanese or English voice, English Text