The Art Of Video Games: Persona 5


Plot details for Persona 4 and Persona 5 follow.

"Who am I?
 Am I not unique?
 Maybe I'm not here at all."

Maybe I only speak for myself here, but I'd like to think that for a lot of JRPG fans, Persona 5 was everything we thought Final Fantasy XIII was going to be. A game that would advance a series we all loved onto the next-gen console, offering a new, but familiar battle system, as well as utilizing the engine to create an immersive storytelling experience that would have been impossible before. While FFXIII can hardly be called the worst in that series, it failed to live up to promise of that E3 2006 trailer, which boasted a fast-paced Matrix style gameplay and a gripping narrative. Battle in FFXIII was underwhelming and automatic, while movement was linear to the point of absurdity. The plot sloppily meshes elements from FFVII and FFX, but lacks the clear character motivations that made those stories interesting. Indeed, Lightning, the game's flagship character, was simply a gender-flipped Cloud, who lacked any of the latter's complexity. One could well fear the same happening with P5. It had a lot to live up to. Not only did P4 grow to be the most acclaimed game in the series, but further launched the Persona brand into the gaming mainstream, becoming, for many, their introduction into the series. A proper follow-up would be no easy feat. So what's most surprising about the reception of P5, isn't how well it met expectations, but how far it exceeded them. P5 is hardly a year old, and Famitsu readers have already voted it the greatest game of all time, with a Metacritic score that surpasses all others in the JRPG genre but Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Trigger. 

Whereas Persona 4 built upon and expanded the foundations of its predecessor, Persona 5 deconstructs them. P4 was pure escapist fantasy, it starred a Gary Stu protagonist who everybody loved in the Japanese equivalent of Bedford Falls. P5 starts you off branded as a criminal who is met with stigma and suspicion by everyone, even your guardian. Igor's Velvet Room, once luxurious, is now a prison cell, and his assistants, once alluring, now cold and threatening. Instead of sleepy, rural Inaba, you maneuver through the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo. Inaba was the home you always wished you had, whereas in Tokyo, you feel as though you don't quite belong. P4 felt very rooted in Japanese traditions, from Amagi Inn to the Shinto-inspired Personas. P5 feels more international, with Personas inspired by rebels from around the globe, one of the main characters being of mixed ethnicity, the addition of a Christian church, and a school trip to Hawaii. The narrative is also structured differently than that of the previous entries. It begins in media res, as you sneak through a flashy casino, only to be apprehended and brutally tortured by the police. You were sold out by one of your friends, and Prosecutor Sae Nijima will lead your interrogation. The bulk of the game consists of you recounting those events to her, though the story will occasionally flash forward to the interrogation. Doing this provides enough curiosity about where the story will go, but creates enough anticipation as to how it will get there.

In P4, you explored the psyches of your friends, but in P5, you explore the psyches of your enemies. In the Metaverse, which can only be entered by using a Navigation App on your cell, a person's desires can get so distorted that a Palace can be created. These Palaces, much like the dungeons of P4, are manifestations of how these people view the world. Kamoshida, a former gold medalist, sees the high school as his castle, while the gangster Kaneshiro sees Shibuya as his bank. It should be of little surprise that these distortions echo the Seven Deadly Sins, with the sexual abuser Kamoshida representing Lust, the plagiarist Madarame representing Envy, and the ruthless CEO Okumura representing Greed. Your goal, as a Phantom Thief, is to steal away their "Treasure", or the manifestation of their deepest desire. Kamoshida's Treasure is the gold medal of his former glory days, whereas Madarame's treasure is the painting he's always tried to copy. Of course, the Treasure will only manifest once the owner of the Palace feels as though this desire is threatened. You create this sense of threat by sending their conscious self a "calling card", warning them of the oncoming theft. A successful heist yields a "change of heart" in the Palace owners, during which they are made to feel bad about their crimes and openly confess for repentance. By doing this, the Phantom Thieves hope to reform society, but unlike P4's Investigation Team, which sought to validate the law, you work to change things outside of it.

Art by Soejima Shigenori. Used for education under "Fair Use." All rights to Atlus.

The aesthetics of P5 make it stand out leaps and bounds ahead of any previous entry. This is the first Persona to explicitly use the cel-shading of anime games, and the menus have such style that they seem to pop out like the word bubbles in a manga. All throughout there are shades of Lupin The Third, Cat's Eye, Mission: Impossible, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Cowboy Bebop, Marvel, DC, and Ocean's Eleven, all of it brought to life with an opening animation that is reminiscent of the elegant ice skating in Yuri On Ice!. More than any other Persona, you have enough space to breathe and explore your surroundings. You can walk through the crowded city streets of Shibuya, travel through a rather accurate representation of the Japanese train system, and go on dates or outings at parks and planetariums. Even little things, like the loading screen, show silhouettes of the citizenry, going about their daily lives. You can even listen in on other people's conversations. The music from longtime composer Shoji Meguro takes on an acid jazz feel, with "Last Surprise" and "Rivers In The Desert". While songs like "Beneath The Mask" can also properly shift the mood into a more relaxing tone when you return to the coffee shop.

The gameplay is, by far, the best out of any Persona, or even any turn-based JRPG. As always, your days are divided between crawling the dungeons and forging Social Links, now called Confidants, with your friends. The dungeons are where P5 really shines ahead of what came before. In previous Persona games, the dungeons were the same repetitive hallways in search of a staircase. In P5, exploring the interiors of each Palace presents a completely new experience, ranging from Kamoshida's Castle to Kaneshiro's Bank to Futaba's Pyramid to Okumura's Space Factory. Instead of charging right in, the game takes a note from Metal Gear Solid and encourages success through stealth. Thieves, after all, aren't known for walking through the front door. To do this, you can hide behind various boxes and pillars, slipping in a whirl to the next hiding spot, before getting the jump on the enemy. Needless to say, preemptive strikes are far easier this time around, but require no less skill to select the right spots and routes through each challenge. Similar to The Last Of Us, you can also turn on a second sight that allows you to see hidden enemies, small crawlspaces, and of course, treasures. Sometimes, you'll need to solve various puzzles to go onward, which can range from literally going through paintings in Madarame's Museum to figuring your way through the airlocks in space. While not exactly Zelda level in their construction, they added some needed variety to the game. Indeed, tussling various enemies one-on-one in Sae's Casino reminded me a lot of Battle Square in FFVII's Golden Saucer.

Art by Soejima Shigenori. Used for criticism under "Fair Use." All rights to Atlus.

Battle is the traditional JRPG take turn with the series' traits of switching Personas and All-Out Attacks. Even so, it's still impressive to see old attacks like Agidyne in flashy high-definition. Guns are also thrown into the mix, and are very effective against most enemies with wings. Your party's Personas have also evolved quite a bit, in P3 they were Greco-Roman monsters, in P4 they were legendary kami, and here, they are cartoonish rebels, drawing on history, literature, and myth, from Ryuji's Captain Kidd to Joker's Arsene Lupin to Morgana's Zorro (how Atlus got away with using Zorro without violating any copyrights is an interesting question). They can also be quite stylish, from Makoto's nuclear motorcycle to Futaba's massive UFO. P5, though, also brings back an option in battle from the pre-P3 games: negotiation with the Shadows. This adds a new strategic layer to the fight, as you can request enemies for items, money, or even recruiting them into your party as a fellow Persona. All this, of course, is achieved on whether or not you say the right things, as the wrong words can open you up to attack. Some enemies will even take your party members hostage, and a refusal to comply will lead to their instant deaths. Persona fusions are still an important feature of the Velvet Room, but you can also sacrifice certain Personas to add experience and abilities to others, or even transform them into items. The fusions themselves are newly gruesome, carried out by guillotine execution, at the hands of Igor's two assistants, Caroline and Justine. Much like P4, the bosses take on exaggerated versions of a person's darkest psyche. So we have King Kamoshida drinking glassfuls of women, Kaneshiro running atop a giant piggy bank, and Sae rolling die in a giant roulette wheel. Sometimes, you'll be asked to send one of your party member's off to find a weakness in the enemy while you distract them. An enjoyable instance of this was in aiming a giant catapult at a flying sphinx to send it down where it was vulnerable. Once you defeat a Palace, it disappears, so grinding will have to be done at Mementos, which is a subway metaphor for the Jungian collective unconscious. As opposed to P3's Tartarus, where the goal is to ascend, Mementos is a long, burrowing journey to the center of the Earth. You ride around Mementos in Morgana's bus form (a cute reference to Totoro) changing the hearts of many, some of whom even tie into your Confidants.

Confidants are the new Social Links in P5, and as always, make up some of the best parts of the game. You get to spend your time hanging out with one of your friends at a ramen shop or in the mall, and learn a little more about them in the process. This goes beyond your fellow students to include the weapons seller, the pharmacist, and even your teacher. Friends who want to hang out will contact you through texting, a modern touch that makes the game more realistic. Some Confidants, of course, can only be advanced when one of your five attributes reaches a certain threshold. Fortunately, there are a multitude of ways to do this, from reading books on the train, to crafting lockpicks, to relaxing in the bathhouse, to watching films either at home or in the theater, to even playing an older video game consoles.

P5 recycles many of the character archetypes we've come to expect from this series. Ryuji is the loud-mouthed best friend, (Yosuke/Junpei), Ann is the young model (Rise) who always tries to keep the loudmouth in line (Yukari/Chie). Haru is the soft-spoken heiress to a family business and conflicted about her responsibilities (Yukiko). Makoto is the student council president, all too naive in the ways of the world (Mitsuru). Akechi is a young detective suspicious of this group's connection to all the weird goings-on (Naoto). Morgana is the cute, furry mascot with a shady past (Teddie). Those who break new ground are Yusuke and Futaba. Yusuke is both a caricature of the "tortured artist", while at the same time a sincere aesthete. He is equal parts insightful and clueless. Futaba is the geeky shut-in, who is great with technology, whose dialogue makes her a walking Ernest Cline. Of course, as always, even the archetypal characters are more interesting than the surface level. Ryuji is a former member of the track team, who is quick to let his emotions fly loose. One such incident was when he attacked Kamoshida and cost the track team their success. Between Junpei and Yosuke, Ryuji comes off as the most likable asshole, given his passion for helping out the track team, despite their dislike of him. Ann has a rather serious subplot in how to relate to Shiho, a victim of sexual assault, which, I imagine is more common an issue than one may think. Haru's introduction as the "Beauty Thief" with Morgana is endearing and humorous, but her character doesn't get too much attention after that. Makoto is very much like a young Mitsuru, though they're both technically the same age, I'd argue that Makoto's maturation starts at an earlier stage. Whereas Mitsuru starts off caring about SEES and spends most of the game learning how to express it, Makoto starts off as hostile towards the Phantom Thieves, but warms to them the more she learns. Morgana talks a lot more smack than Teddie, and is always ready to keep the team in check. This time around, you won't be irritated with bad puns, but by incessant orders to go to bed.

Trying to remain monogamous is P5 should be considered a form of torture under the Geneva Conventions. Most, if not all of the girls in this game are not only cute, but have irresistible personalities. How can you not fall in love? There's the goth doctor, Tae Akemi, who has a twisted sense of humor, using you for her experimental medicines. She can be awfully cute when she refers to you as "guinea pig." There's the journalist Ichiko Ohya, who is equal parts high-spirited and alcoholic. Her mood swings can be an annoyance, but her youthful energy is so very attractive. Then there also the shogi master, Hifumi Togo, who's warm and sweet, but also humorously melodramatic in the midst of a game. I eventually chose Sadayo Kawakami, though I didn't intend to, but intention means little as far as romance goes. I was moved by her desire to be a better teacher as well as drawn to her slyness. It can be easy to dismiss those won over by Kawakami as wanting to play out dominance fantasies, but I think what draws many to her isn't the maid, but the woman underneath trying to climb through. So while P5 has the best romantic selection out any other entry in the series, it's a a crying shame that they still didn't include a homosexual option for female or gay players, who are a significant subset of the game's audience. I mean, even I would've been tempted to date Yusuke.

The stories in Persona games revolve around themes. P3's was death. P4's was truth. P5's is justice. Modern society in the game is depicted as fundamentally corrupt and unjust, run by adults who either participate in the corruption or stand by and do nothing. So it falls upon the youth to revolt. It's hard to look at P5 and not think of the upsurge in youth protests, from Zucotti Park, to Tarhir Square, to Ferguson, to Hong Kong, to Caracas, to Kiev. This may not have been intentional, but it's hard to keep out of mind. Like P4, P5 is a high school fantasy. Whereas P4's fantasy was an idealization: with dependable friends, a cute girlfriend, and enjoyable festivals, P5's offers "just desserts" never served: what if you were able to stand up to all the adults who mistreated you in high school? As Julie Muncy wrote in Wired,

"You're old enough to see these evils clearly, but not yet old enough to do anything about them. Many adults will write off anything you have to say on account of your age, and often the ones doing the harm are the ones who ought to be protecting you in the first place. That awareness leads not just to frustration, but to a profound, inescapable feeling that the entire world of adulthood is corrupt beyond functional repair. Persona 5 senses this, it understands it, an it offers its teen heroes weapons."

The game's director, Katsura Hoshino, also acknowledged that this was a superhero story more in line with "the West", (further belaboring the contrast to P4) as it's focus was more on fighting individuals from within society, then invaders from outside of it,

"I'm going off on a tangent here, but I think that traditional Japanese superhero stories tend to be about fighting off invaders from outside their society, while Western ones focus on fighting against villains and misfits that come from within it. There's a sense of society being responsible for creating the evil, and such a setting let's the audience's imagination run wild, like "it could've been me." For instance, doesn't the Joker from Batman make so valid points that resonate with you?"

Yet while there is much in the way of discussion over the moral quagmires of youth rebellion, there isn't quite enough exploration of its consequence. It's similar to how Dirty Harry romanticizes an officer who takes the law into his own hands, while refusing to address the consequences of denying suspects Miranda rights. We see all the time how self-righteous groups which operate outside of the law quickly lose focus and turn sour. Anonymous fought the wrongdoings of Scientology and Stubenville, but was also prone to antisemitic jeers, as was made evident when they made cyber attacks on Israeli sites on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Wikileaks exposed corruption in governments around the world, from aiding the Arab Spring in Tunisia to exposing the secret killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces, but the group has also been careless in leaking private info that has little to do with the public good, while its founder, Julian Assange, has been credibly accused of rape. Antifa, while taking a stand against the resurgence of fascism in America, isn't shy about its disdain for democratic norms and institutions, with questionable tactics (at best), of preemptive violence and destruction of property. It is true that lawbreakers can be heroes, but even lawbreaking in the pursuit of justice can go too far, and this reality isn't given the weight it deserves.

Visualizing the moral grey area of forcibly changing people's hearts could've added greater depth to the game. This isn't to say that the actions of the Phantom Thieves aren't justified, but that they should come with few consequences. Changing hearts is tactic far more invasive than Anthony Burgess' "Lodovico Technique." As in A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge was brainwashed into associating his vices with pain and disgust, but heart theft erases the impulse for vice altogether. It reminds me of the Star Trek episode, "The Enemy Within", in which Captain Kirk is split in two, with one Kirk being purely docile and other being unrestrained id. While the "evil" Kirk was a nuisance, he at least had ambition, which is more than could be said for "good" Kirk, who was too castrated to lift a finger. The point of the episode was that although the id can commit great evil, it is needed to a certain extent to function properly as a human being. Lust and Envy, when taken to extremes, are clearly terrible, but both, when used judiciously can foster healthy romance and productive competition. Yet we never see the change of heart cause any negative consequences to the targets. Imagine if Madarame lost any impulse to create or if Kaneshiro became so loose with money as to fall bankrupt? Given Persona's roots in psychoanalysis, I was surprised not to see these intricacies realized. While it can be argued that changes of heart also occurred in P4, those were done willfully. They changed after being confronted with their own weaknesses and accepting them. This felt more realistic and enriched character. In P5, only Futaba undergoes this type of change, which made her palace among the most memorable. This is not to say, of course, that the Phantom Thieves deal with no negative consequences at all. The so-called "Phan Site" is a clever incorporation of social media into the game, showing how easily opinions can change, and how popularity on these forums affects personal motivations.

Your preconceptions of various tropes in Persona, from the role of Igor to the multiple endings, are played with here. When I began P5, I was irritated with the change in Igor's voice. In prior entries, his voice carried a sophisticated and foppish quality, whereas now, he sounded far too demonic and menacing. Usually, towards the end of a Persona game, when the chips are down, Igor comes in, right at the nick of time to give you the strength to triumph. Instead, Igor orders his servants to kill you, which they refuse, revealing the best twist in any Persona, that "Igor", this time around, is not only an imposter, and the final antagonist, Yabolveleth.

Then come the alternate endings. As any Persona veteran knows, choices you make near a certain point in the game can affect the outcome. You'll often be put into a morally compromising situation and be asked to make a difficult decision. In P3, it was the choice between fighting death or resigning to it. In P4, it was the choice between vigilante murder or yielding to imperfect justice. In P5, you are asked whether or not to sell out your friends or take the fall. When Akechi fires a bullet into your head and your friends are off returning to their normal lives, it dawns on you that you may have said the wrong thing, and now you're stuck replaying the last scene in your mind, thinking, where did I go wrong? Of course, this is just the game misleading you, but I appreciated it keeping the uncertainty on edge. It did strike me, though, that this series is probably the true fruition of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books we all read as children.

Where this disrupting of tropes didn't work, however, was in the stunting of the precious character moments we've come to appreciate from Persona. While the plot and character are exceptional, especially as far as most games go, they didn't surpass P4's perfect chemistry of character interaction. I think back to the camping trip, the king's game, the cooking contest for Nanako, and the school festival costumes. In P5, it seemed they wanted to take these moments and have them fail in unexpected ways. It rains during the fireworks festival, the school trip to Hawaii amounts to little, and the school festival is more focused on plot than character. This subversion could have worked if it brought our characters to unexpected places, but instead, things just end there and circle back to the plot. In the Hawaii trip, for instance, there's a moment when Mishima gets sick and Ann gets locked out. I thought this was a set-up for some great comedy, but instead it becomes a shiny balloon that deflates just before it can pop.

Since we're on the topic of lost potential, we may as well get to the game's antagonists. Masayoshi Shido is an aspiring Prime Minister who was behind the incident that got Joker arrested. For a Persona antagonist, he's surprisingly generic, and his palace can get rather tedious, though the boss fight is satisfying, and would've worked well as the finale. Shido and Yabolveleth exist as statements on conformity, particularly in Japan, and need for individualism. A fine message, to be sure, and conveyed splendidly by no less than Satanael himself. Yet these two lack any intimate connection with the cast, so these boss fights lack the emotional investments they deserve. This could have been fixed had the game focused its attention more on one other character, Goro Akechi.
Akechi, like Naoto before him, is an ace detective who finds himself in opposition to our heroes before joining them. The twist is that Akechi had sided with Shido, his father, the whole time, and was responsible for various assassinations throughout the game. At the game's start, you are told that one ally will betray you, and for many, the one spent all his time critiquing the Phantom Thieves was an obvious choice. That said, Akechi could've been superior to P4's Tohru Adachi, had he been allowed to develop more of a rivalry with Joker, and his criticisms of their tactics given more serious consideration. Some have drawn parallels between Joker and Akechi with what was probably a direct inspiration, Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin, while others have noted that Death Note's Light Yagami and L seem more apt, since their rivalry deals more directly with justice, and not simply a clash in methods. In Death Note, Light is given a notebook in which he can kill whomever he wants by writing their name down. Under the pseudonym "Kira" he pursues justice on his own terms because he doesn't find the law sufficient. L opposes Kira because of his belief in the justice system and allowing even one to subvert its norms could only undermine its effectiveness. Their rivalry is entertaining for its stratagems, moral implications, and most absorbingly, L's friendship with Light. Had Akechi been allowed to develop something similar with Joker, his betrayal would've been all the more heart-wrenching. Further, Akechi could've been a more nuanced character, had his concerns about the Phantom Thieves actions led to any real consequences. I could think of no better reason for Akechi to turn against his comrades after seeing their ideals fail. While P5 does a good job of demonstrating injustice from within the system, through Akechi, it could've done the same for injustice from without. Instead, we get an info dump about his daddy issues before he flips into a psycho.

As much as I enjoyed the climax of P5, it dawned on me just how tiresome of a cliche that deicide is becoming in JRPGs, even in a game as fresh as this. For only so many times can one reiterate, in the exact same way, that religious dogma is the opiate of the masses, until the critique becomes an opiate in and of itself. If killing god is to remain a staple of the JRPG, then it has to either nuance god or make god personal. In Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, both Kefka and Sephiroth end up as gods, but they aren't just transparent stand-ins for philosophical commentary. Kefka and Sephiroth both had relationships with the protagonists throughout, and had affected them personally. So meeting them at the end, even as gods, was heightened with the anticipation to dispatch justice at last. Yaboveleth, however, has no such relation, he's just another god to be slain.

It would've been serviceable enough if P5's problems resolved themselves after the defeat of Yabolveleth, but game goes on, making us confront the legal fallout of what Joker's situation. It wisely forces the Phantom Thieves to overcome a situation with their wits instead of their powers. The whole sequence of seeing all of those whom you've bonded with attest to your good character is a new retelling of the "power of friendship" trope often used to defeat the final boss. It also cements to us the difficulty of "rehabilitation" in the eyes of society, prisoner or otherwise.

On a small note, some have critiqued the gay couple who chase after you at random spots in the game as a lazy stereotype of homosexuals. While they're a minor part of the game, I can't help but share some of the irritation. Persona is known for its complex characters, so why are we still getting cheap comedy villains? In P4, there were three: King Moron (ha ha, he's ugly!) Miss Kashiwagi (ha ha, she's old!) Hanako (ha ha, she's fat!). Even P3 makes a gag out of a trans woman hitting on you at the beach. There were always moments when I expected the other shoe to drop, and we'd learn something new to change our assumptions, but alas. That's not to say these characters couldn't be funny (in P4's case they often were), but it's just, I don't know, for a series that critiqued fat shaming through Ai Ebihara, explored homoerotic desire through Kanji, and even introduced the wise-cracking drag queen Lala Escargot, the continued use of these stock villains feels beneath its reputation. Oh, well.

This will be the last Persona game with director Katsura Hoshino, who first brought the series to global prominence with Persona 3, shepherded it into the halls of excellence with Persona 4. Whatever the future of this series, I imagine that Persona 5 may signal the end of an era that has fundamentally changed the way we think about JRPGs. A series that showed us that the everyday social activities of high school can be just as enthralling as fighting monsters in the dungeons of a faraway kingdom.

The Art Of Video Games

"The Art Of Video Games: Tetris."

"The Art Of Video Games: Pac-Man."

"The Art Of Video Games: Super Mario Bros."

"The Art Of Video Games: Super Smash Bros."

"The Art Of Video Games: Final Fantasy VI."

"The Art Of Video Games: Pokemon."

"The Art Of Video Games: The Legend Of Zelda."

"The Art Of Video Games: Final Fantasy IV."

"The Art Of Video Games: Kingdom Hearts."

"The Art Of Video Games: Kingdom Hearts II."

"The Art Of Video Games: The Last Of Us."

"The Art Of Video Games: Persona 4."

"The Art Of Video Games: Danganronpa."

"The Art Of Video Games: Final Fantasy VII."

"The Art Of Video Games: Persona 3."


Hoshino, Katsura. "Persona 5: A Special Thank You From Atlus To Fans." PlayStation Blog. Web.

Muncy, Julie. "'Persona 5' Review: This Massive Game About High School Is All Demons And Angst---In A Good Way." Wired, April 14, 2017. Web.

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