Persona 5 Royal Review: Japanese Robin Hood
Persona 5 made waves when it first released back in 2017, arguably being the first game in the series to really have an impact on Western audiences, or at least being the most successful with Western audiences by a significant margin. The game has always been on my eye, but for the longest time I was unable to experience it due to not owning any Sony consoles until the PS5 I acquired earlier this year. I settled for playing Persona 4 Golden on Steam last year to really get a feel for the series, and ended up being a huge fan despite its dated mechanics, so naturally Persona 5 was one of the first games to play on my new console. Persona 5 Royal, released last year as well, is basically the “definitive” edition for the game, polishing up mechanics from the base game as well as adding a bunch of new content so I ended up playing that over the base game. After finishing it, I can confirm for myself the hype it generated on release; it is definitely one of the greatest games I have played in recent history.
Persona 5 Royal’s premise is actually the opposite of Persona 4 Golden’s (will be referring to the games as P5R and P4G from now on for brevity’s sake); instead of being a high school student sent from the city to live in the boonies back in P4G, the player-named protagonist (Joker) is sent from outside the city to live in the big metropolis of Tokyo. Joker also happens to be juvenile delinquent, albeit one who was falsely labeled, so him being sent to Tokyo to attend Shujin Academy is part of his probation so to speak. Just like in P4G, the protagonist is given mysterious powers of the Persona to fight against evil, and acquires the strength to do so by forging bonds with other characters in the game (though in P5R they’re referred to as confidants instead of social links, but functionally they’re the same). Particularly, Joker and his band of Phantom Thieves acquire the power to “change the hearts” of individuals, and utilize this power in a Robin Hood-esque fashion to expose various shitty individuals in the story.
I went into P5R with cautious expectations given my experience with P4G. I am generally not super crazy about turn-based combat, and P4G’s combat system felt just barely more advanced than the run-of-the-mill Pokemon game, but I forgive it for that because the game is old. Meanwhile even the base game of P5 is just under five years-old, so I definitely expected a lot more innovations. Needless to say, P5R’s combat-oriented gameplay sections ended up being way better than I expected it to be. The combat system itself is more fleshed out; the same bread-and-butter of identifying enemy weaknesses to chain knockdowns into a combo finisher (All-Out Attack) is still present, but there are several important new mechanics that have been added. Aside from some new elements to keep track of, the most important additions I recall are baton passes and technical attacks (which are pretty easy to learn and the game gives you tutorials). The addition of baton passes and technical attacks really open up the possibilities for even more “wombo combos” to thrash enemies, which in my opinion is what makes P5R’s turn-based combat work so well. Assuming I take full advantage of the combat system, I can easily end most encounters in a single turn (outside of bosses/mini-bosses/high-leveled enemies), which removes a lot of the tediousness I find in a lot of other games that feature turn-based systems. For example, I ambush a Shadow that has three enemies. I can use Joker to hit one of their weaknesses, then with my free turn from the knockdown, baton pass to one party member, hit another enemy’s weakness, then rinse and repeat for the last enemy (and a lot of times the last enemy straight up dies due to the baton pass damage boost), then All-Out Attack for the win; that’s all on my first turn alone.
The level design is also top-notch, which is probably the biggest improvement from P4G to P5R. Like P4G, combat takes place in a world that represents the human subconscious, and in P5R this is known as the “Metaverse,” which is accessed via a smartphone app as opposed to jumping into a television screen. As far as gameplay is concerned, the Metaverse is split into two parts: Palaces and the Mementos. Palaces are twisted manifestations of an individual’s desires, and these represent the levels of the main story antagonists. The Mementos represent the collective subconscious of everybody as opposed to a single person, and in the Mementos is where one would go to complete various side quests or just grind for money and experience. The Mementos is pretty reminiscent of the level design in P4G, so it’s not anything special, but the Palaces are completely different beasts. Each Palace is an impressive set piece, introducing more in-depth exploration opportunities, verticality, and even basic puzzle solving (that thankfully are not frustratingly difficult most of the time). Each Palace is also thematically designed to represent whatever antagonist is featured, which enhances the storytelling through gameplay elements.
Just like in the other Persona games, the non-combat half of the gameplay is a slice-of-life simulator. When Joker isn’t beating up Shadows, he’s busy building his social stats to try and max out his Confidant ranks. This part is pretty self-explanatory for anybody who has played the previous games in the franchise, though I do think the Confidants are better integrated into the gameplay this time around in P5R. There is actual gameplay incentive to rank up the Confidants of anybody who isn’t a party member, as some of those ranks offer boosts like discounts in shops or better item selection, to even services like free massages that remove fatigue and allow Joker to go out at night the day of infiltrating a Palace or Mementos. But aside from that the system is still the same; plan time well and max out those Confidant ranks for gameplay boosts and to also flesh out the stories of the various characters in the game. Or just do what I did and follow a 100% guide, which is very handy for those who are looking to Platinum the game or just want to experience all the content offered without having to meticulously plan things out themselves.
What kept me committed to P4G despite its decade-old gameplay was its writing, so I definitely went into P5R with high expectations. Needless to say those expectations weren’t disappointed; I thoroughly enjoyed the game’s story. The main story was excellently put together, and I definitely had my mind blown at several points in the story with some of the twists they threw in. It was very satisfying to watch Joker, a kid who was given the short stick with his unfair criminal charge, forge friendships with people who have also went through suffering to rise up against people who have oppressed them, as who does not love an underdog story? In a way the Phantom Thieves are similar to Batman, as vigilantes who enact their own justice against villains as it is clear the current system is too broken to do anything about them. The game is also very self-aware of this, and the ethics of their justice are often called into question, especially as the Phantom Thieves rise in fame. Its main theme of rebellion against oppression is simultaneously both depressing and inspiring; depressing because of the realization that the society depicted in P5R is very reflective of our own, and unfortunately we do not have real-life Phantom Thieves to force terrible people in power to atone for their mistakes, but on the flip side it shows the strength of the human heart in face of adversity, and that choosing to stand up ultimately makes us better as human beings, giving us the strength to move forward in life despite past hardships. Predictably, all of the game’s Confidants tie into that theme, where every character Joker encounters has their own struggles against different kinds of oppression.
I loved the overall writing of P5R, but it is not without its faults, which is pretty understandable given the sheer amount of content in the game. Compared to P4G, while I do think the Confidant/Social Link system is better integrated into the gameplay in P5R, I think the actual writing quality of P4G’s Social Links are consistently better than the Confidants in P5R. That is not to say that P5R’s Confidant writing is bad, but it is noticeably a lot more inconsistent where there were some I felt were pretty forgettable whereas I enjoyed almost all of P4G’s Social Links. Perhaps it is due to the fact that a lot of Confidants eventually require Joker to change a bad guy’s heart in Mementos before it can be progressed, which sort of reduces the strength of the Confidant’s character arc as it can feel like it’s taking away from their growth since Joker magically makes the bad guy stop being a problem. That being said, there are some excellently written Confidants, with my personal favorites being Yusuke’s, Yoshida’s, and Akechi’s. I do think the strength of P5R’s main narrative makes up for the more inconsistent Confidants; I felt a lot more invested in P5R’s main story than I did for P4G, where I feel its Social Links really carried the writing. Also, Morgana is hands-down a way better mascot character than Teddie.
The remaining faults I have are relatively minor in comparison, and likely stem from my Westernized upbringing. One, I feel like this game’s themes and overall feel would make more sense if the main characters were older and not in high school (I frankly do not understand why Japan’s obsessed with high school), and at the very least would make some of the romance options less weird (yes Joker can date adults). Two, it is kind of weird for a game to be made in recent times that lets me romance basically every female character in the game but also give me absolutely zero options for dudes. Representation for the sake of representation is not exactly good, but one would think it makes sense for a game that willingly delves into a lot of the (sometimes unpleasant) aspects of humanity and society. Finally I think it is a tad messed up that Ann Takamaki is often used as the butt of sexual jokes; that shit isn’t funny in 2021 (though I will say that it is far less egregious in P5R than it was in P4G) and it basically disregards her backstory as someone who had to repeatedly suffer from sexual harassment/abuse in the past for the sake of some lame jokes.
Persona 5 Royal wouldn’t be a Persona game without a banger soundtrack, and on that front it absolutely delivers and then some. There is not much to say; the music is incredible and to say anything less would be doing it an injustice. Just listening to it on Youtube or something will probably do a better job of describing it than I could in words.
I think the only thing that is holding me back from recommending this game to literally anyone (even people who do not usually care for JRPG’s) is its length. While the average player’s play-time will likely be shorter than mine as I went for the true ending and 100% completion, I still clocked in a little over 100 hours, and 100 hours is not exactly an easy commitment for a single video game. However, for those who do have that time, I’ll say it is easily worth it, and at the very least it gives a lot of value for the money spent.
Rating: The game’s easily worth retail, though now since Persona 5 Royal is out there really is not much of a reason to play the original base game.