Thursday, June 8, 2017

Persona 5: Last Impressions

The king is dead.

Let's face-facts. Final Fantasy is not the lord of the JRPG anymore. Outside of the MMOs, its stock has fallen rapidly over the last eleven years. People still play these games, "Final Fantasy XV" still sold veritable shitloads to what I think are pleased consumers, but the magic is gone. I still haven't finished "Final Fantasy XV", a game I obsessed about, begged for, and suffered over for ten long years. And in fact, I never will finish it. I care so little for it I cannot even find joy in hating it. So I've done the right thing with that game. I took it down to the Velvet Room, sacrificed it for a Fusion, and used it for a nice discount on "Persona 5", the latest game in the series that has become the new JRPG King.

All hail.

Persona is certainly an odd choice to rule the genre. It's shamelessly Japanese - an unabashedly niche title that tells the audience, "you're either along for my ride or you might as well not play". People in the West are generally not clamoring to be Anime high school students. Who wants a game where you have to put away the fun demon action to go to class, study, and take a bath? "Final Fantasy XV" bent over backwards to appeal to the West with realistic graphics and action gameplay, but ended up utterly forgettable. Meanwhile "Persona 5" with its turn-based battles, Slice of Life cutscenes, and baroque weirdness, is beloved by the Western press, its fanbase, and me.

The difference largely is confidence. "Persona 5" is a refinement of a refinement, improving on "Persona 4" which improved on "Persona 3". Everything in "Persona 5" shines with a clear style from the bright colors, to the jazzy soundtrack, to the plaid texture on the hero's pants. Atlus knows what people liked about the earlier games and amped up the power. Square Enix can only chase after trends, giving up any sense of identity in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. "Final Fantasy XV" wants to please everybody and pleased nobody. "Persona 5" know it can't win over every player so instead is a bold, uncompromising game, more subversive and fascinating than any of its predecessors, with a clear vision to improve on what worked before.

"Persona 5" isn't a radical retool of what was in "Persona 3" or even "Persona 4"*, but it does have more teeth. These games have always been about the adults failing to comprehend some supernatural threat, leaving it up to teenagers to travel to a hidden dimension beneath the surface to save the world. "Persona 5" bothers to ask: why do the adults suck so much? Why can't the police solve the murders, why are sixteen-year-olds climbing all billion levels of Tartarus?

The answer "Persona 5" comes up with is both brave and disturbing for this genre: there is something wrong with the world. Adults are not just blind to what's going on, they don't want to see those problems at all. "Persona 5" ends up with a very dark view of its own country and the generational divide. Tokyo in "Persona 5" is visually vibrant, but it's also a deeply corrupt and cruel place. Stopping a sexual assault causes the protagonist to lose his home, meaning he's sent to a foster home in the city which starts the plot. It isn't that the adults are only not seeing what's going on, their inaction makes them complicit. As long as they go along and pretend everything is fine, they are rewarded. Your party members are the one group of people in the city young and idealistic enough to be able to stand up to the very culture of Japan itself.

I never really expected that Persona of all things would end up being a game about real social commentary, but here it is. Japan is a country full of repression in social settings, which the heroes are willing to smash. The ugly truth is too often covered up to keep up a perception of normality and propriety. These heroes don't want stability, they want chaos, they want revolution. "Persona 5" is a game for the whistle blower generation. It will destroy the public's greatest heroes to prove that the ends do not justify the means. It's a game about tossing away happy illusions and accepting the ugly truth.

"Persona 5" isn't going to, for example, give a road map to getting Donald Trump out of office. It actually doesn't really have much in the way of answers about solving either Japan or the West's problems. But it can bring us back to our high school view of the world. Teenagers are stupid but there is something to admire about them. We could see the lies of the world when we were kids and it didn't matter the consequences, we knew what was wrong. There's a righteous energy to those who are innocent enough to still see things in black and white. "Persona 5" gives our adolescent selves the power to do something with that energy.

In the grand scheme of Shin Megami Tensei character alignments, this game is purely on the side of Chaos. When in "Persona 4" you explored the psychic realms of your party members, here you're stepping into the minds of criminals and sociopaths, stealing their hearts so they can admit their crimes and possibly reform. One by one you destroy Japan's most powerful and beloved leaders, who have all gotten where they are through betrayal, lies, and cheats. Meanwhile this challenges the fictions the nation is built on, making the entire game a battle between your muckraking and the moral sloth of the general public.

"Persona 5" contrasts how heavy its world is through its presentation. It's the most beautiful game of the year, even beating out that Zelda that stole the world's heart a few months ago. Where "Breath of the Wild" was a game about quiet balance, using a subtle art design and empty pauses to create a living world, "Persona 5" is the exact opposite. It's all flash and gonzo and garish glee. There are no straight lines in "Persona 5" everything is slanted at an angle. Every part of the game was over-designed with a cool twist, so that even the shop menus are a work of art.

The first section of the game features you and your friends standing up to a teacher who has raped a student and driven her to a suicide attempt. (I can't imagine Final Fantasy ever getting that edgy again.) This should be extraordinarily dark. Yet that special Persona style keeps things light by presenting this all as a grand adventure. You're exploring the subconscious realm of a hideous human being but somehow enjoying yourself. This costume you wear of a dashing gentleman thief is not just there to be cool, it fits right into what "Persona 5" is all about.

The neon glamor isn't just about style for style's own sake, it's a projection of the characters' own view of what they're doing. The jazz plays, the colors flow, and the characters playing dress-up and having fun with a game of wits against some very serious real-life evil. They truly believe in what they're doing and know how evil their opponent is, but they are also embracing their freedom for the first time. Where in "Persona 4" the Personas were a projection of the party's repressed desires, like Kanji's hidden homosexuality, in "Persona 5" they're a celebration of their liberty. Ann dresses like an dominatrix with a whip not out of shame but in pride of her inner self. These kids are breaking the rules, dressing provocatively, and rebelling against the man with a gun, a sword, and a physical projection of Jungian psychology that also shoots fire spells. This is youth in revolt, and I love it.

Which leads me to actually talking about the game part of "Persona 5", which I suppose is also important.

If you've played the other Persona games you'll find "Persona 5" hasn't changed much. But it has added a layer of energy and action to the dungeons to remove the doldrums of previous games. "Persona 3" and "4" made dungeons seem a drudgery; this was your boring high school job. "Persona 5" makes them the highlight of the experience. Being a gentleman thief and going all "Lupin III" is fun. Outside of battle your protagonist can leap around the environments to avoid danger. There's an easy stealth element that gives some opportunities for surprise attacks and a danger to sloppiness. Plus dungeons have a more 3D shape, so you can leap between levels to avoid capture or surprise your foes.

The dungeons are all unique locations made out of the absurd delusions the villains have. Unsurprisingly evil people have warped ideas about themselves and the world, such as the rapist teacher who thinks he's a king, his students are serfs, and the high school is his castle. Another example is a food executive that mistreats his employees and thus imagines himself as a space tyrant ruling an empire of robots. These dungeons aren't just grinds, they're entire little storylines in of themselves. You threaten the boss, you break through his defenses to find his greatest treasure, and you outwit them to steal it. All along the way your party is celebrating every step.

Actual combat is typical Shin Megami Tensei. "Persona 5" brings back demon negotiation, so you recruit the enemies as your Personas, an element that's been missing since "Persona 2". Otherwise it’s still a very risky RPG all about exploiting weaknesses and overwhelming enemies as quickly as you can. Defense is not a viable strategy. As always with these Megaten games, a bad mistake can fuck you over in horrible ways. Enemies can smash your party's weaknesses for extra attacks and devastate you with status effects. Or just get lucky with an instant death spell to finish you off. If the protagonist runs out of HP it's Game Over, which is really annoying. Also unlike "Shin Megami Tensei 4", you can't save whenever you want. So if you die a half hour since your last save point you have to play that entire half hour ALL. OVER. AGAIN. Which yeah, that's classic JRPG ball crunching, but it is Current Year and entirely unnecessary.

That's the kind of bullshit that makes me stop playing a game for a month. If you're wondering why you didn't get this review in April, blame that one jerk at Atlus who insisted on having an enemy surprise me with Hama to get a cheap win.

Because beyond a bit of bad luck here or there, I never felt I lost a battle in "Persona 5" fairly. This is a very easy game for a veteran. Not only does the game structure the dungeons so you have to face every boss with full health and a fresh save, but I found the bosses to just not be very tough. You merely need to know to ruthlessly fuse your Personas early on and maximize their effectiveness. Don't feel attached to your Pokemon. My advise is get a Shiki-Ouji and never stop using him. That Persona nulls *all* physical damage, is immune to Mudo spells, and the only trade-off is a weakness to Nuclear, which is a later-game spell that most enemies never use. And you can get him as early as level 23, it's unbalanced as shit.

The other big change is that Social Links, now called "Confidants", all give various abilities and bonuses. Back are the "Persona 4" boosts to your characters, so they follow up attacks, heal a status effect, or take a fatal hit for the MC-kun. But also all the other Social Links give extra goodies. For example, one classmate named Mishima will boost EXP earnings if you just be his friend and help him overcome what a loser he is. Some boosts are essential, like the perky goth doctor who will give you access to healing items and an accessory that restores MP every turn. Some just suck, like the alcoholic reporter, who helps out the stealth element, which is already so easy you shouldn't ever blunder so badly that the enemy goes into high alert.

As with before, the non-dungeon section of "Persona 5" is a constant battle of choosing what to do, when to do it, and economizing time with your friends, leveling up, and increasing your social status. It's nerve-racking at first, but I found plenty of time to maximize all my social traits, and make every female Confidant my waifu. (Ladies, don't judge a man by his romance options in a JRPG, please.) There really is plenty of time to accomplish everything you want, perhaps even too much time. And even when you're cheating on nine girls at once, unfortunately "Persona 5" never really punishes you. You can't fail the social side of things, which is a real lost opportunity I feel.

Also in case you're wondering: my one true waifu was the lovely homeroom teacher, Ms. Kawakami. Yeah, we're breaking all the rules here. She's a more likable character than your own party members.

In the end, "Persona 5" is about as good as this model of game could ever be. The game is clearly out to entertain but also seems to actually have something important to say to its player base, offering a hopeful promise of change. "Final Fantasy XV" wanted badly to also tap into a youthful energy but it suffers badly through the comparison. It has the misery of all blockbusters: when your only goal is to sell millions of copies, you end up being just a disposable product**. The best "Final Fantasy XV" or most superhero films could ever hope to be was simply competent and unoffensive. "Persona 5" is still small enough to have a bite, to have a message. It is one of the best JRPGs I've ever played, an absolute must-play.

But that said, let's hope "Persona 6" doesn't get too big.

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* I actually started and never finished "Persona 4" on the PS2 to my enduring shame. Someday I'll finish that just for completion's sake, I hope. That game does have the best music and the best playable cast of the any of the Persona games, though.

** Which reminds me: I don't care how big of a vagina "Wonder Woman" has, it's still just another goddamn superhero origin story movie, and it is incredibly boring. Hated every second of it.

6 comments:

  1. Problem is that Persona will never be able to cater to the 'regular RPG audience' like me, people who loved games like FF6, Chrono Trigger, Mother 3, Earthbound, Dragon Quest.

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  2. Big fan of Persona and I would agree that P4 had a better cast and music but P5 excelled in every other area. Plus Kawakami gave the best massages.

    I would recommend trying out Nier Automata. It's messy and a bit sticky sometimes but the mix of ambitious ideas and charming characters were just so entertaining. It's a crazy mix but I really loved it.

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    1. I cannot begin to see how Persona is interesting for anyone besides people who are into Japanese anime subcultures.

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    2. Actually personally i am a bigger fan of Persona 3's cast over Persona 4, they feel like more flawed realistic characters.

      I do seriously hope Persona 5 gets either a Switch or PC, as I do desperately want to play this, I was sad there has been no port announcement at e3 so far.

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    3. BTW the above comment was from Sword of Primus

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