Persona 5 is still a masterpiece – and it’s a must-play for those newly able to get it on PC, Xbox, and Switch
If you’re a fan of Japanese RPGs but somehow aren’t a PlayStation user – which does appear to be a contradiction of terms, admittedly – this week marks a momentous occasion. Persona 5 Royal, the enhanced re-release of a 2016 game of the year contender, is finally on non-PlayStation platforms.
At this stage, Persona 5 is already six years old. It is, by any definition, old news. Even the Royal update is three. Elements of the game also haven’t aged well – especially a few story elements and tonal choices that felt pretty archaic and out-of-date back when the game originally released, leave alone six years hence. But the thing is, it’s still brilliant. Persona 5 is still one of the best and most important Japanese RPGs of the last decade.
Part of the reason behind this is that Persona takes an interesting path compared to the biggest-name JRPGs. Its most obvious peer is Final Fantasy, the series that acts as patriarch to the entire genre – which I suppose makes Dragon Quest the matriarch. Whereas Final Fantasy has spent the last decade or so analyzing and trying to emulate the successes of Western RPGs like The Witcher, Skyrim, and even Mass Effect, Persona 5 is unabashed in what it is – a full fat, highly traditional, anime AF role-playing game.
It’s difficult to know if the attitude is deliberate, but it appears to be the case that publisher Atlus and developer P-Studio decided that how distinctly Japanese their titles are is a strength in the West, rather than a weakness. We’ve seen something similar from Sega, Atlus’ parent company, with the Yakuza/Like a Dragon series. It leans into its Japanese identity, which is expressed particularly strongly in Persona 5’s story and setting, a fantastical adventure of super-powered high-school kids living double lives amidst the bustling rat-race of Tokyo rammed with as much social commentary about the state of modern Japan as it is anime cliche.
Persona 5 is also helped by how it’s just, y’know, cool as hell. In a classic decision that is so genius in its simplicity that it prompts head-scratching bewilderment at why nobody had quite done it this way before, Persona 5 takes its quite simple Japanese RPG menus and makes everything extra. Menu elements slide, click, and twist with a regularity that is suggestive of artists and UI interface designers truly unleashed to be as wild as they want. But it’s also always careful to gingerly thread the needle – every UI element straddling that razor-thin tightrope between functionality and flair, style and substance, in a way so effortless it’s almost a little bit annoying to think about. Why don’t more menu-heavy games have menus this slick?
In a sense, this is what makes Persona 5 interesting to people outside the JRPG bubble, and what gives it appeal. It’s like how many PS1 era players came to Final Fantasy for CG cutscenes and the summon monster animations; even if you’re not the sort of person who usually trucks with turn-based combat, Persona 5 lays it on its style so thick through striking UI and a toe-tapping acid jazz infused score that in the midst of action, it can still feel like an action game.
Top it off with all the stuff that Persona was already doing well and you’ve got a recipe for something special. Persona has long been expert at narrative and character development, achieving astonishingly high levels of personal connection with a cast of fairly typical young adult media cliche archetypes by finding a carefully-set equilibrium between life as a heroic adventurer and the grind and difficulties of being a teenager in a harsh, busy world. Persona has also pretty much always been good at offering a sufficiently deep and customizable level of character progression & customization, and challenging boss encounters – things descended from its inception as a more straightforward dungeon crawler. When you step back and look at it, this game is stacked high with stuff, a tower of mechanical systems – which leads to its mega run-time. But it doesn’t feel as long as it is.
As a JRPG nerd willing to accept a less stylish game, I still personally prefer the small-town, Scooby Doo-esque vibe of Persona 4 – but for those who haven’t experienced this series before and for those perhaps not attuned to more hardcore, traditional Japanese-style RPGs, Persona 5 is the entrance point. And now it’s available on three new platforms, and for Xbox and PC players is included in Game Pass.
And how are the ports? Well, they seem pretty good to me. I’ve only played the PC and Xbox versions, but they’re both great – the best versions of the game to date. On PC, you can crank the game up to 120fps and 4K with relative ease, and the art style lends itself well to displaying at higher resolutions. While I haven’t played the Switch version, I defer to my buddies over at RPG Site, who called the Switch version “worthy of serious praise”. Persona 5’s art scales well to different hardware requirements, which speaks well to the quality of it.
Anyway, it’s an interesting time for Japanese RPGs. Clearly, Persona 6 is on the way, and we know nothing about that game – but it does appear to me like the current vanguards of the more ‘traditional’ Japanese RPG experience are Persona, Xenoblade, and Fire Emblem. Final Fantasy 16 is set to tackle a grittier, more Witcher-like world, focused on blood, and war, and the clash of steel. Even Dragon Quest is promising a grittier, more adult affair for its twelfth entry. This is fine, and all part of progression and growth. Experimentation is good. But Persona is one of the series’ keeping many of the JRPG’s most esoteric traditions alive within a bigger-budget, bigger-scale, larger-reach production – and that’s a great thing. And now its reach is larger than ever. That’s even better.
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