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GOTY 2017: #6 Persona 5

Persona 5 makes a challenging genre accessible

Chelsea Stark (she/her), executive editor, has been covering video games for more than a decade.

Persona 5 isn’t a game I thought I’d like. Japanese RPGs, at least in their current form, just don’t appeal to me. Many games I’ve tried — Bravely Default, Ni no Kuni, Xenoblade Chronicles X — felt endless, disrespectful of the player’s time in a world where I have increasingly less and less of it. There’s just no way I can appreciate grinding for grinding’s sake anymore. The characters and settings aren’t just fantasy- or sci-fi-weird; they’re weird-weird (“This girl is also a sword – and also a spaceship!”)

But the hype around Persona 5 eventually became too big for me to ignore, and I’m glad I threw my personal misgivings of the genre out the window. What I found is a game so welcoming in its design that I spent all the time it asked of me to finish it. In all, 125 real-world hours were lost to in-game calendar days, as I passed through the seasons in both.

#6: Persona 5

For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises! Previously: #7 - Prey

Persona 5’s setting — modern-day Tokyo, more or less — grounds the series in reality. Not only are the stores and homes inspired by real spots, they feel lived in. Persona 5 regularly proves the supposedly mundane classrooms and apartment complexes of daily life can be just as rich and complicated as any fantastic setting. Nothing illustrates this more than having to find your way home on the first day of school in a maze of subway platforms, including making a transfer at a miniaturized version of one of the world’s biggest train stations. The narrow, snaking streets of your own neighborhood may feel limiting, at first, to someone who is dying for a sprawling open world, but as more stops open on your subway map, the world unfolds at a generous, but never overwhelming, pace.


The gradual unlocking of places to go and people to see underscores the freedom that the protagonist, Joker, slowly earns after arriving in Tokyo branded a criminal. His probation brands him an outcast as soon as he sets foot into the classroom, limiting him with a short leash until he can prove otherwise. Who escaped high school without any feelings of being an outcast, of being under the watchful eye of picky parents of nosy teachers?

I felt for Joker. And I fell for (almost) every lovable outcast I met along the way. Each character struggles with the expectations placed upon them, sometimes by society, sometimes by their peers or family, or sometimes by themselves. Throughout the game, the playable characters must accept something about themselves, to turn their outcast nature into their most powerful weapon.

It’s a pure, sweet power fantasy of unleashing your inner strength (aka your persona) to totally wreck your foes, but the struggles that bring out that rage resonated with me. (Though at the end of the day, it is still high school.) Ann struggles with a creepy teacher hitting on her, as well as assumptions that she’s sleeping around because she’s attractive and has a part-time modeling job. Makoto must balance expectations put toward her by being top of the class, but also by having a sister who is a influential public prosecutor. Sure, you’re also battling hellish versions of their demons totally unrecognizable as people, but in the end these monsters represent real human foibles.

The Phantom Thieves stand together in an animated cutscene Image: Atlus/Sega

It helps that the times I spent nurturing my friendships and confidant levels feels like the work you’d need to do in a real-life relationship — effort I appreciate so much more in my 30s. While building social links is clutch, individual interactions are something I looked forward to, especially when I had only so much time in a day to hang out. And since there’s no running tally that says “837 experience points to next level of BFF with Ryuji.” it feels a lot more like the actual effort I’d put in to befriending someone, looking for social cues to indicate whether it was going well or not. So as these friendships slide into text message conversations and hanging out at cafes, it feels delightfully un-video game-y and more like building a real relationship.

Yes, there is grinding. But Persona 5 honors our valuable time with a couple of quality-of-life features, like the ability to auto-select the right attack based on your foe’s weakness (assuming you’ve already fought them) with just one button. And late-game skills you learn from confidants will speed you through battles too, or through the randomly generated maps of Mementos. It meant a quick hour spent playing was just that, and I still felt like I was making progress.

This helped me stick out some of the game’s weirder moments — like Igor’s long-winded discussions of your “rehabilitation” — because I knew I’d be returning to something more grounded soon. Persona 5 is still surreal in its presentation; you could be riding around in the inside your cat friend/getaway van, but even the throwaway conversations were about forgetting to tape a show, or needing to study for finals. Even when the team is out busting shadows and changing hearts, they never forget about what’s real: Friendship.

An illustration of the main cast of Persona 5 striding towards the camera in their school uniforms, with a stylized red-and-black Tokyo skyline behind them. Image: Atlus

Even when the game indulges its most ridiculous JRPG-ness, which it does in spades in the end, I still was left with a lump in my throat at the finale. I had taken this journey with Joker, as Joker, and all the people I’d texted in class, spent lazy Sundays at the movies with — and helped face their biggest inner demons — were by my side. It was a little heartbreaking to know that their lives were drifting apart, because that’s what life does, but also that I couldn’t return to them when I needed that same comfortable space.

So while Persona 5 is still contains the utterly fantastical — grotesque monsters, a dark alternate dimension and a talking cat bus — it’s still something I could heartily recommend to anyone, with any gaming background. One-hundred-and-twenty-five hours later, and Persona 5 had snuck, thief-like, into my heart changing how I forever felt about games like it.

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