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Persona 5 pre-review: 20 hours with the most stylish game of the generation

After nearly a decade, Atlus’ breakout series is back and ready for even greater success

To understand the depths of my excitement for Persona 5, one need only look at my review for 2012’s Persona 4 Golden. In my five years at Polygon and the dozens and dozens of games I’ve reviewed here, I have only awarded a score of 10 to two titles: Hearthstone, a game I have played very nearly daily since it was in open beta, and Persona 4 Golden.

Now add on to that the fact that Persona 4 Golden wasn’t even an original game. It was a Vita port of a 2008 late-life PlayStation 2 release with bonus content. It’s been almost 10 years since I played that original version of Persona 4, a game I instantly fell in love with and that pushed me to go back and discover previous titles in the series, as well as the broader Shin Megami Tensei franchise that it spun out from. Almost 10 years of waiting for a sequel, building up my expectations, hopes and dreams for what this franchise could accomplish on modern hardware.

Now, finally, after multiple delays, Persona 5 is actually almost here. I’ve now spent 20 hours with a final version of the game, making my way about two months into the game’s story and midway through its second dungeon. And despite going in with sky high expectations — perhaps higher than any game I’ve reviewed previously — so far I am head over heels with the follow-up that developer Atlus has created.

After all of that slobbering about Persona 4, I should probably clarify one important point before moving on with these impressions: Persona 5, as with most of the previous games in the series, is stand-alone. If you have not played Persona 4 (or Persona 3 or Persona 2: Innocent Sin, etc.), you don’t need to worry. While there’s some thematic carry-over, the characters and overarching plot are completely fresh.

Where Persona 4 took players to a rural Japan setting, Persona 5 takes place in Tokyo. You take on the role of a teenage boy who is sent to a new high school in the big city as part of a probation after he got in trouble with the law. The protagonist hasn’t been in his new home for more than a couple of days before strange events start happening.

I’m going to avoid most of the specifics here — Persona 5 is, after all, a plot-heavy game, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone. But before long, the main character ends up exploring a strange alternate reality with new friends: Ryuji, an ex-track star turned punk; Ann, a girl loved and hated in equal measure for her good looks who’s struggling with inner turmoil; and Morgana, a ... uh, talking cat.

It’s definitely still a Japanese role-playing game.

The core structure of Persona 5 follows the same pattern that was popularized in Persona 3 and 4. In between tackling lengthy dungeons, you’ll live the day-to-day school life of your protagonist, which includes taking tests, working part-time jobs and deciding which friends to spend time with.

Part of the brilliance of the Persona series is that they’re as much time management simulation as role-playing game. Persona 5 embraces this legacy and refines it by increasing the number of things you have to choose between. From very early in the game, there are a ton of ways you can spend your time each afternoon or evening — from building tools to use in dungeon runs, to reading a book in hopes of upping a stat, to spending time with your new guardian, an aloof restaurant owner named Sojiro Sakura.

One addition to Persona 5 helps you decide how to spend your time. If you play the game online, you can connect to the “Thieves Guild” network, which provides a window into how others have been playing. Basically, if you’re online and outside of a dungeon, you can tap a button and see a visual representation of what other players chose to do that day in-game.

But however you choose to spend your free time, you’ll also need to devote some hours to the dungeons that make up Persona 5’s alternate reality — referred to in this game as “palaces.” These more traditional RPG outings represent the biggest leap in quality between Persona 4 and 5.

persona 5 Atlus

The last two Persona games have featured heavily randomized dungeons, with the focus on grinding your way through complex labyrinths rather than exploring actual spaces. This couldn’t be further from how Persona 5 handles things. In this game, the main dungeons are fully designed spaces, providing more opportunities for environmental storytelling, setpieces and puzzles.

Each dungeon is a dark manipulation of a real-world corollary. Let’s take the first palace as an example: In the real world, this location is none other than your new school, Shujin Academy. In the alternate reality, it transforms into a sprawling medieval castle, complete with patrolling guards, torture chambers and massive spires.

Within that dungeon, you’ll find a mix of the turn-based RPG combat that Persona 4 already did so well and a new mechanic: stealth. Rather than just running up to enemies and engaging in combat, Persona 5 encourages hiding behind corners and attacking from shadows.

If you’re not into stealth games, don’t fret. Persona 5’s take on sneaking is very stylish and forgiving. You can jump between pieces of cover with the tap of a single button, and doing so carefully ensures that you’ll begin every fight with the upper hand.

Being clumsy, on the other hand, will punish you in precisely the way that hits hardest in a Persona game: by spending your precious, limited time. Each time an enemy spots you before you’ve sneaked up on them in a dungeon, a meter will fill up approximately 15 percent. Defeating enemies will lower that meter by five percent, but if you let it fill all the way, you’ll be booted out of the dungeon and back to the real world for the rest of the day, effectively extending the number of trips it will take you to complete said dungeon.

While not overly punishing, that threat of losing time adds just enough tension to make succeeding at the stealth a joyous occasion. And once you get into combat, it’s exactly the tightly balanced, challenging style that the Shin Megami Tensei series has always been known for.

Atlus

Persona 5’s fights are based around a system of exploiting your enemy’s elemental weaknesses. If you attack a single enemy with a spell they’re weak to, you’ll knock that enemy to the floor and earn a follow-up attack. These can be strung together — or even passed on to your teammates using the new “baton pass” move — essentially allowing strategic players to wipe the floor with even the most difficult enemies.

If you manage to knock down every enemy you’re facing in a particular battle, you’re presented with two options: You can either finish them off with a stylish “all-out attack” or you can talk to them.

While common to other SMT games and older Persona titles, talking to enemies wasn’t a part of Persona 3 and 4. This system adds another layer of depth to Persona 5. You can finish off the battle by requesting money, an item or asking the enemy in question to join you as a new summonable persona for the main character. But in order for these sequences to turn out in your favor, you’ll need to determine the personality of your opponent and answer questions to their liking.

Oh, and if you really miss the randomized, grindier dungeons of Persona’s past? That still exists in Persona 5 in the form of Mementos. Shortly after completing the first dungeon, you’ll unlock access to Mementos, a sort of endless bonus dungeon area where floor layouts are randomized, stealth is not a concern and enemies are everywhere. Mementos is largely optional, at least as far as I’ve gone in the game — it exists primarily as a place to complete sidequests and spend your time between main dungeons leveling up without having to go back and grind the same old areas.

Between Mementos and the greatly improved main dungeons, Persona 5 really presents the best of both worlds. The main dungeons feel more tightly tied into the story and provide more spectacle, but the players who want to zone out (or need to grind for higher difficulty levels) have an option as well.

Atlus

Somehow I’ve managed to write almost 1,500 words about Persona 5 without mentioning what is almost certainly its most immediately notable feature: It looks fucking incredible. For most games, “good graphics” are about high definition and high fidelity, about creating an intense level of detail in every aspect — think of the breathtaking, sweeping vistas of Horizon Zero Dawn or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Persona 5 has a completely different approach. It looks great not by way of the most detailed, powerful graphics in the world — this is a game that began development on PlayStation 3, and you can kinda tell — but by way of visual design. Like any good RPG, Persona 5 is an information-heavy game, and much of your time is spent flipping through menus or looking at text boxes. But rather than downplay the user interface, Persona 5 blows it up. Every loading screen transition, every end-of-combat info box, every aspect of the game is presented in this bombastic, colorful style that’s just a joy to look at.

Between that visual style and the smart, approachable balance of old dungeons and new, I have a surplus of hope about Persona 5 — not just that it will continue being great for the 80-or-so hours I have left in the game, but that it will be able to reach an even wider audience and introduce them to the things I love so much about this series.

Persona 5 launches for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 on April 4. Look forward to Polygon’s full review of the game the week prior to launch.