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Persona 5 Royal almost feels like a new game

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The Phantom Thieves are back in business

Artwork of Joker, Morgana, Ryuji, and Ann from Persona 5 Royal Image: Atlus

There comes a time in a young person’s life when they realize adults don’t actually have all the answers, nor are they driven to do the right thing. It’s a tough part of being a teenager, figuring out who you can trust and confide in — while also navigating the crushing pressures of high school.

Untrustworthy adults in positions of power is a core theme in Persona 5, originally released in Japan in 2016 and worldwide the following year. To fight back against corrupt politicians, plagiarizing artists, and abusive authority figures, the group of teenagers at the core of Persona 5 forms the Phantom Thieves. The team is capable of traversing the otherworldly Metaverse and fighting cognitive versions of their targets to get them to confess their crimes.

Having already played through the 100-hour Persona 5 twice, you might think I’ve had my fill of the Phantom Thieves, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s something special about the Persona series, and its addictive combination of perfectly paced, turn-based combat and relationship-building makes it extremely replayable.

Due out nearly three years after Persona 5’s worldwide release, Persona 5 Royal expands on the original game with a plethora of new content. There are new grappling hook mechanics that let players explore previously inaccessible areas of palaces (P5’s version of dungeons), an additional semester tacked on to the yearlong story, a fresh area of Tokyo to explore, a new Phantom Thief with her own story to unravel, and an online hub called the Thieves Guild. I didn’t get to see new character Kasumi or the Thieves Guild during a recent hands-on session, as time was limited, but what I did play showed me that the additions to Persona 5 Royal are woven through nearly every aspect of the game.

Image: Atlus

This isn’t the first time Atlus has re-released a Persona game with new content. The 2007 PlayStation 2 hit Persona 3 later got an epilogue of sorts in Persona 3 FES, and a new female protagonist in Persona 3 Portable. Persona 4 Golden, released for the under-appreciated PlayStation Vita several years after its original release, added a new social link and a secret dungeon. But while the additional materials for those games felt distinctly separate from the original content, Persona 5 Royal has changes and tweaks throughout, from new foes who’ll join your team as summonable personas to reinvented boss fights.

Because of the impossible nature of trying to cram a 100-hour game into a one-hour play session, Atlus reps conveniently made four save files so that I could quickly experience some of Royal’s changes. First up was the grappling hook which, admittedly, was probably the new mechanic I cared least about going into this session. Grappling hooks are a staple of video games, and we all know what they do, but on paper it looked kind of superfluous compared to the more significant additions. In practice, though, it feels natural to grapple around dungeons, and in some areas, it can add more strategic options for stealthily avoiding or strategically attacking foes. More interesting, however, was what I found while ascending to higher platforms: a mysterious door covered in vines that I’d never seen before. Beyond this door was a “Will Seed,” which looks like a skull growing on a vine and represents the distortions between the real world and the Metaverse. Each palace has three of these Will Seeds, giving players another reason to go off the beaten path and explore every nook and cranny.

During random encounters in this dungeon, I ran into an unfamiliar enemy that looked like a cat in boots and a hat (not unlike Puss in Boots). When I hopped to the second save file, which set me up right before the first big boss fight, I found this cat, Cait Sith (no, not that one), in my persona roster. It’s a small thing, but it made me realize that Royal’s changes went beyond the big features and into almost every aspect of the game.

But let’s get back to that boss fight. The first palace in Persona 5 culminates in a battle against an abusive coach from the Phantom Thieves’ high school who gets away with dastardly behavior because of his prestigious background as an elite athlete. This time around, he has some help in the form of Metaverse versions of the students he’s harmed. Not only does this create a crisis of conscience for the Phantom Thieves, who find themselves facing off against these sort of nega-verse friends, it actually affects battle mechanics. The students help Coach Kamoshida in various ways, so I had to adjust my proven strategy to avoid their attacks and limit Kamoshida’s power.

a group of teenagers in Persona 5 Royal Image: Atlus

Not every new feature in Persona 5 Royal takes place in the Metaverse, though. While previous Persona games gave players some freedom to explore, Persona 5’s Tokyo is richer and more dynamic than any previous game’s location — and Royal makes it a little bigger. The new area, Kichijoji, is full of interesting shops and people, and it’s the perfect place to take your Phantom Thieves buddies for a game of darts. I explored Kichijoji during daytime and at night, and it was a little different each time; during the day, there’s a temple open, while Sunday nights are the best time to get some coveted fried chicken.

With this new area comes new requests from residents hoping for the Phantom Thieves’ help, giving you more side quests to complete. But while playing darts in with Ryuji, I stumbled upon a more intriguing new feature: ranking up the Baton Pass. In a nutshell, the Baton Pass allows you to pass your turn in battle to another member of your team while giving them a stat boost; Baton Passes are based on your social links — basically, level of friendship — with those characters. In Persona 5 Royal, your friendships level up that Baton Pass, increasing its effect.

My time with Persona 5 Royal ended much sooner than I would have liked, but thankfully I only have a few more weeks until the full game is in my hands. I was really impressed and surprised by how deep the changes go; it’s a great starting point for new players, but those of us who’ve been around the block a few times have plenty to discover as well. It feels like more than a rerelease, and the new content really wouldn’t have made sense as standa-lone DLC. I’m more than ready to jump back into the Metaverse for another hundred hours or so when Persona 5 Royal releases on March 31 for PlayStation 4.