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Kasumi, Persona 5 Royal’s new confidant, in her mask Image: Atlus/Sega

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Persona 5 Royal review: A great game gets an even better second draft

Slightly more sensitive, still fantastic

It’s not often that I find myself wanting to replay a game that is likely to take me over 100 hours to complete. I love Japanese role-playing games, but they’re huge time sinks, and playing even the greatest JRPGs for a second time is often a tough ask of my gaming time.

That said, Persona 5 isn’t any old JRPG. When it was released back in 2017, it was praised for being a stylish adventure that tackled complicated themes with its cast. It certainly wasn’t perfect, with some notable gameplay annoyances and some aspects of the narrative open to criticism, but those blemishes were not enough to detract from how fantastic the overall game was to play.

Persona 5 Royal arrives later this month, and is basically a remastered, and rethought, version of the original game, with extra plot dropped in at the end. If you want a deep breakdown of Persona 5, check out Polygon’s original review. This review, of Royal, will focus mostly on where the new version differs from the old.

For anyone completely new to Persona 5, here’s a quick summary: You play as a teenage boy in Japan who is falsely accused of a crime and ends up with a criminal record. You make friends with other kids who have been screwed over by evil adults; discover the power to make those evil adults feel remorse and confess their crimes (by fighting monsters in their brain); and set about trying to save the world.

The unnamed protagonist of Persona 5 Royal in his high school uniform Image: Atlus/Sega

You spend half your time out in the real world working part-time jobs, studying for exams, and building friendships, and the other half fighting monsters, stealing treasure, and convincing other teens and bizarre creatures to fight by your side.

Now, if you’ve played through the original Persona 5 before, I want to warn you upfront that the first 100 or so hours you spend in Persona 5 Royal will be a familiar experience. While some new content is sprinkled throughout the opening months of the story, and a lot of quality-of-life improvements are present, you could honestly do exactly the same actions on exactly the same days in Royal and get largely the same results.

The bulk of the new story content comes in the game’s newly added third semester, but until then, changes to the narrative will be pretty few and far between. You’ll be seeing interesting incremental tweaks, not grand design overhauls, during a lot of your time in this fictional Japan.

Persona 5 Royal introduces two new Confidant characters, the aspiring gymnast Kasumi and the school counselor Takuto. Kasumi is the game’s new playable party member, but it’s important to note that she’s actually not playable at all until the third semester, even though she’s dropped into the narrative right from the start. Her early scenes mostly feel forced. She is the only named, recurring character to have seemingly nothing to do with the main plot, and it’s initially a little odd. You’re forced to befriend her, and while she’s well-written, she has half as many social links as other characters, and often seem disconnected from the main story.

Kasumi and her persona in action in Persona 5 Royal. Image: Atlus/Sega

Takuto, on the other hand, is dropped relatively seamlessly into the existing narrative. After the events of the game’s first dungeon, in which a teacher is unmasked as having been abusing students, Takuto is brought in to provide much-needed mental health support to you and your classmates. While your visits to the new counselor are optional, and left for you to fit into your busy schedule, your other party members will visit him of their own accord throughout the game, providing nice glimpses of insight into the mental health struggles of a group of teens trying to change the world.

And while the investigator Akechi is not new to Persona 5 Royal, his social link has been totally revamped. You now bond with Akechi in your own time, rather than via scripted events, much like the other characters in the game. He has several new scenes, which better flesh him out as a character, and offer valuable insights that for returning players are worth exploring.

It’s vital to max out all three of these new Confidants as much as possible before the end of the second semester. That’s because it’s possible to miss key parts of the third semester entirely if you haven’t ranked up these characters in time — something that is not communicated well to the player.

Goro Akechi summons his persona during battle in Persona 5 Royal. Image: Atlus/Sega

The new semester is a separate story, with certain plot threads from the first two semesters locked off from the player. Treat it like a stand-alone story expansion in another game: Prepare to be engaging with the third-semester tasks away from the main plot. Don’t expect to be finishing social links from the early semesters past Christmas.

The third semester’s additional plot, palace, and final villain are all worthwhile additions to Persona 5. While the plot is perhaps a little predictable, it’s well presented, and worth the hours I replayed to reach it. It provides better closure than the game’s original ending, and offers really rewarding combat for those seeking a challenge. After spending 120 hours completing the main story and the DLC, I came away feeling like the motivation of the third semester’s primary villain was much more empathetic and relatable than that of the main game. I could see how the villain thought they were the hero of their own story, which made for a more interesting narrative resolution to the game.

Kasumi during one of Persona 5 Royal’s animated sequences Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

Beyond those obvious additions, Atlus made a lot of minor tweaks to the wider game, which make its moment-to-moment gameplay more enjoyable. Certain plot-important scenes that were previously silent now feature full voice acting; Confidants now call you after hangouts, helping you raise their rank faster; and Morgana no longer shouts at you to go straight to bed all the time. You may not always be able to go out at night, but you’ll always have the option of watching TV, studying, reading a book, building tools, or brewing coffee on nights when you’re too tired to leave the house, giving you so much more time to raise your stats. I can’t tell you how happy I was at not being constantly told to go to sleep when I just wanted to go downstairs and make coffee. These little changes all make the world of Royal a little less stilted, and a little more alive, which helps the pace of the game feel a lot smoother.

Quality-of-life improvements extend past the day-to-day gameplay and into Palaces, Persona 5’s enemy-laden dungeons. I was relieved to find that my gun now refilled its ammo automatically after each encounter, a huge improvement to combat. In the original Persona 5, guns were pretty useless; they dealt high damage and could be loaded up with status effects, but their ammo would barely last for one or two fights. Moving to auto-reloading weapons makes them not only more viable, but makes it more worthwhile to invest in gun modification. I barely used Iwai, the gun shop owner, in my original playthrough, but guns became a reliable secondary source of status ailment infliction that carried me through certain sections of Royal.

Persona 5 Royal’s new persona stat screen, which includes their new innate trait, as well as their skills.
A new persona info screen, which highlights the new innate trait feature in the top left. Each persona now has its own innate trait, which can be passed through fusion.
Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

Personas now each come with an innate trait in Royal, a special ability that can range from ice moves costing less SP to an immunity to physical hits. These traits are able to be passed on through persona fusion, offering an extra layer of customization depth as you work out how to get a useful ability onto the correct resulting persona. While I initially didn’t pay much attention to these traits, by the late game I was spending time fusing persona explicitly to try and get a set trait onto a specific high-level creature.

Baton Pass — the ability to pass control to another character for a free attack after each successful super effective hit on an enemy — is now available from the start of the game for all characters, rather than needing to be unlocked. By visiting the new in-game location Kichijoji, you can play darts to upgrade Baton Pass even further. You can eventually use it to grant benefits like HP restoration to characters, further encouraging successive Baton Pass strings. While Kichijoji as a town features several new shops and side quests, the ability to boost the usefulness of Baton Pass was the key reason I made time to visit it.

Joker finds a Will Seed in a Persona 5 Royal dungeon, which looks like a glowing face on a long, red root.
A Will Seed, a new item available in Persona 5 Royal’s Palaces. Finding one will boost your characters’ SP.
Image: Atlus/Sega

Returning players might notice that Palace layouts have been tweaked slightly to accommodate Royal’s new grappling hook. It feels less impactful than many other improvements; using it for traversal feels almost unnecessary. But some grappling hook points can lead to hidden rooms with Will Seeds, a completely new item in Royal. Each individual one you collect will restore some SP to help you get through the dungeon in a single sitting, and collecting all three allows you to gain a powerful in-game item. Finding these seeds is just the right level of optional challenge to dungeon exploration. Each dungeon’s final seed is guarded by a super tough enemy that I would argue is at times more challenging to defeat than the dungeon boss.

Compared to dungeon exploration, boss fights in Royal are notably reworked, and largely for the better. Bosses that used to cycle back and forth repeatedly between two forms — like the twisted art dealer Madarame — now present each form only once, or introduce new forms that make more sense with the narrative of the enemy in question. Having Madarame create increasingly poor counterfeit copies of himself, for example, feels like a fitting way to spice up the flow of boss fights I already knew well, while blending really nicely with his character arc.

Dialog options for when Joker is trying to negotiate with a knocked-down persona. The original question reads: “The way you treat me, though, sends me mixed messages. How do you really feel about me?” The options are “You’re beautiful,” “you’re scary,” and “Nothing in particular.”
Dialog options when trying to negotiate with knocked-down personas still don’t make a lot of sense. (The original question reads: “The way you treat me, though, sends me mixed messages. How do you really feel about me?”)
Image: Atlus/Sega via Polygon

The only truly terrible aspect of dungeon exploration — inexplicably bad in the original game, and not much improved in Royal — is negotiation conversations when trying to convince new Personas to join your team. They’re still bizarrely written; each question Personas ask just doesn’t match the dialogue options I’m given to respond with. It’s bafflingly stilted writing in an otherwise brilliantly written game.

While Mementos, the game’s randomized lengthy dungeon, is still pretty long and convoluted, Atlus made small changes to make it less of a chore to play through. The music, which previously repeated the same single loop eternally, now changes over time as you get deeper, which went a long way toward alleviating my boredom. The dungeon also has a new character: Jose, a little boy who will trade flowers and stamps hidden throughout Mementos for boosts to your earned experience, bonus cash, or rare items. As a result, I found myself a lot less inclined to simply rush to the exit of each layer of Mementos, instead driving around and making sure to check every corner. Jose isn’t a social link, but as an NPC with a shop and a little plot, he helps Mementos feel less like it’s disconnected from the wider story.

Jose, a little boy who lives in Mementos, says, “Hey, good job — bring me any flowers? It looks like you have a nice little stamp collection going!”
Jose, a new NPC only found in Mementos, is studying humans, and wants you to bring him flowers and stamps to help his research.
Image: Atlus/sega via Polygon

There’s one other story point that I feel can’t be ignored. Before the release of Royal, Atlus made a big deal online about the fact that the English localization team was planning to update a controversial scene from the original game. The localizers did change it, but their changes really didn’t go far enough, and the scene is still not great.

The original Persona 5 features a scene in which two gay adult men approach the character Ryuji — a teenager — talk about how hot he is, acknowledge that they know he’s too young for them, and then physically grab him and drag him off. It’s two of the game’s only gay characters forcibly abducting a kid who has said he isn’t interested. It’s a creepy, uncomfortable, unnecessary scene — and it’s an unavoidable part of the game’s story.

The revised scene really isn’t much better. The two men now assume Ryuji is secretly into drag and too embarrassed to admit it. They once again ignore him saying no, and drag him off to force him into women’s clothing against his will. It’s still a scene where two gay adults abduct a teenager and force him into an unwanted situation, and it still feels gross and creepy. Don’t pick up Royal hoping to see a major improvement to that scene; it still mars a game that I otherwise really deeply enjoyed replaying.

The start of the All-out-attack animation in Persona 5 Royal, featuring Ann, Ryuji, Morgana and Joker. Image: Atlus/Polygon

Honestly, when it comes to my overall thoughts on Persona 5 Royal, they’re pretty simple. If you loved the original game and have been wanting to replay it, there are plenty of quality-of-life improvements to make your replay smoother, and the additional content in the third semester is a real treat.

You’ll have to replay a lot of content, but the new story beats, characters, and gameplay changes are worth the time. If you’ve never played Persona 5, and the idea of a lengthy JRPG about making friends, making evil adults admit their crimes, and fighting monsters sounds cool, this is the definitive way to experience the game.

Be aware of some problematic plot elements that are not totally fixed. But the game is stylish, full of things to do, and still one of the most interesting JRPGs of this console generation.

Persona 5 Royal will be released March 31 on PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Atlus. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.