“Perhaps the most unusual game to have consumed me so wholeheartedly that I mourned finishing it.”
In all honesty, when I first purchased Persona 5 I had no idea what the hell I was getting myself in to; fast forward several weeks and more than 100 hours of gameplay and I am actually mourning the completion of this JRPG epic.
The initial purchase of this game was somewhat unusual for me personally, JRPGs had never really been a go-to video game of choice throughout my life, having only either witnessed other people play various entries in the Final Fantasy franchise – sure I’ve dabbled with VII and been thoroughly annoyed by XIII but never really spent more than a few hours with each – or my own youthful attempt at understanding whatever is going on within Kingdom Hearts. So when I bought P5 it was more out of a fear of missing out than anything else.
This particular case of FOMO came thanks to the wonderful boy Griffin McElroy (Formally of Polygon) and his love of P5’s predecessor, Persona 4: Golden. If 30 under 30 media luminary Griffin McElroy had such love for a series then every second that I did not own said game was a moment wasted. The game was promptly purchased.
Trying to explain P5 to someone who has no knowledge of the franchise is like trying to explain the contents of the sea to someone who has never seen a fish. Sure, once it is explained you can easily understand it, but knowledge of a thing does not stop it from being really unusual.
For those not in the know (much like I was during item purchase) Persona 5 is a Japanese role playing game that focuses on a [somewhat] silent protagonist as he, along with an eclectic collection of friends and possible romantic interests, battle against cognitive versions of morally bad people in the hopes of making them come to terms with the atrocious actions they have committed; this is only after the day to day simulation aspect that follows the character as he goes to school, partakes in part time jobs, and other menial activities.
I have said this many times in my life but will mention it once again here…
VIDEO GAMES. ARE. WEIRD!
Since completion I have now learned that such a JRPG – one that mixes turn based combat with a day in the life sim – is quite popular within Japan and a somewhat core mechanic in many admired franchises, yet from a Western dwelling perspective I was not used to such a thing, especially as it took me almost 10 hours of gameplay before I reached my first real battle.
I have played entire games that have lasted less than 10 hours and yet P5 was denying me of its main attraction, instead forcing my character to go to school, to increase his social stats, to spend time studying, and do you know what?… I loved every bloody second of it.
Now this may be due to my younger days spent on The Sims 2 (arguably the best of The Sims games) where completion of mundane tasks was the literal point of the game, yet in P5 every option had a reason; increase the relationship with this person and they end up giving you better weapons, eat in this restaurant and you increase a stat that helps you out in battle, romance this woman and you get time off school to work on your battle technique. Every event that at first seems mundane ultimately benefits you in the long run, so much so that when I was denied such times – like during my characters exams where I did nothing but answer questions for the games equivalent of a week – I started to miss them. In fact, by the latter half of the narrative, I was rushing through the battle elements in as quick a time as possible just so I could get back to the ‘real’ world.
I think one of the main reasons for this is due to the events of the ‘real’ world acting as a sort of wish fulfilment, especially when it comes to the available romantic options within the game. Got the hots for teacher? Well she is a maid by night who has a habit of falling for younger men. Fancy that kinky doctor who is just the right amount of goth? Well she really appreciates it when you help her save a kid. Fall for the reclusive nerd who needs her eyes opened to the world outside her door? That clingy girl will not leave your side once she knows she can depend on you.
A lot of this boils down to the clichéd fantasies often associated with the Japanese culture but also works as a way to seamlessly slide into the harsher themes that are surprisingly present within the narrative. Aside from the somewhat boundless sex appeal the main character appears to exude, the game focuses on defeating morally corrupt and frankly evil people.
From a corrupt businessman who thinks little of those who earn him his millions (See: Jeff Bezos), a political leader who will sacrifice anyone in the path towards power, to a teacher who sexually assaults his pupils; the ‘bosses’ of the game offer a very uncomfortable comparison to real world figures, once again playing on that wish fulfilment when you are finally able to take them down and make them realise the damage their actions have caused.
Narrative aside the game is wonderfully smooth to play. Although there are times when the camera often has a mind of its own I have never witnessed such a seamless battle system. As I stated earlier I have not had much experience with JRPGs, but I am well versed in turn based combat, and P5 offers perhaps the best example of the game mechanic I have come across so far. The game adds a certain style and flair with its exquisite use of cell shading and comic book / pop art influences making the usual drudgery of a menu screen appear exciting and fresh. Even with this flashy covering the game does not skip out of the workings of the mechanic; floating between moves and characters becomes fluid, utilising complex strategies to battle against certain enemies strengths and weaknesses becomes second nature and does a wonderful job in drawing you in further to this already immersive game.
When the end credits rolled on P5 I had clocked up slightly more than 105 hours within the persona-verse, the longest I have ever spent playing a single game, and despite feeling happy that I had finally completed the game (despite my enjoyment of it the last ten or so hours were a bit of a slog) I had a sudden hollowness in my chest. It was days later, whilst researching into what I would need to buy in order to play P4: Golden (AKA the only reason I’m contemplating getting a PS TV), that I realised that the hollow feeling inside was loss, loss that I could no longer play this game. In the [admittedly long] time it took me to complete this game I played little else, my video game down time was spent on P5, when I had an hour to kill I jumped on P5, this solitary game was my one focus for far too many weeks, and I missed not being able to go back to it, to not visit the friends I had made along the way.
I think this is the crowning glory of the game. I came to love [almost] all of the characters, I knew how to use their quirks to my advantage, who best to use in a certain situation, which of them I wanted my character to end up with (Makoto will always be the one!).
Not many games have been able to elicit such a response out of me. Yes there were some niggles and a few irritations along the way, much like life nothing can be perfect. Yet the bonds I forged and the people I met endeared me in such a way that I am willing to spend another 100 hours getting to know them all again, something that I plan on doing very soon.