It has been a big year for Japanese Role-Playing Games, with DragonQuest XI and the Final Fantasy 7 remake making big splashes in the gaming community. What went generally underappreciated in this recent splash of fantastic video games is “Persona 5 Royal,” the latest in the ever-growing “Persona” franchise.
What separates P5R from its JRPG counterparts is its deep basis in reality. Generally, the popular games in the genre build a fantasy world around their characters to explore and learn about. P5R instead takes place in modern Japan in a setting small enough to traverse by train. Here, players act as the protagonist (codenamed Joker) as he undergoes a year of probation under the housing of a total stranger while attending a new school.
There, he meets Ryuji Sakamoto and Ann Takamaki through a common bond of resenting their school’s PE teacher, Suguru Kamoshida. By accident, they figure out they can traverse something called the Metaverse, an alternate reality where they can see the world as Kamoshida and other “rotten adults” see it. Here they discover a mysterious being named Morgana who teaches them how to steal the treasures of particularly evil individuals and force a change of heart upon them.
Thus, the game plays out with Joker and friends setting out to reform society by changing the hearts of bad people and building a rapport among the public as the “Phantom Thieves.” They quickly find themselves in a gray area regarding the law and must remain anonymous. This places yet another stark contrast between the usual hero-versus-villain archetype, with the player character doing good things for little or no personal gain outside of the feeling of justice. The anonymity of the group also helps write a story unlike any I’ve ever seen.
The story covers so many topics resembling modern society. The Phantom Thieves are doubted and feared by some, while blindly supported by others. The story supplements their attempt to reform society with the fanaticism of the public, creating a borderline disturbing ambience throughout.
While maintaining anonymity, Joker has to make meaningful connections with a very unique group of individuals. These are called confidants and will grant bonuses in and out of combat as you spend more time with them. The sheer number of them makes it hard to max out every confidant in a single playthrough, greatly increasing the replayability of the game and implementing a higher skill ceiling where only true veterans can accomplish everything.
The game itself plays fantastic. In previous editions the combat felt hindered, but a number of changes for P5R made it flow much better. The Baton Pass system is available from minute one, allowing players to freely dictate the pace of the fight by attacking weaknesses. The turn-based combat itself might feel somewhat tedious later into the game but the powerful All-Out-Attack finishers give the player something to constantly be thinking about. Proc-based events such as Bullet Hail and Showtime also add a splash of freshness and flair to any given fight.
The combat itself also hinges on having Personas, which are very reminiscent of Pokémon. However, this system takes the best parts of Pokémon and builds from there. In any given Pokémon run, the player could settle on a team and not feel like they need to build with any new ones they find in the game. In P5R, each Persona has a cap where they no longer learn abilities with level. This constantly encourages the collection of new Personas, and the game provides the player with a method of fusing their current Personas for stronger ones. This adds to the skill ceiling, making efficient Persona fusing one of the hardest things to get right.
There’s no doubt that P5R is one of my favorite games of the last five years. Its long story has enough twists to keep fresh while never feeling like it needs to cheat its way forward. The turn-based combat is surprisingly fluid and the characters themselves are all unique and fun to get to know. They have stories of their own which just adds to the amount of depth this game has to offer. Anybody looking to try something new will find their money’s worth in “Persona 5 Royal.”