Thanks, BBP! I’ve written way more about this than I thought I would. here goes!
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Persona 5 Thoughts: Introduction
So I’ve finally completed Persona 5. I started playing it in April 2017 when it was released, hot on the heels of an ecstatic, joyful, and impactful playthrough of Nier: Automata. Just as I’d spent 2 or 3 hours a night for a couple weeks going deep on N:A after stressful days of teaching and writing my master’s thesis, I expected I’d dive into P5 for nightly installments of engaging story and action. Admittedly, my writing (and also game development) got in the way of working on the game, but that’s also attributable to the fact that the game kind of lost me.
I’ve found myself wondering what my reaction to this game would have been if I hadn’t had such an intensely personal connection to Personas 3 (which I largely credit with making me love videogames again–it was a Revelation, so to speak) and 4 that I’ve been thinking about for over a decade now. It’s impossible for me to think about this game’s failings and successes without comparing it to its predecessors. I feel like my engagement with those earlier games primed me to engage analytically, intellectually, and emotionally with this game in a way that I don’t think this game, ultimately, can live up to.
I’ve got a lot to say and I’m going to attempt to work it out through a few subheadings (I may be writing this out partly to get myself to the point of drafting some kind of article). Some of this is built on conversations here and, especially, with a good friend of mine who feels much the same as I do about the game.
I’ve gotten a lot more sensitive to social justice issues in the last ten years, so I don’t intend for this to be a pass for the series’ prior entires–the previous games have their problems too (Yosuke’s homophobia in Persona 4 stands out as really uncomfortable in the moments when I was playing it, and I still don’t know quite what to do with Kanji and Naoto, though I feel like without more positive queer representation, it becomes very hard to want to attempt to defend). Nevertheless, this game by itself is deeply uncomfortable.
The game’s gay-men-are-comical-predators homophobia is tacky and tacked on. It depresses me that the people who made this game think this adds something to the story they’re telling. This homophobia is abrasive and toxic, though I think it also ties into a broader problem the game has in only applying its theoretically justice-minded, ethical lens to the in-group of do-gooders–everyone else is faceless, mindless props and stereotypes (though the thieves themselves are little more than stereotypes as well). (I think Lala Escargot’s probably a pretty positive drag characterization that could arguably counterbalance this a little, but your interaction with Lala is inherently pretty limited, and the grossness of the comical predators is really toxic.)
It’s bullshit that this game will let you start a relationship with/fuck every female character you talk to long enough, no matter her age or social position, but you can’t start a relationship with Ryuji or Yusuke.
Ann’s true thief form or whatever being a skin-tight, cleavage-amplifying Catwoman wielding a whip is a punch in the gut. We’ve talked about this extensively in both Persona 5 threads here, but you can’t just lampshade this away. You can’t even call it Ann owning her sexuality (a blievable outcome of her arc in the Kamoshida line, from some other things I’ve read), since the objectification at the hands of her so-called friends and teammates is protested vehemently by Ann. Oh well. She’s just a girl (there’s some really lazy tropes around the fact that she’s a foreigner, too, but I would need to go deeper on this than I’m ready to right now).
Ryuji’s insistence on calling the maid service is gross. The game makes you do it. There’s a ridiculous moment in Shido’s palace where the Thieves are trying to get a letter of recommendation from an old guy who won’t give them the time of day. The brilliant workaround for this is to make the girls dress in bikinis to get his attention. Everyone then lectures this guy for being a pervert. However, the player has just had one last opportunity to see all the female characters showing off their flesh. It’s a hypocritical moment of having one’s cake and eating it too. In a sense, it’s saying the player (embodied in the game world as a teenage male protagonist) is lucky to have a claim to have access to these women’s bodies. Not cool at all.
Yusuke is a pervert (the bad kind). He’s introduced as being disgusting and predatory to Ann, and we never get that much more of him (admittedly, I didn’t do his social link, because he’s gross). That a couple of the girls continually call him a “hentai” right up to the final scenes and that he never shows any real friendship to the group make his presence uncomfortable throughout.
(Fake edit: I meant to write about Morgana’s crush on “Ann-dono” and how it adds an unwelcome layer of further leering, but I’m tired of writing this section and I’m moving on for now)
The pop cultural milieu Persona 5 comes from–shonen manga/anime/games–abounds with hacky horniness-as-humor and the omnipresent threat of assumed and reactionary homophobia. That’s not to excuse P5. Plenty of Japanese texts do this better. Persona can certainly do better (even if it never really has).
One of my big issues with the game is that it foregrounds justice as its overriding theme, yet it fails to articulate a discernible (let alone coherent) vision of what justice is or can look like. The biggest problem I have with this is that the game struggles with abstract thinking and fails to grasp systemic injustice, which I think is key to any real argument or narrative about how society fails individuals. Instead, the Phantom Thieves accomplish their justice by manipulating the cognition of certain toxic individuals who have “distortions” cause by twisted desires in their hearts–and always happen to align with people you know and personal threats against members of your team (including I think at least two threats of sexual violence against the women you know!). So you need to change them from the inside, against their will, with magic, apparently restoring them to a baseline of human decency and commonsense morality that is warped by the world of adults, but only in a generalized way that is never reckoned with on anything more than a “some real rotten apples out there” kind of way. (Is there something going on here about a bedrock of Confucian worldview that claims humans are always originally moral and are corrupted by society?–maybe! I need to think about that more.)
The characters talk about the themes of the narrative endlessly. You get close to most of your confidants by going into the metaverse and kicking the shit out of a piece of someone’s subconscious. These and the other sidequest shadows that populate mementos–who range from school bullies to domestic violence perpeterators to serial sexual predators–always feel even more violently one-dimensional than the masters of the palaces.
There’s ultimately a twist that you’ve been manipulated into going on this wild Phantom Thieves ride by incredible political and supernatural conspiracies. This is a lot less interesting a twist when you maintained a skepticism about your characters’ methods and actions in the first place.
The game cakes itself in a slick, hip gloss inspired by street art with high contrast pop art interfaces that feel like they could migrate just as easily to a ransom note as a picket sign. But the game has little to say about the world even as it groans about it. The hip signifiers of revolution are juxtaposed in a stance to the official political system that is only as radical as that tired kernel of conventional wisdom held by people the world over–politicians are crooks and liars, etc.–as witnessed in this set of thrilling dialog options:
The game talks relentlessly about its themes. But the concept of justice on display is shallow, vague, and, I think, ultimately afraid to say anything truly controversial about the systems that govern life in Japan. The convoluted circumstances of Futaba’s mom’s death gets initially glossed as a single mother not being able to cope with the demands of being a scientist and raising a child (I think Ann says this). Ultimately, we find out she’s been murdered over her research, but the parroting of a pervasive and sexist view of what women can and should be able to be in Japan is never really revisited to be challenged (nor, crucially, is the lack of social and economic support for women in Japan who want to both be both mothers and carry on careers that makes such a statement accetably utterable in the first place).
I can imagine someone attempting to defend the loose grasp of justice and seeming mismatch between the certainty of the characters and the flimsiness of their values as a fundamentally adolescent perspective befitting a game about adolescents. But I’m unconvinced.
Oh, and the weird redemption lampshade hung on Akechi posthumously is bizarre. Sure, he was an unrepentant murderer, but he probably had a good heart and was distorted by his shitty dad? What about everyone else’s shitty dads?!
For what it’s worth, I’ve found the themes of Persona 3 (Memento Mori, facing adversity and our common fate) and Persona 4 (facing up to one’s own true identity and the power of friendship), much more coherent, less tediously scripted, and more meaningfully integrated into the game’s systems, mechanics, narrative, and framing.
The memory/flashback structure is wack. It starts the game off with a bang, admittedly, by giving you an in medias res glimpse of the Lupin III pastiche beating in the game’s poppy heart. The trade-off, though, is a continual, overhanging debt to be paid back in momentum and interest.
As I quipped upthread, the little cutscene variations that play whenever you forge a new social link in which the Sae says something ridiculous like “To do what you did, you must have had someone who baked bread? WHO THE FUCK BAKED BREAD FOR YOU???” is a dramatic and, frankly, bewildering injury to immersion. It does remind you that what you’re watching is a flashback, but why is that necessary, anyway? (Or so I constantly found myself asking)
The other thing the framing seems to set up is the completely baffling omission of critical parts of the story (everything about setting up Akechi) as you play through the game’s timespan. This is presented as your memories slowly coming back to you at a critical juncture, but all it really is is narrative information being withheld from you as the player to fabricate a serious misdirect that shouldn’t create the same kind of tension for your character or teammates. It’s the game boasting how clever and tricky it can be, but the only meaningful clues the game has left for you are Akechi accidentally revealing he can hear Morgana and a line (you heard some 72 hours of playtime ago) from the framing device that says one of your teammates sold you out. I definitely didn’t remember the latter and kinda missed the former. This isn’t expert plotting. This is attempted cleverness for the sake of cleverness.
The rules of the Metaverse are always in flux, too, as convenient for setting up story scenes. Having to go to court to get into a door because Sae needs to know you’re allowed in there… Huh? The interrogation room stunt? Okay.
When Sae’s calling card comes with the additional stipulation that it can only be sent on a paritcular day, you know exactly what’s coming. The tension as “all we can do is wait” keeps getting spouted by characters in person and in your text message thread is almost nill.
Systems and Their Integration
The repetitive nature of the monthly palace quests leads to tedium and the dreaded refrain of “all we can do is wait.” Villains are shallow realizations of one-dimensionally bad adults, so they don’t provide much interest, despite the fact that subway passengers, your teammates, and the TV talk about them ALL THE FUCKING TIME for a month. The middle of the game, then, feels kinda samey. (I confess, again, that I played it over the course of two years, but still the game feels emptier and more repetitive than any previous entry to me.) The game tries to mix it up with different types of dungeon puzzles, but the puzzles are rarely all that inspiring.
Is it possible to like the stealth in this game? It’s nice when it works the way you want to and you want to skip a fight, sometimes, but just as often you can’t get to quite where you want and you can’t even fight the shadow sitting right next to you because the camera doesn’t bend that way? Oof.
Manual text message threads where everyone constantly recaps everything aren’t fun. Hanging out (or not) in the Iwatodai Dorm common room this ain’t.
It probably seemed like a great idea to put the game’s disembodied system voice into the mouth of a kitty cat phantom thief who is omnipresent. It’s fucking not. It makes Morgana–already not the easiest sell of a character (despite being an adorable tuxedo cat, which I wish had been his VN portrait presentation in non-metaverse scenarios)–extra shrill and annoying. That the game thinks you need extra rest because you’re meeting up at a restaurant with your friends the next afternoon is already annoying. That you’re forbidden to do it by Morgana is galling.
Persona 3/4’s social links are confidants now, but they’re social links. Persona 4 gave us social links for your teammates that gave you in-battle bonuses that made them more mechanically necessary than any others, in contrast to Persona 3 where the only benefits came from persona fusion bonuses. Now, in Persona 5, advancing any social link gives you extra bonuses, most of which lighten the burdern of dungeon crawling significantly. I see how this sounds good. It might even be kind of good. I feel like, though, it instrumentalizes the social link further. I don’t know that you can break social links in P5 like you can in P3. You can coast through a lot of them without even giving them the “right” answers. Your incentive for hanging out with someone in Persona 5 is beyond mere extra experience–now you do it because you want to hire demons who are above your level or you commit blackmail with your sexually exploited homeroom teacher because you wanna dick around and make lockpicks during class.
I confess this last point relates to my particular play style, which is always to assume a high level of identification with the protagonist (I found this easiest in both male and female-protagonist Persona 3s, less easy in 4, and really hard in 5), and so I have a different reaction than others, perhaps. I’m not a completionist, either, so if my social link went south in Pesona 3 for giving the “wrong” answers or I didn’t like someone’s story, I just didn’t feel like I had to bother. However, because of the mechanical benefeits of the social links in this game, I felt more inclined to do certain stories I wouldn’t otherwise have pursued.
The integration of a Mementos sidequest in most of the social link stories makes the stories less compelling, I argue. Though I think that’s good game design, right? Make your discrete pieces talk to each other and work together to create a compelling whole? The essential structure of a Persona 5 social link story is this:
- get them to talk to you about their problems
- they reveal their problems largely stem from one grade-A asshole in their life and are thinking about standing up to them
- you got kick the shit out of that person’s shadow self because you’re magic
- because that asshole is now nice, your friend knows you saved them, Mr. Phantom Thief. thanks!
- (if opposite sex, wanna fuck?)
This is where I’ll mention that Mementos is boring and bad. It has a place in the narrative as revealed by the end of December events, but it otherwise feels like a drain on interest. Why the game wants me to fight and collect mostly meaningless loot is beyond me. I just found out that Death will attack you if you stay on a floor for too long (and that you can cheese him in certain conditions for amazing experience), but I had literally never seen Death because Mementos was so boring, I cleared most floors in under a minute outside battle. Mementos also has music that is unpleasant to l isten to and almost nauseating. It is literally my least favorite Meguro track and I’m expected to listen to it through, like, 60 floors of dungeons?
It started with Persona 4, but I think Persona 5’s fast travel thwarts the immersion promised in a vibrant sketch of virtual Tokyo. Everyone loves the first subway sequence where you can get lost on the way to school through Shibuya Station, but then you literally never have to walk into a subway station again. The behind-character dynamic camera view for world map locations makes navigating them somewhat confusing, and the instant addition of every little shop to your fast travel menu means you never have to think about the space of the city you occupy in a meaningful way. As such, I (and I expect most players) know this bigger Tokyo with less intimacy than any area in P3 or P4 and that seems to me a shame.
It’s Kind of a Mess
Looking at the grand scheme of Persona 5, I see things that maybe could have worked or should have worked with the right framing and narrative. Almost certainly, characters were designed and assets were developed before scripts were finalized. So certain reversals and themes and ideas are there, but some of it feels vestigial, like somethin that was drafted during the half decade of development, changed its context a bunch, and doesn’t really fit but still needs to have use made of it. What’s the point of the two prison wardens actually being another the split manifestation of a Velvet Room attendant we’ve never seen in earlier games? I don’t know! It’s treated like a great big suspenseful moment (when the camera pans up her body I really expected to see Elizabeth or Margaret) and then nothing really happens with it. There’s no amazing parallel in symbolism about two halves becoming one to be found in the game. It’s just… there.
Another thing that’s just there is the Seven Deadly Sins motif. It seems vestigial too. Its connection to the game’s main themes and imagery is tenuous, but the palaces align with them and they’re brought in for the final boss fight, in a pale echo of Nyx’s arcanae from Persona 3.
I could nitpick the game to death, but it’s really not all bad. I’ll focus on some big and small things I actually liked about the game before I close this post.
Things I Liked
I enjoyed some of my social links. Character designs are pretty fun for the most part. Having at least one post-max social link scene with characters is a nod to letting me live in these relationships at least. The modified press-turn battle system is still fun (even if social link benefits start to strip it of its danger and tension as the game progresses). The Akechi and Shido fights were really fun both aesthetically and strategically (even if Akechi’s “redemption” afterward rang real false). Everything between the Velvet Room reveal (and the rescue of your friends from their prison cells (the prison motif never felt to me like all that much more than flashy iconography)) and the final fight with the Holy Grail felt very appropriately Persona-y and Shin Megami Tensei-y in ways that were very satisfying. That climactic sequence has a real momentum and energy to it that swept me up. Meguro’s music is pretty great, with a handful of misses (and, unfortunately, there’s not quite enough variation). Kaneko’s demons look fabulous in HD and I’m cautiously excited for SMT5.
I think I could probably say a few more nice things, but that’s not the mood I’m in, and I’ve been writing this for a while. I have a few more things to say.
A common refrain in the mostly glowing reviews for this game is that it’s–at long last–the maturation of the series. I’ve read it in multiple reviews, but it’s epitomized in Justin Clark’s review for Slant:
It helps to think of Persona 5 as the Greatest YA Novel Ever Told, a year in the life of a ragtag bunch of social miscreants trying find a true moral north before they reach adulthood, punctuated by chapters of outrageous, stylish heroism that the world outside their clique can only barely conceive. Its Atlus’s watershed moment—which is to say, the moment they allowed the Persona series to truly grow up and earn that “M for Mature” rating.
It’s the first game in the series, he says, to be truly mature. He also claims that this is the first one to really grapple with being a teenager. I think that this does the series a strong disservice, and it’s hard for me not to assume that the critics who subscribe to this aren’t trading in a hazy, meme-ified conventional wisdom about the series that flattens its value to a couple of choice gags from the Hiimdaisy P4 comics and a “Get in the fucking robot, Shinji” level of meme discourse about Persona 3’s memento mori imagery. Yet to my memory, both PS2-era Persona RPGs (imperfect, to be sure) feature characters (usually more enjoyable and better realized as characters in my estimation) grappling with acceptance of themselves, their pasts, their futures, and/or each other. Their teams have to evaluate the world of adults for its grim excesses, violence, and mistreatment of youth and others. These themes were always in the series.
Persona 5 just called it “justice” and screamed the word at you for 100 hours. And upped the contrast on its red-tinted visuals.