I just completed Persona 5 Royal, and I can confidently say it’s my favorite PS4 game. I loved Persona 5 when it was first released, and I love it more now that Atlus has delivered this new version. It’s a AAA JRPG at the top of its game, and I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who is willing to invest the massive amount of time it requires.
Since Royal is a new version of Persona 5, I will address specific changes to the game in their own sections, but I will avoid spoilers and hope that this review is of use for everyone.
What is Persona?
Persona is a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) franchise from Atlus that was spun off from the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series many years ago. Like SMT, Persona is concerned with occult narratives in a modern Japanese setting. It keeps most of the SMT battle system, but focuses less on post-apocalyptic scenarios and more on interpersonal connections, and eschews overt mythological and theological elements for more of a Jungian exploration of humanity’s collective subconscious. Persona also, at least since the third installment, tasks you with living the life of an ordinary Japanese high school student, juggling classes and social obligations when not dungeon crawling through psychological hellscapes.
Persona 5 drops you in the shoes of a young man who finds himself on probation. Sent from your unnamed hometown to Tokyo, you are taken in by a gruff cafe owner. Already on thin ice, you soon discover a mysterious occult app on your phone that allows you you to visit a strange, parallel reality called the Metaverse where the human mind holds sway. You’ll meet allies and form a gang of Phantom Thieves to delve into Palaces, the twisted pockets of the Metaverse where individuals whose subconscious desires have become so corrupted that they manifest as elaborate and perilous dungeons. When your gang steals these individuals’ hearts, their minds are reverted to a normal state, so they at last understand their misdeeds and confess to receive justice.
Persona 5 is a game very concerned with justice. Almost every character has been wronged in some way by society, instilling in them anger, helplessness, and a burning desire for positive change. Atlus takes target at a number of issues well-recognizable in our world: the abuse of students by teachers, the exploitation of workers by corporations, and the corruption of politicians. Some of these issues are rather specifically Japanese, such as a foray into the art world with a scandal apparently ripped from Japanese headlines, but none of them are beyond a sense of universal outrage at the unjustness of it all.
There’s a lot I could say about the story, but I don’t want to risk spoiling things for anyone. Getting to know the characters and becoming invested in their struggle is a huge part of the appeal of Persona 5, and it’s worth being surprised if you can be. I will say that the game does have a rather anime bent despite being grounded in present day Japanese life, and if that’s unappealing you may find 120-ish hours of it hard to stomach.
As alluded to before, one of the defining qualities of Persona as a franchise is its focus on time management. Persona 5 takes place over the course of about a year. The game will progress day by day. Some days, your schedule will be dictated by the plot; you’ll have no choices about what happens. But most days, you will have at least some decisions to make about what to do. Days are divided into two segments, usually After School and Night or Morning and Night, depending on if it is a school day, and your choice of action will consume that segment of time. You may choose to spend time with a character, which will advance their personal story through visual novel-like conversations, which will provide benefits to you both in and out of battle. You may choose to perform an activity, such as making tools to help you when dungeon crawling or reading a book. You may choose to delve into a dungeon, which will lock you out of most other options for that day. Many of these activities are gated by your social stats: Knowledge, Charm, Proficiency, Guts, and Kindness. Finding ways to increase these stats efficiently is vital to advancing, and with only two time segments to work with you’ll quickly find yourself prioritizing your goals.
Since the game’s calendar marches relentlessly on, you can’t simply dawdle on story objectives. The game’s major dungeons, the Palaces, each have a deadline. Failure to complete the Palace by the deadline results in a game over. You can complete dungeons over the course of multiple days, but you can’t do much else when you spend a day going into a dungeon. Thus, the core tension of the game is managing your resources while meeting these deadlines and advancing your various non-dungeon objectives. You can complete most Palaces in two days (one for the dungeon, one for the boss) if you manage things well, but the loss of precious time is an ever-present threat.
Persona is a dungeon-crawling RPG. The story is built around a number of elaborate dungeons called Palaces, and each Palace is a carefully designed labyrinth filled with treasure, puzzles (mostly simple), and enemies. Like most modern JRPGs, the game eschews random encounters for visible enemies wandering the halls of the dungeons. These enemies can mostly be avoided, ambushed, or simply engaged as desired, and there are some light stealth elements to facilitate your preferred approach. Occasionally, extremely tough enemies will appear who will pressure you to avoid fights, but like most JRPGs you’ll generally want to seek out battles to gain experience points and level up.
In addition to the Palaces, there is an enormous meta-Palace called Mementos. Unlike the other Palaces, Mementos is randomly generated. It’s significantly less interesting than the other Palaces as a result, but you will need to advance through it to complete the story, so it’s wise to schedule trips into it as the depths open up to save yourself a much more annoying chore lately. Luckily, each floor of Mementos is short, and between the monster bounties and copious treasure, you’ll find your visits to Mementos very profitable and fairly brief. Mementos exists largely to provide a way to let you grind for experience, money, and items, but this is one of the least grind-y JRPGs I’ve ever played (though it’s still going to have a lot of repetitive battles, as expected from the genre).
The Battle Begins
In battle, Persona 5 Royal utilizes a tweaked version of the standard SMT Press Turn system. Actions are taken in turns, with the entire team acting before giving over to the enemy. When a character hits an enemy with an attack to which the enemy is weak, the enemy will take extra damage and be staggered. The character who performed this attack gets to take another action, or can pass the extra action onto an ally using the Baton Pass option, which will empower the ally’s action. So long as an enemy is staggered with each action, this chain can continue until every party member has received a bonus action. While enemies do not have the Baton Pass, they can use this system as well, so battles are typically decided by how well you can exploit enemy weaknesses while protecting your own. Unlike SMT you can’t lose actions from hitting a resistance, so it’s noticeably more forgiving.
Unfortunately, the differences between Persona and SMT demonstrate some weaknesses in the battle system that don’t translate well. The Press Turn system is designed to make battles very speedy if you come prepared with the right abilities and resistances, potentially doubling your own actions and halving the enemies’. It’s a simple system that’s more about systemic knowledge than tactics, and it shows its limitations with Persona’s set-piece boss encounters. Bosses rarely have weaknesses that can be exploited, so the battle system comes to a screeching halt as you are reduced to managing buffs and debuffs while chipping away at mountains of HP. Rather than being fun climaxes, boss fights tend to be the most tedious portions of the game. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it certainly isn’t the best situation for a game that is always building towards the next boss fight. The difficulty can be changed at any time if you decide that it’s not worth the time just to prove that, yes, you know when to heal and when to hit.
The other element of the battle system that I find unappealing is that you receive a game over if the main character is killed, even though logically your party members have access to the same curative abilities and items as you do. This is mostly annoying during some of the boss fights, as simple RNG paired with powerful attacks can end up forcing you to restart.
An RPG isn’t just a battle system and dungeons: it’s also about character building. Most of your party is straightforward: they level up and learn new skills. They can only know eight skills at a time, so periodically you’ll have to decide which skills to keep and which to dispose of. Many battle skills are tied to advancing your social circle outside of the dungeons. Spending time with characters can open new attacks and special commands. But on top of this, the main character has access to multiple personas.
Personas in Persona are Jungian representations of humanity’s subconscious. Each party member in Persona 5 has their own persona, and these personas are the source of their powers. But the main character has the unique ability to possess multiple personas, and he recruits them from the enemies the party encounters. Down all the enemies in a fight and you can choose to negotiate with them, luring them to your side. In the early going, you’ll be recruiting weak creatures like pixies and fairy tale creatures. In the late game, you’ll be fighting alongside gods and demons pulled from across the world.
Since personas are just representations of human thought and desire, they can be molded to your own purposes. In the strange Velvet Room, you can splice and dice your recruited personas to create stronger ones, carrying over useful old skills into new, stronger creatures. With the right combinations, the main character can become a veritable Swiss Army knife, able to deploy the best skills for any situation, making him the most powerful member of the team.
(As an aside, this is the exact same system that the SMT franchise uses. All of the personas are pulled from SMT as well. If you like this splicing element and the battle system, you may like SMT, too. Consider that a recommendation if you want more gameplay like this, or like the game’s systems but aren’t enamored of the time management and social aspects.)
Telling Tales out of School
As much as I love Persona 5 Royal, it does have some flaws. Some of the content may be upsetting: the very first story arc involves the sexual and physical abuse of students by a high school teacher. And the game doesn’t always handle its ideas in the most sensitive fashion; one teammate, Ann, endures this abuse, but is still the subject of some very male gaze-y shots and sexual situations. I wouldn’t say it reflects any malice on the writers’ part, but it is a bit tone-deaf. There is also some questionable material involving two gay stereotypes that appear very briefly (less than five minutes in a game that took me 126 hours to beat) and which reflects Atlus’ general inability to quite figure out a decent approach to LGBTQ issues. As a gay man myself, I found these hiccups easy to forgive (but not forget), and it’s certainly miles better than similar content from Persona 4.
Additionally, this is a LONG game. As I said, it took me 126 hours to reach the end, and unlike something like Skyrim that’s pretty much all essential. I’ve heard Persona 5 referred to as bloated, but while it may be longer than it needs to be it doesn’t have a lot of slack. I wasn’t able to max out every social relationship, which locked me out of certain rewards and even battle abilities, nor was I able to complete every optional monster bounty. It’s less that it’s bloated and more that’s it’s just a long-ass game, and not everyone is going to be up for that.
And finally, that 126 hours assumes that you get the true ending. This is less of a big deal for new players, who, if they miss it, will still get a 100+ hour game with a satisfying ending and a NG+ goal that will likely be pretty easy to find naturally, but for returning players you need to fulfill specific conditions to achieve this. A friend of mine learned this too late and restarted at God knows what point, and it’s pretty shitty that the game doesn’t really signal this. I will add the spoiler-free requirements to the comments for anyone who wants to know.
I’ve avoided going into too much detail about the changes in the Royal edition of the game, so if you don’t want a lot of detail or haven’t played Persona 5 before and so don’t care, the only thing you need to know is that this is definitely the best version of the game; feel free to skip this section. For everyone else, I’ll outline the major differences.
The localization has received a once over and is now much better. Sae in particular no longer sounds like a malfunctioning robot. I’m not sure it’s quite as good a localization as Persona 4 Golden, but it’s no longer embarrassing at any point.
There are some new music tracks, notably for the various levels of Mementos (thank God) and ambush battles. I personally like the new ambush battle track more than the standard battle track (which you will now hear a lot less), but I’m aware that opinions differ on that front.
There is a third semester, but it’s truncated. It’s really about an extra month of in-game time with a single Palace as its spine. During this month, you can continue to do everything you could before, including social links. However, each party member has an additional level to their social link that you should definitely make time for, so you likely still won’t be able to max out every confidant without a guide. You cannot access the third semester without advancing specific social links. I will add the requirements as I understand them to the comments.
Guns regenerate ammo after every battle, making them much more useful. The knockdown shot ability is still limited as per the base game, however.
Party members now have Showtime abilities. These work like the flashy combo attacks in Tokyo Mirage Sessions: at the start of a character’s turn, they may say that they are ready to do a Showtime. If you use it, they and the other character (who doesn’t have to be actively deployed) will perform an elaborate and extremely powerful attack. Showtimes unlock as the game progresses, and I think they are more likely to trigger the higher you advance with its participants’ social links.
Status effects now allow you to trigger Technicals if you follow up with the correct element. Technicals are functionally identical to hitting enemy weak points, and enemies can pull them off, too. But since bosses tend to be immune to status effects, it doesn’t alleviate the game’s major slog points.
The Reaper is no longer susceptible to the flu, if you were exploiting that before.
There is a new district, Kichimonji, that has a bunch of useful new features. You can meditate at the temple to increase your SP, purchase incense to enhance personas, sell sooty gear, buy buy new items, improve the Baton Pass ability and party member social links through darts, improve Technicals, Knock Downs, and party member social links through billiards, and enhance party member personas at the jazz club. I’m listing those out because the game doesn’t really draw attention to all of these features, and some are quite good.
Morgana is far less pushy about making you go to sleep, and you can additionally still perform all of your Le Blanc activities even after returning from the Metaverse (other than bonding with Sojiro and Kawakami). There are still some days when you can only sleep, but they are far less frequent and it’s much easier to advance your social stats as a result.
You now have a grappling hook. This item can only be used in predetermined ways, and the Palaces have all been slightly tweaked in places to accommodate it, but it’s a very minor change overall.
Each Palace now has three Will Seeds hidden away. Reaching these will always require the use of the new grappling hook item. Collecting all three Will Seeds will reward you with a powerful accessory.
A new character, Jose (Joe-say), now wanders Mementos. He’s a very weird character, and not a social link. As you wander Mementos, you will now collect flowers (floating as bubbles in the middle of the path) and stamps (available at the end of each floor but also scattered randomly throughout). Jose will sell you rare items for flowers, and can use the stamps to increase how much experience, money, and/or items you earn while in Mementos. After clearing a Palace, Jose will also upgrade the Will Seed accessories into even stronger versions.
There are two new confidants, Kasumi and Maruki. Akechi has a significantly expanded social link that, in my opinion, makes him more integrated with the game. They are pretty useful confidants overall. You can also hang out with the Twins in locations around Tokyo, and they will provide you with good rewards for doing so. This is separate from their social link and consumes time.
Sometimes, the Velvet Room will be on alert. Fusing personas during an alarm will reward you with a huge experience boost (on top of any others) and can even enhance your skills. Trying to do a second fusion will always result in an accident, so there is some real risk if you’re aiming for specific fusions (but also great reward if you have some throwaways you don’t mind experimenting with).
Atlus seems to be giving away some of the DLC for the base game for Royal, so be sure to check PSN. Most of them are high-end personas, but I never found them game-breaking.
I don’t think Persona 5 Royal is for everyone. It’s incredibly long, and the high school student angle may be a turn-off. But it also has a plot that feels relevant and, yes, political in a way that you just don’t see anywhere in the AAA space. The characters are endearing, the soundtrack is fantastic, the aesthetic is stylish, and it’s simply a blast to play, even if the boss fights typically bring things to an unfortunate crawl. I liked it so much that I’m interested in the Dynasty Warriors-style sequel, Persona 5 Scramble, and I really don’t like Dynasty Warriors. If you have a PS4 and like JRPGs, you should try to find the time to play Persona 5 Royal.