Originally due for release in 2014, Persona 5 has finally made its way to Western shores, having debuted in Japan in September 2016. It was partly Sony's fault, since the jump to PS4 meant a lot more work for developer Atlus.
"The 2D elements of the game had to be completely redrawn, from the PlayStation 3 originals, in order to even work on PS4," the game's director, Katsura Hashino, tells me. "But in the end, we feel that Persona 5 has turned out to be an outstanding game on both platforms."
So the review scores say: a perfect 10 from Official PlayStation Magazine in the UK has been complemented by positive buzz back in the game's homeland. Hashino tells me that seeing the anticipation for the game build, as previously announced street dates passed and more information on the game crept out via the press, was both "encouraging and scary." He talks about the previous games, particularly Persona 4, having a "precious feel," and the need to recapture that feeling. The high school setting was core to that.
"The most important thing is to feel sympathetic towards the characters. If they have personal issues, we want players to understand, and help them." — Katsura Hashino
"At the end of high school life, there's always graduation and a farewell to everyone as you part and continue with your lives," the director explains. "When you're an adult, those kinds of chance meetings and farewells won't happen that frequently any more. Your circumstances are going to remain the same for a long time. That's why we wanted to focus on high school students, to get that precious feel."
Hashino was also director of Persona 4, and several other Shin Megami Tensei titles and spin-offs, including Catherine. Looking back at the 2008 title's Investigation Team, featuring Chie and Yosuke et al, it feels like one of the most eclectic casts in video gaming. And with Persona 5, Hashino and company are hoping to fuse comparably tight bonds between players and on-screen partners in crime-solving (or, in this case, hearts-stealing).
"The most important thing is for players to feel sympathetic towards each of the characters," he tells me—and it's true enough that you'll have be a good listener to make headway with your social links in Persona 5. "If they have some personal issues, we want all the people who play the game to understand, and help them. To get that real feeling of a personal relation between the player and character."
Just as in Persona 4, the new game asks that you develop friendships with a varied cast of supporting characters, many of who have pivotal roles to play in the course of the game's story. These social links affect the power and abilities of your personas, the magical beings the player can summon while in Persona 5's shadows-infested parallel dimension, accessed through, naturally, smartphones. While this is a game partly grounded in the realistic surroundings of central Tokyo, once the dungeon crawling begins in the other realm, all manner of surreal visions dance across the screen.
In "the real world", the game's protagonist—more on them in just a moment—can use their phone to chat with friends, "confidants" as the game classifies them, over instant messenger, both in class and out of it.
"Everyone's on social networks," says Hashino, who's also a director at Atlus itself. "They've got their preferred platforms, and use them to express themselves. In the game, we want players to enjoy characters that are true to themselves, and expressing as much as they really want."
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Which isn't to say you have total freedom in conversations, be they on a phone screen or in person on the school rooftop—which serves as this game's version of Persona 4's Junes food court. You'll be able to pick from a select number of responses to the questions of your colleagues, some of which will alter their appreciation of you, while others will drive the story onwards whatever the choice. At times, your selection will influence more than just the team's next destination.
"It's up to the player, who they want to be in a relationship with," Hashino explains. Yes, again, you can work on your social links until they're maxed out and your just good friends become, potentially, rather more than just that. "Or, if they want to be in one at all. In the real world, of course, teenagers will be thinking about love, right? So it seems very real and natural to incorporate that into the games."
If you were hoping play as a girl in Persona 5, though, you're out of luck (and because I was only a few hours into the game, I didn't know about the lack of queer relationship options for the main character). Just like Persona 4, the protagonist of this game is already established, as a recently transferred male student with a criminal record (which isn't as bad as the school's gossip-mongers make it sound, really). Back on Persona 3 Portable for the PSP, players were given the choice between a male or female lead. I'm curious to know why the series hasn't returned to this option.
"To put [a gender select] option into the game, we'd have to cut other things to compensate for the workload, and every time that's the situation we'll say, 'it's not worth it'." — Katsura Hashino
"Every time the development on a new Persona game starts, this subject always comes up at the very beginning," Hashino tells me. "When thinking about how much work goes into accomplishing such a feat, it's a huge amount. Honestly, to put that option into the game, we'd have to cut out other things to compensate for the workload, and every time that's the situation we'll basically say, 'it's not worth it'."
Addressing the story and scenario of Persona 3 in relation to later games, Hashino says: "With the way that game's world worked, it was okay for the protagonist to be female. With Persona 4, though, we needed the character to come from a big city to a small country town to be the driving force of the story, and it seemed more natural for a male character to fulfill that role. There are story aspects to this decision, as well."
This seems bizarre to me. In a fantastical situation where people are turned into coffins and the local school transforms into a twisted tower of deadly enemies, being a girl is fine, so long as she's a native of the location in question. But when another Japanese town is plagued by a reality altering fog, and people keep falling into televisions? You need a dude who's new to the area to take care of that.
For me, this kind of attitude could hold the Persona series back from ever attaining the level of recognition, and commercial clout, of Mass Effect, for example. Persona 5 is not an insensitive game, tackling serious issues with great care—no spoilers, but you'll see what I mean several times in the first few hours. It doesn't feel like too far of a stretch to ask for the smallest diversity with its playable hero, its Joker in the pack. I wouldn't want any potential players to be put off by only being able to play as a(nother) slim guy in stylish glasses, but it's understandable if they are.
Wherever Persona goes after 5, there's no guarantee that Hasino will be involved. He sees this game's release as "a turning point" for the series, adding, "I want to move onto another project." Which is, as revealed late in 2016, Project Re Fantasy, a teaser for which can be seen here. "I'm playing through the original Wizardry, and reading the entire Lord of the Rings series," he tells me, more than hinting at where his next game will be headed, aesthetically.
Right now, though, English-speaking players have one hell of a game ahead of them. Persona 5 is a special experience, in so many ways—from its evolved combat, incorporating new offensive options and persuasive methods of acquiring personas, through to its bigger city setting, just waiting to be explored. The characters grow on you just as Persona 4's did, and the dungeons mix familiar thrills and all-new features that have them feeling fresh, design wise. Is it perfect? No, as some of the above attests to, but from the perspective of someone who has long loved this series, it's got just about everything I want in a modern JRPG.
Persona 5 is released for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 on April 4th, worldwide.