Thirty hours into Persona 5 and I know barely anything about Ann, one of the principal characters. I've been collecting every Ann Fact and affixing them to a cork-board in my office, stringing together The Mystery of Ann. So far: the case is running cold, chief. She's a model. She likes dessert. Her hobbies include: IDK.
An equal number of hours into Persona 4 and I was completely convinced Chie was a high-tier Best Girl, a master of Kung fu who deserved as many steaks as she could afford. And it's not just Ann who feels under-developed—so far, I can only describe Persona 5's cast members, the way the roster currently stands after a commitment equivalent to watching two full seasons of your average Netflix show, as "The Protagonist", "A Rude Boy", "Sassy Cat", "Dopey Artist" and, yeah, "Ann."
Persona 5 uses its opening hours to finely detail the minutiae of its high-concept framing: In modern-day Tokyo there are people in positions of power abusing their status and only The Phantom Thieves (that's you!) can perform spiritual heists inside spectral "Palaces," stealing away cruel desires, forcing the targets to be overcome with guilt and publicly confess their crimes. Also: your closest friend is a talking cat.
The setup differs vastly from 2008's Persona 4. Then, the Investigation Team (you, again, hello!) is given advance warning of an impending kidnapping and murder, and the chance to learn as much as possible about the target. Eventually, once said target is saved from a magical dungeon formed out of their own insecurities and warped sense of self image, the team fights a boss who represents the shadowy "true self," an aspect of the victim's personality they're not willing to accept.
It's a weird game. There's a fox who sells you magic leaves.
Preparation for each Persona 4 rescue mission naturally informs the player about the qualities and personality of the person they're going after—someone who will, afterwards, become a part of the Investigation Team for the remainder of the game. You'll understand plenty about what drives them before you assume any kind of control over them, in a mechanical sense. But in Persona 5, this time is largely dedicated to understanding somebody else entirely—the abuser rather than the abused, leaving the wronged individual much more of a blank canvas when they join your ranks. (There is one notable exception but, y'know, spoilers.)
Due to this shift in focus, in the way the game's story unfolds, every cast member in Persona 5 feels less fleshed out than their counterparts in the previous main-series game. They're that little bit less interesting, like they're missing a larger purpose or identity.
There are fewer Words On The Page dedicated to the details that make the player-characters who they are. Their most obvious personality trait is simply that they're opposed to someone else.
Persona 4's characters are defined by incompatible truths. Their character arcs are about reconciling aspects of their personality which might be uncomfortable, but ultimately they gain (literal, magic, anime) power by addressing this disparity and ultimately deciding they're able to be themselves without any more conflict.
I really connected with P4's Kanji and Naoto, who both struggle with societal expectations of gender and how those conform with their self image and personal ambitions. (The game categorically fumbles its execution of their anxieties, however, which represents one of its few genuine disappointments.) Persona 4's structure was built to explicitly explore the self, and it requires its cast to be written with a greater spread of dimension and depth.
Persona 5's party members are defined initially not by their personal insecurities, but by their relationship to the person they're rebelling against. Its main focus is less on personal identity and more on perceived identity within a larger culture, on how the world decides to view people based on their past, and whether or not that's a correct assessment. Its antagonists hide behind ill-garnered success and unearned public acclaim, while its protagonists live with the consequences of doing the right thing in an unjust system.
It's not a bad writing choice, just a very different one. There are fewer Words On The Page dedicated to the details that make the player-characters who they are, and what internal struggles define them. Their most obvious personality trait is simply that they're opposed to someone else.
Their stories then shift to picking up their lives again, without their victimizer hanging around. That's an interesting subject worthy of tackling, and I'm glad there's a video game giving this idea a go; but in practice here it leaves the characters feeling two-dimensional for the longest time. Time that could've been spent expanding their roles is sacrificed to set up each new temporary antagonist.
I've mostly been feeling lonely while I play it. Like I've, too, travelled from out of town and am now spending a lot of time with people who I don't really know all that well. But maybe that's part of the point, as P5 does a great job of emulating some Big City Stress. One of the first tasks the game offers is navigating the confusing and labyrinthine Shibuya Station, with a lot of wrong turns and alternate routes. When you get "home", you're under the supervision of, basically, The Venture Bros' Dr Venture. You get stronger by spending time in a magic jail. It's alienating. Though in a lot of ways this struggle to feel comfortable in a new setting feels appropriate and deliberate.
I appreciate that I'm a distance from finishing at the moment, but I really don't feel a meaningful connection to any of Persona 5's cast yet. Maybe I won't ever. Persona 4 was so good about introducing its new characters, and conveying why they're worth caring about. In retrospect, that process seemed effortless. P5's change in focus hasn't resulted in the same feeling and it's hard to say it's an improvement.
I want more Ann, is what I'm saying. I'm holding out for the Ann DLC.