Addressing the Eye-Popping and Perplexing Imagery of ‘Persona 5’
The Japanese RPG dazzles with its vibrant visuals, save for when they contradict what the story’s trying to say.
A late bloomer, I only really fell for Persona in 2016, when the Golden Vita port of the fifth main game in Atlus' RPG series, Persona 4, became my portable bit on the side for the entire second half of the year. (And I know, it is confusing, how the fifth game is sold as the fourth; but just add one each time until anyone tells you differently.)
It didn't matter what new releases were out, as whenever I was on the move, this was pretty much all I wanted to play. On a plane to Los Angeles, a train to Southampton; on family weekends away and work trips alike, I was forever eager to get stuck into exploring the small Japanese town of Inaba, interacting with its memorable inhabitants, and wrecking shadows in its surreal dungeons.
And when I finished the game, I had that empty feeling. You probably know the one. I'd connected with these characters, their vibrant highs and desperate lows. We'd seen things. We'd done things. But now, there were no more things to do. Onto the next, I suppose.
Which, wonderfully, is also fairly excellent—albeit with the necessary-right-now caveat of so far. I'm coming up to 15 hours with Persona 5, filling the skinny slacks of a transfer student I've named Easter Egg, and locked in after the usual first couple of hours' fumbling through new environments, routines and relationships. As is the way with all long-term-commitment games—I stacked over 60 hours into Persona 4 Golden, and I know plenty of people who did more—it takes a while to get to know who you are, who they are, and why any of this matters.
But, one proper dungeon down and a hearty handful of exposition later, I'm there: I've got impetus, direction, purpose. I'm clicking with the cast. No, they're not my Investigation Team of a game ago, but this bunch, who I've named The Spookies—the game will default to The Phantoms—are growing on me. I'm enjoying the new structure to the dungeons, these palaces of distorted desires. The first has a regimented layout, with a number of Resident Evil-like save rooms, which you can fast travel between. Being able to save (and exit, to return later) at several stages of the infiltration has been vital, as these shadows can pack a punch—my poor, fragile Egg-san's been floored a few times already.
Much of how Persona 5 plays isn't simply similar to 4—it's exactly the same. Dungeon preparation and the subsequent waiting for an outcome to your actions feel more than familiar, even if the fists-flying, shadows-popping filling doesn't. Your character must improve his standing with his peers by reading books, taking part-time jobs, socializing and generally being an OK dude. This boosts things like your charisma and bravery—the higher those are, the more options you can access in conversational and social interactions. If you played 4, you know all of this already, and will quickly settle on your own schedule of hanging out, homework and hacking away at alternative-reality nasties. The ebb and flow is much unchanged.
Above: Persona 5 Story Trailer
"Take your time," instructs the game's loading screen—and, outside of dungeon completion deadlines (miss them and it's game over), you should. Drink in the atmosphere of Atlus' latest, as there's a lot of it, and it's zestier, zingier than ever. While Inaba was quaint, quiet and largely uncluttered, the Shibuya of Persona 5 is all bustle and bombast, bright lights and the promise of wild nights. Assuming you get permission to go out after dark, that is, which takes some trust building.
And that is right up amongst the things I most like—love is too strong a word, just for now—about Persona 5. So many things positively dance off the screen. Menu management. Shopping trips. Post-combat notifications. Instant messenger conversations with fellow students. Map screens and fast-travel options. It's not like Persona 4 was lacking in color—but with its sequel being on new hardware, and set in Japan's capital city, it's like its makers have felt the urge to push every shade, every contrast, up to 11. So, that's what they've done, and it really works for me, making what is definitely mundane in other RPGs into, well, not exactly exciting moments, but certainly incredibly vibrant ones.
It doesn't look a thing like Jet Set Radio—but remember when that crashed onto the Dreamcast and for a while everything else looked like it was black and white? Like it was moving at half speed? Persona 5 has that effect. And I say that coming off playing Yakuza 0 and Horizon Zero Dawn, which in their own ways sizzle and fizz across the TV screen. This game's pinks are just perfection, its yellows the deepest, the purest, that games have realized to date. Its black-and-red-spells-danger designs are fantastic, its blues hypnotic. The jagged lines that dart across the scenes are sharp and seductive, the close-ups on character eyes when something significant is said in exchanges a simple yet effective means of making Straight Talking that much more visually dynamic.
I just want to wrap myself up in it—just not for too long, given all the noise. This isn't like Breath of the Wild, a game world in which you could see yourself living a year or more, seeing the full transition of the seasons, wandering the varied landscapes of Hyrule. Persona 5 is more a long weekend, Friday to Monday, a destination of distilled aesthetic potency, played out across consecutive evenings—more bite-size than Zelda's binge-potential moment-to-moment play. (Which is why it's not a surprise, but frustrating nonetheless, that this isn't a Vita game, too.)
Persona 5 is quick to chastise you for looking at a cigarette stall, but is OK with sending out very mixed messages on how teens should interact with the opposite sex.
It's great, there to be gorged on, greedily—until it goes too far, and a bitter disharmony manifests for a short time. Conflict tears the picture in two as a Spookies confidant, Ann Takamaki, distresses over being perceived as a harlot of the homeroom, the subject of so much schoolyard gossip regarding her and a teacher, only to find herself exploring dungeons in a "sexy cat" outfit complete with a tail and, ahem, "cleavage cutout".
The plotline thrust of the first dungeon is to reveal the appalling behavior of said teacher, one Suguru Kamoshida—which includes, but sure isn't restricted to, sexual harassment (and I say no more here Because Spoilers)—to the masses. He reigns over the school like a morally bankrupt king, his sordid secrets restricted to unsubstantiated rumors amongst staff and pupils alike—and his palace is therefore a castle infested with treacherous enemies, its halls adorned with statues of shapely female backsides.
And here's Ann, passionately fired up to take down Kamoshida, dressed like a shamelessly provocative late arrival at a parents-away Halloween party. She can't believe the costume hand she's been dealt to begin with, while the boys just gawp, but ultimately gets on with the ass kicking (and kick ass she certainly can). At a stage of the game where the story is presenting lecherousness taken to its extreme as a root of much greater evil, the player is perversely tasked with controlling a character seemingly exclusively drawn to titillate.
It just feels so off, puzzlingly so when contrasted with the messages the dialogue is presenting. Having another (in-battle) controllable character kind of crack onto Ann soon after the first dungeon's done is a poor-taste turn of events, too.
Persona 5 is quick to chastise you for looking at a cigarette stall—"There's no reason for a high school student to go to a tobacco shop," says my Egg-san's not-completely-feline pal, Morgana (who really, really has to stop telling me how cool I am when I exploit a shadow's weakness). But it's OK with sending out very mixed messages on how teens should interact with the opposite sex, ostensibly romantically (but realistically it's rather more complicated than that). One of the first books you get to read, when finding a seat on the crowded Tokyo subway connecting home with school, is a guide to picking up women. Egg digests it, and his charm goes up, because that's how it works.
I'm really not feeling the game's take on developing its lead protagonist's—I guess—sexual side right now. His chances with—forgive another ahem—the ladies. Or Ann's outfit, which feels like a counterproductive design decision when appreciated in the context of how it comes into her possession.
But these are, right now, the sole hang ups I've got. There is plenty beside the striking visuals that I really enjoy about this game, loads, from the genuinely great localization work to the cackling Personas themselves who, this time, are convinced to join your cause through verbal coercion (albeit at gun point). And then there's the (once again) tremendously contagious score from Shoji Meguro, which flirts with jazz-kissed flourishes and all-out rock histrionics, and is something I've already found myself listening to on headphones during the working day.
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And it's not like fetishized character modeling has wholly stood in the way of awesome experiences, recently—Nier: Automata's android protagonist rocks around in high heels, flashing her backside whenever she hits a sprint, and like Ann sports a cleavage-revealing top. Which is all, obviously, Regulation Attire for future robot soldiers. But Platinum's action-RPG is absolutely one of my favorite games of 2017 so far, as is Persona 5. Again, seriously: for the most part, this game is just the most fun, although I respect that being so fresh off of 4 has aided its ease of impressing, given the under-the-skin mechanical parallels.
I guess I'm just going to have to see how these competing visual identities—this amazingly electric world, that truly pops out of the television, into your lap (oh, if only this was a Vita game, too); and the peculiarly sour, uncomfortably juxtaposed sexualized side to some its presentation—align over the next however many hours. Persona 4 wasn't without scenes, whole passages, which felt uncomfortably sticky. I forgave it, because the bigger picture was so alluring, so engrossing. The whole more than made up for such relatively brief deviations. I hope that 5 ultimately follows in the same pattern, and I'm certainly hungry to find out.
The English-language version of Persona 5 is released for PlayStation 3 and 4 on April 4th. The Japanese version is available now.