The “Persona” series of Japanese role-playing games has a well-deserved reputation that’s primarily based on two qualities: being really good and being really strange. Talking animal mascots make regular appearances as main characters, sometimes cracking wise to the player character about their favorite types of sushi or ice cream, other times questioning the nature of their existence and identity in a world that’s otherwise (mostly) rooted in reality. These conversations are often happening as the player also makes sure to get enough in-game studying done to make sure their in-game high school exams go well.
It reads like a melting pot of concepts that should not mesh at first look, but the sum ends up as something uniquely engaging and thoroughly engrossing. Originally an offshoot of the long-running Shin Megami Tensei series of games, the “Persona” titles have sidestepped the popularity of their pedigree in the last few releases (at least on Western shores). “Persona 5,” the latest game in the series, came out in America last week, and I remain neck deep in its oddities.
Since “Persona 3” was released in 2006, games in the series have featured a form of high school social simulation alongside a more traditional turn-based RPG system. The newest entry continues the trend. During the day, the player character navigates life as a Tokyo high school student, forming relationships with other students and personalities around the various wards of the city. Bolstering these ties grants bonuses that extend to the combat portion of the game, when players visit various distorted areas of the populace’s cognition for dungeon crawling and monster slaying.
The simulation portion of the series is where its true charm comes out. Following along with the school year, main pivot points of the story flow alongside deadlines and holidays, and the variety of characters to flesh out and discover is sprawling. Every side character has their own inner conflict catching up with them, and the game’s clever writing addresses more mature topics like questions of identity and regret while still leaving room for goofiness at the right moments.
“Persona 5” is unabashedly Japanese, with some sub-narratives in the plot digging into the Japanese political system, and the English translation doesn’t detract from that feeling. Aside from being an accomplished RPG in its own right, the game is also part of a wider resurgence of Japanese games that are finding success in Western markets (“Nier: Automata’s” release in early March being the other main example). RPGs from the country were the standard for the genre around the turn of the century but faded in popularity during the last few console cycles; having two back-to-back successes that are uncompromising in their style is in some ways an affirmation that these games still have an international audience.
Persona 5 isn’t without its faults — at times, the player can be railroaded a bit into performing certain actions around the story, and it gets a little exhausting — but the game’s otherwise immaculate presentation and acute sense of style make it a truly unique experience. JRPGs may have receded from Western view in recent years, but games like “Persona 5” showcase the genre at its best.
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