When it comes to JRPGs, the Persona series is in a class of its own. A spin-off of the ruthless-yet-addicting Shin Megami Tensei series, Persona splits SMT's dungeon-crawling and ability-focused combat (I always describe it as "Pokemon with demons") with VN-like segments of daily school life and building personal relationships. After several delays, I can finally, finally talk about the game that's been consuming my life for the last two months–and the one I was thinking about while playing Mass Effect: Andromeda a couple weeks ago.
Persona always deals with two worlds–the "real" world where we go about our daily business, with school, work, friends, and day-to-day drama, and the other world (helpfully called "The Metaverse" this time around), where people's twisted desires come to life, creating distorted spaces known as Palaces. As a transfer student caught up in this very strange situation, you and your steadily-growing group of friends form a team of Phantom Thieves to break into Palaces, take down their evil masters, and restore justice to the world! Of course, it's not as easy as I'm making it sound, as everybody wants a piece of the Phantom Thieves, from corrupt teachers to gangsters to a group of hackers. While you're at it, what is the Metaverse? Does anyone else know about Palaces? And what happens if this knowledge falls into the wrong hands?
P5's cast is familiar, but fresh: you'll see bits and pieces of past characters (i.e. Ryuji feels like a perfect fusion of Junpei and Chie, immediately making him my favorite), neatly fitting everybody into the previous boxes of "best friend," "the smart one," "the weird one" and more, but thankfully never feels tropey or overdone. You legitimately want to spend time with these guys, and they have their own individual charm and flaws–Ryuji shoots his mouth off and can come off as rude, but realizes when he's being an ass and can apologize. Yusuke lacks tact and thinks everybody should adhere to his sense of aesthetics, but also realizes that he's kind of an oddball and not everybody cares how beautiful a burger plate should look. Ann's confidence can come off as arrogance, but you see that her positive energy is there to help others feel strong and take care of themselves just as well as she does. And, just like past Persona games, spending time with characters and strengthening your bonds ("Social Links") pays off in-game: characters cure status ailments on their own, ambushing enemies can automatically add them to your Persona list, stores offer deep discounts, and you can get more free time in class to catch up on your reading or item crafting, among many others.
When you're not in the real world spending time with your friends, you're in the Metaverse, tackling stylized, danger-filled Palaces created by humans' distorted desires. A simplified focus on stealth adds a new sense of tension to dungeon-crawling in P5–since you're infiltrating each Palace, you'll have to sneak around and ambush enemies in the hopes of not alerting the Palace's master to your presence. It really keeps you on your toes to have to check each corner and not just barrel down hallways, making the dungeon-crawling elements feel fresh. Also, in the moments when you have to work with a countdown, it makes everything much more frantic, as you tear through enemies trying to make a break for an exit. I know a few people who were turned off by previous games' long dungeon crawls, like Persona 3's Tartarus, but P5 kind of follows the P4 route–Palaces are unique, tailored to the individual you're facing, so you're always going to be going somewhere new (and yes, SMT purists, there is a single large, randomized dungeon to explore, but it's mostly optional).
If you've ever played a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona game, you know what you're in for with the game's battle system, but if you haven't, it's a strictly turn-based system that encourages exploiting enemy weaknesses and setting them up for combos as you trade turns between teammates. There are lot of nice quality-of-life upgrades you can gain from Social Links, like pointing out discovered enemies' weaknesses and their item drops, making combat less of a grind and minimizing trial-and-error situations. Aside from a few hectic moments, you're welcome to take all the time you need in combat, but it's still not easy–mess up once, and you can get dogpiled. Persona is built around the concept of "One More," where if you strike an enemy with their weakness, you can get one more turn, or pass your turn on to a teammate so they can add to your attacks, but enemies can do the same. You're strong, but you're not invincible, and Persona 5 regularly reminds you of this.
You're not just locked into dungeon-crawling and individual friend hangouts, either, as there's plenty to do on your own in Persona 5: hit the batting cages, play some video games, rent DVDs, get a part-time job, help your friends study for exams–nothing feels like wasted time, because everything gives you some kind of advantage. Persona 5 builds a deeper, taller world instead of a broader one–there's more to do in smaller spaces, instead of just having a huge open world full of nothing. How you use your time is all up to you, but the game does demand that you make clear choices of who and what is more important to you–every Palace is on a hard deadline, often with life-ruining consequences for you or your friends.
The only real problem I had with Persona 5 came from getting screwed by the game's RNG: a "high chance to prevent" a status effect should actually prevent once in a while instead of failing ten times in a row (no joke), and enemies frequently know that killing the main character immediately causes a game over. Getting dogpiled, then one-shotted can lead to a number of frustrating reloads, no matter how good the rest of the game is. Persona 5 also has a fantastic dub, but Atlus Japan requested some name pronunciations that don't feel or sound natural (i.e. names like "Sakamoto" and "Takamaki" have the emphasis on the first syllable, not the second). Granted, I guarantee you'll hear the name "Ryuji" way more often than "Sakamoto," but the few times you hear names pronounced this way can be very jarring. There are a few repetitive sound bytes during battles, but switching up your party can prevent this from becoming a real dealbreaker.
What Persona 5 brings most to the table is heart. It's obviously a very well-made game, but it wouldn't be anything special if it didn't make you feel anything. You always have a reason to keep going, a reason to keep taking the fight to the game's villains, and a reason to care about your friends' feelings beyond getting that sweet Social Link bonus. Yeah, I powered through Andromeda in a week and loved it, but coming back to P5 felt like coming back home. For one, it was nice to play a game that actually worked, and for another, it hit a very easy-to-miss sweet spot between demanding and relaxing. When you're attending Shujin High and living life in Yongen-Jaya, take your time and soak it all in. When you're assaulting a nefarious villain's Palace, take a breath, steel yourself, and dig into a challenging, satisfying, and demanding RPG experience. Finally, take heart: Persona 5 was absolutely worth the wait.
+ Story, characters, visuals, soundtrack: Persona 5 delivers on all fronts
+ Battle system is fast-paced while still being turn-based, encouraging decisive tactics and quick thinking
+ Nothing feels like filler, even side quests with minor characters: you always get something useful
+ You're always doing something new–fresh dungeon designs, new story goals, even the light stealth elements help
+ No real need to grind–boss fights still tend to be challenging in ways that bigger numbers won't solve
+/- Awesome dub, despite some jarring name pronunciation
– Absolutely ridiculous RNG in some later battles–can get frustrating from reloading due to constant instakills