Persona 5: Life did change, but what about the game?

NOTE: This piece contains spoilers for Persona 5, Persona 4 and mentions of the endings of Persona 3 and all their spin-offs.

Sometimes I forget that Persona 5, my most anticipated game of 2017, finally came out in the West around half a year ago. I’ve been meaning to write something about it for months, but I guess I’ve delayed this piece almost as many times as the game itself was delayed. Now that six months have passed and the end of the year draws closer and closer, I think it’s about time I write about why I don’t love Persona 5 as much as I thought I would.

I should start by remarking that this still is a game I like a lot. I might even consider it the best in the series. As soon as I finished it, I started New Game+, even though the first time it took me 120 hours to beat. Despite that, and maybe because of that, I was left with the feeling that Persona 5 could’ve been much more. It could’ve matched my expectations and even surpass them, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.

Prior to release there were many aspects of Atlus, separated from the Persona itself, that contributed to shaping an opinion on the company that was releasing the game. From Atlus USA’s harmful stance against sharing video footage even though the Share function on PS4 was disabled, to some overpriced DLC that in previous games was unlockable content. From the lackluster promotional anime “prequel”, to using Persona 5 trailers and videos as an incentive to get people the Japanese version of Persona 4: Dancing All Night. This, among other decisions, had already rubbed me the wrong way before even starting the game.

Even without taking Atlus as a company into account, the game was not exactly what I hoped for. I had been following news about the game since early 2014, shortly after it was announced with a very cryptic teaser. As info started appearing over the course of the years, an idea of what the game was going to be started forming in my head. The theme of the game, the style, the experiences of previous works, all added fuel to my already high expectations.

At a certain point, I just stopped looking for info on the game. Even by the time the game was already out in Japan, I decided to not read about it because I was sure that the game would be what I wanted and more. I was hoping for something that would innovate the Persona formula, that would use the leap to a new generation of consoles to deliver a different flavor while still being true to the franchise. Unfortunately, once I started playing the game, those hopes were rapidly abandoned as I began to realize what the game actually was.

My first surprise came with the self-insert silent protagonist. Since Atlus went to the trouble of casting Jun Fukuyama in Japanese and the US side interviewed Xander Mobus, I assumed that the protagonist, even if he still didn’t have a name, would at least be able to speak, as basic as that sounds. I fail to understand why, when they got such voice actors and when they have to make the protagonist a very defined character with a name for the manga and anime adaptations, they still decide to make him silent in the game. And that is without even complaining about the lack of a female option.

It’s even harder for me to undestand given the team’s previous game, Catherine. Vincent, the playable character, talks. He has tons of dialogue, even if you, the player, are the one making the decisions about his life, sometimes altering the course of the game in very drastic ways.

Moving past the protagonist, another aspect of the game that shattered my expectations was the Confidant system. When it was first revealed, everyone thought that it was going to be a much needed evolution of the already known Social Link system. However, I was legitimately surprised the first time a musical note flew out of a character’s head, because it was the first sign that, even with a different name and different gameplay bonuses, the system would be almost the same as the Social Links. It didn’t help that the grind for social stats still makes it so that you can’t experience all of the Confidants in one playthrough without a guide, just like the previous games.

One of the most disappointing and offensive aspects of the Persona 5, however, is its treatment of romance, women and queer folks. It is infuriating to me to think that this game is constantly screaming in a loud voice that it’s about breaking free of the chains of society, while also validating the shitty and toxic behaviour that hurts the people it claims to be defending. A lot of people have written about this aspect, so I’m going to link two of the best ones to read: ‘Persona 5’ Can’t Champion Marginalized Underdogs Without Queer Characters by Sloane Cee and Persona 5 could say a lot more if it didn’t constantly objectify Ann by Natalie Flores.

As I got closer to the end of the game with my expectations already lowered, the game still managed to disappoint me when I arrived at the in-game month of November, which is when the final parts of the story kick into gear. The first big reveal the game throws at you is that the somewhat friendly detective that decides to give you a hand turns out to be a serial killer that rejects the idea that the friendships you made are part of what makes you stronger. If this sounds too familiar, it’s because if you sum up the twists regarding both Adachi from Persona 4 and Akechi from Persona 5, there’s not much of a difference.

This was actually surprising to me, because Akechi was such an obvious pick for that role that it seemed like a big red herring. That’s what I thought up until the reveal, where even Akechi’s sprite changes to a “twisted” version of his face just to let you know that now he’s evil, just like Persona 4 did with Adachi.

But that was not the only aspect of the story that felt like it was lifted from Persona 4. In fact, Persona 5 repeats most of the same beats that Persona 4 does. There’s your talking mascot that doens’t know who they really are and serves as your navigator. There’s a parental figure that takes you in and eventually warms up to you. There’s a trip to the beach, with the obligatory offensive homophobic “jokes”. There’s a school trip. There’s a school festival. You get caught by the police near the end. The characters and the details might be different (and sometimes even better), but the bigger picture does feel very familiar.

Eventually, the Big Bad of the game is revealed to be, yet again, a manifestation of one of mankind’s negative emotions. It was a reveal that, even though I was hoping it wouldn’t happen, I saw coming since near the beginning of the game. Because modern Persona games have always ended like this. Even the spin-offs, including the dancing game, as ridiculous as that sounds. No matter how powerful the message of the game’s last hours might be, the fact that they had to resort to this once again makes it lose a ton of weight for me.

All of that is disappointing on its own, but what really gets me is the realization that eight years passed between the releases of Persona 4 and Persona 5. In those eight years, there has been a ton of products based on both Persona 3 and Persona 4: manga adaptations, movies, anime series, spin-offs, portable ports, stage plays, and probably more things I’m forgetting. I’m sure that, in those eight years, a lot of things happened to the people behind the games, things that influenced their way of making the games.

I’m sure of it because it happened to me. I first played a Persona game in January of 2014 and it was a life-changing experience. Getting into the series opened a lot of doors in my life that I never could’ve expected. It changed the kind of entertainment I consumed. It influenced the music I listened to and the music I used to make back then. It even got me interested in writing about videogames. I would not be where I am today without Persona.

In a lot of ways, Persona 5 feels like a product from another time. I was expecting something very different, something fresh and new. Sure enough, the game looks and plays better than ever. However, it almost feels as if, in those eight years, nothing changed in the Persona team and therefore they didn’t think of changing the formula of the game, even though I know that is not true.

I can’t help but think of the Persona series, as it is right now, as that one guy from a high school reunion. You know, the one that, even after all those years, still makes the same tired jokes. He might look different, but he acts just like he did in high school because he knows that everyone loved him back then. On the inside, he might be different, but he can’t show it because he remembers what worked before and he still wants people to love him. For some people, it still works, but others end up asking themselves what kind of life that guy has been living that it truly feels like nothing has changed for him in all this time.

Hopefully, by the time of the next reunion, he will realize that it’s okay to show signs of change. Because everyone changes. Hopefully, he’ll realize that it’s okay to show what you have learned from the past and show you’re using that to be better. Because everyone tries to.

Hopefully, he’ll realize that trying to be the same forever because it feels like the safest thing to do is not what life is about.

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