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Persona 5: Spoiler-Free Review
Epistemic Status: Spent 101 hours finishing the game, and similar amounts on finishing Persona 3 and Persona 4.
Short Version: Strongly endorse the game, the best Persona experience yet, but in the most important ways Persona 3 is still the best. If you would consider playing a Persona game, you should play one.
There are some minor spoilers here because it's impossible to review a game without them, but I have done my best to make sure none of them impact the game experience. The tips at the end strike a balance between minor spoilers and helping you get the most out of the game.
Persona in General (Skip if you have played Persona 3, 4 or 5)
Playing a Persona game is a big commitment. A lot of what the games do is immerse you in their world and what it feels like to inhabit the life of the main character, and build his relationships with other characters. The passage of time, both in game time and real world clock time, is integral to that. Persona 5 does not need 100 hours to make its point (and I could have cut 10 of those out by doing less unnecessary grinding), but I think it genuinely does need 50.
The basic mechanic of Persona is that you decide how to spend each afternoon and each evening. You can spend that time in a variety of ways, all of them beneficial, and the game's key events happen on their own schedule no matter what you do, so your time is precious. The two key types of actions are going into dungeons (the game can call them whatever it wants, they're still dungeons), and doing everything else, where you are preparing for those dungeons.
In the dungeons, which in this game are called palaces, you are trying to accomplish as much as possible each trip. You want to gain as many levels and make as much money as possible, and get through as much of the palace as possible, so you don't waste extra days you can use for something else. The combat is a lot like other RPGs, with the unique mechanic being the main character's personas.
You get various personas in combat (and can pay to get back one you have had in the past), and can then combine them to make new personas. Your persona determines your attributes, which elements you are strong and weak to, and what skills (basically spells) you can use. You will be trying to keep your personas strong, which means continuously combining them into higher level personas, while keeping access to a variety of valuable skills, combining the need for different elements, hitting single and multiple targets, and having low cost and high cost versions so you pull out the big guns if and only if you need them. There are other things to think about as well. It has lots of interesting trade-offs and is quite the puzzle.
Outside of the dungeons, your primary concern is to deepen your connection (links) to a variety of confidants, which brings you a variety of benefits. You will also need to raise your five life skill levels, since there are threshold requirements to various actions including many confidants. You want to take efficient actions to improve your skills and links, and plan so that you always can take an efficient action each afternoon and each evening. You can only get each confidant to level 10, and each life skill to level 5, and only some of your best options are available each turn, so you want to spread your efforts around to avoid wasting time later, but you want to focus your efforts to unlock important benefits faster.
The most annoying part of the game is that you will often be presented with dialog choices during these events, with some choices being right and giving you more points, and others being bad and giving you less or no points. Sometimes all the choices give no points, so you can't ever be sure you did anything wrong unless you reload and check all the choices, or look online. If you don't maximize on these choices, it will make these choices more meaningful, but it will cost you a huge amount of time and you will miss out on some of the story (and the dungeons will be harder). It is up to you whether to look up the right answers online.
All Persona games follow the same core structure, and impart a lot of the same lessons and experiences. If you have played one before, you have a good idea if you want to play another.
Is Persona Worthwhile?
Yes. I think these games are pretty great. They come together in a way that is far more than the sum of their parts. However, you do have to enjoy and be invested in both major sections of the game, or you will spend a lot of hours on things you do not enjoy, and that isn't worth it. A lot of Persona is effectively a TV series that has interactive elements, and if you don't want to watch that show, then the games aren't worth it. A lot of the other half is about grinding as efficiently as possible. The games do a lot of interesting things with this, but if you do not want to spend a lot of time trying to win RPG-style fights as efficiently as possible and working on the persona puzzle, then again the games are not right for you. Both halves are done quite well, but both need to work for you.
If both halves do work, and you buy in, the payoff is pretty great. If approached in the right way, the games can even inspire you to improve your life. Persona well played is time well spent.
The argument against playing (other than simply not enjoying it, once you try it) is long game is long and life is short.
How does Persona 5 compare to Persona 3 and Persona 4? What is different?
Persona 5 is a more modern and polished game, in addition to being for a more advanced system and having better graphics. That is mostly good, but not entirely.
There are some important flaws in the past games that have been fixed.
Fast travel has been improved, and makes it much easier to get where you want to go. The central map tells you which confidants are available each turn, and which of them would level up if you spent time with them, which saves a lot of otherwise wasted time. The confidants themselves will even text you to let you know they are available, which is great.
The confidants now grant you thematic abilities as you level them up, in addition to the boost to Persona fusion, making them distinct so your choices matter and you get more meaningful rewards.
When you fuse personas, you used to have to constantly re-roll the result until you figured out what was possible, and then do it again until you got the combination you wanted, which was quite frustrating, whereas in Persona 5 you get to choose the outcome. Fusion by result also gives you an easier way to see what is possible.
Getting your personas by negotiating with the enemies you fight, rather than with a card game you play after the battle, feels and plays much better. This isn't costless, but it is definitely worth it.
When you study, you no longer randomly sometimes get double the effect. This used to force you to either reset repeatedly or accept the loss of time, so this is quite a welcome change.
The dungeons/palaces are now mostly designed rather than random, which makes them richer and more interesting places to travel through. The extra effort is appreciated, especially when it gets contrasted with the random dungeons the game still has.
The game will be clear when you are making important choices, and even double check with you if you are about to do something consequential the game does not expect.
The move to eliminate wasted time and make your actions more impactful is appreciated. If there was one change I would make to the game, it would be to do more things along these lines, skipping other things that are too repetitive once you had seen them enough times, and eliminating the last few random elements (crafting infiltration tools and strengthening personas, both of which still have random outcomes for no good reason).
Similarly, while Momentos (a huge random dungeon you can go to at any time) is in some ways a good idea, the fact that you are trying to minimize days spent there, and the huge number of levels to get through, means you end up spending lots of time against enemies that pose no threat to you, in gigantic chunks. The place is way too large, and could do with some amount of scaling to player level or getting harder over time.
I see three downsides to Persona 5 when comparing it to previous efforts.
The first is that the game makes time management too easy, and the later combat too easy.
I was maximizing my responses, but not otherwise doing too great a job, and still managed to maximize all the confidants with a substantial buffer at the end. In the past that required you to plan carefully and play close to optimally, but now it only requires that you follow some basic principles, and that makes the whole optimization puzzle feel a lot less pressing. In many places, you can trade money for time, and the game gives you a lot of money once you get into the mid-game. Persona 3 was the opposite, where you were always strapped for cash and had to make difficult choices. That went slightly too far, but was much better. Persona 4 was somewhere in the middle.
Early on, the combat is challenging, but later in the game it became increasingly difficult to die even without much grinding, provided you were doing well with the confidants and knew what personas to aim for. By the late game, it was easy to not only win combats safely but to do so without spending resources. Persona 3 and 4 both made this much harder, and provided a real challenge. This problem can be solved by playing on a harder difficulty level, so to some extent I suppose I have no one to blame but myself, and I will simply recommend moving up a difficulty level after the first few months, and not giving yourself permission to grind.
The second problem is that the game contains a number of 'puzzles' that seem like the game making work for you. Some of them can be cute or interesting, but they did sometimes feel like busywork and took me out of the experience. It is hard for a non-puzzle game to do puzzles that are worth your time. Similarly, often the actual puzzle was 'find the place to press the button' which is not especially fun.
The third problem is the central theme, where they still have not matched the high bar they set with Persona 3. They do pull off what they are going for, and I was not disappointed by where they went with things, but things still seem amiss. I do not want to get into spoilers for any of the games here (I may write a spoiler-rich version that does). I will say that I found some elements of what was going on, and the message that was being sent, to be disturbing, and its presence to be saying something deeply troubling about where we are as a culture and civilization. The more I reflected on it, the more something was wrong in a deep way, but I don't want to say any more than that. Spoilers, and all that. After all it is up to the player to draw their own conclusions.
Which Persona to Play?
There are no spoilers across games, so you can play them in any order, but they benefit from being played in order. As with most series, once you see the slicker and smoother later interface, it becomes much harder to put up with the flaws in earlier games, and there are some nice payoffs for prior knowledge in Persona 5. If you knew you were going to play all three, I would say to go in order, and take substantial breaks between the games, at least several months each.
All three is a three hundred hour journey, so most will simply want to know which game is best if you only play one. I know it is not Persona 4; that is quite a good game, but also clearly dominated by your other choices. I would say that the best game to play is Persona 5, but the best game to have played is Persona 3. Persona 5 has higher Quality, and a smoother experience, as our ability to make games improves over the years, but Persona 3 is a bigger, more important game and a better and more important message (and finale). Persona 5 is just too much better of an experience minute to minute for me to tell you to go back into the past... but I want to do that anyway. Especially if you are still impressionable, at-risk youth.
You can be the judge, having heard that, of which game is right for you, or whether to continue the series if you have played before.
Tips for Maximum Enjoyment
Note that while these tips will help you win, I did not say tips for winning. If you want tips purely for winning or you want to go trophy hunting, read an FAQ or other online guide. This is a series of heuristics and house rules that will help you make the most of your experience, which does involve doing well and finishing the game, but does not mean maximizing every little thing. It does mean giving you some important tips for what to prioritize, but I won't explain why so as not to spoil things.
Play on either Average or Hard difficulty level, and consider starting on Average and moving up to Hard a few months in.
It is fine to go online if you spend many minutes and can't find the vent they want you to crawl through or place they want you to click on. Don't give up right away, but life is short.
When you have a trade-off between money and time (the explicit trade-off will be money and life stats, or money and confidant points, which is the same thing), you usually want to spend the money and save the time, but do not feel obligated to spend 5,000 yen on a single extra point early in the game, as you will get better opportunities. Money starts off tight and you have some key big purchases later.
By contrast, you want to focus on making money from fights rather than getting items.
Always be fusing new Personas and keep higher base level Personas in your arsenal, rather than trying to level up those that start out lower level. Using those that start lower level will cause you problems down the line.
Keeping a wide array of low-SP elemental spells is important, to preserve SP. The really big late game guns aren't even that good.
While you need to preserve SP, and you should not avoid fights, you should not need to double back and seek out extra fights in order to grind, nor should you need to grind extra in Momentos. Shin Megami Tensei games in general, and Persona in particular, punish you hard for trying to grind beyond where you are 'supposed' to be, so don't waste your (real world) time doing that.
Having a matching persona for confidants you hang out with is almost always worth it, to the extent that you likely shouldn't spend time with them if you don't have one.
Choose the extent to which you will be using guides for the choices you make. The game is still highly winnable if you make choices blind and stick with them, and it makes the experience better in many ways.
If you can level up a confidant, that is almost always time well spent. If you spend time with a confidant without leveling them up, that is sometimes necessary later in the game, but is by default not time well spent.
When you get the ability to go out at night, you need to do certain things or you will lose a key confidant permanently. It's not hard to figure out what to do, but you need to know that this is time sensitive.
The most important confidants to level up quickly are Sun, Temperance and Fortune. All three should be pursued whenever you can. Arguments can also be made for Moon, Star, Strength and Death. You will likely need a guide to get Strength 10, which is a huge jump in your power level when you get it.