Libra: Persona 5 Royal (Switch)
The Persona series is something I haven’t touched in over 20 years, partly due to an experience from my childhood. Back then, our family bought and traded a ton of original Playstation games with one of my dad’s buddies at the time, who happened to work as a night shift security guard. Apparently, he enjoyed playing video games in between his nighttime rounds! He was a cultured man, especially when it came to RPGs, and I have his eclectic palate to thank for my own exposure to a number of games I may have never played otherwise.
Among the first few Playstation RPGs I tried were Vandal Hearts, Wild Arms, and a weird game called Revelations: Persona. And I only say “weird” because as a ten-year old who was already passionate for RPGs, I couldn’t really wrap my head around one this “unique.” I ultimately shelved it quickly and never really thought about picking up the series again.
But as I’ve said a multitude of times now, the Switch has provided a means to experience a wide array of RPGs – on the go or on the couch – that I may have never played before. And the most recent example of this is Persona 5 Royal, the highly-acclaimed title that fans have clamored for on Switch for ages. While I’m only a mere 30 hours in at this point, I can honestly say that it’s quickly becoming a frontrunner for my favorite Switch RPGs of the entire year. Below are some details of the game and what I think about my journey thus far.
Persona 5 Royal follows a group of high school students in Tokyo, though much of it is told by way of a series of flashbacks. Within moments of the prologue, the protagonist is captured after a mission ends in a police intervention. This high schooler, known as Joker to his friends, is actually the leader of the infamous Phantom Thieves of Hearts, which is a vigilante group that the criminals and law enforcers alike have wanted to snuff out for some time now.
Now facing interrogation, Joker retells the events which led to this very moment of captivity, beginning with his false accusation of assault and subsequent expulsion from school. While he actually stopped a sexual assault from happening, his opposition was powerful enough to have the truth swept under the rug – a constant theme in Persona 5 Royal. This would lead to Joker having to attend a completely different school while also juggling probation.
At this new school, Joker and a few others would become privy to another world known as the “Metaverse” in which the subconscious shapes its core. Those that live corrupt lives in the real world appear in this other world as “Shadows,” and if their true desires are overwhelmingly distorted, then may even lay claim to land known as “Palaces” in which their wicked selves can rule and run rampant. However, a few with pure and just hearts, like Joker, can both will and wield their inner selves into existence that can then be used to combat the Shadows and overcome Palaces. With the power of these “Personas,” the Phantom Thieves of Hearts can steal the greatest desires of the corrupt in the Metaverse, which ultimately spills out into the real world and forces them to right their wrongs.
It is a risky endeavor – as made evident by Joker’s current predicament – but it’s one the goodhearted youths are willing to take for the greater good. And before they know it, the mysterious Phantom Thieves have become (in)famous in Tokyo, and become key in uncovering some truly horrible and shocking truths. But at what cost? And who’s to say their tactics are foolproof? Playing with the hearts of man is a dangerous game.
Full disclosure, the idea of following some snot-nosed high schoolers around in a 100-hour adventure did not sound all that appealing to me from the outset. In reality, though, Persona 5 Royal does a great job of making you care about the world and its characters, all without sacrificing the innate inexperience and foolhardiness that naturally comes with being a teenager. Their struggles are put front and center, but don’t come across as some silly high school drama. This is obviously due in part to the writing and delivery itself, but also the bleak, sometimes horrific subject matter of certain situations these teens have to face. There’s also the obvious presence of otherworldly, creepy demon things that are enough to make anyone feel uneasy.
To put things simply, Persona 5 Royal is part turn-based JRPG, part social/life simulation, and part catch’em all in the vein of its roots, Shin Megami Tensei (or Pokemon for those unaware of the latter). Time management is crucial, as there are many things Joker can do on any given day, but there’s only so much that can be done before dawn breaks on a new day, and deadlines for certain events count down.
On a typical day, Joker will be attending school until the afternoon, which will be free for him to use as he sees fit. While there are numerous times where the game forces you into specific situations and events, eating into the already finite time present, there are also plenty of moments to pick and choose what you do during your downtime. And these choices are important: Do you study for better grades so you won’t fail exams or look like an idiot when called upon in class? Do you hit the batting cages for increased proficiency, or take on an insane food challenge to boost your guts (both mentally and physically)? Perhaps you would instead like to maintain a part-time job in order to improve skills AND your bank account? The choice is ultimately yours.
You can’t forget about your companions either, as spending time with them and building up bonds will not only provide more insight into their own stories, but also pave the way to improved strength and capabilities in both the real world and in the Metaverse. Partaking in most of these activities will slowly build up the Joker’s various social stats, which can affect a variety of situations and events throughout the game. In short, there’s always some small form of progression going on behind the scenes, which feels really nice!
Then there’s the Metaverse itself, which is split into two different sections: Palaces, large dungeons that can only be explored while the Phantom Thieves have an active target, and Mementos, which are smaller, randomized dungeons thats full details, for spoiler reasons, will not be divulged here. Palaces are directly tied to the main narrative, and are only available for specific amounts of in-game time (as to coincide with the person’s – or target’s – corrupt desires). The primary goal within each Palace is to covertly traverse it, steal the heart’s treasure, and ultimately make a positive impact on the real world counterpart of the corrupt target.
“Covertly” is key here, as rushing head on can often add unnecessary complexity and dangers to combat. Instead, Joker can take cover behind almost any object, swiftly move to and from other places of cover, and can even ambush unexpecting enemies from this position. This results in a major advantage in combat, and is always beneficial over meeting the enemy head-on since they too can gain an advantage on YOU if you aren’t quick about it. Joker also has a “third eye” ability that can help spot potential traps and secret passageways that could easily be missed.
Personas come into play in combat, as they allow the Phantom Thieves to battle the Shadows scattered about both the Palaces and Mementos. Combat is turn-based and places a heavy emphasis on playing off enemy weaknesses and utilizing debilitating debuffs. While brute force is certainly an option, striking weaknesses and dishing out status effects opens up many opportunities to deal additional damage, perform multiple attacks, and sometimes even coerce the enemy to join your team. But be warned, enemies can also take advantage of these same weaknesses, thus multiple attacks in a row!
As the Phantom Thieves’ trump card, Joker has the ability to wield multiple Personas by changing his mask, and successfully coercing an enemy to your side will allow him to carry that Persona into other battles. I say “coercion” because many enemies will not come quietly, if at all. And in most cases, Joker must negotiate with the enemy in order to capture them, and only after certain conditions (like performing a knockdown or striking a weakness). This process involves responding to an enemy’s questions in the most appropriate way based on their personality – apparently, shy demons can be a thing. If negotiations are successful, Joker will absorb their “mask,” while unsuccessful attempts may result in money, items, or worse, the enemy lashing out again. Joker also has the option to ask for money, items, or just to kill the pleading enemy outright – the choice is yours.
Joker can only hold so many Personas, however, so that’s where the mysterious Igor and his prison comes into play. For the sake of brevity spoilers, let’s just say that Joker can fuse different Personas into new ones, call upon previously captured Personas (for $), turn Personas into various items, and more. Igor’s hardass henchman will almost certainly have tasks for the protagonist, as well.
Besides Personas, the Phantom Thieves will pick up all sorts of loot and treasures within Palaces and Mementos, whether it be consumables, gear, vendor trash, or even Diablo-esque unidentified gear that can be put in a washing machine back home to reveal their true forms. On top of that, Joker has access to a wide array of shops for buying gear, consumables, and even novelty or exotic goods for that special someone in his life. So much to do, so little time!
By and large, Persona 5 Royal is an aesthetical masterpiece, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than being a technical marvel, it instead wholeheartedly embraces its own unique theme and style, no matter how bizarre it might seem on paper at times.
On one hand, you get to see the bustling streets of Tokyo alongside thousands of others going about their daily routines. Whether sandwiched together like anchovies on the subway, walking the corridors of school, or making your way across the jam-packed streets of the city, it always feels alive despite many passersby not being interactable and also lacking some facial features. While the latter is admittedly a bit spooky, it emphasizes the importance of the main characters and also makes you realize just how big the world can be. Finally you have those clever animated loading screens, particularly those that play whilst going between various sections of Tokyo, that help solidify the overall immersive experience.
Then there’s Metaverse, which is the polar opposite in terms of visual design. Bizarre color palettes and trippy structural design accurately manifests the often twisted and corrupt hearts of man. And the Phantom Thieves in their unique attire are about as over-the-top as their Persona counterparts, with equally emotive combat animations to go along with it. The occasional Ben Day-dotted, comic reel “finishers” are also thrown in for good measure. The icing on the cake is a superb jazz-inspired soundtrack that fits both real-world Tokyo and the Metaverse like a glove. There’s nothing of note to report in terms of performance – it’s great, though it’s worth mentioning that handheld mode is noticeably more blurry than its docked counterpart.
Although I’m only 30 hours into what is sure to be a much, much longer adventure, Persona 5 Royal is truly exceptional and feels right at home on the Nintendo Switch. If you were holding off on playing such a gargantuan journey until it arrived on Switch shores – like I was – then what are you waiting for? This game is jam-packed full of content, especially with the addition of all the content and DLC provided through the original Royal edition, as well as the bonus DLC that came after it.
That said, Persona 5 Royal is very much one of those RPGs that continues to dole out tutorials for dozens of hours – it may feel like it takes forever to do some things, but I feel the payoff is worth it. The end result is something that I truly believe will be in the running – for now, at least – for my favorite Switch RPG of the year.