Need someone to sum up Persona 5 in three words in case you don’t have 100+ hours to blow? I’m your man. So, here you go.
I’m wary about making this post, because it ventures into spoiler territory -- and if you’ve heard the news, Atlus Japan (which in turn has impacted Atlus USA) has put some pretty strict countermeasures in place to stop full-on sharing of the game’s content. That’s an issue I’m in no mood to touch right now, because I’d rather focus on the game. Still, it is a legitimate point: people should be more than capable of experiencing Persona 5 raw. I might have stumbled on a spoiler just by reading the YouTube comments of a video…for Vampire Hunter D on the PS1.
On the other hand? The game only just came out on April 4th, which means that only those with the time, endurance, and mental fortitude (or lack thereof) to marathon the game have been able to make headway into the later acts. To put it another way? As of this post I’m about 5-6 hours in, which I’d hope is closer to the norm than the exception. Or maybe not, since I’m on a PS4 that my brother’s also using to play through the game. Either way? I think I’m in a relative green area when it comes to talking about the game. If you want to dodge any and all story/plot details, I respect that -- and I suggest you back out now. If you’re OK with learning what happens and/or made it past those opening few hours, then read on.
Made your choice? Okay. Starting the actual post in…
A while back, I did a post on Persona 5 that asked, in no uncertain terms, what the hell the game was actually about. As a dedicated hater of DmC [subtitle redacted], I concluded that the latest JRPG entrant would be a letdown if it just decided to go “Yo, fuck the man!” and leave it at that. Granted I had faith that the dev team would sidestep that issue -- even if other dev teams wouldn’t -- but there was still that lingering doubt. It’d be a disservice to everyone, including me, if I gave the game a pass just because of the good times previous entries had given me. I’ll say a game is good if a game is good, but at this stage? I need substance.
Rest assured, Persona 5 is a game with an absurd amount of substance. It’s entirely possible that it is, ultimately, the game I feared it would be -- a wish fulfillment fantasy with no message, themes, or thought behind going “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to get revenge on all of those mean ol’ adults with some slick superpowers and weapons?” That’s not the case. Even in the early hours, the game has put itself in a position where it can go to some genuinely incredible places. How? Through a number of means. But the one that sticks out to me most is a simple, yet harrowing, method.
Persona 5 is, by a wide margin, one of the most unsettling games I’ve played in years.
Think back to the other Persona games for a second -- 3 and 4 namely, but especially 4 in this case (for obvious reasons, as the direct predecessor/cash cow). In that game, getting your Persona was supposed to be a moment of triumph -- a symbol of progression and growth for each successive character, to be celebrated as they tapped into the power within themselves. For the most part, getting a Persona -- getting that power -- was a good thing. There were hints of darker undercurrents when the MCs of the respective games gained theirs (P3’s lead had an embodiment of death burst out, after all), but I never got the sense of “Uh, wait -- are we sure this is a good thing?”
Then you move over to P5, and things are absolutely fucked. Awakening to Personas in this game seems genuinely painful. And we’re not just talking little headaches or groans; these guys act like they’re being tortured, if not torn apart from the inside out as their “inner selves” beckon. Thanks to the updated visuals, you get to see that struggle play out in glorious HD. Ryuji’s pupils contract and his veins bulge. He squirms and writhes across the ground while his face contorts; tears stream down his cheeks while drool leaks from his mouth. It’s capped off by him having a mask form atop his face -- and in order to fully activate his Persona, he has to do precisely what the P5 MC does. It’s the same thing Ann does when she gets her Persona. Presumably, it’s the same thing the other party members will have to do.
When the mask forms on his face, he tears it off. Messily.
And despite the blood that spews forth, he still feels like smiling.
The P5 crew is dabbling in forces that they don’t understand -- forces that they shouldn’t come within dimensions of, much less feet. Given that they temporarily taken on golden eyes, AKA the mark of the Shadow variants from P4, I’m inclined to believe that becoming a Persona user this time around is exponentially less benign. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the game’s plot twist involved our heroes (if they can even be called that) have been corrupted by tapping into their inner selves. Or, alternatively, they become more corrupted as they continue to use their Personas; you could argue that the process is a way for them to overclock their minds and force the power out, rather than naturally access it.
Either way, the level of menace here is staggering. You could say that that’s a part of the aesthetic -- lots of red hues everywhere, which you’d expect from the box art alone -- but BOY does the music go a long way towards suggesting that becoming a Persona user/Phantom Thief/Trickster is a bad thing. To wit: this is the song that plays during an awakening scene. This is the song that plays during an initial battle. These are not heroic tracks. Nor are they songs that signal “good times ahead”, given that the impetus for the awakenings I’ve seen thus far come from the characters being overcome by malice-fueled indignation…which they’re goaded into by their Personas, who based on appearances alone are probably not good influences.
You know what, though? As bad as things get with the fantasy elements -- and they get bad, given that dungeon one features imprisonment, concubines, and torture -- what’s even worse and even more unnerving is the stuff that goes on in the real world. And I get the feeling I’ve only seen the top .0001% of the iceberg.
When I watched my brother start up his playthrough, I made a joke along the lines of “Look at all of these responsible adults.” It was facetious, of course. Virtually every adult you meet in the first few hours is…less than ideal. Your new guardian resents your very existence (because it’s, proverbially, “cramping his style”). Your new teacher comes off as lazy as hell, and openly complains about why she has to take care of you. The whole inciting incident of the story -- or at least the MC’s transplant into the setting -- is because he tried to stop a drunken politician from sexually assaulting a woman, and then opted to sue his family into the ground.
The game lays it on pretty think with the “adults are dirtbags” angle, but it’s not to its detriment…yet. Why? Because the first major villain (for lack of a better term) is a scumlord on a level I would’ve never thought possible. He’s a PE teacher/volleyball coach whose prowess helped him win medals, and he uses that expertise to train students to become scholarship-worthy. Sounds like a bang-up guy, right? Oh, if only.
He seems all right on the surface, but it’s not long before his antics and actions ramp things up to a fever pitch that would make a volcano sweat. It “starts” with him opting to give Ann a ride in his car -- which is to say that a grown-ass man is effectively trying to court a high school girl. You’d think it was an innocent gesture that’s easy to misinterpret at first (it was raining out), but then you get to the first dungeon -- a manifestation if his desires -- and he’s got a bikini-clad, dumbed-down version of Ann clinging to his arm. That’s not great.
But then you find out that he’s been abusing his superstar status to give the students special training -- i.e. physical abuse masquerading as practice (and I’m starting to doubt that that “special training” even exists). He’s not only managed to scare his victims into submission and compliance, but also has the other adults -- teachers and parents -- willing to turn a blind eye because…yo, scholarships, amirite? And then this guy’s thirst for Ann ends up leading an innocent girl -- one who was on the receiving end of his beatings -- to the brink of despair. In other words? She jumps off the roof. And as far as I know, her chances of survival are slim.
I’m probably not even 1/20th of the way through the game, and this guy has created one of the most fucked up scenarios I’ve ever seen in a video game. I feel no envy for the dev team, given that they’ll have to top that again and again throughout the rest of P5. But the more important point is that, as harrowing as it is, the story as a whole is made stronger because of it. Yes, the MC, Ryuji, Ann, and the rest get to venture into alternate dimensions and wreak havoc with their fancy weapons and STANDO POWAH. Yes, what they do there has an impact on the real world. But they’re still residents of the real world, where they have no power.
That juxtaposition is an important one. There’s a shadow cast on the heroes’ (?) efforts, given that they’re only driven to act because someone higher up is abusing his power in an extreme fashion. They’re out for revenge as much as they’re out for justice; it’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder if they’d even care about their powers if not for jerkass adults abusing the system. Regardless, the important thing is that there’s a guy with no superpowers, but the mundane powers that actually matter. They’re powers with more weight and significance than anything the average villain can toss out.
I’ve been lucky enough to never have to deal with those sorts of things in my life. But seeing it in video game form, of all things, made me realize something: this is real. There are people who’ve been abused, forced into silence, lusted after, and even driven to suicide by the acts of one selfish person who just so happens to be on a higher rung of the ladder. P5 puts the characters in a position to do something about it, but the fact that they have to do something against a mere gym teacher makes the conflict as nightmarish as tearing off whole chunks of their faces.
The group’s ultimate conclusion is that they have to venture into the other world to steal his heart, even if they run the risk of leaving him effectively comatose. They’re hesitant at first, but once that girl takes a suicide dive, the kid gloves come off. Honestly -- and as painful as it is to admit -- I’m inclined to agree. I thought to myself, “Someone needs to stop this guy fucking cold.” And that was the polite version of my thoughts.
It’s a testament to a story’s power and execution when it can inspire such strong feelings in an audience. Given that, I’ve got no doubts that P5 is a fantastic game. And it’s only going to get better from here on out.
…Inevitably, that means there’s going to be a moment somewhere down the line when P5 makes me crap my pants.
And that’s about all I’ve got for now. There are a ton of interesting ways the game can go from here, whether it decides to play its “screw the adults” story straight, or subvert things well before the halfway point. Though I can already see the possibilities take form, I’d rather wait to see what happens for myself. I have NO CLUE when that’ll be -- I’m still sitting on about 70+ hours of other games I need to get through -- but hey. I’ve got no plans to drop this game anytime soon.
I can’t. Not before I get Kamen Rider girl in my party.