Time for a small confession. Prior to the release of Persona 5, I had never even heard of the series, let alone played one of the earlier entries. So, to say I was unprepared for what lay ahead of me is a significant understatement but based on the rave reviews from friends and colleagues, I jumped in blindly… and was completely and utterly dumbfounded by the glowing recommendations. In short, I hated it.
I could not see how anyone could enjoy the staccato pacing, the laborious and stilted conversations, and cringe-inducing translations. Sure, the combat was very cool, and the menus have probably never been bettered in a modern video game despite its obvious PS3 roots. But the strange amalgam of real-world social simulation and staggered dungeon-crawling didn't work for me, and I gave up. Then a few months later I decided to give it another go off the back of a conversation with a passionate fan, and ploughed through the first 20 hours and found the tipping point where I discovered the wonderful game so many had been talking about for so long. Flash forward another 80+ hours, and I had finally completed what I now consider to be one of the very best JRPGs ever made. It was a quirky, utterly original, and deeply emotional tale that managed to strike an intoxicating balance between the metaphysical and the mundane. It had its shortcomings for sure; the 1080p resolution, dated graphics, translation issues, some repetition, and a number of minor mechanical annoyances, but it was still a wonderful piece of interactive art that could only have come from Japan.
Then not too long after developer Atlus announced Persona 5 Royal, an enhanced and expanded version of their high schoolers in cosplay epic. I was intrigued, and more than a little excited but also unsure if such a lengthy and very linear game could hold up to a second playthrough no matter how many tweaks and improvements were included in the box. Well, I can report that after another 140 hours this might be the single best game to while away quite a few of those enforced isolation hours you likely have ahead of you. But, if you're not already a fan of all things JRPG, you may struggle to find a way through to the end. If you are not already a Persona or JRPG convert, this is really a review for you. To all of GamePlanet's JRPG fans, pick this game up today if you can, you'll love it I promise you. For the rest, please read on.
Persona 5 Royal follows the life of a regular high school kid, his relationships, hobbies, chores, and night-time escapades as a mask-wearing, monster summoning superhero battling corruption in a literal dream world known as the metaverse. After being transferred to a new school due to some "legal issues" our protagonist finds himself isolated and the topic of gossip, as well as the target of hostility and mistrust from some members of the faculty. He soon meets Ryuji Sakamoto, a hot-tempered fellow social outcast and your first party member. After some real-world drama our duo find themselves transported to a strange castle populated by monsters, and a perversion of the school's volleyball coach Suguru Kamoshida, rumoured to be in a sexual relationship with at least one of the school's female students and likely committing other abuses in the real world. Upon further exploration of the Palace, the pair soon meet Morgana… a talking cat trapped in the castle's dungeon who claims to actually be human and soon becomes your guide into the rules of the metaverse where the castle is located. From here we learn that castles like the one they are in are known as Palaces and are the metaphysical projection of people's corrupted desires, and that in order to end Kamoshida's evil ways the teens must discover and steal a treasure hidden somewhere in the Palace, and eventually face off against the dreamworld version of their real-world tormentor.
Finding that treasure though, is no easy task as every room is guarded by various enemies known as shadows, who are borne from negative human emotion and take the form of various demons, and monsters. In order to defeat them each of your party can employ various weapons and items, but their most powerful weapons are their Personas, physical manifestations of a person's id that can be summoned in combat to unleash powerful spells, and abilities. Combat is turn-based, but fast and extremely deep, with a dizzying number of complementary interactions, combos, and interconnected mechanics that include, but are not limited to: elemental affinities and weaknesses, sequence-based attack prioritisations, team and ability reliant combos, and a number of combat ending options that may include negotiation, bribery, executions, or a form of recruitment thanks to our protagonist who has the unique ability to absorb, hold and summon multiple Personas. I love the combat system, its diverse enough to provide strategic depth and challenge, but immediate enough that it doesn't bury you in needless busywork. The only real complaint is that it can become repetitive due to the sheer number of fights you'll have in each Palace. There are a lot of filler battles that add some tedium during Palace exploration, especially as they tend to respawn when you return to a previously cleared room. This is a staple of most JRPGs, but one the least welcome ones in my opinion.
How the conflict between our heroes and Mr Kamoshida concludes I will leave for you to discover, but you should know that this first Palace took me over 20 hours to complete, and it acts as the game's tutorial. Upon completing this, you will have only recruited three of the game's nine available party members, have not even met the next corrupted person who's Palace you will next need to infiltrate, and have only just scraped the surface regarding the game's various social mechanics, real-world locations, past-times, and hang-outs.
Speaking of social mechanics. Persona 5 Royal is split into two distinct gameplay locations. The metaverse, where all combat and dungeon crawling takes place, and modern-day Tokyo, where our protagonist lives his 'normal' everyday life. It is also the meat of the game. Here you will discuss how to tackle the next Palace with your party collectively known as the Phantom Thieves, build your relationships with them in order to improve their abilities and unlock new ones for yourself and your Personas, stock up on items to take into the metaverse, and improve your various core attributes through social interactions, attending classes, completing various activities, and study. All of the game's systems are interconnected, and you will need to keep an eye on what areas you want to focus on, as you can only do a few things each day, and the school year is constantly ticking away.
In essence, Persona 5 Royal is one part dungeon crawler and one-part light social simulation with an interactive novel kind of approach. The story is linear and told through a combination of gorgeous traditional hand-drawn anime cinematics, in-engine cutscenes, and animated talking heads. The story itself does delve into some pretty dark territory and may cause distress to some people as a result. The core narrative is entertaining and has a solid arc, even if the pacing is a little inconsistent. Unfortunately, some of the characters are rather one-note or not fleshed out enough. But the real problem I have is with the English translations. For fans of dubbed Anime, I will assume this will not be an issue for you, but to me, the English voice-overs are horrendous and utterly unlistenable. The odd phrasing, the strange pronunciations, and inflections completely ruin the narrative. Thankfully the original Japanese voice acting is available and is a significant improvement despite sharing some of the odd phrasing choices found in the vastly inferior and frankly unfit for purpose English dub. As a fan of subtitled foreign films, I found this presentation vastly superior, and despite the language barrier, I feel that the Japanese voice actors provide a much more immersive experience.
From a technical standpoint, while Royal is a notable improvement over the original PS4 and PS3 releases, it is underwhelming on the 'wow factor' front. The resolution has been bumped up to 4K, and that helps a lot with delivering smooth lines to enhance the anime presentation, but the textures and models don't look to be much of an improvement aside from the higher resolution. There is also no HDR, or additional visual enhancements that I could see beyond some improved portraits and their animations. Royal is held back by its PS3 roots and for whatever reason Atlus decided that they were happy with them. Still, this is a beautiful game, but for a 2020 release, it does feel a little lacking in the technical department.
What isn't lacking though is the new content injected into the Royal edition. There is a whole new semester and Palace, new Personas, enemies, weapons, armour, and items. There are also new endings and cut scenes, both in-engine and hand-animated. There are new places to explore both in Tokyo and the metaverse, and a new Phantom Thief named Kasumi who is introduced early in proceedings, but sadly doesn't really enter the story until the end of the game when you start the newly introduced semester. There are also a slew of new mechanics, and additions such as "Showtime" tag-team super attacks, new bosses, and "disaster shadows" that offer up a new risk/reward scenario during combat thanks to their combustible nature. Another welcome addition is a grappling hook that opens up new traversal and exploration options when dungeon crawling and secret seeking.
Persona 5 Royal is an enormous game with an insane amount of content, and an incredibly complex and entertaining set of interconnected mechanics, and despite this review being over 1500 words deep I have only skimmed the surface. I've not even mentioned Igor or his Persona guillotine that can be used to fuse new Personas by sacrificing current ones, the confidant system to enhance your Personas and interpersonal relationships, or how levelling, crafting, and itemisation work. Then there is Mementos, the grindable endless random dungeon you can explore by driving a combi van which is literally your feline party member Morgana's vehicle form… yes, he's a maybe human cat that is also a van. What can I say? Only in Japan!
Persona 5 Royal is a spectacular game, but it is also one that is not very welcoming to newcomers. It starts off extremely slowly, and constantly jumps back and forth between locations and interactions causing a lack of cohesion and narrative flow in the opening chapter. But what follows is an emotionally charged adventure with epic combat, massive boss battles, genuine charm, and beautiful presentation.
+ The most gorgeous menus in video games.
+ Exceptional art design.
+ Satisfying combat.
+ Fun and compelling social game mechanics.
+ Fantastic Japanese voice acting.
+ A slew of new features, mechanics, and content.
- Awkward English translations in places.
- English dub is horrendous.
- Glacial and uneven pacing for the first 20 hours.
- Kasumi’s addition happens too late.