Over the past decade, the two franchises have been on different trajectories. “Final Fantasy” foundered as it tried to stay relevant in an age when tastes have shifted. On the other hand, Atlus’ “Persona” series has gained steadily in popularity. As more players have discovered it, the franchise has grown beyond just a cult hit.
With “Persona 5,” the developers at Atlus continue their rise. The latest installment keeps the series formula intact: Players take on the role of a Japanese teenager who must balance the drama of high school with the secret life of a hero capable of controlling monstrous entities called Persona. Told mostly in a flashback, the campaign takes players through a year.
The silent protagonist, codenamed Joker, moves to Tokyo after a vague incident leaves him with a criminal record. As a transfer student to Tokyo’s Shujin Academy, he initially is shunned but finds a core group of friends who share the same ability. Together, they create a vigilante organization called the Phantom Thieves.
This band of heroes targets corrupt individuals and seems to magically change their hearts. To the unsuspecting outside world, it appears Phantom Thieves have prodded abusive teachers or untouchable mafia bosses to confess their crimes to police. But players know better. They discover that the secret of the group’s success lies in its ability to enter the Metaverse via a smartphone app.
This realm hosts Palaces, which are the twisted emotions of their targets made manifest. In RPG parlance, it’s a dungeon full of monsters called Shadows. Joker and his team explore these Palaces, battling adversaries and solving puzzles, with the goal of stealing a mark’s treasure. By defeating the boss and pilfering his prized possession, the Phantom Thieves can trigger a change of heart in the target. It alters their personalities, so they admit their sins. Over the school year, the stakes of the conflicts increase as the group’s profile grows, culminating in a larger conspiracy that ties the various aspects of the plot together.
“Persona 5” may remind newcomers of a cross between “Stranger Things” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Roughly one-third of the game deals with dungeon exploration, while another portion focuses on how Joker forms bonds and handles teen drama.
Players feel pressured to use their time efficiently. Every afternoon and evening must be spent improving bonds or increasing Joker’s charm, courage, knowledge, kindness and proficiency. This goal makes for an addictive dynamic between storytelling and gameplay, in which players become invested in the characters and see the benefits of their relationships in combat.
Personas make up the remaining third of the game. Also known as Shadows, these entities are Pokémon-type monsters that players can collect through combat. Unlike other Japanese RPGs, “Persona 5” allows players to negotiate with the creatures they fight. If the Phantom Thieves daze an opponent, they can perform an all out attack, ask for money or demand items. But the most useful request is asking a Shadow to join Joker.
Each Persona has its own strengths, weaknesses and magic spells. Because Joker can use multiple Personas, he’s unique among the Phantom Thieves crew members, who can use only one. A lot of the combat involves figuring out an adversary’s weakness so the team can exploit it to eliminate foes as they roll through a dungeon. It’s also about conserving skill points so they efficiently clear a dungeon.
Altogether, “Persona 5” is an intoxicating mix of anime-style storytelling and old-school JRPG gameplay. Although it takes a while for novices to adjust to the game’s complexity, the mix of teen drama and supernatural crime-fighting casts a spell over players. And it proves that “Final Fantasy” isn’t the end all and be all of JRPGs.
3 ½ stars
Platform: PlayStation 4