I like Persona 5 and in fact, before the game’s release, I was desperate to play a title in the series. I had read about it, seen gameplay and even the series and films spun from its predecessors, particularly Persona 3 and 4.
Persona 5’s greatest strength lies in its characters and the story it tells. Sure, there are issues in characterisation and storytelling, but overall, this part of the experience is the strongest and has some seriously phenomenal moments.
The Palaces are a strong point in terms of narrative, as they show just how the “criminals” view the world and those around them. Persona 5 sets the groundwork with some straightforward evil people but then throws you curveball and you’re exploring trauma, depression and even suicidal tendencies while visiting a teenager’s subconscious world.
Hell, the very concept of the Personas, the masks we wear to hide our true feelings from the world and sometimes ourselves, is fascinating. I don’t know if that’s the same concept used in other Persona games, but I really like it.
But while I’m enjoying the game, I’m constantly frustrated by some of the horrible design decisions present in Persona 5. Before playing this game, I went through Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, the Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei crossover, which uses many of the mechanics you’d find in Persona titles, so some things I was ready for, but I wasn’t ready for all of it.
Before I say anything else, I’ll add a special mention, one that has nothing to do with the Persona series but with its Developer, Atlus, and it’s the fact that all sharing and capture is blocked on the PS4 for Persona 5 and they even issued guidelines for broadcasting and recording. If that wasn’t insane enough for an already released game, they went the extra mile and threatened to issue takedowns on those who do not follow the guidelines.
Class act, Atlus…class act.
Main Character Death means Game Over: This is turn based RPG, where characters and their personas have strengths and weaknesses. There are also single and party-level attacks and the bosses have party-killing powers (or can at least wipe the party if you don’t take precautions). Lastly, there are recovery magic and items, including those for reviving fallen party members.
So, with that under consideration, I find it baffling that Atlus decided that should the player character, the protagonist, die, then it means automatic game over, no matter how many of those recovery assets your party has.
I understand that this is a design prevalent in the series but that doesn’t make it good or excuse its continued presence in the series. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #Fe, for instance, doesn’t have it, and it would be painful if it did.
It’s a restriction that adds an inordinate amount of potential frustration to the game, as the main character is by no means more resistant to instant death effects than his companions and it only takes one bad turn where the boss focuses on this one person to send you back to your last save point/checkpoint and lose what could be hours of progress.
In a party-style turn-based RPG, no character should be more important than the rest, no matter if they are in the story. The same rules should work for all of them.
Inconsistent Day/Time Rules: One of the iconic elements of the Persona series is how it breaks down its story over the course of several months using actual dates, even following a calendar with national holidays, and how it breaks those down into time segments, such as Morning, Afternoon, After Class, Evening and everything in between. It’s a design that takes some getting used to, particularly on the fact that you can’t do everything you want and some activities consume your entire day, no matter how early you attempt them.
Where I draw the line and call it bad design is when the game forgets its own rules and takes control from the player in order to pass the time it needs to tell a story. It’s happened to me quite recently in fact, where days went by and I could not make a single choice. I could have used the days to further improve my bonds with the party and other NPCs or improve the ever-present social stats, but instead Persona 5 forced me to read chat messages, witness cutscenes and listen to conversations, that while very interesting to the plot, left me with wasted days as after they occur, even if it was early morning, it was evening and for some reason too late to do anything else, with an NPC asking my character “aren’t you tired?”
Breaking up the story in segments is all good and setting up rules for the passage of time is great, but if those segments won’t be consistent throughout the experience and some days the game will decide you simply can’t do anything else so it can further its plot, then you’re doing something wrong.
The way you spend your days in-game is a careful choice players make, weighing their current objective with the secondary elements they want to pursue, so any loss of control means you’ll frustrate the player and ultimately shatter their immersion.
Unfair Enemy Placement: I like that Persona 5 doesn’t have random encounters but instead has enemies patrol the area and you can engage them at will—or run away from them if you so please—and you usually know where enemies are and they spawn in advance of your approach.
But Persona 5 has this constant and annoying tendency to spawn enemies based on triggers—such as pressing a button or collecting an item—and place them in a way there is no possibility of avoiding an unfavourable encounter. By this I mean they attack you and force you into an inescapable fight where enemies surround your party.
The worst offender happened recently in the Tomb Palace, where upon collecting a necessary story-progress item on a ledge after a hard fight with a mini-boss, Persona 5 decided it would be a fun idea to spawn the new enemy right below me as soon as I jumped down, making any avoidance or escape impossible.
As drained as I was, the fight didn’t go my way.
Unclear Improvement Progress: The Persona series is unique in how you have two different sets of stats, your traditional RPG values, such as strength and magic, the ones you use to fight enemies, and a set of social stats: Kindness, Charm, Proficiency, Knowledge and Guts. These open paths with allies, allow you to craft items and they represent just how good you are as a person and thus how people perceive you.
But unlike the RPG stats, you don’t improve these when your character level goes up. Instead you perform activities that earn you points towards the growth of a particular attribute, such as taking part in an eating contest, selling flowers, watching films and even reading books on the subject of one skill.
In addition to these skills, your bond with your companions is also measured and scaled, with more levels earned from completing personal side-quests or simply hanging out. Improving these bonds earns you more experience for your Personas when you fuse them.
All personas belong to a category, a Tarot card assigned to each companion. For example, your legal guardian is the Hierophant and Ann is The Lover card. Raising your bond with them, earns Lover and Hierophant Personas a boost in experience when created through fusion.
Where I’m going with this explanation is that in both cases you need to earn points by completing activities, yet the flaw comes from Persona 5 obscuring the overall progress. You never know how many points you need to attain with companions or with social skills in order to see an increase.
It’s not a game/deal-breaker but it’s a combined level of uncertainty and with limited time to spend on raising these skills and bonds, knowledge on how close one of them is to levelling up would have a tremendous effect on which one to pursue.
As I said, I’m enjoying Persona 5, but these for me are fundamental design flaws, some of which I would love to see improved upon for Persona 6, which we all know will come, it’s just a matter of time.
For Persona 5, I will be uploading videos of my gameplay soon, even if I’m past the point where Atlus considers it safe for me to do so. If they wish to issue a takedown, so be it.