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Game Reviewed: Persona 5
Platform: PS4, PS3
Category: Japanese Role-Playing Game
ESRB Rating: M
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Persona 5 is the definition of a game that “means something.” Not that this is uncommon in video games, especially now, but few go to the same extends to deliver a cogent, socially-relevant message. Over the course of 120 hours (yes, that’s how long it took me to play through this game in total), it tells a story about social change, about corruption and greed, and about having the courage and resolve to see the problems around you and do something about it.
Persona 5 puts you in the shoes of a high school student who was rewarded for trying to stop a sexual assault with a false charge and a year of probation. But as he tries to adjust to this new life, at a new school and under constant scrutiny, he finds a mysterious ability to travel to a cognative landscape based on the mind of another person: in this case, a coach at his school who physically abuses his male students and sexually abuses his female students. Thus, this delinquient student finds that he, along with the friends he makes along the way, can essentially invade the minds of such terrible people and perform elaborate heists to steal the objects of their distorted desires, forcing them to lose their minds with guilt and confess to all their crimes. So, this mysterious power in hand, a band of high school students calling themselves the Phantom Thieves sets out to right the wrongs they see in society and reform it for the better.
The game essentially exists as two distinct parts: most of the time, the player will navigate Tokyo, choosing how to spend the time each day. The player can spend this time doing various activities to improve their social abilities, preparing for the next dangerous excursion into a target’s mind, or spending time with other characters to improve their relationship with them. This latter part is where the game, and indeed the Persona series as a whole, truly shines, as the game’s characters are all compelling and contribute meaningfully to the game’s thematic and emotional core.
As you’ve probably guessed from the description thus far, though, the game deals with some pretty dark and adult concepts. So you’ll need to decide whether your teenager is mature enough to handle the topics this game explores and understand the important messages the game is communicating.
What Parents Need to Know
The gameplay is fairly stylized, and there’s very little graphic violence in the battles. Players control their characters through a series of menus, stragetically deciding which actions to take to defeat the monsters they’re faced with. Characters use a variety of weapons, ranging from swords to axes to pipes to pistols to grenade launchers, to do damage to enemies. They also have a variety of elemental attacks, such as electricity, fire, or even nuclear power, and if an enemy is weak to that element it will be incapacitated, allowing for the characters to all attack at once. If this attack kills the enemy, the enemy is seen in the background as a sillouette with blood spraying from its body.
In cutscenes, things get a little more bloody. When a character gets their persona (a concept further discussed in the “Spirituality” section), they do so when a mask fuses to their face and they rip it off to bloody effect. Some characters (such as your own) are confused and scared, and scream in pain when this happens; others will understand and accept what is happening and rip it off with cool and collected purpose.
A cutscene portrays someone being shot in the head, and blood pooling around them.
The game includes multiple (if infrequent) uses of the F-word, and basically all lesser profanities on a more regular basis (“shit,” “asshole,” etc.).
There is a good deal of sexual discussion in one form or another, especially since the first target of the Phantom Thieves is a teacher who’s sexually harassing and abusing female students. While there is no nudity in these narrative segments, there is some sexual behavior and outfits. Essentially, the game is not shy about sexuality and deals with issues related to it on a fairly regular basis. It usually manages not to be exploitative though, despite a few missteps on the camera’s part when it comes to one of the main characters, Ann.
The monsters the players fight in the cognitive world are usually based either on mythological figures or the issues in the target’s mind, and as such there are some monsters who look sexual in nature. Some mythological creatures, like a succubus or the apocryphal Lilith appear with breasts covered with objects, like hair or belts. Some other monsters are rather phallic in nature, representing the sexual deviancy of the person’s mind.
The game is drenched in a general sense of the spiritual. The plot revolves around a world of the cognitive awareness of people, individually and collectively, made real. This world includes a number of monsters based on mythological creatures, demons, and divine figures.
The players are capable of controlling some of these creatures. More specifically, each character has their own unique “Persona,” a concept based on Jungian psychology and applied here to refer to a manifestation of these students’ true selves to fight for justice. The player’s character is special in that he is capable of capturing any of the creatures in the game and using them as his persona. Each of the characters and personas in the game are symbolically tied to a tarot card as a signifyer of their personality, ideals, and worldview.
The ultimate evil of the game is essentially a “god” created out of the manifest will of the people to give themselves up to circumstance and shrug off the responsibility of worrying about society and creating social change.
Drugs are referenced when the Phantom Thieves target a mob leader.
The Phantom Thieves sometimes struggle with the ethical implications of what they’re doing, since they are essentially robbing these people of their free will and forcing them to confess to their crimes.
Persona 5 is dark. It deals with some truly serious subjects, wrestles with some genuinely depraved people, and delves into some ethically complex territory in its treatment of social change and civic responsibility.
So yes, there are a lot of adult concepts, themes, discussions, and images here. Persona 5 is not a game for young children. And for that matter, it’s not a perfect game. It waffles between treating sexuality as a serious subject and treating one of the characters as eye candy. The characters, while interesting and enjoyable, never quite reach the same level of depth and self-actualization as the cast of Persona 4. The time limitations are relatively restrictive, and I came away wishing I had more time to spend with these characters and this world.
But it’s also, when all is said and done, one of the best games of its year. It’s an aesthetic bombshell, an absolute masterclass on how to design cool and visually pleasing visuals along a common theme and art style. Even the menus are gorgeous to peruse. The music is excellent, easily one of the most easily-listenable game soundtracks of the last few years. The gameplay is incredibly fun, mixing classic JRPG stylings with some unique twists and delightful visual flair. And most importantly for this game, the story is a truly impactful exploration of what it means to want and pursue change in a corrupt and complacent world.
And the result really is something special. Despite its imperfections, and through its handling of some very mature themes and ideas, Persona 5 ranks somewhere near the top of the list of games that could spark some legitimately deep and meaningful conversations with your teen, your friend, even your spouse (as it did with mine).
All this to say, Persona 5 is a very mature game that is not for children; but you personally may absolutely want to give it a go.