Opinion: Persona 5’s delicate balancing act

Warning: contains mild spoilers

In just over a month, Persona 5 will grace those lucky future folk over in Japan. School will be skipped, Famitsu will be 100/100’ing, and socials will be linked. Unfortunately, as my understanding of the Japanese language doesn’t reach much further beyond “Yes.”, “Hello.”, “Big brother.”, “Demon.”, “Idiot!”, and “Boobs.”, by extension, my understanding of the story in Persona 5 will be rather limited even if there comes to be a story arc involving a formal demon with large boobs and a brash older brother.

To that, about the only thing I’d muster to spoil for myself, before the localized release, would be the soundtrack. Which, of course, I am really looking forward to.

It might be hypocritical of me, though, to say that I have actually spoiled myself quite a lot of Persona 5, considering how liberal some of the coverage has been as of late. ATLUS spent a very long time keeping its most lavish fans, such as myself, in the dark so it’s hard not to indulge. Frankly, it’s about damn time we knew all we needed to know, but some people are still choosing to go in almost completely blind and that’s okay.

However, I am not one of those people and neither is this article for those people.

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For those who have been following along with bated breath, it’s been made clear that Persona 5 will be a rich game. Both narratively and mechanically. Moreso than even the slightly more complex Persona‘s 1 and 2. Because not only do we have 1 and 2‘s secondary melee components and demon negotiation, but a reworking of 3 and 4‘s social links. Then, we, presumably, have Shin Megami Tensei‘s omnipresent Fusion system and Persona 5‘s brand new stealth/platforming mechanics.

This might very well be ATLUS’ most ambitious outing yet and that could either make for one hell of a package or an utter mess.

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The genius behind Persona 3 and 4 is in the effortless melding of their systems into one very cohesive experience. Taking steps literally in-game day by in-game day meant generally smooth pacing, the player easily able to structure themselves with a to-do list that made things feel productive yet just as engaging as any other RPG. Making every one of said activities also feed into something important, from part-time jobs to Persona fusion.

Leveraging these systems were two wonderful stories with just as much care put into their respective localizations, something I’ve rarely experienced in Japanese titles not made by Nintendo.

For Persona 5 to be a truly successful sequel, it has to do all of this while taking into account it’s laundry list of new and returning features from within practically all of Shin Megami Tensei. More handcrafted dungeons, an entirely different motif in a whole new engine, stealth and platforming, riding around in a cat car, and so on.

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For one thing (and let’s not beat around the bush) not very many people like the demon conversation systems featured throughout SMT. At best, it’s split down the middle between lovers and haters. When it was revealed a while ago, it was probably more shocking to see for me than the stealth gameplay.

Originally, I had figured each protagonist, including the player character, would be getting just a single persona that they would morph into ala Digital Devil Saga as the prodigal “Phantom Thief” almost seemed to be engulfed by their persona at the end of PV#01 (which I would’ve been totally for, mind you). 

However, this? This was actually the last thing on my mind. What’s most alarming is that the negotiations don’t seem to be any less nebulous.

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Fan translation by domi

Previously, there has been… some sense of logic in these exchanges. For example, a battle-hardened demon like Archangel or Valkyrie might appreciate courageous responses. Lustful demons like Titania or Leanan Sidhe love compliments about their looks or straight obedience. Though, as even the most fervent of optimists will point out, your success is, nonetheless, a complete toss-up. I’ve talked at-length about my fondness for the system, but my threshold can easily be broken given a particularly stubborn demon crosses me during an already unlucky session. Even the most recent incarnations of the system haven’t been ideal.

In Persona 3 and 4, the equivalent of this was Shuffle Time. Playing “find the ball under the cup” to get the Personas, items, or bonuses you desired. The downside to this, though, was that a battle needed to be completed in order for it to potentially trigger and then you’d cross your fingers.

To project an air of positivity, the upside to the negotiation system, even at its worst, is that, say, you want a specific demon or persona and you’re sick of wading through a bunch of pointless battles to even have a chance of a chance of seeing said demon/persona. Well, now, all you’d have to do is escape fights until the preferred beastie appeared. Even if it meant, from there, completing the fight and then succeeding in the exchange, one could argue that attempting to negotiate is a ways more interesting than the alternative and getting into a negotiation will also happen slightly more consistently given you know the enemies’ weaknesses.

In theory, it should be less frustrating. But, in practice, that’s not always the case. While ATLUS is a company very familiar and seemingly comfortable with its niche audience, I can’t imagine them having not switched things up in such a manner to appeal more to casual players so it’ll be very interesting to see how it all pans out. Either way, it’s giving me goosebumps about the general affair that will be Persona 5

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And just what the heck IS up with the cat car?!

When considering most of the other changes, this all might seem trivial. However, as the headline suggests, this balancing act is more delicate than you might think. Either that or I’m especially meticulous about Persona. Granted, most likely the latter.

The nature of Persona‘s gameplay loops is, often enough, making the mundane magnificent. Managing your activities wasn’t so engrossing because of the vast wealth of things to do (as most of them were usually passive anyway), but because the games’ economies were always incredibly tight-nipped. Not just for currency, but character-building as well. Unless you knew the games inside and out (and I’m talking charts, maddeningly-detailed fusion chains, the works) or you pushed through New Game+, there was no easy to way “win”. It definitely helped that there wasn’t a terrible amount of things to get right in either game. 

Between the last two Persona‘s, there wasn’t much change. The most drastic was actually between 4 and its iterative Golden, allowing you to venture out at night for furthering your awesomeness. However, this was at the expense of ignoring studies, other social links, etc. They gave you more options, but not without considering the upset they’d have on how you earned money or leveled your stats.

And this was just one, seemingly, minute alteration.

Even if some additions have no direct influence on these systems, given how safe the transition between Persona‘s 3 and 4 was and the stark contrast of 5, I’m somewhat worried ATLUS may have gotten in over their heads. Adding more flare without substance and, in the process, making the elegant life sim elements of Persona suddenly dull. There’s nary a worry about the combat or the visuals (I mean, jesum, this is about the flashiest UI I’ve ever seen), I’ve just seen far too many games fail at the more “extraneous” details.

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Most-assuredly, the game will sound great. It will look great. It will feel great. And, if the last two mainline titles are any indication, it will also tell a great story. However, even for its all it’s glorious soundtracks and engaging storytelling, what has made Persona truly great is in how successful it is with its smooshing of two, theoretically, incompatible ideas: dungeon-crawling and life simulator.

Should one aspect falter, Persona is then just another JRPG.

Seymour