Persona 5 is, in many ways, the opposite of an accessible videogame. Melodramatic and demanding of both time and patience, it will not accommodate you, your life, or your precious time. You have to accommodate it.
The latest in a long-running and cultishly beloved series of Japanese role-playing games, Persona 5 is obsessed with the minutiae of modern life, and the injustices of the adult world; both threaten to drown your character, a second-year high school student. You’re a country kid who just moved to the bustling city, and the game expertly disorients you: your first hour in the game is spent navigating subway lines, and much of your time in Persona 5 is spent building a routine, learning the ins and outs of your new home and just trying to get by. The rest of it is spent—and fair warning, things are about to get weird—in an invisible netherworld that’s the literal manifestation of the human unconscious, where you contend with demonic manifestations of your enemies’ corrupted desires, superpowered avatars of your own rebellious teen impulses, and, by fortunate happenstance, a talking cat.
After two decades of growth, the Persona franchise, which began as an already niche offshoot of the Megami Tensei role-playing game franchise, has become densely complicated, and anything but friendly. It’s the sort of game that waits for you to devote 20 hours before assuming you understand its systems well enough to play without overt guidance—and even that might be tricky, considering the steep learning curve. You have to master the turn-based combat system. You have to learn how to negotiate with and recruit demons (which the game calls “shadows”) to fight for you. You’ll master systems designed to simulate friendships and track your intimacy, and you’ll do it on a schedule: Persona 5 takes place over the scope of a fictional year, and you’ll need to micromanage that schedule for eighty hours before you see the credits roll.
It’s difficult to know what to make of games like this, so insistent of their own importance that they take over a dozen hours just to teach you how to fully play them. Is there even a point in recommending a game that only the hardest of the hardcore will get into, let alone complete?
As a critic, I don’t really have a good answer to that question. But as a player, I can tell you that Persona 5 is as vital as it is demanding. Since I started playing it, it has become a daily obsession, a riveting alternative life occupying a space to the side of my own. Part of that is a function of the game’s irrepressible style. The music jumps with a funky, cool immediacy, while all of the main characters dress like immaculate teen models in the real world and avant garde high fashion masquerade artists in the other world. In Persona 5, even the pause menu has style. Each little flourish does an impressive job of increasing your stake in the game’s space. Every single interaction is infused with verve.
But there’s something else here that pulls at me every time I turn on my PlayStation 4. In Persona 5, you spend some of your time exploring an alternate dimension based on the unconscious desires of the people around you, and much of the early game takes place in a castle that represents the tyrannical desires of an abusive instructor. There’s a distinct strain of adolescent angst that comes from adults on a power trip—a cruel teacher, an abusive coach or parent or boss. You’re old enough to see these evils clearly, but not yet old enough to do anything about them. Many adults will write off anything you have to say on account of your age, and often the ones doing the harm are the ones who ought to be protecting you in the first place. That awareness leads not just to frustration, but to a profound, inescapable feeling that the entire world of adulthood is corrupt beyond functional repair. Persona 5 senses this, it understands it, and it offers its teen heroes weapons.
If Persona 5 is worth playing, worth wading through its slow opening and dizzying runtime, this is why. It occupies that role of a wronged young person immaculately, giving you control of a group of teenagers who see the cruelties of adults around them with severe clarity. Then it opens a door to a supernatural world of magic and treasure, and it gives you the one thing none of us had at that age: the means to fight back.
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