It’s been a few weeks since Persona 5, Atlus’ latest entry in the long-running high school JRPG series, finally landed on western shores. I am an admitted outsider to both the series and the genre, but I decided it was time to make a change. Time to venture beyond the self-induced genre boundaries that have limited my gaming choices. So I bought a copy of Persona 5 at launch and took a plunge into the unknown.
After racking-up 42 hours on my save file (and still nowhere near the end), I’ve found myself mesmerized by what I’ve played. This game feels like a wholly unique creation, but also a seamless conglomeration. A kaleidoscope of mechanics and aesthetics that are simultaneously new and familiar, all working together to provide a compelling experience.
There is plenty to praise in Persona 5. But what has grabbed my attention the most are the things that it does differently, the small design decisions filled with purpose and flair. It’s in those little things that the true brilliance of the game shines brightest.
Persona 5 respects the player
It feels like the designers of this game understand what it’s like to enjoy playing a game. To sit down for hours and hours, exploring the world and defeating enemies, and slowly unravel what a game has to offer. It also feels like they understand that frustration is the enemy of enjoyment. That it can often be the little things that sour your playthrough.
One of the smartest things that Persona 5 does is minimize pain points. Too many games stick to convention or err on the side of complexity, resulting in systems that require excess player input and deep-dives into endless menus. Persona 5 knows that those moments can work against the atmosphere of a game by losing the interest of the player. To avoid this problem, the game gives the player what they they want as soon as they decide they want it.
One example of this is the game’s contextual fast travel system. If a party member invites you out for ramen, responding with a “yes” takes you right to that moment. There’s no fiddling with a map or navigating Tokyo’s complicated subway system. There are no separate menus or confirmation dialogs or long loading screens; the shortcut is baked into the conversation. Why waste the player’s time with extra questions or eventless travel?
This is respectful design that keeps the player happy. A wonky system can be annoying, but having to interact with that same system over and over again can drive you crazy. By making the game feel streamlined and easy to interact with, the player never has cause to feel angry or frustrated. It also saves the player’s time and makes sure that the enormous story is always moving forward.
Persona 5 hides the loading
There are a lot of necessary evils in game design that, if not implemented properly, can damage the player’s experience. Cumbersome loading is an unfortunate example of this. Switching between scenes, locations, or gameplay segments in most games will incur a loading cost paid in dull screen animations and an idle controller. Persona 5 has this same engine limitation and does have to load in frequent spots. But the game also hides the loading by using that same time to dynamically convey story and atmosphere.
Loading from one scene to another is hidden behind snazzy transitions that continue the flow of the game. Momentum carries through the loading, removing any sense of pausing or halting that occurs with typical “Now loading…” screens in other games.
Some of these transition screens will also change throughout the course of the game. The calendar screen that hides the loading of the next day will subtly change with the seasons and give a brief glimpse of the days ahead. Static scenes of crowded Tokyo with passerby quotes add a larger context as the story progresses. And the intermittent jumps into the larger frame story are heralded by a foreboding animation.
Choosing to use these moments of loading is the type of design decision that makes Persona 5 stand-out. Instead of letting the limitations of the engine show through, those same limits are made useful. Loading becomes another means of drawing the player even further into the game.
Persona 5 uses style as substance
Most games emphasize gameplay at the expense of other aesthetic areas. Music becomes background noise, graphics grim-dark realistic, and menus little more than grey text boxes. That kind of complacency with minimal effort tends to make games feel like archipelagos of fun. It’s hard to enjoy excellent gameplay when it’s surrounded by bland minimalism.
Persona 5 is a rare game that places as much effort into presentation as it does gameplay. Almost everything in the game, from animations to menus to music, is punched-up with the maximum amount of style. The whole game oozes with style in a way that overflows into every little corner and crevice.
The effect on the player is overwhelming; each little flourish is its own source of joy. The style persists through even the most mundane actions, like scrolling through a post-battle screen or opening a shopkeeper’s menu. It’s hard to be bored or annoyed by a game this infused with an upbeat, jazzy vibe. Forget dull menus or generic stat screens – this is how every game should strive to look.
Persona 5 makes story gameplay
John Carmack once said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” He’s right… and he’s wrong. It’s easy to reach that opinion when a vast majority of games keep narrative in its own little bubble, completely separate from gameplay. Characters talk and things happen, but it rarely impacts how the player plays the game.
But story does matter – the problem is in how disconnected it is to gameplay. Persona 5 has a neat little way of remedying this by tying your skill stats and teammates’ abilities to different story beats. And then making those storylines entirely optional.
It’s a small gameplay twist, the kind that doesn’t seem very impactful. But then you start to sweat the decisions. Which character do you want to spend your limited time with? Do you choose an underleveled character simply to unlock their abilities? Or do you pick an interesting character whose personal story has you hooked? Maybe you decide to study with a smart character and boost your knowledge stat for next week’s exams?
Most games would lock all of this behind an XP upgrade tree or hardcode it to pre-defined moments in the main storyline. And there is some of that in Persona 5. But there are also plenty of moments where the player has to choose who to interact with, either for gameplay gain or story revelation. And that simple mechanic does a fantastic job of not only bringing the player closer to the story but also tying making story development an integral part of the gameplay.
Persona 5 mixes (and remixes) mediums
Boredom is the enemy in a game as large as this. Experiencing the same thing in the same way, over and over, is a surefire way to lose the player’s interest and ultimately put them to sleep. A good game finds ways to shake things up, to keep things exciting even when you’re 40+ hours in.
Persona 5 does this by freely mixing different mediums and keeping the presentation as varied as possible. The way in which the player interacts with the game, as well as how the game is displayed, is constantly switching. Anime cutscenes, JRPG dungeon crawling, third-person adventuring, and visual novel story interactions are seamlessly weaved together.
To make this work, each different medium is blended seamlessly into the next. There are no jarring transitions or disparate fragments — everything flows together. The player moves between these different methods of interactivity without any confusion or strife. And, because the entire game is always in flux, it never feels stale.