Persona 5 review: spectacular simulation of teenage life

Latest in long-running high-school franchise boasts characters as deeply written and well observed as a multi-season TV series

Like Scooby-Doo, the Famous Five and Harry Potter, the Persona series of Japanese role-playing games fits into a long tradition of teen fiction in which young people band together to expose the schemes and exploitations of corrupt adults. The abuses that Persona 5s teenagers must confront are, however, unusually and uncompromisingly grave.

The game opens with a typical example: one evening your character, a 17-year-old high-school student, confronts an inebriated, groping politician who is trying to force a woman into a taxi. The consequences of intervening with such a powerful local figure prove life changing. You are summarily expelled from school and banished to Tokyo, to live with a crotchety caf owner. There you are enrolled in an academy whose halls are filled with whispering students who, having read the headlines, judge you as a toxic delinquent.

As victim of terrific injustice, your character naturally falls in with a small group of outcast students who have suffered similar discrimination (those who have been robbed of their places to belong, as the game so elegantly puts it). So begins an astonishing work of interactive fiction, in which a small but determined band of empathetic teenagers take on a series of grave cases involving, among other things, corporate bullying, sexual abuse, stalking and child slavery. If Persona 5 sounds menacingly solemn, note that your gang includes a talking cat and that you can spend your downtime on sunny dates in the local park, watering the fern in your attic apartment, or luxuriating in the local baths.

Thats because Persona 5 delivers a holistic simulation of urban, teenage life. Each day is divided into segments morning, lunchtime, afternoon and so on and follows the calendar, week by week, through the school year. While you must attend classes, during which your teachers will often hurl general knowledge questions your way, and periodically take exams, you control the remainder of your time. This can be spent working on the current case (you only follow one major incident at a time), deepening friendships or engaging in any number of extra-curricular activities around the city which slowly upgrade a relevant attribute. An evening spent in the baths, for example, will increase your characters charm, while an afternoon spent studying in a ramen restaurant will increase your knowledge.

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The battle system is intricate and often delightful. Photograph: Atlus

You can make friends with a down-on-his-luck politician who stands on a soapbox outside Shibuya station each evening, or you can spend time with a local doctor who is being investigated by the police for malpractice. You can take a paying part-time job at the local 7-11, or florist, or burger joint. You can learn to become a barista, hit the batting cages, spend your money on second hand TVs in the pawn shop, or on gifts to woo the girl you fancy. Persona 5s diversions are as labyrinthine as the city in which theyre hidden, and each one contributes to the greater quest either by increasing your proficiency in combat, in conversation, or by deepening the links (and systemic benefits) with the people around you.

With its stylish cuts and transitions, loose and unorthodox structure and real world setting (you can travel between Tokyos subway stations, walk through the ticket barriers, perhaps take a moment to scout for jobs in the free papers, or buy a strength-enhancing smoothie from a kiosk) Persona 5 is unlike any other video game. Its depth and texture far outstrips even earlier games in the series.

And yet there are artefacts of orthodoxy. Each case is won by working your way through a dungeon, which is filled with treasure chests and patrolling enemies, and over which the antagonist of the current case presides as a kind of final boss. These dungeons are, in the games terminology, manifestations of the antagonists cognitive world. Enter the mind palace, to borrow a phrase from Sherlock Holmes, of a seemingly upstanding teacher, for example, and you will find their hidden perversions and depravities made plain inside. The dungeons are expansive and challenging, and must be infiltrated during numerous excursions, spread across a number of days. With each trip, you make it farther into the palace (safe rooms provide places to save your progress, and a warp point to return to) until you reach the treasure at its core. Steal the treasure and defeat the warped personification of the fraudulent adult in question, so the games logic goes, and the antagonist will be forced to confess all back in the real world. Case closed.

Persona
Vast proposition Persona 5. Photograph: Atlus

You must plan your schedule carefully as in every case theres a hard deadline to meet. Miss the deadline and its game over. As you never know how large or challenging a particular palace will be, you are responsible for estimating and managing your diary. Spend too much time hanging out with your friends earlier in a month, and you may run out of time to complete the case, a system that can force the loss of hours of progress, as you revert to an earlier save. At first the design seems unusually punitive, but, like the adults whose enormities you expose, you soon learn to take responsibility for your actions in the game. You may play the role of a teenager, but Persona 5 treats you like a grownup.

The battle system is intricate and often delightful. This is a game where you can talk to the monsters, too. Providing you are of a similar level, you may persuade every foe to join your team. Enemies each have elemental strengths and weaknesses and battles will turn on the wisdom or recklessness of your moment-to-moment decisions. Rarely in a role-playing game are the stakes of every minor encounter so high. Its a game that requires a constant thoughtfulness of approach. Its also a game in which combat is constantly evolving. As your relationships with your comrades deepens through spending time with them in the real world, so new moves and abilities open up in combat. More than any other game before it, from their abilities to their equipment, your characters in Persona 5 soon come to embody the thousands of choices that you have made leading up to any given moment.

Persona 5 is a vast proposition. Each case, of which there are many, will take around 10 hours to clear, so its a game best approached like a multi-season TV series. The comparison is apt too, as your emotional bond with the characters and their daily struggles and hang-ups matures as with a soap opera. Like many soap operas, its a game that could, at times, have used some hard editing. Exposition is thorough and dialogue lengthy, although it is mercifully possible to speed through conversations. But theres an authenticity to all the writing that proves memorable and affecting. The protagonists speak and text like school children. They make misinformed or sexist remarks. They fumble social interactions. They are, in short, teenagers. At its core this is a spectacular work of contemporary young adult fiction, one with a strong moral core, angled yet never didactic, expansive yet always focused.

PS4 (version tested) and PS3; Pegi rating 12+

Originally published at: http://www.theguardian.com/us