Persona 5 won’t be out in the West until next year, but the game has already been released in Japan. At about 15 hours in I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, but so far I’m loving it.
Note: These impressions might have spoilers, depending on how sensitive you are to such things, but I’m striving to leave out any info or scenes that might ruin parts of the experience.
While my co-workers have been raving about Persona games for years, I’ve never fully immersed myself in the series (I know, right?), but I’ve been having a lot of fun with this one. Combat seems streamlined, and there is a new stealth mechanic that enables players to hide behind sofas and around corners, which adds another layer that makes simple dungeon grinds a bit more interesting. In the second dungeon, for instance, the sneaking portion of the combat is far more satisfying than in the first. There’s also some light platforming, which, so far, isn’t challenging, but does help flesh out gameplay.
The characters, of course, look like they belong in an anime, making the Production I.G cutscenes that are spliced throughout all the more fitting. I thought it was going to be jarring to go from game graphics cutscenes to anime-style ones, but it works and gives the animated sequences that much more impact. They really look terrific, and Production I.G did a bang up job bringing the characters and the world of P5 to life. The anime cutscenes are wonderful treats throughout the game.
Persona 5 is very Japanese, which should surprise absolutely no one. By “very Japanese,” however, I mean not just the character design, or even the cute friends and enemies you come across throughout the game. It’s an unabashedly Japanese game created by Japanese people for Japanese people. I’ve often thought that many of the country’s best games (see also: the Yakuza series) are created in that construct, freed of having to worry how things are perceived by the outside world, or the need to explain cultural minutiae. Atlus has created Persona 5 the way it wanted to and has invited the whole world to play, take it or leave it.
There is also a deeper level of Japaneseness, one that draws on feelings of not only youth, but mundane nostalgia. When people have pointed to Japanese cultural elements in previous Persona games, they might explicitly point to event scenes that are set in traditionally Japanese places (scenes like this or this, for example).
But what I am talking about are places like these:
Real places that are slightly dated and not all that special, and more importantly, that will be eventually renovated and lost.
Persona games have long been inseparable from Japanese culture, but what makes Persona 5 so interesting is how it draws on Showa Period motifs. Japan divides time into different periods, which are more recently based on a particular emperor’s reign (it wasn’t always like this, though!). The Showa Period dates from 1926 to 1989 and corresponds to Emperor Hirohito’s reign. I was born in the Showa Period, you might have been too, and no doubt most of the people who worked on this game were as well.
In modern day Japan, when people say something “looks Showa,” they basically mean it “looks retro.” Old shopping arcades, tiny shops, certain styles of font, and pay phones all “look Showa.”
Via Google Image search, here are some results for photos that “look Showa.”
The area where the Protagonist lives, Yongenjaya, also “looks Showa.” It’s old, with buildings and signs dating from decades past, and even the main cafe in the game just screams Showa to folks living in Japan.
Below is art for some of the in-game Persona 5 locations:
Even the fact that the cafe has an old-style pay phone and serves curry, which of course is widely available throughout present day Japan, still underscores that Showa vibe and contrasts with the more contemporary-looking locations.
Or this. You know, the slick, polished Japan that is typically shown in popular culture.
Japanese Twitter users have been talking about Persona 5's “retro cafe,” with the above Twitter user, for example, saying that old school cafe makes him or her want to eat curry.
Other locations like a laundromat, recycling shop and batting cage all feel retro too. They make for a striking contrast with other locations in the game, such as a shopping mall in a train station.
These are not special places, either. They’re mundane, but they harken back to another time. So much of the game is wrapped in this mundane nostalgia, which is wonderful.
Since locations like these are so ubiquitous, they give a sense of place, grounding the game in a palatable reality. This is important because the game takes players to alternate realities.
As the story ramps up, the school sections are anything but mundane. (And as our own Luke Plunkett previously pointed out, the school stuff in Persona is the best part). The characters and the way they interact, their depth and dimension, are emblematic of the fact that smart people made this game. I liked the friends I made, and I liked hearing them talk. Whenever dialogue trees popped up, I kept feeling that I needed to respond in ways that would make them happy or in ways that were nice.
The first story is connected to after-school club activities, which hit home. My eldest son is in junior high school here in Japan, and while the goings on with his club activity are certainly nowhere near the extreme behavior portrayed in Persona 5, it does occupy significant portions of his time, as it does for most junior high school kids in Japan. They spend hours and hours every day, including on the weekend, practicing and participating in their chosen activity.
I know that my oldest son, once he leaves the house, goes off into another world, a world of school and teenage life. It was a world that I was once part of, but one that I’ve forgotten as an adult. But Persona 5 not only brought me back to my own years in school in a roundabout way, but it also provided glimpses of the gossip and hierarchy that exists in schools today. Again, this storyline in Persona 5 is an extreme version of that world, but the game does a great job of putting you into that school routine and showing how little things, like being put on the spot by a teacher, can be nerve wracking, or how being able to walk around at night can be liberating, especially in a game where the theme of being trapped carries so much resonance.
As I said, I’m only 15 hours in. But during my day, even as I sit here typing, I keep finding myself thinking about what’s happened so far in Persona 5, how my school friends are doing, and remembering walking around the wonderfully mundane world itself. I can’t wait to go back.
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