How Persona 5 Strikers Did (And Didn’t) Steal Our Hearts

It’s a shame Arsene has such a cool design but is quickly replaced by boring-looking but more powerful personas.
It’s a shame Arsene has such a cool design but is quickly replaced by boring-looking but more powerful personas.
Screenshot: Atlus

At long last, the Phantom Thieves ride again as Persona 5 Strikers—the Atlus RPG turned Koei Tecmo hack and slash—is out in North America. I’m a big Persona 5 nerd and I’ve been anxiously waiting for fellow nerd Luke Plunkett to get far enough into the game that I could finally have someone with whom to scream about this game. We didn’t scream so much as have a thoughtful chat about our feelings surrounding the unexpected but delightful sequel to one of our favorite games.

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Ash Parrish: Hi Luke. So how’ve you been enjoying Persona 5 Strikers so far?

Luke Plunkett: Hi Ash! I have been enjoying it slightly, for reasons I think we’re about to get very into here.

Ash: I guess then to start, what’s your feelings on musou or hack and slash games? Have you played one before this?

Luke: I’ve dabbled in musou games briefly, but only enough to find I’m very much not a fan. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity is probably the last one I played, and I made it maybe 30 minutes in before I put the controller down and never came back. I get the appeal of them for other folks—there’s a lot of stuff going on!—but for me I find they’re too repetitive for my tastes.

Ash: I get what you mean. I deeply disliked Age of Calamity even though I generally enjoy those types of games. I’m a story oriented person, so I was more let down by not getting the kind of story out of it that I wanted.

How do you feel about Persona 5 in general? Has experiencing P5 through a Dynasty Warriors lens enhanced or detracted from your enjoyment?

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Luke: Your problem with Age of Calamity was also my problem with Age of Calamity and is also kinda my problem (perhaps the only major one!) with Strikers. I loved Persona 5 with all my heart. Every magical high school teen, every hot doctor, every despairing teacher who is also a maid, we’re all best friends. I’ve finished it twice and written about it maybe 100 times on this website. A game that directly continues on from Persona 5's story should be perfect for me, but I waver between getting angry and just enormously upset that this story is being held hostage behind an entirely different genre of game than the one I liked in Persona 5.

Ash: Then I can already tell this is gonna be a slog for you, because the gameplay doesn’t really change. You can level up your characters and make things smoother, but that gate is always gonna be there. I will say it’s worth persevering through. I think this is a worthy sequel that Persona fans will enjoy, though if you’re not a musou fan, the level of work you have to put in to get that story might be disheartening.

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For a musou fan like myself, I didn’t mind it. I really liked how Strikers subverts the expectations of musou games with how it plays with the arena and your persona powers. Fans of Persona will like this, but it’ll take work. Musou fans who are also Persona 5 fans: we’re eating goodt.

But, since you’re not a musou fan, Luke, what would make this game better? What would you do with it beyond taking the bones of the story and putting it back into an RPG format?

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Luke: I appreciate the lengths to which they’ve gone here to try to spread the musou genre over all of Persona 5's quirky RPG systems. Like how you still have to sneak and trigger encounters in dungeons, and how a lot of that levelling up and upgrading you mention tries to copy the menu screens, if not the actual function, of the original game.

But what would I do to make it better? I don’t know if anything short of just “making this an RPG” would help. One of my biggest annoyances about the game beyond the combat is the way the game has the veneer of Persona 5's defining traits, like its schedule and character interaction, but little of their breadth or consequences. So while I’m getting the same voice actors and art and writing that makes it all feel like one continuous adventure, I also keep getting this nagging feeling that I’m playing some kind of...imposter Persona game? A very good clone, that was able to look like the game I loved so much, but just continually feels “off” every time I push at it.

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I guess to answer your question more directly, just make the easy mode so damn easy I can almost skip battles entirely and just play the game as one very long cutscene. Not because I’m finding it difficult, just because I get so bored playing through each dungeon.

Ash: There will come a time when fights are as easy as one or two button presses. That doesn’t help much for the game’s sameness, but it can give you the story delivery mechanism you desire.

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Repeat this ad nauseum. Yeah, I get Luke’s point, combat’s a little repetitive.
Screenshot: Atlus

Luke: The repetition just sucks the life out of the game’s flow for me. I love all the road trip stuff and the story so much that I dread every time I have to jump back into a dungeon and do it all over and over and over again.

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I think having got all this off my chest, and making it sound like I hate this game, I’m still going to stick with it and try to see it through. That’s a testament to just how good a fit the story and writing are: The whole thing feels like the most perfect continuation of Persona 5's story. Even the vibe is right, how this is a summer road trip, a spin-off from their lives the way this is a spin-off from the main series.

Strikers is the only way I’ll ever get to visit Okinawa.
Strikers is the only way I’ll ever get to visit Okinawa.
Screenshot: Atlus
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Ash: I love the road trip so much, and I’m so glad they decided to go with that instead of sticking the kids in Shibuya again. And you’re right: that narrative is a natural fit for the Phantom Thieves. We get the chance to see how much they’ve grown in the intervening time between the end of Persona 5 and now. How Futaba’s dealing with her agoraphobia and how Haru and Makoto are adjusting to college life. I will say I was really hoping for some kind of hints as to who Morgana is—looks like we’ll have to wait for another spinoff game.

Do you like Sophia? She took a moment to grow on me and for me to get her combat down, but once I did, she was pretty great. Do you primarily play with Joker or do you switch it up? I found Joker’s combat to be the most repetitive of the thieves. If repetition is your sticking point, learning the other characters’ more varied combat might help. I grinned like an idiot when I got the hang of Yusuke’s anime-like sword swinging.

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I just really like how you can hop from thief to thief to thief chaining together attacks that can level a room in seconds. Yeah it can get mindless, but the slickness of it all makes up for it.

Luke: That’s maybe my favourite combat-related thing, the ability to pull the camera away from Joker and play as Makoto or, surprisingly, Ryuji, who for some reason I felt was way more useful here than he was in P5. I’m still on the fence when it comes to Sophia. I really like her design (which has a real strong “EVE from Wall-E” energy), but having her exist on an app in the real world seemed pretty awkward in all those cutscenes where Joker is having to continually move his phone around just so she can stay involved.

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Ash: Not any more awkward than what we do now because of quarantine. My mom and sister on FaceTime calls will frequently ask me to move my camera so they can see my dog.

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Luke: Persona 5 Strikers as a commentary on the pandemic would be interesting like this if...the rest of the game wasn’t built around kids sharing a van and then driving around Japan walking straight into enormous crowds every chance they get.

Every Phantom Thief has such great fits.
Every Phantom Thief has such great fits.
Screenshot: Atlus
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Ash: Not that I’m jealous of kids constantly being forced to save the world, but I’m jealous of these kids who constantly have to save the world. A) Who has that many friends you know in real life that you have a level of familiarity and comfort to go on a road trip with? B) Whose parents let their kids go on a cross country road trip like that? C) Damn they have cool outfits!

Luke, you live in Australia, which has utterly kicked US’ ass in terms of covid precautions. You live almost normally, right? How does playing a game that revolves around kids freely travelling and being in public feel to you?

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Luke: I used to and still do take road trips all the time with friends, sometimes to concerts, sometimes for board game weekends, other times just to hang out at the beach. So it was cool seeing that kind of vibe dealt with here. I’ve written before about how Persona games let you relive your high school years in some of the best ways possible, and having everyone go on this cheap-ass drive was a great way of reliving my immediate post-high school years as well (in a way that I literally can’t think of a single other game trying to cover).

Ash: Gosh, I wish I had that experience. I was a hermit in high school. So this is all a fantasy to me.

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But though it’s hard for me to relive my high school years through Persona 5 because what those teens do wasn’t close to my experience at all, I do appreciate the ‘road trip by proxy’ feelings I got. I liked seeing the pufferfish in Osaka later in the game. I know that was a real thing that existed in that place, so it felt I was getting a fanciful taste of the Japan trip I’ve always dreamed of.

Luke: You should play some Yakuza then, it’ll hit you the same way!

Did you play any of Persona 4's spin-offs? I never even bothered with those (not really a fan of fighting or dancing games either), but they also seemed easier to skip because they didn’t feel like “canon” the way this does. I’m wondering what brought this recent trend on, like Age of Calamity, where a particular type of game gets what’s basically a full-blown prequel/sequel, only...it’s a completely different type of game?

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It’s like, if the next Forza was a turn-based RPG, or the next FIFA was an RTS, people would lose their minds! But for whatever reason, this pair of very popular Japanese series just decided to roll with it. I’m guessing it’s because it’s a lot cheaper and quicker to do something like this than have to spend years on a big RPG, but I’m wondering if there’s not a better way to get series fans what they want without having to pull such a huge switcheroo.

A visual novel or adventure game would surely have been a better fit for a narrative-heavy turn-based RPG than....frantic button-mashing!

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Ash: Persona 5 was my first Persona game. And you’re right, this is new territory for these franchises. Maybe they saw the successes of the Attack On Titan crossover and thought the story was fungible enough to be put in a musou.

Luke: Ah, well. I know I’ve said some mean things about it, most of them born more out of disappointment based on my own personal tastes than anything wrong with it as a musou game, but I’m still going to stick with it. I owe my magical teen friends and their loser adult accomplices that much. It may not be the game I wanted, but at least it’s the kind of story that works!

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Ash: I think as you go through more of the game and the characters get stronger, you might find yourself enjoying it as a whole package—story and gameplay. I hope that happens for you.

Luke: Same!

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Kotaku Staff Writer and Hornt Correspondent - Fanfiction Novelist - Unapologetically Black - Diversity Gelatinous Cube

DISCUSSION

1. I goddamn hate Morgana. He’s whiny, he’s an incel cat, he constantly insults Ryuji and his arc from Persona 5 is basically a copy of Teddie’s, only Morgana’s break from the party is incredibly contrived and stupid. There’s a lot of Morgana in the opening and I hate it. The character is so damn bad that it’s making me hate the concept of a talking cat.

2. Sophie’s great. I wish she was P5's mascot instead of Morgana. I’m a sucker for this trope but she’s particularly well realized, especially with how she basically chooses to emulate Ryuji’s vernacular.

3. Persona 5 was largely devoid of the annoying anime shenanigans of “girls abuse boys while boys are perverts” that happened throughout 3 and 4. Except in those games it didn’t bother me as much because Junpei and Yosuke were trashmen - although Yosuke was a somewhat endearing trashman because his massive insecurity came from a relatable place of a teenager dealing with toxic masculinity and he served as a nice foil to Kanji’s own insecurities with male toxicity from a different angle. In 5 Ryuji is a perfectly good boy, yet he gets constantly verbally abused and gets shit for no real reason outside of a single instance of very tacked on perving in a cutscene. The one time he actually gets beaten is as a “joke” because the girls got mad that they cried for him for nothing.

This game has, so far, a lot more of Ryuji abuse and those “hilarious” anime shenanigans that Hashino seems to love. I love the man for making SMT3 Nocturne, but I’m glad he’s no longer the Persona boss. Maybe the next folks can get away from this particular anime trope.

4. I’m glad Haru gets more to do and I love the joke with her saying borderline psychopathic stuff with a lovely smile. “We are sorry, but we despise the police” is so far the best line of 2021. Take that, Makoto - Haru is even more priviliged than you are but that girl knows what’s up.

5. Makoto was never my favorite but Strikers seemed to veer even harder into her just being a massive cop with no personality. Sorry, girl, but telling people during summer vacation that they have homework to do or making snide comments about a permanently impoverished boy because he cried after a delicious meal is not in any way endearing. Take a hint from Haru, who has the right idea: fuck cops.

6. I’ve seen people complain about the sponginess of the bosses, but I don’t mind so far. My issue here is that the combat is only fun when a) there’s a real horde of enemies or b) you get one target. When it’s the small fries, the combat goes so fast it’s an afterthought. With hordes I get some stupid stuff to do. With bosses, I get the closest thing I’ll ever get to Raidou Kuzunoha 3.

7. I’m having mixed feelings about Alice.

On the one hand, I appreciate that they’ve delved deeper into the moral ambiguity of Phantom Thieving - this time around, their solution is imperfect on a lot of levels and I feel fine with that.

On the other, Alice may be a victim of bullying, but she’s a serial abuser who ruined people’s personal lives. The naivete with which Ann and the game seem to be convinced that she’ll bounce back from all this rings weird because it’s hopeful, not cynical. I empathize with Alice being a victim of bullying with a possible mental disorder, but she’s gonna bounce back because cancelling doesn’t actually work, not because she’s such a great person who deserves some grand redemption. But maybe I’m just worn out from all those stories throughout the years about celebrities being abusers and garbage.

On yet another hand, it feels very weird to have a story about an idol who induces people to become her slaves and declare love for her in public when you have idols dealing with stalkers and creeps involuntarily. I guess I’d be more appreciative of this twist on the concept if it was acknowledged at any point that usually it goes the other way, or if the Thieves themselves were initially fooled into thinking that Alice is the victim in all this.

8. The beginning is weirdly written for a sequel. They don’t do much to introduce the characters, their stories, roles and the entire concept of the Metaverse, so if I wasn’t coming after P5 and Royal I’d be very confused. At the same time, they avoid namedropping any tidbits from the actual story of Persona 5. When Zenkichi first came around, I was waiting for somebody to go “remember the last time we worked with a detective who had some business for us?”.