Here at The DesC, we love us some video games. In my younger years, that meant the bulk of my time after school and on weekends was spent devouring game after game. Massive role-playing games (here-to-fore referred to as RPGs) have always been my bread and butter, since their lengthy run times and systemic depth lend themselves painfully well to habitual play and poor time management. They’re grand and absorbing, and many a title in the past has nearly swallowed me whole. It will forever be my chosen poison, no matter how my circumstances change.
Sadly, circumstances are wont to change. I’m not in school anymore. I have a genuine paycheck-providing job, complete with a beefy commute. Time to sit in front of a television, controller in hand, feels like a precious commodity. Nevertheless, I continue to be drawn to the sprawling worlds of these interactive epics, which brings me to the discussion of my latest endeavor: Atlus’s blockbuster JRPG Persona 5.
Persona 5, as it turns out, is quite a fitting subject for the debut entry into this series, as it is a game whose mechanical foundation is built upon effective time management strategies. You’re going to need them, too; despite the game’s easily-over-a-hundred hour runtime, you will still be unable to do everything the game offers in one go. For example, I’ve been playing the thing since its launch in the states and I only just finished last week. And I only maxed out, like, a handful of confidants.
As much as I want to immediately dive into a number of thoughts related to the game’s primary focus, here, let me preface my thoughts with some context. Despite Final Fantasy VII‘s role as a foundational game in my own love of RPGs, I don’t actually engage with many JRPGs (in case you’ve never heard and you don’t feel like inferring, the J in this case stands for Japanese). In addition, unlike a number of people contributing to and hopefully reading the work on this site, I’m not a big fan of anime. Nothing really against any of it, it just doesn’t manage to get its hooks in me all too often. I’m more of a western storytelling, rich world building, BioWare/Bethesda sort of chap.
Then, some years ago, I bought a Playstation Vita. I had begun a different part-time job that also happened to have a lengthy commute, and my bonus was enough to cover a one-year-in Vita purchase. I’d already owned a decent collection of games for the system that had been granted to me by my PS+ membership, so it made sense.
As I do whenever I get a new platform, I did a quick round of research into the best games available there, and a consistent suggestion was Persona 4: Golden. The data was undeniable. I picked up a copy, and 4 commutes later I started actually getting into some gameplay. I didn’t mind, though. The characters were charming, the music was catchy, and I was slowly drawn into the game’s bizarre world of Jungian high school drama and slick dungeon crawling. Hooks were got.
Naturally, when Persona 5‘s announcement came knocking on America’s door, I was ecstatic. Hopped right on that steelbook preorder, believe you me. In a move that would have sounded ridiculous to myself 5 years ago, I happily dropped my playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda to dive into Persona as soon as it arrived in the mail (more on that game in a future installment).
Immediately, the game makes it obvious that it is SLICK AF. Style oozes from every element of the UI. The music is catchy and exuberant. Animations are effortlessly cool. Everything just works. It takes a solid 15 hours at the very least to approach any of its combat systems, but the route there is full of so much stylistic swagger that I really didn’t care.
Like the narrative of Persona 5, I’m gonna take this opportunity to run the clock back a bit. As I noted at the start of this article, the game is easily over a hundred hours long on your first playthrough. I think I clocked in at roughly 115. That is goddamn excessive. As a working adult who wants to experience the wide breadth of what this hobby has to offer, tackling this monster is downright daunting.
But boooooooy are those systems engaging. If you’ve never played a Persona game, the series has carved out a very special niche of combining the stats-focused grinding of a turn based dungeon crawler with a richly textured slice-of-life high school drama, then steeping that in the collective unconscious for about a hundred hours. It’s a beautifully unique combination, where the satisfaction in the design comes from how well those disparate elements work together to create a cohesive experience.
The series has always done a great job exploring how time affects modern life, and this entry is no exception. Spending time with your friends allows them access to more powerful abilities when you go dungeon crawling, and spending time with various hobbies gives you access to a wider breadth of abilities that increase your own effectiveness in battle. I love when designers find mechanical ways to explore thematic ideas, and Persona’s time management systems are able to meaningfully tackle the importance of, as the youths may say, “living one’s best life”[sic]. You can’t do everything, so you have to do what matters; sometimes, that’s just taking the time to sit and read a book, or spend an afternoon with a loved one. It’s a truly powerful sentiment in these turbulently productive times.
Now, imagine if the game was only about 70-80 hours long. Imagine how much more impactful those decisions would feel. It’s not as if the decisions don’t feel impactful in the game as it currently exists, but they just give you SO MUCH to do. I understand the appeal of the story’s progression through the seven deadly sins, but… I mean, it’s not like that’s the freshest of narrative conceits. Maybe five dungeons would have been kinda fine?
I really do love the characters that drive this wacky narrative, and the central thematic thrust of “Hey wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just GAVE HALF A SHIT SOMETIMES” feels particularly relevant to the current state of the western world. Persona 5 is a surprisingly political game, and I’m a bit curious to study the current state of Japanese politics in order to come to a richer understanding of its relevance to its home culture. There were a number of times over the course of the game’s story that I was quite moved by a number of the characters’ heart-on-the-sleeve speeches.
A quick aside about those speeches (and I’m far from the first to voice this concern): this game’s English script is terribly sloppy. Lines here and there work great, but there is a syntactical awkwardness that courses through the entire thing. It’s like a key step in the process was glossed over where the translation is rephrased in a way that has a more natural flow. If I had the time, I would love to go line by line and retool the entire thing as a bit of an experiment, but it’s OVER A HUNDRED HOURS LONG. If the whole of it was more concise, maybe the translators could have had more time to give this script its due.
The voice cast, I should say, does a fantastic job. There’s a genuinely compelling narrative hiding under that localization, and the cast sells it about as well as they possibly could. The characters are lovable, and the performances have a natural warmth that almost breaks through the awkward dialogue on a number of occasions.
At the end of the day, though, Persona 5 is a towering masterpiece. It’s interlocking systems are endlessly satisfying, and they work together in service of a cohesive narrative that actually tries to explore some powerful themes. That it arguably is too much of a good thing is a testament to its success.
And it might be too much. I mean, come on, Atlus… some of us have jobs.