You'll Always See It Coming: Persona 5 and the Importance of Focus
For all intents and purpose, Persona 5 was supposed to be my favorite game this year. Shin Megami Tensei has always been my favorite gaming franchise, and even a middling past two or so years has done little to waver that opinion. On top of that, the Persona games are titles that hold a lot of personal meaning to me. Persona 3 in particular is what I attribute to getting my second wind at life, at trying to actually build friendships, apply myself in studying, and be an overall better human being. Even if I wasn't as crazy for Persona 4 as the rest of the world, too, I still dug it, and I genuinely love the first two games (all three of them.) This is a sub-series I love in a franchise that I can't get enough of. It stands to reason that I was beyond excited for the next installment after waiting almost ten years.
Which is why it pains me to say that I think Persona 5 is kind of a bad game.
Before you go dig up dirt to fling at this hottest of takes, I'll give full disclosure that I scored it an 8.5 when I reviewed it for CGM. I'll also give full disclosure that I hadn't actually finished the game by that point, and I was going off of what is ultimately a relatively early chunk of the game. I'd spoiled the rest of the story for myself so I could comment on it in full, but at launch, all synopses were pretty bare-bones. Contractually, I was only obligated to play 10-15 hours of it, and I'd played 17. Anyone who has played Persona 5 knows that this is an absurdly low playtime in comparison to how long it takes to beat it.
Fast-forward to today. In total, I've put around sixty hours in, and watched the rest of the game be played. I don't think I'll ever get around to finishing my save file, because I've seen the whole thing and the gameplay isn't engaging enough to make me want to keep going. That is, when the game actually lets me play it, or makes me feel like I'm actually playing it.
Those last two things are the two big sticking points for me. See, I have a lot of reasons that I think Persona 5 is not a quality product. For example, I think the narrative is pretty juvenile, told in an exceptionally stilted way and populated by sentient tropes that feel like afterthoughts as opposed to characters that I care about. Another criticism I'd have is that the art direction is patently bad, considering that it's a garish grabbag of styles thrown into a blender and splattered onto the screen, without any semblance of cohesion or meaning. That's not even mentioning the horrible translation, If I were to list all the ways that I think Persona 5 is a Bad Game (tm), we'd be here all day.
So instead, I'm honing in focus on one thing, which in an ironic twist is one of the very things the game has gotten so much praise for. In my opinion, Persona 5's gameplay splits at the seams as the game drags on. Initial teases of depth eventually give way to the realization of, yes, this game really is this shallow. In comparison to the last Persona title, the fantastic Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, it's downright insulting to a player's intelligence. The reason for this, I feel, is that the gameplay isn't what P Studio focused on. Instead, their attention went towards distracting the player with loud chicanery and contrived plot twists delivered in a sub-Nolan fashion.
"Focus" is an important idea to my main point, so for clarity's sake, let me lay out what I think focused gameplay is. Let's use this year's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as an example. Breath of the Wild is a game that has a mechanical consistency to it, one that is gradually built upon throughout the however-the-fuck-many-hours you spend playing it. From start to finish, it's a game that iterates on the same fundamentals you learn in the first hour or two of gameplay. This includes things like managing your stamina, timing your strikes, keeping a steady influx of food to cook, learning how to navigate different terrains and climates, etc. Each quest you get is some twist on these core mechanics, and because they're so well-defined, the gradual swell in difficulty feels natural because you know what to expect. Nintendo gave players a strong foundation that they could build upon as much as they wanted to, for as long as they wanted to. In theory, there's nothing that different between those opening segments in the Great Plateau and the later floors of the Trials of the Sword - you're doing the same thing, just in different contexts.
To me, that's "focus" as far as gameplay is concerned. A solid foundation that builds upon itself throughout the game without ever sacrificing the stuff you learned early on. Other examples of this focus are Bayonetta, Nier: Automata, and Metal Gear Solid V. Two of those are Platinum games because, I realize, and that's because I think they're probably the best developer out there when it comes to mechanical focus.
I digress. By these criteria, Persona 5 fails on a very basic level. From the outset, it introduces players to a watered-down take on the familiar Shin Megami Tensei combat. For the unfamiliar the typical flow of battle in a MegaTen game involve exploiting enemy weaknesses to cripple them and finish battles as quickly as possible. Even the weakest enemies can completely wreck players after a few turns, so expedience is key to doing well. As soon as you get in a battle, you want to figure out a weakness, exploit it, and get out before you start dying. Shin Megami Tensei IV, arguably, is the epitome of this idea. Battles are fast, furious, and over before you can blink... if you know what you're doing. Using "strong" attacks alone or sticking to physical attacks is a good way to die. Bad play is punished and done so swiftly.
But Persona 5 offers no such punishment. Instead, the game is remarkably lenient in how it allows players to fuck up. Elemental weaknesses are more of a suggestion than a requirement, and players can spam their way through just about any encounter with minimal effort. It's almost impressive how much this game coddles the player into feeling good about themselves, and that the only way it can offer challenge in higher difficulty levels is by screwing players through RNG.
However, this lack of difficulty is a direct consequence of the lack of focus. Players don't notice how baby-easy the game is because of the developers' insistence on making the player feel special. Every single move, no matter how inconsequential or counterproductive, is made to feel like a heroic act of derring-do. At no point is the player supposed to feel like they fucked up, or that their actions directly contributed to the demise of the party. Instead, every character is a special, unique hero who gets cheerleaders in the form of a talking cat and a low-effort "not like other girls" trope. The result of this coddling is that the foundations of the game are flimsy, and fall apart as soon as you start to look at them with an actual critical eye versus how good they make you feel.
Because Persona 5 is window-dressed to high hell, it's hard to peer into those windows and realize that the house is empty.
Simplicity isn't the only problem, however. Persona 5 can't even stay consistent in its own shallowness. Boss fights are, in my opinion, some of the absolute worst I've seen in a JRPG on a mechanical level, and represent an extreme end to the previous two games' bosses. Persona 3's bosses were great on a mechanical level, but not particularly memorable on the creative front. Persona 4 offered a perfect balance, using established mechanics and utilizing stellar aesthetics and narrative choices. On the far end is Persona 5, which spent so much time in making the designs and building up the story that it forgot to back both up with something that involves actual mechanical depth.
Which is why the bosses represent the crux of the gameplay's problems, in my eye. See, there's no depth there to begin with, due to the aforementioned coddling and watering down. Consequently, when a boss encounter arrives, the developers have backed themselves into a corner. There's no authentic way to challenge the player, outside of giving the bosses a higher probability of landing critical hits. Because players haven't been encouraged to master mechanics and understand the importance of exploiting weaknesses, buffing their party, debuffing the enemy, etc., there's no actual way to challenge the player and make them want to keep playing. While I'm a big advocate of throwing them into the deep end and saying, "time to learn how to play a video game," P Studio clearly don't care for that approach.
What they come with as a consequence of their own design flaws, then, is something should get under the skin of anybody who's loved this franchise. Boss stages become a waiting game. Players have to throw out a few attacks, then wait for a cutscene. They then have to pick a party member to do a contextual action, then wait. Then they have to wait again to pull off another contextual action, then wait as that action gets pulled off. Everything else is ancillary, and to make matters worse, players have to use a specific character to do these actions, at least from I could tell. This means players are railroaded into doing a very specific waiting game until they win. How gratifying.
The boss stage that's one of the worst embodiments of this is in the Casino, when Makoto fights her abusive prick of a sister. The conceit of this boss is that it's totally random, representing the fight being a complete gamble. It's a cool idea that fits with the dungeon, and has a really great visual design. However, having seen this boss done a few times, I've seen it repeat moves in the exact same order with the exact same outcomes, mainly in the first phase. There's a specific order to this boss, which goes against the very idea of it being random. While some may argue, "that's the point, it sets up the story," that argument falls right into my point.
Role-playing games' stories should not, under any circumstance, inform the gameplay. Ever.
I understand that this is a deeply subjective take, and I'll concede that this is definitely more opinion than anything else. But in my view, making players go through a preset rigmarole to tell a story is patently bad design. Story should complement gameplay, not inform it. A good example of what I'm talking about can found in the fight with Shadow Mitsuo in Persona 4, which in my eye, is one of the best fights in not just the Persona games, but in the entirety of the MegaTen franchise.
Players are put up against an enemy themed around old-school JRPGs. The outer shell of the boss is a 3D rendering of 2D pixels, similar to 3D Dot Game Heroes, and the interior is a funky fetus. In its outer shell form, it's limited to a very small pool of very strong attacks. However, its evil baby form is more focused - it knows every elemental move and can exploit your party's weaknesses to cripple it a matter of turns. This forces the players not only to defend against the outer shell's strong attacks, but to constantly shift the protagonist's Personas and use defense on party members who are being targeted. Which, in turn, assumes that players have been growing more adept at playing each party members' role and actively using the ability to recruit new demons. It's a hard test of not only how much you've levelled up and can withstand strong physical attacks, but of how well you've learned the game's mechanics. On top of that, its appearance and moveset is very tonally in line with both the character and the entirety of the dungeon. It's, in my view, a master class in boss design - one where the story complements strong mechanics, and never railroads the player into doing preset actions.
JRPGs are known for their involved narratives, but they're also known for being long, involved processes to get through. Their stories are something that players have to work towards, and generally speaking, aren't something that are spoonfed through contextual actions. The story is built around the game, and not the other way around. While there are games that can use story to inform gameplay effectively, it's often in a way that makes the game more challenging. For example, getting hacked in Nier:Automata's second half. This is something that forces the player to play the game differently based on what's happening in the story, but it offers a challenge to overcome versus a simplification to be led through. Persona 5, though, is nothing but simplification after simplification. Players don't have to worry about learning mechanics as much, and when the going gets tough, the game will play itself in a way until you can win. Even things like landing back attacks on enemies or navigating dungeons have been reduced to QTEs and contextual actions.
This, to me, shows that Persona 5 is borrowing more from Western games than Japanese ones. While there's a lot of great things happening in Western game development, the AAA space has been long dominated by simple, same-y experiences that are focused on delivering dopamine rushes versus offering challenges to overcome. Uncharted is the ultimate embodiment of this - a restrictive series of pretty corridors, simple mechanics that don't take anything to learn, and an easy-to-digest narrative that's as vapid as they come.
Persona 5, then, represents a dulling down of the formula in favor of favorable reception in the West. And it's worked. Look at the accolades it's won, and look at how well it's sold. Persona has never been as popular as it is right now. By dumbing down an established series to gain mass appeal, Atlus has one its biggest hits. A similar thing thing has happened with Fire Emblem, too - Awakening and Fates were very shallow games, both on the narrative and gameplay fronts, yet turned big profits. Two franchises known for challenge and mechanical depth, not to mention weighty narratives, have become watered-down anime tit/pec factories designed to appeal to as many people as possible.
Boy, capitalism sucks.
But I digress. Persona 5 is a mechanically hollow game that offers very little challenge, to the point where playing it like an old-school MegaTen game makes it way too easy. That's on top of the endless tutorials, the contextual actions, the paint-by-numbers dungeon layouts. And that's all just on the gameplay front. The whole game's pretty not great, in my eyes. But because it's all very easy to digest, very loud and in your face, very faux-"deep," it's resonated with a great number of people.
Am I saying you're a bad person if you like Persona 5? No, of course not. But I am saying that maybe you should question your love for it. Why do you love it? Do you like it because it makes you feel good, because its characters are broad tropes that are easy to fill with fan lore, because it's flashy and stylish? Or do you actually like it for being a deep, challenging game, for making you ask big questions about things, for having a cohesive art direction that makes sense? Either one is fine, but as a follow-up, ask yourself why you like having a game make you feel good throughout the entire playtime. Do you want to be catered to, or do you want to brush up against something and overcome it? Furthermore, if a game sacrifices complexity in order to tailor itself towards you, isn't that kind of underselling your own intelligence, and showing that you, as an adult consumer (kids games are a different bag, in my opinion,) are content at consuming diluted product versus the uncut, unfiltered stuff?
Just a thought.