Back on the Seasonal Anime Checkup OVA Episode #18, I mentioned how Persona 5 was currently my least favorite game in the series. That statement might lessen when I decide to attempt a second English (third overall if we’re counting the Japanese version) playthrough, but as of now, and with other facets surrounding the game, it remains that I am disappointed with the game. The game does have good aspects, like revamping the battle mechanics and a good majority of the cooperation/confidant social link characters are great and some of the best in the series. However, Persona 5 is by no means perfect or the greatest game ever made. It may in fact be your game of the year for 2017 and I cannot dispute that as opinions are subjective, but the game is not infallible to criticism like some people might think it is. To look at what exactly I found disappointing, we need to examine the dungeon design, writing/localization, a certain character arc, and the final act. Which means, yes, there will be end game spoilers so be forewarned.
Compared to Persona 3 and 4, Persona 5’s dungeon design has seen a massive overhaul to get rid of the randomly generated floors, which is left to the side quest filled Mementos, for a linear design meant to get you from the beginning to the end with no real alterations. With each dungeon being set up as a means to steal the latest villain’s heart, a treasure that is near and dear to them, it would seem that the game should go all the way into being a heist game. All of the aesthetics are there, especially with how the Persona user group is dressed up as burglars. The game never really allows itself to become a complete heist game as you cannot create plans yourself of how to attack each dungeon even though the game will have “planning” meet ups before you head in. With the designs of the dungeon being set, it would not necessarily allow for this type of planning as there would not be any unique way to accomplish that. Do the dungeons losing their random element benefit them? Not necessarily. Even though there is time to head into Mementos to allow the player to have more dungeon crawling, the game seems to be increasingly outweighed by how much social elements there is to fighting demons. Now, having a ton of social parts of the game is not bad in the slightest, as that is one of my favorite aspects of these games, but even when you are in a dungeon, the game does not take advantage and do anything new or interesting with them. There is certainly more puzzles that have been included into each dungeon as a new way to add gameplay, but I am not sure it works. It becomes similar to the same problem that 2016’s best JRPG Tokyo Mirage Sessions had where puzzles in the dungeons seemingly pad out the length rather than make for a fun and intriguing new way to tackle the game. Did the Big Bang dungeon need two sets of airlock puzzles right after an area of puzzles or did the casino dungeon need multiple sets of puzzles for progression and did they add anything fun? No and no. So, if it seems like there is less time in the main dungeons and they are also padded out, should Atlus take out some of the social elements to even out the time with the two? Absolutely not. It is a hard problem to find a solution to as the social parts of Persona are what make the series unique amongst JRPGs, but compared to other games in the genre, it does seem like you are fighting monsters less so than other series, especially with Persona 5. With Atlus recently saying they want to improve upon Persona 5 with whatever Persona 6 will be, I hope they try and find some sort of solution to what is a less significant problem than some of the other issues the game has, but if there was a balance between the two, it might be better. Or worse. Dungeon design is tough and combining that with an intricate system that is based around a good majority of an in game year, I am sure this problem is probably extremely tough and I don’t think that going back to randomly generated dungeons is the answer either. Just make dungeons more fun and intriguing as that seems to have been lost in Persona 5.
The writing of Persona 5 has been discussed at length since its English launch with regards to the localization. I won’t go too in depth into this topic as people who are far more knowledgeable in that aspect have done so. Hours after the game had been available and even before it was officially out fans were showing off how the localization was somewhat weird with what characters were saying and pronunciation of names. In the credits, there are only six people credited with localization and nearly double that in editors, which if you go back to Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the second Persona game brought to America, that game had 5 localizers on it. There has been a growing divide recently in games between whether they should have direct translations or if localization is better. Fans of direct translation will tell you that it is the only way to go as that is what the creator intended, but that is only partially true. Direct translations, especially from Japanese to English is not necessarily going to work as Japanesecan be very to the point and literal translations of Japanese phrases can be wonky in English. For example, I am attempting to learn Japanese and the app I use, Memrise, will sometimes offer literal translations of phrases that I am learning. The phrase “is sick” is “kibunga warui desu/きぶんが わるい です”. The literal translation is, “feeling が(ga/subject particle; but) bad です(desu/expresses politeness)”. Now looking at that by itself, it could mean anything as when I say I am feeling bad, it does not mean I am sick. Using direct translations can lead to inferences where it is not necessarily correct. There is also the case of no one would just use the phrase “feeling bad” and that is it to describe how another person is feeling as that would end up being “*name* feeling bad” instead of “*name* is sick”. It would just sound strange and not how and English speaker would talk. (Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong here, I am still learning the language) Another reason that translation is tough is that the English language is fucking dumb. Other languages can have these deep meaning phrases for very specific things, but in English it could be just one word that encompasses a broad stroke of feelings. In Jillian Keenan’s Sex with Shakespeare (stay with me here), she makes a point about how difficult going from one language is to another in terms of the translations of Shakespeare’s plays and just the struggles of language in general. “For the rest of us, language often fails. If the Sami people, who live in the northern parts of Scandinavia and Russia, can create more than a thousand different words to describe reindeer, a more loving culture could produce more words for love. But we are not that culture, so we have only one: I “love” my cat. I “love” New York. I “love” tacos. No wonder the word so often rings hollow.” (Keenan 194). The point of localization is to bring forth the original creators ideas and meaning and give it the flavor for people of another language to understand in their terms given the fluidity of language. Sure, sometimes localization fails and does a bad job of conveying the original ideas, but there are also times where it succeeds. Just because there have been a few localizations that you disagree with does not mean we should kill off the process entirely. That would be like saying games sometimes are not great at stories so we should never make another game with a story.
On the other side of the writing argument, there are times where it is just a mess. For the third mainline game in a row, we have to talk about a Persona game having a poor representation of LGBTQ. If we also include Catherine into that statistic, it would mean 4 in a row. Persona 3 and Catherine most notably have transphobic elements with 3’s Operation Babe Hunt segment and in Catherine how certain characters react to Erica, especially in one of the endings. Persona 4 most notably had problems with how the game and other characters handled Kanji and his questioning of his sexuality with Yosuke being especially problematic in that aspect. With Persona 5, we are once again presented with homophobia in how there are two very minor characters who embody every terrible stereotype of gay people. They are overtly flamboyant and in the two scenes they are in, attempt to hit on Ryuji in a way that makes them look like sexual predators. These types of issues should not still be happening in video games or any type of media whatsoever. It is inexcusable. A common element of all four of those games is that Katsura Hashino was the director. Now, there is not enough evidence to say that Hashino is homophobic or transphobic himself, but given that in all four games he would be the one that these jokes and decisions would have to be approved by, there is blame to be laid upon him. Especially given that the Persona series most notably allowed the player to have a gay relationship in Persona 2: Innocent Sin, but that was before Hashino came on board as director and Persona 1-2 were written by Tadashi Satomi. Atlus needs to at some point address these issues sooner rather than later, but unfortunately I am not sure they will. Considering the success that Persona has been accumulating recently, it would be very surprising to see Atlus make a drastic change of switching directors for Persona 6. Given that it is 2017, homophobic and transphobic jokes have no business in video games at all whatsoever and we need to stand up and shout until these are removed from games and other media for good.
In terms of messy writing in the main story, there are a few notable instances. During the school trip to Hawaii, the protagonist ends up rooming with Mishima, who runs the Phantom Thieves “PhanSite” and helps the group with side missions by finding information on people who could have their hearts changed. At one point on the trip, the protagonist, Ryuji, Ann(e), and Mishima are all hanging out, yet Mishima acts as if he does not know that they are the Phantom Thieves. Even though, he does. It is bizarre and makes absolutely no sense given the story thus far and almost feels as if the school trip portion of the game was written by someone else entirely. In fact, by the end of the trip, the characters are saying that the trip was pointless, which is not something you should let them say, especially when the player is already thinking that and wondering why it was included in the game to begin with. The story is also hypocritical in terms of how it treats Ann(e). The very first dungeon lays the precedent that she is very uncomfortable with being sexualized and how classmates think she is having sex with Kamoshida. She also has to deal with her friend Shiho being raped by Kamoshida and then trying to kill herself, all the while everyone in school sees her as a slut. Ann(e) is uncomfortable with how she is portrayed in Kamoshida’s dungeon as well and including how her Phantom Thief costume ends up. Even though the game clearly establishes it early on, it still forcibly puts her in positions where the game wants to sexualize her. Whether that is with Yusuke and his want of getting her to pose nude for a painting (which, I would argue is not Yusuke trying to just see her naked, but more him just being inept with how these situations go), how in two different anime cutscenes the other boys gawk at her with how she is drawn to have her and Makoto’s shirts be see through due to sweat and allows the others to see their bras or how Ann(e) is trying to wring out her kimono and shows off her leg and it is played off for sexuality, how Ryuji makes groping hand motions at Ann(e) when she is shown in a bikini, and how the girls are forced to go out in bikinis to seduce a shadow in one of the final dungeons. To top it all off, there is now official merchandise that is a figure of Ann(e) where you can basically see the outline of her vagina (insert link to that here). It is just completely hypocritical of the writing and everyone at Atlus to try and make her character not want to be sexualized and just turn around and do the complete opposite. Given the fact that she is canonically a high school student who is 16 or 17, it is just immensely gross. It is an absolute disappointment and one that Atlus should be ashamed of.
I guess if you have been reading up until this point and still want to continue, I am about to talk about some late game spoilers so heads up if you want to bounce before you see any of that. Alright, for everyone else that is still here, we should probably talk about an archetype that was also in Persona 4, the traitor. When it was utilized in that game, I thought it worked out especially well and even more so with how they implemented it in Golden with a new ending and being able to social link that character. The traitor is once again used in Persona 5 and it is not well executed. It probably did not help that Atlus tried to hide the traitor, Goro, in marketing materials for the Japanese release when they accidentally released those with him included. So, why does it not work? For starters, Goro is just boring. He is not that interesting of a character, especially compared to everyone else in the game. His turn is just poorly telegraphed as he will go on TV and tell the world how bad the Phantom Thieves are one week and then later on changes his tune. All the while, he is trying to be buddies with the protagonist. By the time he blackmails you into having him join it is fairly obvious where it is all headed. Here’s a guy who has out right murdered multiple people, but yet by the time you fight him in the penultimate dungeon, the game wants to have the characters try and reconcile with him. It is the most I have recently outright been against what a story was trying to do. Especially, when there are two members on the team that he has killed family members of! Why on Earth would they want to try and change him?! His whole arc is that he was the bastard of Shido and wanted to get revenge on him by helping him and then eventually turning on him. Well, I know people who have not had great relationships with their parents and I know this might be a surprise, but they did not become murderers. Even compared to other villains in the game alone, he is not great. It is just a bad arc and a bad use of the traitor archetype and none of it works. If instead, you knew Goro was going to go against you throughout the entirety of the game and it was like a running battle through the game where you fight here and there and he is out to stop you, it would have worked better. Of course, Goro couldn’t be a murderer in that hypothetical, but he might have not been so boring either. It also does not help that Goro is a wild card user, which in any Persona game past 3, is a huge deal. Yet, nothing is really made out of it except for the true final boss just being like yeah I was bored and just wanted to see who was better. It is absolutely lame and almost as bad as how Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which is a bad story in its own right, decided that Sho could have the wild card potential and then did nothing with it. Essentially, it is pointless for Goro to have the ability at all as it adds nothing to the story or to the game in any meaningful way. Pretty much just like Goro in general.
My final point might be somewhat nitpicky, which I will fully admit, but I didn’t really think the ending hit its mark. Let me preface this by saying Persona is one of my favorite game series of all time and I am aware of its roots in Shin Megami Tensei and do like those games as well. However, I think Persona 5 kind of goes too far in the way of SMT than previous Persona games and it does not really benefit the ending. Especially given that it does feel antithetical to how the other 90% of the game is as well. For me, it almost feels like a cop out to have the end just be, oh it was a god who was pulling the strings all along and that is why all these people are bad and why society can be apathetic to real change. Sure, Persona 4 did something similar with how you end that game fighting Izanami, but at least in 4 there was a hierarchy of gods you were fighting who were all associated together and it made sense. Despite the fact that I think the twist at the end of the game is quite brilliant in how it is also meta in a way as well, the rest of the ending just changes the tone of Persona 5 in a way that makes it feel like a different game altogether. I don’t come to Persona for SMT stories and vice-versa, so fighting your way through angels and then a huge god at the end felt weird. That being said, the end of that fight is pretty ridiculous and cool.
Like I said at the outset of this piece, I am not here to change your mind on whether you think Persona 5 is your new favorite game or the best game this year. I am not your dad, the cops, or the government. I cannot tell you what to do. However, there is dialogue to be had about the game and its issues that are definite problems. Some are more subjective than others, but there can be good changes to come out of these. Persona 5 is a good game, but remember that it is like any piece of media, open to criticism. Nothing will ever improve if we never criticize anything, so be critical of media that you enjoy! If Persona 6 is able to fix some of the issues I had with 5, then I will certainly be happy as that will mean Atlus is listening to criticism. If not, then it will be quite disheartening.