The Persona series is built on the motif of displacement, both physical and emotional. You're a new student at a high school and have to learn to make friends and cope with growing up while awful stuff happens around you. Persona 5 shifts the formula a bit: you're still a new high schooler, but you're on probation after you were framed for sexual harassment and assault by the man who was committing said sexual harassment. Students already whisper about you being a delinquent, and your guardian is quick to remind you that you're one step away from being sent to jail.
So you have to stay good and avoid any trouble with the police or the school. At the same time, this is a heist game, and you're the lead thief. The game starts several months later, when you've already become an established heart-thief and you're escaping a casino. Besides serving as a kind of tutorial for the combat, exploration, and sneaking you'll eventually be doing, it also introduces the frame narrative. You're captured by the police. An investigator comes to interrogate you. Then the story begins, and you go back to your budding double life as student and heart thief.
Gameplay, or how it unfolds
The game has two modes which blend.
First, you're in a high school life simulator that progresses from calendar day to calendar day, starting in April. On schooldays, you go to school in Early Morning and perhaps endure a teacher's question or text with friends in the Morning and Afternoon. In the Late Afternoon after school, you can wander more freely, talk to people, agree to go out with potential confidants, visit shops to buy gear, or visit other establishments to build skills like Charm, Knowledge, and Guts. In Evening, you return to your adopted home and can fiddle around inside, studying and working out. I admit, I'd play a game that was nothing but this simulator, building friendships and trying to upgrade that one skill so I can move forward in dating <redacted>.
Yet this simulator is entangled with the heist narrative. Evil people work their way into your life who will threaten to expel you or put you in jail. You learn with a friend, Ryuji, that you have the ability to enter a world of shadows, where the representations of people's desires lurk. Especially twisted individuals build palaces that embody their delusions within a space. For instance, your school becomes
a medieval castlein this world. So you have to pace your everyday ordinary life with deep explorations of these dark spaces, fighting and collecting personas (fantastical monsters with abilities) in order to go on. The combat is tightly-controlled turn-based fare, with varying difficulties depending on whether you like strategic challenges or want to get on with the story.
By stealing hearts, you prolong your ability to stay in your less-than-comfortable-but-what-you-have high school existence, as well as money and items that might help. Meanwhile, you can build relationships with confidants that will help boost the strength and performance of your collected personas. It's a mutually reinforcing loop: I look forward to exploring the nooks and crannies of each palace, and enjoy the quieter moments when I go discover a new park or do well on my exams.
First, the protagonist is restrictive. You have to play a male character, and your romance options are all female.
I've found the character designs and writing usually compelling. Early members of your party include Ryuji, an impulsive student who is both an outcast and a loyal friend; Ann, a foreign student who initially seems aloof and entangled with the gym teacher; and Morgana, a talking cat who has some mysterious connection to the shadow world. This is a JRPG, so other characters do eventually join as well, and there's a large supporting cast of characters like Sojiro, the cafe owner who decides to be your guardian for the year.
I've found the villains strangely well done though. Sometimes they start out seeming innocent enough, but over time their behavior in the real world and their shadow's behavior in the shadow world uncover the various loathsome, ugly, and finally pitiful layers that make them up. The game doesn't pull punches; these are some terrible people.
Kamoshida, the volleyball coach, appears at first to be the golden example of the school. He imagines himself king of his castle, and over time we begin to learn how far he takes that: he physically abuses players, tries to coerce female students into sex, and abuses his authority to punish or expel anyone who steps out of line.
One caution, that I can't say much about without giving too much away: if potentially romantic relationships between an underaged protagonist and a female authority figure squick you out, be warned.
In the most troubling confidant storyline so far, it turns out that your homeroom teacher moonlights as a for-hire maid who offers extra "services" to clients. You ultimately have the choice of whether the relationship turns romantic or remains platonic, and the teacher has scripted reasons for working this extra job, but it still can be uncomfortable, given the way relationships between teachers and underage boys can be idealized, covering up the issues with consent. Otherwise, the game gives women characters prominent roles, and the game's faux pas gender-wise are pretty typical for the genre.
This is the most stylized and best-sounding game I've played in a while. In terms of menus, font, cutscenes, transitions, music, and the other audiovisual elements, the game takes its red-and-black slightly edgy aesthetic and runs with it. It may not be the sharpest graphically, but I think it's the most cohesive visually.
It also plays with angles and large character portraits. Speech isn't given in bubbles but in large crazy triangles, with characters in bold colors and fashion choices. Reaction shots from surprised characters slash diagonally across the screen. Dialogue choices are delivered in diagonal too. It's like the game wants to set you slightly off edge.
Over Christmas, I got a PS4 on discount for two games: Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5. While playing FFXV (which I enjoyed but didn't finish), I went back and forth over whether it was a good decision. I was having a fun time, but was it fun enough? Now with Persona 5, I'm happy to answer in the affirmative. At least for me, I chose well.