This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Persona 5.
You know, Japan's a lovely country and all, but from what video games have taught me, I'm really glad I never went to high school there. I'm not sure I could have handled the overwhelming pressure to succeed academically, knowing that I might show up for final exams and find an enormous, radioactive footprint where the school building used to be. And then there's dating, having to use a vacuum pumper to protract and to spike your hair every morning, not knowing if you're satisfying your girlfriend as much as the tentacled alien sex demon she hangs out with on weekends. Still, at least Japanese high schools always seem to have an impressive range of extracurricular activities available; there's the track team, the newspaper club, the guys who travel to a magic netherworld after school to battle symbolic demons born from the dark desires of humanity, and-- ooh, volleyball sounds fun.
Which brings us to Persona 5. This is the first Persona game I've played, though I know the series by reputation: the games are half-high school life simulator and half-fantasy JRPG, which really goes to show the kinds of lengths Japanese culture will go to to bring tentacle demons and schoolgirls together. We are bog-standard mute-yet-paradoxically-good-at-making-friends JRPG protagonist, who is on probation for a crime he didn't commit, and is sent to a last-chance school where he discovers he has the ability to enter a strange otherworld formed from the minds and hearts of evil humans, and that he can then steal the source of those humans' malevolence and make them better people in the real world. Also, for some reason, he has to do this while dressed like he has to go straight from a wedding reception to an S&M party. He enlists an ever-growing Scooby gang of fellow outcasts, partly to aid him in his campaign against a string of tormentors, partly to see what kind of stupid outfits he can persuade them to wear.
It sounds complex, but it really isn't. "Ooh, the school turned into a castle and the evil teacher is its king, because that's how he thinks of himself." That's some sophisticated symbolism! "And if you haven't quite understood yet, we'll explain it another thirty or forty times before we're done." The morality is not terribly complex, either; as much as the heroes wibble endlessly back and forth about the righteousness of their actions, the baddies all turn out to be so cartoonishly monstrous that doubts rocket away like a New York motorist after the light turns green. But hey, if I like complexity so much, maybe I should stop playing games with cartoon cats and girls in skin-tight vinyl who won't stop thrusting their bum out even when they're dying or bathing elderly relatives.
Persona 5's story gets the basics down pat; we like the heroes and we hate the villains in the same uncomplicated way one likes McDonald's cheeseburgers and hates spiders that live in McDonald's cheeseburgers, but it does the job. I could even forgive the JRPG turn-based combat, because all the systems are infused with this almost musical rhythm that makes it viscerally satisfying, although having said that, if you're going to make a 60-hour RPG, have a speck of fucking mercy and have more than one music track for standard battles. Doesn't matter how good the track is; "Bohemian Rhapsody" is good, but if I had to listen to the first thirty seconds of it forty times an hour for three days, I'd end up wanting to travel back in time and skull-fuck the idea out of Freddie Mercury's living brain. But I digress.
The turn-based combat is less about standing around exchanging attritive skull clocks and more about figuring out elemental weaknesses so you can bully the monsters into giving up and take their lunch money; no, really, you can do that. You can also sit down and have a little heart-to-heart, which has a chance of convincing them to climb inside your Santa sack with your other stolen goods and lend you their power. Later, you can combine two Personas together to create a third by executing them violently in a startlingly bleak metaphor for child-rearing. And when this was all introduced, I smelled a little rat and fancied I heard the sound of a dinner gong being struck to summon the 100% completion nutters, because it turned into Persona Pokémon, and I ain't got no truck with all that tedious grinding up to maximize combat efficiency, not while the review's due on Tuesday, so I just dialed the difficulty down a notch every time the boss fights started getting too hard, which probably explains why my career as a football coach ended so disastrously.
But if I was the sort of player who gave a shit about fully optimizing myself, Persona 5 seemed like the kind of game that would give me a fully-optimized nervous breakdown, and not just because you have to prowl the dungeons like the fucking Child Catcher striking names off your list, not just because there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason behind what dialogue options convince the monsters to join you; you might as well push your cheeks towards your nose and communicate in wet farting noises. The secondary portion of the game, the high school life simulator bit, will also infuriate the psychotic completionists, because you've got five stats to keep digging over and you've got all these friends and party members you need to spend time with to improve your Personae in their combat skills. But the rub is that most of your limited number of days only have two time slots, daytime and evening, and you can only do one thing in each slot. Can't leave with more than one friend at a time or just for an hour at lunch, no, because apparently, we exclusively befriend insecure twerps who couldn't be any needier if they were in a permanent vegetative state.
And the game's also a little unintuitive about what constitutes time slot-filling activity; you can get the metro to the pawn shop, flog a bunch of loot from the last dungeon, take another metro to the bookshop in the red light district to buy a copy of Razzle, and no time will pass at all. But sit down at your desk to craft one fucking lockpick and there goes the fucking afternoon! And then sometimes the game goes into a prolonged story phase and several days and cutscenes will go by with no opportunity to do anything else, so if you've got rented DVDs due back, then you can piss up a chimney, Joe Titwank. Also, when it says you have 20 days to complete a dungeon, you actually have 18, because you have to take two days out to prepare for the final boss, it being very exhausting to stand in a circle yelling "Persona!" over and over again.
But despite occasionally feeling like a game that was designed by sloths that takes forever to get anywhere, I admit to finding Persona 5 quite absorbing. Not for the combat, not if I'm knocking the difficulty level down the moment it starts to even slightly annoy, like a jaded babysitter. I suppose Stardew Valley has shown me that I get easily absorbed by day-to-day life simulators because it lets me know what it's like to have a real job, but in truth, I kept playing because I wanted to see what happened next. There's a comparison to be made with Mass Effect here - both games are about forming a Scooby gang - but I like the Persona 5 Scooby gang members because they're underdogs, they don't open up to you straight away, and they're expressive. They're not alleged sci-fi super-soldiers with the combat skills of a dead salmon, they don't blurt their entire character and backstory at you because you asked them to pass the salt, and they don't emote like the same dead salmon experiencing PTSD flashbacks.
- Person of interest: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I guess the anime faces are a bit generic; there's one bit where a character turns around and we're supposed to be surprised by who it is but I couldn't tell who the fuck it was supposed to be because they changed their hairdo
- Also Mass Effect never did a swimsuit episode