When I started playing Persona 4 Golden in 2012, I experienced something I like to call “circumstantial dissonance.” What I mean by that is that the circumstances in my life at that time were almost exactly the opposite of my protagonist’s: he was relocating from a big city to a small town, while I was preparing to shake off the dust of my own small-town existence for a new and exciting life in New York City. Fast forward to 2017, and it’s happened again with Persona 5: while I’ve found myself almost exactly where I started, thrust back into my old life by an unstable job market, the new game’s protagonist is forced to move to Tokyo after his intervention in the vile personal affairs of a local politician goes horribly wrong.
Despite the fact that their heroes seem to be swimming in opposite directions, the similarities between the two games have been slightly concerning to me. Displaced teen finds himself at the center of a controversy the minute he arrives at a new school? Check. Cheeky human-turned-anthropomorphized-spirit-animal guide? Check. In the three hours I’ve played so far—largely moving from point A to point B and doing what I’m told—I get the distinct impression that the series has reached the point at which it’s stopped innovating, settling instead into cruise control. Not that that’s a bad thing, per se—Persona 4 is one of my favorite RPGs ever, and I’ll gladly take more of that if Persona 5 can live up to those high standards. So far, I’m just not sure.
Not that there hasn’t been any effort made to differentiate Persona 5 from its predecessor. For one, it starts with a bang, using a flashback framing sequence to tease players about the frenetic, dungeon-crawling future our hero and his friends have to look forward to instead of shuffling directly into the day-to-day drama of high school existence. Dungeons seem to have been purpose-built this time around, replacing the randomly generated (read: boring) spaces of previous entries. There’s a greater degree of contextualized interaction, as well, at least in the early segments I’ve experienced—boxes to hide behind so as not to be spotted by enemies, drawbridges to lower, vents to crawl through, etc.
The dungeon segments are easily more interesting so far than those found in Persona 4, but to be completely honest, this has always been my least favorite part of these games. I play Persona for the social simulation—for the chance to re-live those formative years of high school not as they actually happened, but as I’ve always wished they’d happened (don’t worry, I’m much less of a sad sack than this makes me sound.) Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to experience any of that yet: aside from some brief introductions to characters who will no doubt play a larger role in the developing narrative, I’ve yet to really get a sense of how the bigger world of Persona 5 will open up.
Check back soon for impressions of Persona 5’s cast, its social elements, and a creepy anecdote about a scandal involving a teacher at my own high school getting involved with a student. High school can be a messed up place, people… even outside the world of Persona.