It says something about a game when the most vexing strategic decision you’ll be forced to make isn’t which powers you’re going to use to take down the boss in the spaceship dungeon level, but how you’re going to spend your free time between the end of school and bedtime.
The latter very much fuels the former in Persona 5 (Atlus Software), the latest, ridiculously expansive entry in the long-running role-playing series. And this time, the choices really do boggle the mind — will you read, work a shift at your part-time job, hang out with one of 20 (!) different confidantes or tackle a slate of new side quests? Every single choice you make, every conversation you have, can pad character stats that will let you unlock and control more types of powerful Personas. Think of them like adult Pokemon — a tarot-based menagerie of magical demons, animals and spirits that look spectacular now that they’re finally rendered in fabulous 3D.
That’s Persona 5’s irresistible dichotomy: On one level, you’re a troubled transfer student with a sketchy past trying to navigate the pitfalls of a new school. On the other, you’re the leader of a powerful team of Persona-users called the Phantom Thieves, charging through fantastic dungeons that overlay our normal reality. Hey, nobody said adolescence was easy.
The stylistic touches in this game are simply mind-boggling. The canvas is the entire city of Tokyo, evoked in startling detail, right down to the individual drops that soak the streets on days when it rains. Even the level-up sequence, something you’ll see several hundred times before you hit the end of the game, feels kinetic and eye-popping, like the opening credits of a must-see action flick. Ridiculous amounts of voice acting makes the huge cast of characters spring to poppy, nuanced life — well, except maybe for your bespectacled protagonist, who scarcely speaks a word. Your team of Phantom Thieves/classmates doesn’t quite rise to the Scooby-esque heights of the gang from Persona 4 (let’s face it — bad-boy Ryuji ain’t no Yosuke, but he’s still a good sidekick), but they still serve up plenty of laughs and touching character moments. And they look like a totally badass Commedia Dell’Arte troupe in their masks and costumes.
Where Persona 4 had you entering a midnight TV world to fight the demons inside your friends and save them from themselves, Persona 5 trains your sights on the evil adults all around you: bureaucrats, drug-dealers and serial abusers, oh my. Each of the dungeon levels — or, as the game dubs them, “palaces” — is a projection of the enemy’s mind. Hence, your high school becomes a castle ruled by a skeezy gym teacher with a penchant for macking on pretty young things. Bringing these criminals to their senses, and to justice, feels especially satisfying.
If it all seems monstrously intimidating, well, that’s the way it’s been designed. So sit back and do like the spinning load-screen icon tells you: Take Your Time. Persona 5 is one of the deepest role-playing experiences you’ll ever have on a console, and worth every minute you’ll put into it.
Persona 5 is available for PlayStation 4, is rated M and retails for $59.99