by Jed Pressgrove
Persona 5, cited by Famitsu readers as the greatest role-playing game ever, has enough stylistic flourishes for several games. From the visually dynamic menus to the finishers that leave enemies spraying arterial fluid, it’s hard not to feel a sense of coolness while playing Persona 5. Undoubtedly, director Katsura Hashino intends for players to be invigorated and empowered by how hip the game seems; after all, the very story involves a group of teenagers who shake off their insecurities and come into their own as secret superheroes. But the excitement that Persona 5 exudes is stunted by terrible editing, which leaves too much room for tired ideas, excessive tutorialization, and self-righteous morality.
As a reserved (rather than silent) protagonist, the player travels, with a team of misfits, to the Metaverse, a world that reflects the darkest desires of human beings, whether that be the lust of a high school coach or the greed of a CEO who exploits workers. Your party is known as the Phantom Thieves, all teenagers who have awakened powers they never knew they had, with the goal to change the hearts of wicked adults by fighting them in the Metaverse. Like the last two Persona games, you must also engage in life-simulator activities, such as studying for school and having get-togethers, on a day-to-day basis. This real-life facade doesn’t just make Persona 5 stand apart from most RPGs, though. As your character, for example, wakes up for the umpteenth time to a text message from a friend wanting to hang out, the daily grind shows a desperate need for editing, as it’s difficult to stay emotionally connected to writing that frequently seems copied and pasted.
You could make a frightening grocery list of occurrences, phrases, character beats, and plot contrivances that lose impact and meaning after appearing too many times in Persona 5. For instance, the story of the Phantom Thieves taking down corrupt adult after corrupt adult is framed as part of an interrogation. At first, this framing has gravity, as it invites you to consider whether the main characters are heroic or simply criminal. But after a few dozen hours, these sequences — punctuated by generic suspense-themed music — are annoying in that they interrupt your engagement with the tale at hand; restate things you already know from playing the game (such as one character serving as a computer genius); and reveal targets of the Phantom Thieves rather than letting the player become aware of these suspects in an organic way.
With such repetitive scenes, it appears that Hashino wants to make sure no one is confused during Persona 5. Admittedly, I was never lost during the proceedings, even when I took weeks-long breaks from playing. At the same time, getting into the game can be an awkward endurance test thanks to the tutorial messages that dominate anywhere from the first 12 to 20 hours of the experience. And even though these prompts appear less and less throughout, the game still bakes in hints and pats on the back for the player to a condescending degree. In more than one scene, you might solve an obvious puzzle only to be inundated by remarks from almost every main character about the solution. Persona 5 frequently doesn’t know how to shut up.
If only the game’s lack of editing merely translated into exhaustion. In addition to not wasting time, one should want to tell a story that doesn’t waste thematic potential, and a good editor can trim away contradictions to maintain focus. With an upbeat soundtrack, lines like “Your heart is steadily gaining the strength of rebellion,” and constant hand holding, Persona 5 celebrates the achievements of the Phantom Thieves (the player) so much that any of the script’s moral questions come off as accidental dots on a humongous canvas. What’s more, characters like Sae and Akechi who criticize the justice of the Phantom Thieves are portrayed as self-absorbed and unlikable, whereas the awakenings of the protagonists’ true selves drip with spiritual and sexual appeal.
Given how the Phantom Thieves reform a villain by meddling with his or her subconscious, Persona 5 seems to train one to think that the psychological trick of shaming people you find irredeemable is not only cool but the right thing to do. This type of indignation is perfectly summed up by the talking cat Morgana while discussing a person who kills animals: “I can’t ever forgive a human like that.” And so, like the social-media crusaders who dogpile sinners, the Persona 5 audience will likely not consider the God complex required to believe that you have the authority to change the spots of a leopard.