'Persona 5' First Look: The Phantom Thieves Will Steal Your Heart, Then Steal Your Life

  • Playstation 3
  • Playstation 4
  • RPG
Persona 5 take your heart edition unboxing
Persona 5 take your heart edition unboxing Atlus

Clear your calendar: Persona 5 launches today in the Americas and Europe. We’ve logged about 40 hours with the game, and the end’s nowhere in sight. Our take on P5 so far? It has everything JRPG fans could want: combat requiring layers of strategy, an immersive story, innovative gameplay, along with an utterly captivating world you’ll want to immerse yourself in for hours on end. Persona 5 takes everything that was great about previous entries in the series and improves upon them to an unexpectedly large degree.

Just to be clear, this isn’t an official review as we haven’t finished the game, so we won’t be offering a score just yet. Since the game is so story-driven, we’re waiting to see if the strengths of the game’s first half carry over to the second. The consensus of reviews out there seem to agree that it does, but we’ll wait to make our own judgements!

The game starts off with your unnamed protagonist’s dramatic capture at the tail-end of a casino heist. We learn he’s the leader of the Phantom Thieves, a notorious group of bandits who take on the corrupt and powerful, somehow “stealing their hearts” and compelling them to publicly confess their crimes. Someone’s sold out our hero and now he’s being grilled by an interrogator, whose questioning brings the story back to the beginning. We learn how the band comes together, beginning with the main character’s first day as a new transfer student at Tokyo’s Shujin Academy.

The protagonist of 'Persona 5' gets interrogated.
The protagonist of 'Persona 5' gets interrogated. Atlus

The frame narrative is a new addition to the Persona series, and it works well to get the action started quickly (Persona 4 having been notoriously slow out of the gate) and adding an element of ambiguity to the actions you take, particularly as the stakes get higher for the Phantom Thieves. The official word from Atlus is a first playthrough should take 80-100 hours, and we’d believe it. Yet while the game is undeniably beefy, it never feels sluggish or padded. Part of the reason the game never drags, at least in the first half that we’ve experienced, is that the designers nailed the pacing, knowing just when to shift the focus from dungeons, to daily life, to story.

Persona 5 is a standalone game, and you don’t need to have played the previous entries in the series to enjoy this one. Imagine sticking a high school slice-of-life anime onto an RPG; that’s Persona. You need to level up and clear the dungeon, but you’d better not forget to study for exams or learn about public speaking from that sad-eyed old man you met near the subway!

That said, those who are better acquainted with the franchise will find much that is familiar -- and markedly improved -- in Persona 5. The series blends dungeon crawlers and Pokémon-esque monster collection (persona fusion) with relationship / life simulation elements, known as Confidant Links. The integration of these three elements has never felt more complete and cohesive than in Persona 5. This time around, not only will strengthening your Confidants allow you to fuse stronger personas to use in combat, but create restorative items and custom weapons, cut class to squeeze more activities into a given day, or unlock new skills in combat (like blocking a killing blow or curing status ailments).

The 'P5' protagonist clears the battlefield with an All-Out Attack.
The 'P5' protagonist clears the battlefield with an All-Out Attack. Atlus

Much has already been said by reviewers about P5’s stylish look, and the hype is more than justified once the game’s in front of you. The anime cutscenes, the special attack battle cut-ins, even the save menu looks incredible. But fans of the series will already expect P5 to look good; where the game truly shines is in its dungeon design. Main story dungeons, known as Palaces, now have fixed maps (those in earlier Persona games were randomly generated). Without giving too much plot away, the imagination and cleverness that went into the designs of these dungeons, and how your party interacts with them, will leave you dazzled more than once. P5 is not an especially easy game by any means, but dungeon design this good makes every moment of exploration a delight.

Persona 5’s story is, so far, as beguiling as its visuals. The stakes are higher than in previous entries in the series, the characters more nuanced and complex, each with their own shades of gray. None of them is perfect; your main character has a criminal past, and his newfound bezzie can be a loudmouth douche at times. That’s not to say that it’s “darker,” exactly, which is a term we’ve seen bandied about in several other reviews. It still has lighthearted moments: hijinks at the bathhouse, candid chats about pretty girls over steaming bowls of ramen. It is, after all, a Persona game. But relative to previous entries, it feels more grown-up, serious and self-assured.

In a time when genre stalwarts like Final Fantasy are dropping turn-based combat in favor of real-time battles, P5’s combat system feels like a defiantly old-school risk. There was a chance it could feel plodding and cumbersome, but impeccable design ensures this is never the case. For one, the game heavily incentivizes you to get the drop on enemies before they attack you; it’s not quite a stealth element (phew!), but it keeps you on your toes while exploring Palaces. Menus and attack selection is quick and responsive; you don’t need to wait for on-screen prompts to appear if you already know what you’re doing. What’s more, the importance of scoring knock-down attacks and prospects for negotiating with enemies add interesting strategic elements to every battle.

Exploring Shibuya, Tokyo in 'P5.'
Exploring Shibuya, Tokyo in 'P5.' Atlus

Another area in which Persona 5 makes the old-school feel new again is in its world map design. No, this isn’t an open-world game, and it’s so much the better for it. Where games like Final Fantasy XV and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild give you expansive continents and wide-open spaces to explore, P5’s Tokyo feels like an intimate, intricate rabbit warren, full of nooks and crannies to explore. It’s a cabinet of curiosities, and you’ll repeatedly find yourself surprised by things you didn’t notice, or thought were just background decor, that you can interact with and have actual implications for the game: a plant, a payphone, eavesdropping on passersby. Much like P4’s Inaba, this is a place with soul that truly feels lived in.

It’s been one hell of a few months for RPG fans, with stellar titles like FFXV, Tales of Berseria, NieR: Automata, Breath of the Wild and Mass Effect: Andromeda all releasing back-to-back. All of these games have been great, some even genre-defining. So it’s no small claim to say Persona 5 really is shaping up to be the most fun, polished and memorable out of them all. Will the game’s second half keep the momentum going? Stay tuned for iDigi’s full review in the days to come.

Persona 5 is available now in the Americas and Europe.

Can’t get enough Persona 5 in the meantime? Check out a few of our spoiler-free guides for the game below.

  • Combat Guide: How To Exploit Enemy Weaknesses, Trigger All-Out Attacks And More
  • Fusion Guide: Tips For Mastering The Velvet Room
  • Palace Guide: Tips And Strategies For Dungeon Crawls And Stealing Treasure
Persona 5
A Golden-Age JRPG For The Modern Era
Persona 5 brings the franchise’s hallmarks -- deep turn-based combat, Pokémon-esque monster crafting and Japanese high school life -- into the modern console era with impeccable panache.
  • Gripping, twisty-turny story
  • Collect all the waifus!
  • Rapid-fire turn-based combat
  • Infectious soundtrack
  • Literally everything
  • A cat making you go to bed when you're not tired
  • Say goodbye to your actual life
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