The Phantom Thieves have failed to steal my heart yet again
Four years ago, I played and reviewed Persona 5. I still have fond memories of the game. It was both an auditory and visual delight with its killer acid-jazz soundtrack and incredibly stylish presentation. I remember how engrossing the first half of the game was. There’s something euphoric about seeing a rag tag group of teenagers rebel against terrible adults. Sadly, I also recall how the second half of Persona 5 was a major let down. The latter Palaces (dungeons) were boring and long: filled with uninspired monster corridors and dull puzzles. I also remember despite the game’s length, it felt barebones. Several characters barely had any character development and the final dozen hours of the game were needless padding.
I picked up Persona 5 Royal hoping that maybe things have changed. Maybe Atlus listened to fan feedback and improved the game in substantial ways. Or maybe my head was in the wrong place at that time and now I can revisit it with a fresh perspective. The good news is that Persona 5 Royal is better. The bad news is that the additions are not substantial enough to change my opinion from the original game. I wanted to fall in love with Persona 5 Royal, but the Phantom Thieves have yet again failed to steal my heart.
Persona 5 Royal is an enhanced edition of Persona 5. It boasts the same graphics and core mechanics of the original game. The plot is also relatively untouched; about a group of rebellious teenagers, known as the Phantom Thieves, who gain the power to infiltrate the minds of abusive adults to change their hearts. For brevity’s sake, I will only cover the additions and changes in the Royal edition. I recommend reading my Persona 5 review (contains spoilers) if you are interested in what I thought of the game back then.
There are two new characters in Royal: Kasumi Yoshizawa and Takuto Maruki. Kasumi is a renowned gymnast who recently transferred to Shujin Academy. Kasumi suffers from a mental block causing her to perform poorly in competition. In the opening minutes of the game, she makes a surprise appearance and fights alongside the protagonist, Joker. Takuto Maruki is a counselor hired by Shujin Academy. Maruki is writing a paper to study novel ways to relieve people of their stress and pain. He plays a larger role in the story once a certain vile volleyball coach admits to his crimes. Both Kasumi and Maruki are wonderful additions to Royal and the pair are the best developed characters in the game.
Ace detective Goro Akechi plays a greater role in Royal. His Confidant bond no longer levels up as the plot progresses, but instead is an optional bond that Joker has to actively improve upon. Akechi hangs out in a new location, Kichijoji. Kichijoji is an area full of market stalls, a dart and billiards bar and a jazz club that can improve your party members’ various abilities.
There is also a new third semester. Without giving away much spoilers, the only way to experience this new content is to max out the Confidant bonds between Kasumi, Maruki and Akechi. The third semester features the best Palace in the game layered with fantastic storytelling, elaborate level designs and clever puzzles.
All of the existing Palaces from the original game have been reworked. Each Palace now contains optional collectibles known as Will Seeds. There are three Will Seeds per Palace, with a mini boss guarding the third Will Seed. Collecting all of the Will Seeds in a Palace will grant the player a unique and powerful accessory. Palaces have also been upgraded to include grappling points, in which the protagonist can latch on to, to reach hidden areas with chests and often a Will Seed room. Some of the Palaces have had their maps redesigned to include more hiding locations and new puzzles. In addition, some of the bosses have been altered with new challenging forms.
The Mementos, a randomized labyrinth under Shibuya, has been slightly tuned. A new entity known as Jose (pronounced as Jo-say) randomly appears in some levels. Players can collect flowers in the Mementos and exchange them to Jose for recovery items. There are also collectible stamps which can be exchanged to improve experience, money and item rewards in the Mementos.
The heart of what made Persona 5 so good was the combat and Royal cleverly improves upon it in spades. “One-More” attacks have been upgraded with the Baton Pass mechanic. Players can opt to donate their extra turn to another party member for bonus damage. Each consecutive Baton Pass increases this bonus. The third and final Baton Pass allows characters to use their skills at no extra cost. Partner attacks from Persona 4 Golden return but are now called Showtime attacks. Showtime attacks are flashy devastating moves executed by a pair of characters. Showtime attacks trigger at random times during combat. Another neat addition to the gameplay are Disaster Shadows. Disaster Shadows are enemies that explode when they are defeated, damaging all the other enemies and granting a rare item reward.
Persona 5 Royal offers a host of other quality of life improvements. Guns refill ammo after each combat encounter. Personas now have innate traits such as dealing more damage after a Baton Pass or reducing the cost of fire skills. Technical Attacks can be upgraded to instantly down shadows that do not have any weaknesses. There is a shortcut menu to auto heal your party members or use Phantom Thief tools like Goho-M. The Velvet Room can go into an Alarm State which supercharges the benefits from fusing Personas. There is a menu that enables you to see and navigate to all bondable Confidants for the day. It is easier to improve Confidant Bonds with follow-up phone calls and the option to give presents. Some of the cringy writing has been altered especially the dialogue regarding two gay characters. There is also the Thieves Den, an optional area outside the main game that serves as a fancy collectible viewer.
The problem I have with Persona 5 Royal is that the core game has remained untouched. Characters who I found irritating or forgettable are still irritating and forgettable. The second half of the game is still a slog with frustrating levels and boss fights. Outside of one new park clean-up event to introduce Kasumi, there are no new events or substantial changes to the existing events to highlight the chemistry between the Phantom Thieves. Even though Joker and his friends are high school students, there is nothing much to do at the high school. The Practice Building remains barren other than to visit Maruki. And the lead up to the true ending remains baffling and nonsensical.
Persona 5 Royal is too easy. The game comes packaged with all the DLC from the original game. From the moment Joker has access to the Velvet Room, he can summon completely overpowered Personas for free and equip game breaking accessories. Even if you choose not to access the DLC, the game on its hardest difficulty, Merciless, is surprisingly simple. The Merciless difficulty triples the amount of damage done when targeting a weakness or using a Technical Attack. In fact, there are some fights where it is advantageous to temporarily swap to Merciless difficulty. Granted, the first 15 hours of the game are still fairly challenging on Hard mode (the difficulty level below Merciless). What really breaks any semblance of balance is the addition of Jose in the Mementos. He makes it too easy to grind for experience in the Mementos because players can top themselves up by finding Jose. Roughly a third way into the game, I was completely overleveled and had a wallet overflowing with yen.
Persona 5 is a long game and Persona 5 Royal adds an extra 15 hours of content to the end. This is not the kind of RPG where the extra time spent is on completing side quests or finding rare loot. There is no way to “mainline” the game. Players have to spend dozens to hundreds of hours of their lives to see the story to its true end. The new semester from the Royal edition is truly great and worthwhile but there is still the awful awful content that takes place between September to December. As I watched the credits roll in Persona 5 Royal, I’m reminded of how I felt when I finished the original game. And to my surprise, my reaction was very similar. Other than Makoto, Akechi and Kasumi, I didn’t feel a thing for the rest of the cast and was glad the game was finally over. Persona 5 Royal is a good memorable game and will make many gamers happy, but it simply did not connect with me as strongly as Persona 4 Golden did.