Persona 5 Royal

First, a confession:

Despite my enduring love for Persona 4 Golden, and the near-perfection I felt it embodied when I first walked the streets of Inaba on the minuscule screen of the PlayStation Vita, I never got around to playing the original version of Persona 5. It wasn’t an issue with the game’s concept, much less the striking visual style; it just came out at a time when I really couldn’t devote myself to what was, by all accounts, a one-hundred-hour-or-more proposition.

The me who existed back then was clearly a less-cultured individual than my present self. Persona 5 Royal is unequivocally one of the best games I played in 2020.

It’s a particularly ringing endorsement in a hell-year such as this, when most of us are trapped inside our homes by the invisible threat of a global pandemic. The events of 2020 have allowed for (and, to a degree, necessitated) an increase in the time we spend in front of our screens. The gaming industry has cottoned to this, and major releases such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Final Fantasy VII Remake though likely to have been major news in any year — have transformed into veritable cultural phenomena. Persona 5 Royal holds its own against these behemoths — served rather than hindered by its quirky, idiosyncratic approach to the RPG genre — and brings a unique identity that juxtaposes a veneer of mundane Japanese student life against the surreal and often absurd emotional world persisting just beneath its surface.

This double-faced nature extends to the rest of the game: While days are mostly spent at school or hanging out with friends, evenings are characterized by working the bar in the red-light district of Shinjuku, running questionable “errands” for the rough-edged and mysterious owner of the Shibuya airsoft shop, and calling in a shockingly familiar “maid” to “clean your room.” And while one can work a more “respectable” job at a convenience store or flower shop in the afternoons, that’s also prime time for heading into the mental palaces that house the twisted desires of your targets (which you must steal to set them on a path to, if not redemption, then at the very least atonement) or the mysterious “Mementos.”

Persona 5 Royal

Even the battle system fits this dichotomy, with the warm familiarity of a turn-based JRPG battle system wrapped in some of the most stylish and responsive menus the genre has ever seen. Even without any sort of real-time combat elements, battle moves quickly and smoothly, with the traditional elemental schema of Shin Megami Tensei titles lending fights an almost puzzle-like quality.

Here, Royal brings additions to the base game in the form of “Showtime” combo attacks with extended (though skippable) animations. They’re worth watching at least a few times, good for at least a laugh. Other quality-of-life improvements (the guns now reload fully between fights, making the weapon more viable for even extended dungeon dives) further enhance the experience.

That doesn’t mean this is just a slightly refined version of past Persona experiences. Though the broad strokes of the series’ structure haven’t changed much since Persona 3, the latest entry has carefully crafted story dungeons. These are the aforementioned palaces, and they abandon the procedurally generated floors of Persona 3 and Persona 4 for static and grandiose dreamscapes. This change allows the dungeons themselves to tell a story, as well as challenge the player with more specific puzzle elements than in past entries. The grappling hook — an element not present in the original version of Persona 5 — integrates seamlessly into these levels, which is a testament to the developers’ attention to detail.

Persona 5 Royal

Even the player character is unusual among the trio of modern-day Persona protagonists. While Persona 3 and Persona 4 featured protagonists who entered the scene as veritable blank slates, Persona 5’s protagonist is a convict, arrested for an assault and put on probation. He’s been sent to Tokyo in hopes that the new environment will keep him out of trouble. Beginning the game as an outcast in this manner, and collecting a retinue of similarly misunderstood rebels lends the entire experience a more clandestine and subversive vibe. This is also where Persona 5 Royal makes its most interesting change: an entire extra semester.

This extra semester serves as an epilogue to the events that came before, asking the logical next question for a game all about combatting the twisted desires of others: what happens when it’s the protagonists facing their own deep desires? It hits particularly hard in a game that is as dedicated to getting the player invested in its characters and their relationships as it is to providing a compelling RPG combat experience.

Persona 5 Royal is a beautiful game, offering an enjoyable and logical last hurrah for characters whom you may already adore (and, if you don’t, you’ll come to). It’s the better version of an already sublime game, and by far one of my favorite game experiences in 2020.

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