Well, all you lovely people, it finally happened. After literally years of pretending like it wasn’t sure there would be an audience, Atlus has brought Persona 5 to the Switch. And though this belated port hasn’t brought with it any major new upgrades or changes, we’re pleased to report that Persona 5 Royal is every bit as magnificent and memorable an experience as it’s always been. If you’re an RPG fan and somehow haven’t yet gotten around to playing this game, you should pick it up as soon as possible.
Persona 5 Royal has a plot that feels like a cross between Inception and a superhero story, placing you in the role of Joker, a quiet high school student who has become a victim of circumstance. While walking home from school one day, you witness a woman being assaulted by a man and intervene. The man is accidentally injured and sues you for damages, which results in you being given a criminal conviction, expelled from school, and sent into the city to attend Shujin Academy. Not long after you arrive at Shujin, you gain the ability to access “The Metaverse”, an alternate plane of existence born out of people’s cognition. Within the Metaverse are Palaces — bizarre dungeons based upon the twisted way that certain people in power view real locations and people. For example, the first Palace is a castle ruled by Kamoshida, a physically and sexually abusive volleyball coach who sees Shujin Academy and its students as things to use as he pleases.
Joker — you know, him from Smash Bros.! — slowly amasses a group of fellow rebellious students and misfits who come to call themselves the Phantom Thieves, each of which can command powerful monsters called Personas to battle bizarre and shadowy enemies in the Metaverse. Given that the Palaces are a physical representation of the inner workings of their ruler’s mind, the Phantom Thieves quickly learn that if they can manage to steal a ‘treasure’ from deep within a person’s Palace, that person will experience a change of heart in the real world and effectively become a different, better person. The team thus sets out on a quest to better society by targeting and changing people’s hearts.
Those are the broad strokes of the narrative, but suffice it to say there is a lot to chew on in this 100+ hour epic, and perhaps the most impressive thing about Persona 5 Royal is how effectively it manages to handle pacing. Sure, the game could be 20 hours shorter if it trimmed back the dialogue, but it makes full use of its runtime to build out an incredibly varied cast of three-dimensional characters that interact with a plot that continuously raises the stakes.
The depth of the script is part of the appeal, as conversations feel natural and the developing relationships between all the Phantom Thieves feel like they progress at a realistic and logical pace. Third-act plot twists and important developments all feel like they were sufficiently set up in the preceding chapters, while the finale ties a satisfying bow over the whole experience. This is not the kind of JRPG that feels contrived or increasingly out of hand as it progresses; though it can feel a tad plodding if you binge the whole thing end to end (as we had to for review), this is the rare sort of game that we feel absolutely justifies its length.
Gameplay is mostly split into two interconnected halves, your normal life and your life in the Metaverse, and much of the appeal of Persona 5 comes from how you balance the various activities across both halves. Most of this comes from the constant pressure you’re placed under, as the narrative mostly progresses via various ‘arcs’ where you have to steal the treasure from a character’s Palace by a looming deadline or it’s game over. Usually, you have about two in-game weeks to pull off the heist, and what you do with your time on the individual days that lead up to the deadline is entirely up to you.
On the ordinary side of your life, you attend school most days and can participate in mundane activities like studying at the library, washing your clothes, or hanging out with friends. Participating in anything will advance time a little further, from “After School” to “Evening”, until you have to go to bed and that deadline is brought one day closer. There aren’t really any ‘wrong’ things you can do as a student, but you’re encouraged to set priorities and work towards longer-term goals given that you don’t have enough time in a given day to do all that you would like.
The key gameplay element to this ordinary side of your life is the Social Links system, which tracks the depth of your relationships with various supporting characters. Not only do these Social Links give you key insight into the motivations and histories of each character, but they offer up passive abilities to help in the Metaverse and affect how quickly your Personas can level up. Get to level 7 with Ryuji’s Social Link, for example, and you’ll have a chance of insta-killing weak enemies as soon as you encounter them.
Using Social Links is thus as much motivated by strategy as it is by interest in the character’s story; who you get closer with will have a direct effect on certain aspects of Metaverse battles, and you’ll have to think carefully about who you’re choosing not to spend time with. Just like in real life, people’s schedules don’t always line up, and if there’s a juicy new passive you’re looking to snag by leveling up a character’s Social Link, you might need to move around your own schedule for the week to ensure you can hang out with them when they’re available.
When you’re not busy doing homework and working your part-time job, you’ll be spending your time fighting Shadows in the Metaverse. Here, gameplay most resembles a traditional JRPG, as you crawl through massive themed dungeons packed with puzzles, treasures, and enemies. Each Palace is custom-made and restricted to the chapter of the story it appears in, while you can also visit a larger dungeon called Mementos that features several procedurally generated floors of gradually more difficult challenges. Both kinds of dungeons are wide-linear in their design, offering up a relatively easy-to-follow path to the ‘end’ that features plenty of rabbit trails to coax you into exploring off the beaten path.
Combat is the real star of the show here, adapting the MegaTen series’ Press Turn system into the slightly more simplified and easy-to-exploit One More system. Most enemies will have a weakness to at least one elemental attack (of nine elements), and hitting them with that element will both stun them and grant the attacking party member ‘one more’ turn. They can then either use this to take another action or they can Baton Pass to another character, which gives them the extra turn and boosts their damage and healing potential. This Baton Pass effect stacks with each character it passes to, which can lead to some serious damage output if you manage to get the baton through all four members of your party. Plus, if you manage to stun every enemy by hitting their weaknesses, you then trigger a “Hold Up!” sequence that lets you demand things of the enemy—like their loyalty or their money—or activate an All-Out Attack that sees your whole team joining into a high damage super attack that hits every member of the opposing team.
We appreciated this thoughtful approach to turn-based combat, as you’re encouraged to plan out several moves in advance to make the most of the bonuses you can get from mechanics like Baton Passes. In many ways, it can almost feel like a strategy or puzzle game as you try to work out how you can most effectively take down your foes without exhausting your limited resources too much. And though buffs and debuffs are still important in boss fights, it feels like Persona is a little more forgiving in this regard when compared to its parent series. There are lots of ways you can game the combat system and exploit its unique quirks to your advantage, but if you don’t know how or simply don’t feel like it, Persona 5 doesn’t mercilessly punish you for playing things at a lower skill level.
Each of your party members has a fixed Persona that they use which dictates the skills and abilities at their disposal, but Joker is a “Wild Card” who can wield multiple Personas. This means that he can effectively change ‘classes’ or ability sets at the drop of a hat, making him easily the most versatile and important member of the team. New Personas can be acquired either from successfully negotiating with enemies at the end of a battle or by combining existing Personas in your collection to form more powerful ones. We especially appreciated the depth of this aspect of character building, as it prods the player into trying multiple playstyles and builds. You have to switch up your team relatively frequently, as your capability in battle is tied to the strength of your Personas and you can only level up each one a few times before you start seeing diminishing returns. A lesser game would feel more punishing by forcing the player to constantly change up their loadout, but Persona 5 smartly mitigates any risk to the player by offering you the ability to buy back any released or fused Personas in exchange for money. With this in mind, you’re empowered to constantly experiment, fuse, and explore every development option available to you without fear that you might be screwing yourself over later on.
As the ‘Royal’ version of Persona 5, this release also includes tons of new content and quality of life updates that address most of the (few) complaints there were about the original release. The headlining addition here is an entire third semester organically added to the end of the game—totaling about 20 to 30 hours of new story—and a new Phantom Thief named Kasumi to go along with it. The real meat of the updates comes in smaller tweaks made, however, such as how the beginning of the game opens up a lot faster than it used to, or how Palaces have been redesigned to compensate for a new grappling hook that aids and streamlines exploration. Those of you who already played through the original Persona 5 may want to think before committing to putting so much time into effectively the same game, but make no mistake, Persona 5 Royal is the definitive version of Persona 5, and it’s not even close.
In terms of graphical presentation, Persona 5 does an outstanding job of emphasizing style without sacrificing function, and it looks brilliant on Switch. Shigenori Soejima’s character design is some of the best in the business and that quality is on full display here, as each character is given distinctive and expressive designs that really especially shine through in the various 2D portraits that accompany dialogue. Meanwhile, the comic book-esque art style imbues even places like your mundane school hints of flamboyant flair, and this is dialed up to eleven as you dash around the Metaverse surrounded by kaleidoscopic prisms and bursts of neon paint.
This is all matched by audio that mixes rock music with acid jazz, producing one of the most unique and memorable video game soundtracks in recent memory. Whether it’s something like the downtempo, rainy-day coffee shop vibe of “Beneath the Mask” or the much more energizing and upbeat “Life Will Change”, Persona 5 does an excellent job of setting an effective atmosphere with its music. Although the sheer length of the story means that many songs will have gotten plenty of play by the time the credits roll, it’s a testament to the strength of the soundtrack here that we never felt that even the more prevalent tracks got too repetitive.
We feel special mention also needs to be made regarding the voice acting, which is excellent across the board. Both the English and Japanese casts do a stellar job of breathing life and emotion into the diverse cast on offer here, and the sheer volume of dialogue that had to be recorded just for the main story beats alone is nothing short of commendable.
Specifically regarding the performance of this Switch port, you can rest assured that the hardware is up to the task. While we noted some fuzzier textures and an overall softer visual presentation in both docked and handheld modes compared to its PlayStation counterparts, we didn’t notice any instances where the frame rate dropped below the 30FPS target in any notable way. Any minor drops in performance quality relative to other versions feels like a fair trade-off here, as the ability to play and pause such an enormous offering while on the go fits beautifully with the gameplay design of Persona 5.