Most games aim for a moment. The Moment, really. They want to make the sort of splash that doesn’t just generate waves but leaves a lasting impact on the shores miles out. And despite the incredible breadth of suitors that indulge in this journey, very few make it.
It’s hard to explain how Persona 5, then, manages to land not just The Moment but a series of moments that are tremendous. (And against all odds, we already had one of those this year.) The series is known for that exact sort of enrapturing charm. A grocery store jingle. A looming fog. A perfect silence.
This is a game that takes its time—slow and deliberate—to work its way up to these things. It lays a wide and scattered foundation that feels a lot like getting hit with the full blast of a shotgun but somehow does it so with the precision and accuracy of a laser. And then the game just simmers. Like a slow cooker flirting with being completely inert over the course of a hundred hours until one time you look up and there’s a roast.
Yeah, I said a hundred hours. Almost certainly more since you’re going to be indulging in all the side quests, too. And most of that is going to be reading dialogue bubbles and crawling through dungeons. In fact, most of the time, it feels like you’re making zero progress. As if you’re just throwing away your precious time on nothing at all, albeit a nothing that looks and sounds fucking stupendous.
That, perhaps, is the genius of these games. It takes a familiar setup (i.e., a high school) and twists it. Romance lands with catastrophic aplomb. Friendships forge themselves with an iron will and inevitability. It’s almost soap opera melodrama in many ways, a notion certainly not helped by the Japanese flair for anime tropes.
The twist, however, is very specific. Even though you are a mask-wearing thief with the ability to summon for a physical manifestation of his psyche to battle shadow creatures while often taking little sojourns into a room that doesn’t exist with a man that shouldn’t exist, this tends to be the least interesting stuff. Sure, it’s cool to beat the bad guy, but it’s not like you haven’t done it before.
The high school grind of studying for exams, taking part in sports, just going to a store and browsing. That stuff? That’s what makes it so worth playing. It’s a tightly compacted world with a greatest expansive and deep cast. Relationships develop even from just bumping into folks after class, the same way you would when you went to school. And from that, grand and exciting emotional adventures spark to life.
It does it in a surprising way, too. Unlike the focus of, say, a Mass Effect, your moment-to-moment choices often yield little in the way of impact. Instead, how you decide to allocate your time dictates how your story moves. Who you attend to, who you ignore. It takes one of the primary components of Night in the Woods and makes it bigger and meaner and somehow more loving.
Perhaps it’s less of shotgun blast and more of one of those net launcher guns. Each of those pellets is connected and feeds into one another, fostering an impressive sensation that it’s all yours and only yours. I do wish these characters, as meaty and complex and wonderful as they are, tackled mature and nuanced topics like they did in Persona 4, but you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if they got around to that in the second 50 hours.
So you guys better start playing now.