This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Persona 5 Strikers.
I like the Persona series; I guess I'm just owning that now. I like the concept of a magic world formed from the subconscious minds of humanity, so you can go into the head of someone you don't like and kick the furniture around until miniature chairs fly out of their ears. Come to think of it, I also liked Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and Ni no Kuni II somewhat, and EarthBound and Chrono Trigger back in the day-- Dammit, do I actually like JRPGs, and I just hate reviewing them because I only have a week to play, and they've usually got runtimes inversely proportional to the length of all the female characters' booty shorts? Hang on, let me stare at this anime character for a bit. Hmmm... Nope, still looks like the grotesque offspring of an inflatable sex doll and a three-point electrical socket.
There's probably just something uniquely appealing about Persona, and it seems the country of Japan agrees; it's hot shit over there. It's had more spin-offs than a very large figure skater on a very small rink; there's one-on-one fighting games, and those weird dancing games, and those Persona Q crossovers where all the characters from all the games meet each other and have arguments over whose stoic protagonist has the most irresponsible eating habits. And now we've got Persona 5 Strikers, a real-time action combat-based RPG in which Persona 5's Phantom Thieves reunite to clear their names and stop a mysterious villain using their methods to change hearts all across Japan, but do not, as the title might suggest, form a soccer team.
They've almost got the numbers for one. Don't expect to keep up if you haven't played through Persona 5, 'cos the gang's all here from the outset: Sporty Spice, Scary Spice, Posh Spice, Arty Spice, Model Spice, Hacker Spice, er... Cat Spice, and lest we forget, Protagonist Spice. Is it me, or is there a lot of dead weight in the Phantom Thieves? I suppose once you've watched someone awaken their Persona while dramatically screaming and ripping their face off and bursting into flames, probably a bit awkward at that point to say, "Sorry, party's full, but we'll keep your résumé on file."
Anyway, Joker, the young hero whose appearance is ripped from a generation of teenage girls' erotic Harry Potter fantasies, reunites with the Scooby Gang for their summer holiday; and what an appropriate time of year you've picked for the release of this one, Atlus, I must say, watching Joker enjoy a sizzling summer beach festival while I huddle under six dogs for warmth. As the Phantom Thieves travel across Japan, they discover the local branches of the Metaverse being corrupted by local celebrities, and have to explore their mind dungeons and change their hearts and all the usual bollocks, only now, the dungeons are full not of turn-based JRPG battles, but Dynasty Warriors-esque high-energy real-time punch-ups with crowds of mobs. Which you might think would fit well with Persona 5's usual crackling visual energy and pumping soundtrack, and I guess it does, but turn-based combat gave the original a sense of stylish, well-thought-out movement; I mean, awakening your Persona in these games always seems to involve suddenly learning how to pose in a really cool way, which tends to get lost in the frenetic chaos of a brawl.
And that's not the only thing; the new combat takes a lot of getting used to, not least of which because there's eight motherfucking winklepicker-wearing "please cosplay as this, obsessive fans of the world" playable Phantom Thieves right off the bat with slightly distinct combos and mechanics. And mashing "Light Attack" only gets you so far when you have to be constantly vigilant of incoming attacks from all sides, and making sure to engage with Persona's weakness-exploiting mechanics: staggering cheese-aligned monsters with your Branston Pickle attacks, etc.
A heroic effort has been made to translate all of Persona's turn-based combat mechanics to the new format, and it's not always a comfortable fit, like your elemental spells. In the world of turn-based, the spell that throws Branston Pickle at one enemy is a very different proposition to the one that throws Branston Pickle at all the enemies, but in Real-Time Brawling Land, it's just "area-of-effect attack" vs. "slightly larger area-of-effect attack", and the bigger one's rarely necessary as enemies crowd together like suburbanites at a new Olive Garden. And it's usually not worth using status ailment-inflicting spells, 'cos they never bloody work on bosses, and in standard battles, it's like trying to outwit individual beans on a plate of beans on toast, so why waste the stamina?
After all, in classic Persona fashion, your stamina is limited and dungeon-crawling gradually eats it away until you're forced to return to reality to recuperate. Except, the usual Persona time crunch element is missing from Strikers; time only moves forward once you've beaten the dungeon, so rather than losing a day when you pull out of a dungeon, you just have a quick piss and a Nutri-Grain bar and hop straight back in with all health and stamina restored. So I might ask why we need to go through the rigmarole of leaving the dungeon, when the fast-travel points might as well just restore your health and stamina right there and spare us having to go through two bloody loading screens!
As I say, they're trying to recreate the Persona feel, and I suppose it wouldn't be Persona if it didn't unnecessarily dick you about here and there. But the point is, Persona 5 Strikers is very much for the fans, and my recommendation depends on how many Joker Funko Pops you have in your living space. The Phantom Thieves are all post-character development BFFs, so they just move through the plot as a giant eight-headed mass with very little interpersonal conflict, so while the fans might like to see all the old faces getting along and going through a slightly anomalously large number of bathhouse and beach scenes, you might lose a general audience. Bear that in mind as I say the following: I, someone who enjoyed Persona 5, also enjoyed Persona 5 Strikers.
It took a while to admit it, because it feels like the combat has a million and one poorly-explained elements to keep track of, and at first, it's like trying to clean your spectacles with a pressure washer, but once I was adjusted, I enjoyed trying to keep a nice flow going. At the same time, I started getting a sense around the third dungeon that the game was lacking substance, in parts: the Ice Castle dungeon, a generic setting and another generic checklist of MacGuffins before a boss fight with someone who's just generically being a dick to people. Felt like the Phantom Thieves' Mobile Dickhead Removal Service - call now for a free quote - was just going through the motions at that point. But by the standards of a spin-off, at least, Strikers is a meatier experience than that dancing sim rubbish, and the core combat retains that lovely Persona 5 energy reminiscent of coking up some angry tigers and locking them in a roller disco.
In closing, I'd like to repeat something I once said about the Yakuza games: isn't it odd how contemporary Japanese games always feel like they have to sell Japan as well? The way the Phantom Thieves stop at every tourist hotspot and have many prolonged scenes of them scarfing down the local cuisine, it's like the game's designed for foreign tourists. Maybe it's just the difference in culture standing out more to me as an outsider, but it feels like if every game set in America had characters going, "Oh boy! I can't wait to go to McDonald's for one of our famous Big Macs, and then go down to the Walmart and watch the traditional running of the shitheads!"
- Person of interest: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- When you think about it the whole Persona 5 premise is basically Inception if Christopher Nolan was really really weirdly into Pokémon
- Jury still out on the waifu issue