Persona 5 (2017): The Complicated Praxis of Giving A Damn - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Jul/170

Persona 5 (2017): The Complicated Praxis of Giving A Damn

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Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight? Never running from a real fight? I know this brings a certain pleat-skirted senshi to mind, but here, we're trading the tiara in for a mask and a glock! Pixels in Praxis returns to the concept of "millennials in the wreckage" with Atlus' latest venture in Persona 5 (P5 from this point on)!

Persona has always been a series of bildungsromans, taking Jungian psychology and anything from the return of Hitler as effected by a Lovecraftian force of terror in P2 to the personification of the human death drive in P3. While generally successful at creating a cast of teenagers struggling with society and their place in it, none of them have been as overtly political as P5.

As I understand it, Japanese youth are feeling relatively disenfranchised and powerless with regards to politics. And in the West, a rise in activism seems to be coinciding with an increase in often well-placed cynicism. In that kind of setting, I really found the growth of the party's motivation from destroying their personal abusers to rescuing not just the country but the world to be inspiring. It's been a long time since a game felt so earnest to me. A lot of that might have been the brilliant braiding of dungeon themes to thematic thief heists and building to a climactic trickster mythology style of story.

In opposition to the last console Shin Megami Tensei release, the spin-off Tokyo Mirage Sessions, P5 embraced the idea of the rabble-rouser - the sort of Romantic figure that jolts public consciousness. There were times that I felt the game was vague about it, and I think it constrained itself towards the end, but I thought it really made an effort to show us that there is a way out of the societal wreckage millennials inherited and I appreciated that. What say you, Drew?

My lack of anime knowledge became glaringly apparent reading your first paragraph and asking myself, "Pleat-skirted...what?" At this point I wonder if I lack some of the necessary background research to adequately comment on P5. So it's time to "fake it 'til I make it" and push against my anime apathy in the name of the common good.

My broadest opinion on P5 can most likely be communicated by my save game file. I'm on my second play-through at about 200 hours, making it easily the most played game in my PS4 library, and one of the games I've spent the most time with since I was old enough to move from left to right in Super Mario Bros. But a raw hour total only communicates quantity not quality of play. I started a second game because I wanted to deepen all the relationships I left dangling at the end of my first, I wanted more of the staccato rhythm of your pointed actions in combat, and I wanted to spend more time with Morgana because we are bros for life.

You touched briefly on what makes P5 so addicting and may also be a hurdle of potential annoyance for some players. The bulk of the action in the turn-based combat is given a glorified shine that was absent in the masochistic attacks of P3. Instead, your avatar (Prichard Lei for mine - but I'll refer to him as Joker here on out) and combat partners revel in the obvious correctness of their youth. Doubt and delay are two things removed from the turn-based combat, giving each button a specific action instead of having to wade through multiple menus, and it flows so quickly that P5 feels more like conducting a dance-off than fighting off the eternal indifference of apathetic humans.

I loved the idea that these kids felt so confident and free in combat with their personas. It fits in both with that notion of Romantic heroes as you mentioned, but also adolescents on the verge of adulthood trying on a guise that makes them feel comfortable for the first time in their lives. Even before we get into some of the political and societal overtones of P5's plot, the transformation roots itself in painful adolescent sexual awakening. The moaning and writhing of feeling "almost there" before popping in relief echoes some painfully satisfied voice acting. P3 and P4 had transformations that felt a bit too mature for the age of their participants with P5 arriving at a borderline erotic truth of teenage discovery that avoids going "too far."

Ha, I'm a Sailor Moon fan, so the full-on transformation sequences of P5 delighted me to my core with the "youthful heroes struggling with burgeoning adulthood and cosmic horrors," thing. I'd actually say the opening cast touches on a similar dynamic of the characters in Lupin III. But enough of my anime squee-ing - have at thee!

I agree that P3 feels more...I don't know if mature is the word I'd use, but it definitely lacks the exuberance and feeling of joyous discovery. I'd attribute a lot of that to growing pains of the developer team as well as a misfire at the coming-of-age narrative. P3 feels like it's about the emotional pain of being ostracized. P4 feels like it's about the joy of seeking one's self amid friends. P5 folds both of those into every fiber of its being and ends up with characters that feel more true to both concepts while plucking political strings.

It is definitely the most kinetic turn-based game I have ever played. I'd actually be dancing along to the music during battles and the inputs were so swift and stylish that the thing felt like a dance-off as you say. I thought you were crazy for starting a second playthrough immediately after your first, but once I beat the game, I immediately wanted more. I wanted to finish Iwai's social link for one thing, and more importantly, I just wanted more of the cast and the energy of the gameplay. For a genre that can easily feel like just playing menus, the game really captures the energy of empowered young people.

One of those empowering things was the return of demon negotiations. The last time they appeared was in P2, but I think simply changing the staging from "chatting up enemies" to holding them at gunpoint after exploiting a weakness builds on that theme of empowerment. In the real world, Joker rarely speaks to anyone compared to usual JRPG protagonists, and you're forced to listen to the accusatory mutterings of fellow students at school. In the Metaverse, though, as the character's true selves reveling in rebellion, antagonists both large and small are forced to be on the back foot and end up on the receiving end.

In fact, when I think about it, this might be the most proactive JRPG cast I've ever seen. They organize, they choose targets, plan, and strike. It makes every Phantom Thief outing cathartic as hell. Rather than getting stuck on the lame particulars of world saving JRPG tropes, we have heroes who pounce on the evils of the world around them. It makes this cast feel more adult than your usual JRPG cast that acts in a much more reactive way, all of which I think is due to the full-bodied embracing of the heist concept for the Palaces. Thieves don't wait to be robbed before stealing, after all.

I like your note about the voice acting. The characters calling on their Persona sound almost giddy, like Ryuji's "PerrrrrrSONA!" It gives battle highs and lows that I don't think earlier games have had. There's ready anxiety in Futaba's voice when she activates her shield skill to save the party from certain death, swaggering pride in easy victories, and so on. I can also see why you'd say borderline erotic truth. That apparent pleasure is definitely one of a kind and comes across really well, particularly in comparison to when we first meet the members of the cast as they struggle with personal issues and reservations.

It's the proactive nature of Joker and friends that made P5's characters a welcome change of pace after the dreary personalities of Final Fantasy XV. I also love the experimentation inherent in their transformations, with boy detective Akechi taking bits of Luke Skywalker, Michael Jackson, and Cyrano de Bergerac to boogie his way to the end of encounters. No aspect of Akechi's, or anyone else's, design feels garish for its own sake. Heck, even the Cyrano de Bergerac reference avoids any notion of pretension by using one of the classical French plays that has a perfect protagonist for confused teens.

The palaces are a different matter and show one of the pacing issues with P5. I'm in complete agreement with you that the majority of them are cathartic, but P5 began dragging out each dungeon with increasingly asinine extra tasks as time went on. P5 sets an almost impossible standard to follow by starting off on Kamoshida's palace, which perverts the awakened sexual guises of the protagonists in a way that definitely takes it "too far" (his pink speedo/thong thing underneath the king's robe is just the sort of grotesque predatory detail that highlights how healthily imagined the main cast's design is.) All the tutorial bits are given a good in-universe explanation as Joker and Morgana need to make the best use of their limited party. Then it all culminates in Ann's awakening, who gets to own her sexuality in a healthy way, before toppling the king and getting positive real-world results.

Futaba's palace, which literalizes PTSD-affected depression by presenting her as the living dead in a vast pyramid, is the only other palace that has the same tight construction as Kamoshida's. All the other palaces may have big plot-related reasons for existing but the casino hijinks of Nijima's palace and the extended detour of Kaneshiro's palace are both examples of P5 stretching itself too thin. There's nothing in either one of those palaces that isn't communicated in the excursions to the communal psychic pool that must have roused Carl Jung from his eternal sleep. I suppose I could look at it as a metanarrative exercise where I have to fight apathy from these palaces to face the totality of human apathy at the end of the game, but ten or so hours of that kind of thinking is testing my patience as a willing storytelling recipient by the end.

Now that I've broached the subject of apathy as the greatest opponent, I love how quietly the idea is introduced with simple aesthetic details. The first time I stepped off the subway to the dozens of blank faces hurrying through me on into their own oblivion earned a quiet sigh from me. No better way to communicate feeling adrift in a crowd than by presenting a population that's as indifferent to you as they are to each other. People only become more defined if they are in opposition to or willing to help your crew. It's a nice spin on the old, "This person has a portrait so they must be important," meta-knowledge from playing RPGs by having both an aesthetic and storytelling reason for some people to be defined while others aren't.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions does a similar thing with NPCs, but interestingly, the faceless NPCs are brightly colored. Some even degenerate into basically just pastel-colored outlines of people, at least until story events suck the joy out of them. P5, however, lives in this world of faceless antagonism. And unlike TMS, the effect made the start of the game feel very fearsome to me. Lost, alone in a city where I don't know my way around, I don't recognize anyone, and everyone has their own agenda. Then I finally meet Sojiro, and he treats me like crap. The first few hours of the game were rough, and Ryuji's character was a relief, unlike Junpei and Yosuke who just kind of show-up like "Hi, I'm the guy who's gonna do the talking for you for the next few hours!"

I hear you on the pacing, because Kamoshida was a really tough act to follow. For me, each subsequent palace felt less tight than the last. Other than that first palace, I'd say the one that worked best for me was probably Shido's, despite my irritation with it. Kamoshida, Futaba, Shido, and the Prison of Regression were wonderfully bound up in the narrative. Madarame, Kaneshiro, and Okumura just felt like excuses to get party members. They were fun, but they were still loose stretches of an experience that was otherwise tightly knit and had a lot of powerfully intersecting elements. In Haru's case she's introduced in the middle of a spat between two characters we've known far longer and have more reason to care about to the point it harms her story and character .

I think the most extraneous-feeling part of content was traversing Mementos. It was implemented far better than Tartarus, given the rest stops and party conversations, as well as it's role in building to the last two dungeons, but it was always a dead stretch of play time in a game that was usually overflowing with personality and verve. Certainly thematically appropriate, but even the amusing My Neighbor Totoro joke with Morgana becoming a vehicle didn't help much.

I think right now, we could all use more games in the P5 mode despite those missteps. Ultimately, it's a game about social responsibility with a healthy helping of optimism. With so many cynical apocalyptic power fantasies, a narrative that almost tilts on a monster-of-the-week formula of stopping the new bad guy and helping the innocent could easily come off as trite, but P5 comfortably strides the line well. It's not many times that a game tells me "Now you have to go to jail and take responsibility for the greater good," and I find myself agreeing. Sweetness without being saccharine, optimistic without being blind; hell of an accomplishment.

Interesting difference we have with respect to the Mementos. The way they were implemented on a gameplay front gave me something to do if my team felt underpowered or I needed materials to craft some thieving tools. From the overall plot, I appreciated that P5 recognized taking down big targets doesn't mean a damn thing in the long run if you aren't willing to confront the little evils spilling out of seemingly innocent folks. The Mementos did a great job of emphasizing that proactive feeling you mentioned, taking little jobs in the community to hear about the problems of others, and then deciding to give a damn and do something about it. I look at them like the side-quests or village rescues of The Witcher 3 - your impact as a player and character may be small, but it's about doing the right thing at the time.

Granted, P5 doesn't have near the amount of humanistic complexity that The Witcher 3 does, and part of that has to do with the wildly uneven quality of each character. I know many players were annoyed with Ann, but I loved how her learning to love herself grew into healthier relationships with her best friend and Joker. Her romance is one of the few in P5 that feels like the start of a strong relationship instead of codependence issues with a physical twist. Ditto for Hifumi, whose writing balances a high-wire act of helicopter parenting, gendered expectations, the pressure to present a "perfect" image, and being a brilliant tactician and student in her own right.

Many of the guys feel half-formed and while part of this is by design, like Yuki's misplaced confidence becoming his own form of bullying, many of the guys don't sit right with me. Yusuke is almost a note-perfect fey artist stereotype who seems to have been written as a homosexual but P5 never takes that leap. We end up watching a lot of uncomfortable segments where the potential of being confused as romantic partners or transvestites is an embarrassment to Yusuke and (depending on your responses) Joker. While I commend P5 for letting teens healthily role play out their sexual awakening, presenting only straight relationships while coding Yusuke as gay and slagging on trans people takes several steps in the opposite direction.

Then there are those relationships that made me go, "What the hell?" Futaba's an example of an excellent character who shouldn't have had a romance option at all. Her friendship with Joker is a touching example of a hurt person forming tentative connections and using her close bonds to face the outside world. Her romance is a creepy unhealthily codependent heavy reliance on Joker that basically ends with the Casper-esque horror of, "Can I keep you?" Ann may be shallow in the eyes of some folks, but at least your romance with her is a give-and-take, and not the prelude to some Single Anime Female horror.

Oh gosh, Futaba's romance route actively disgusted me. Like you say, it feels very much like fostering codependence with an edge of predation. It doesn't help that she's coded as small and wants for things like head pats, which lends a naïve little sister subtext to what becomes a romantic relationship. Yuck.

I read Yusuke as gay too, but it's actually because of his similarities to Jun from P2. They felt so similar that it was almost a Fire Emblem expy situation at times. I was and still am disappointed that he's not a romance option, and that only heterosexual ones exist. And yes, the slagging of trans and gay people felt cruel as well as extremely misplaced in a game about misfits finding a place and defending people who suffer silently.

I actually didn't complete Ann's social link because I started on it late because I just didn't find her interesting until I saw what Agidyne with Concentrate could do. In my first run, I got her to 9 but didn't end up maxing it out, making this the first Persona game where I didn't max out all of the party members on the first run (I also missed Yusuke). Her relationship with Shiho and modeling turned out a lot more interesting than I thought it would, although I still didn't like her much. I also agree with Hifumi's being  interesting.

My favorite social links were Makoto's and Iwai's. I romanced the former and it felt surprisingly decent. Because of her integration into the story, the pairing ended up feeling a lot closer than prior Persona romances, and her social link story was pretty charming because of the apparent inversion; she found her will to rebel in the Metaverse, but was still struggling with breaking out of her box in the real world. And while I didn't max out Iwai, I loved that a game about being outlaws lead to the protagonist meeting and dealing with a gangster.

My biggest hope going forward is that P5 gets the P4 treatment of remakes and spin-offs, and a P5 Crimson or something arrives with homosexual relationships and a gender option. My heart was set on romancing Yusuke because I romanced Jun in P2, but it wasn't to be. And ideally, taking the misplaced and purposelessly cruel mockery of LGBT+ folks out at least because it's such a discordant note in an otherwise cohesive narrative.

Ultimately, what I appreciated the most about the social links, other than the fact that they are roleplaying opportunities that reward my character with greater power (which is oddly missing in most roleplaying games) is their framing. They are staged as deals that arise due to circumstance, and end up feeling far less forced than prior games. The characters have intersecting goals and find a way to strive together for them. And I think at the end of the day, that's P5's major theme; we are better off striving together than apart, even with all our different specific desires.

Your point about the social links is a good place to turn this around into our overarching conversation on millennials. It's not enough to beat the big bad and bask in the adulation of the crowds. In order to get people to change, or even a facsimile of change, you need to get involved as much as possible. That means getting politicians like Yoshida back into the political arena, providing Iwai a means of redeeming his past life while providing for his family, and flat-out breaking the law to ensure poor get health care by covering for Takemi.

The faceless crowds disappear while the blaring of televisions, computers, and smart phones remains constant. I'm not a tech pessimist, but P5 presents a compelling case that once the narrative is set within all those devices it takes a Herculean effort to alter public perception. Yet, P5 still ends on a note that change is possible, it just requires building bonds outside the typical societal pecking order. P5 stands on a different place in the same axis as Hollow Knight, where the worst has already happened and there's no place to go but up, and in contrast P5 recognizes the worst may be over the horizon but there are ways to start fighting against it now.

I'm also not so daft as to say P5 presents some kind of left-thinking template when it comes to building up those communities. As much as Iwai grew on me with his gruff charm, it didn't change he was essentially a private arms merchant you help protect with Joker's assistance. Plus there are the issues with representing LGBTQ+ people that we've discussed, and any youthful rebellion that isn't intersectional runs the risk of becoming another Kek army or spineless Democrat voters instead of recognizing a future state that lifts everyone up.

So P5's argument is a bit more philosophical than systemic, but still one I can mostly get behind. Morgana may be the perfect avatar for this kind of borderline radical thinking as he's a talking cat (and good god does the internet love cats) who is the constant behind driving proactive behaviors. He's also an absolute bro, the best healer in a pinch, and isn't afraid to look silly in victory.

I agree with you. P5 doesn't do the neo-luddite "those damn kids and their FaceGrams," thing, but it definitely makes the case for preserving a vanishing physical social space and comments on the degree that screens have disconnected us as a group. It's another case of walking a fine line, and it does it well. In the end, the Phan-site even shifts from a monitor of the faceless to a gathering place of encouragement and camaraderie.

Even in violent disagreement, they managed to cross a bridge with Akechi, who I think could pass for the sort of single-minded non-intersectional political force against P5's disparate backgrounds and unity. So I think there's a way that it elevates that old anime trope about the power of friendship; recognizing people as humans and not actors for entertainment can lead to positive social change.

In that sense, if Hyper Light Drifter was about a dying world and Hollow Knight about the world being dead, P5 is shouting that we can still save things. And even though in the end, things return to normal, the people around the city have changed a bit for the better and our party has certainly grown and become confident in their ability to change the world without vigilante psychomagic coercion. At the end of the day, P5 left me feeling impressed with a sense of responsibility and dignity.

Finally, like I mentioned to you before, Haru mentions that people watch the news as if it's unrelated entertainment, and with the glut of anti-black police violence, that commentary shook me. How many videos are there of black people being victimized by cops now? And still, it's written off by people with no grasp of the community or understanding of the experience of living while black. In that sense, P5 makes a pretty simple argument: to get out there and meet people and learn where they're coming from. Each Palace boss stood in selfish isolation and acted with the antithesis of empathy. So the message of standing for something, some community, knowing and appreciating people even when you're ostensibly at cross-purposes, hit home for me. At the end of the day, there's something that we all can agree on and care about, even if it's just that we all want the world, somehow, to be a better place.

It's idealism tether to determination and a stalwart will to real responsible citizenship and activism animates the ultimate point of it all. It's a great message, Morgana is a great bro, and Makoto is the best girl.

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Posted by Andrew

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