Impressions: Persona 5

“Take your heart!”

Persona-5

The Persona series of games is well known in in gaming circles as an incredibly popular Japanese Roleplaying Game. Being hailed by some as the greatest JRPG of all time is what drew my attention to Persona 5.

I have a love-hate relationship with Japanese Roleplaying Games. When they are good, they are incredible, with my first exposure to them being the Pokémon games, followed by the Final Fantasy series and highlights in my experience including Dragon Quest VII and Ni No Kuni. But when they are bad they are long, boring, repetitive and grindy.

Persona 5 is, without a doubt, an excellent JRPG.

The first noticeable thing about this game is the lively jazzy music that accompanies the introduction sequence. The music is upbeat, and sets the dynamic atmosphere of the game so perfectly. The next thing you are introduced to is the beautiful anime art style that is eye catching and matches the music’s dynamic jazzy theme.

If you enjoy high quality anime animation, you will enjoy the cut scenes and art style of Persona 5.

But there is more to this game that music and animation.

The game follows Joker and his Phantom Thieves as they try to make the world a better place by changing the hearts of evil people by ‘stealing’ their twisted desires.  The way this works is very abstract and not the most clear, but in essence Joker and his Phantom Thieves can enter the subconscious world and through this can change the hearts of those around them.

Does it make perfect sense?

No.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

Take your Heart
Calling card of the Thieves…

The game structure takes the form of a series of heists that the Phantom Thieves have to complete as their world becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes and drama escalate.

The game is divided between ‘downtime’ activities where you can level up your personal stats, buy equipment and spend time with your ‘confidants’ who are friends you make along your journey, and ‘heists’ where you try to steal someone’s heart and have to fight shadowy monsters in turn based combat.

Combat works in a similar way to most turn based JRPGs; you have a team of characters that utilise a variety of attacks that have different elemental types, against enemies that have a variety of weaknesses. If you manage to hit an enemies weakness you can stun the enemy, and if you manage to stun the whole enemy team you can hold them up, either to attack them with a massive team attack, or to try to demand money or items from them. Successfully completing a hold up generally ends combat, so it is best to work out enemy weaknesses quickly in combat.

PT
Ready for action!

Your team also have weaknesses to certain elements, which can result in enemies chaining attacks against you. This means that combat can be over very quickly, either in your favour or a by way of a quick TPK.

The system has its ups and downs and combat swings from exciting to boring. It feels exciting when you work out an enemy’s weakness and suddenly have them at your mercy, and certain boss fights have dynamic battle elements that make those battles unique and more interesting. On the downside when you know an enemy weakness, every subsequent battle becomes a mere interrupt from the main exploration screen, because the battles have no challenge when you know an enemy’s weakness.

In an attempt to balance this there are some enemies that have elemental weaknesses but have such a large pool of hit-points that you do barely any damage even when hitting its weakness every turn. I find these fights frustrating as I have had encounters where I know an enemies weakness and spend 5-10 minutes hitting its weakness and holding it up and attacking, only for it to pull out an unexpected move chain that one-shots the party. Then I have to fight the start over with only a minor variation to account for that new move, but the slog of ‘hit the weak point’ makes this process tedious.

My greatest fear is enemies that have no weakness. These are dangerous because you are unable to stun lock them, unless you score a critical hit, but they can stun lock you. But when there is no elemental weakness it does mean you have to bring more strategy to combat, which is a good thing.

These niggles with combat only come out occasionally, and for the most part combat is fast paced and exciting, which adds to the dynamic feel of the game, and makes it exciting to play.

The story the game presents is very interesting. I have already written one article on how it explores anxiety and mental health issues, and have another planned on how the game explores identity and the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. There is a lot the game has to say about the human condition, and it is fun to explore these ideas in the manner the game presents them, and I have more articles planned for the future that will explore these ideas, giving them more space than I can offer them in this overview.

I can see why this game is so beloved. If you are not a fan of JRPG’s this is not likely to sway you, but if you are uncertain about the genre, it is hard to find a better example of a quality JRPG that is worth exploring the genre through. Suffice it to say this game is essential playing if you are a fan of JRPGs.

Persona 5 is the first game I played in the series and has a self-contained story, much like the Final Fantasy games. Because of this Persona 5 forms a perfect entry point to the series for anyone who is curious about what Persona has to offer.

I have not yet finished this game and am so excited to see what else this game has to offer. I will be sure to share future thoughts on this game with you, so feel free to follow this site or my twitter if you want to be updated when I post new content.

Do you want to read more of my video-game impressions? Click here to check them out!

Mental Health in Video Games: Persona 5

This article contains significant plot spoilers for Persona 5

Persona 5 is a game that I have quite a bit to say about. In the pipeline I am planning on publishing articles giving my impressions on the game as well as a deep dives into how they explore concepts of identity.

I have not yet completed the game, but it is already overflowing with interesting things to write about.

Last night I was streaming Persona 5 and the game took its own deep dive in to a pretty intense topic. You are asked to help a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression.

The Set Up

For those unfamiliar with Persona 5, it is a game where you take on the role of the Phantom Thieves; a group of teenagers who can jump into the subconscious of truly twisted people, and ‘steal their heart’, forcing them to undergo a severe personality change for the better. For a gaming analogy think of a slightly more dramatic system of the heart-healing mechanic of Ni No Kuni.

Up to this point in the game you have stolen the hearts of an abusive school teacher, who sexually abused female students and physically abused male students; an organised crime boss, who blackmailed and stole from people for his own financial gain; and an artist, who stole the work of his students and claimed it as his own, allowing a particularly talented student to die so that he could get away with his scheme.

All of your targets up to this point are evil people who harm the world. The concept of ‘twisted desires’ is very obvious when it comes to these kinds of people; they are the archetypal villains for stories. You enter their subconscious, steal their treasure, and it causes a change of heart. They feel remorse for their actions, hand themselves into the police, and allow victims to begin the healing process. A classic heroes tale.

But then the Phantom Thieves are recruited by Futaba.

Futaba is a girl who suffers from extreme social anxiety and depression. She is a hacking expert and traces down the Phantom Thieves, and blackmails them into stealing another heart. Her own.

She wants to be free from her anxiety and depression, and she knows the Thieves might be able to help her with this, so she sets herself as their target.

Entering the Heart of Darkness

The subconscious desires of regular people do not have a significant impact on the subconscious world the Phantom Thieves can enter, known as the ‘metaverse’. When someone has truly twisted desires though, these dark desires shape the metaverse into a palace. The palace of each person reflects how they view their ‘domain’. The teacher’s palace took the form of a castle located at his school. The crime boss’ palace took the form of a bank located in the central business district. The artist’s palace took the form of a museum located over his studio.

Futaba’s palace takes the form of a tomb, and is located at her home.

It is more ornate than a regular graveyard; Futaba’s palace is a great pyramid located in an almost endless desert. It is huge, it is grand, and it is utterly isolating. Throughout the pyramid are traps and walls designed to keep people out. Although Futaba has asked for help, her subconscious tries to kill the Phantom Thieves. She wants help, but her heart fights the introspection.

As the Phantom Thieves explore her palace they see glimpses of what ties her heart into this tomb.

Her mother committed suicide in front of her.

She blames herself for her mother’s death. She remembers times when she felt that she was a burden on her mother, a drain that led her to killing herself. These memories form murals on the pyramid’s walls. The Phantom Thieves slowly break into her subconscious and encounter these deeply intimate and painful memories.

It is an intense experience to play through.

Opening the Door

At the end of the palace is a door.

A door that cannot be opened by the Phantom Thieves. A door that requires them to meet Futaba in the real world. The subconscious door represents her hearts deepest layers. It appears as her bedroom door.

If Futaba does not believe anyone can get through this door, it is impossible for anyone to get through the door in her subconscious.

Only Futaba can open this door.

The Phantom Thieves go to her house and wait outside her door for her to invite them in. She needs to take action to address the issues in her heart. She can’t rely on others to fix her. She needs to not only say she wants help but also open herself up to the help that is offered.

She has to confront her extreme anxiety.

She has to let people in.

Which she does. Futaba invites the Phantom Thieves in to her most vulnerable place, where she hides from the world, and in so doing allow the Phantom Thieves to access to the inner sanctum of her subconscious.

Facing Demons

The Phantom Thieves steal their way through her inner sanctum to find Futaba’s treasure. They find a sarcophagus. The treasure is held therein. But before the Thieves can open it they are attacked.

They are drawn into combat by Futaba’s mother. Or to be more accurate, a dark, twisted representation of Futaba’s mother. Futaba’s subconscious has created a monster out of her mother. It takes the form of a great sphinx, which keeps its distance, it is aloof and hard to hit, spewing hateful things about Futaba. The Phantom Thieves cannot beat it.

That is when Futaba enters her subconscious world.

The only way that this demon can be beaten is by Futaba realising that it is not her mother. Futaba has to remember the truth. How loved she was. She has to differentiate between the lies and the truth. That her pain has warped her memories. Hurtful things she was told by family members that blamed her for her mother’s death are not true.

As Futaba faces her own heart and comes to understand how her heart has warped her memories and created a tomb for itself she becomes able to provide the key to defeating the demonic representation of her mother.

Once the representation is defeated, Futaba leaves, allowing the Phantom Thieves to complete their task.

But the sarcophagus is empty.

Futaba has already left.

She was the treasure all along, and she had to find herself, hidden behind layers of hurt, pain, and warped perceptions. She had to look at the truth hidden behind the lies, and remember who she was, and who her mother truly was.

And with that discovery the palace begins to collapse…

Mental Health

Mental health is a difficult topic to address. Every person’s experience of mental illness can be radically different, and can stem from completely different experiences. This makes it hard to talk about, particularly in media where mental illness can so easily be trivialised or glamorised.

This Futaba story arc is not over, but getting to where I am in the game was a powerful and personal experience for me. I joked several times on stream that I would love to have an app that could give me access to the kind of breakthroughs Futaba experienced in an hour and a half of gameplay. Months of cognitive behavioural therapy condensed into mere minutes.

But the world is not as easy as video games.

Art reflects life, and this story arc was powerful because there is truth in the story it presents about the human experience of mental illness. Help is available, but it takes work to address. There are no easy fixes, and resolving issues can take you to painful places. But if twisted perceptions are not confronted they can create demons, which are even harder to put to rest.

There is no ‘YAY MENTAL ILLNESS IS SOLVED!’ at the end of this article. It is a real problem and if you struggle with it, I recommend getting help.

Exposure to this story arc is the kind of thing that helps me contextualise some of my experience of mental illness and give pictures and words to emotions and thoughts. I am very much looking forward to continuing to explore what Persona 5 has to offer.

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Book Review: Barefoot Gen Volume 1

‘Gen is my alter ego and his family are just like my own.’

 

Barefoot Gen Volume 1

Japan is the only country in the history of the world that has had an atomic bomb used against it in war.

It went through that trauma twice.

When I finished reading Barefoot Gen I did not have any words to say.

I just sat there with tears in my eyes processing what I had just read.

This graphic novel tells the semi-autobiographical story of the author Keiji Nakazawa and his childhood experience of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

It is a passionate and emotive piece of anti-war literature, and one of the most deeply disturbing horror stories I have read.

Junji Ito may provide a visceral and terrifying supernatural horror experience on a graphic novel page, but Keiji Nakazawa’s story is real, that is the most disturbing thing of all.

This story is an important piece of modern literature, in the same vein as the war poetry of the frontline soldiers of World War 1, and it provides a unique insight into the domestic situation in Japan at the end of World War 2 and the impact of the atomic bomb being dropped that is not familiar to western readers.

I say western readers, but I can only speak from my own experience of history lessons taught in the UK. I knew about the atom bomb, I knew it was dropped to stop a long drawn out war to claim every individual island of Japan, I knew that it immediately ended thousands of lives instantly like turning off a switch.

Except that last part is not true.

I was taught a very sanitised understanding of atomic warfare, and Barefoot Gen breaks through that understanding violently.

The story told follows Gen, a child living in Hiroshima in the final days of World War 2, and his family. His father is opposed to the war, and living in a militaristic society this leads to Gen’s family being branded traitors.

The reader is introduced to the issues that the civilians of Japan were facing with food shortages and starvation being present in the face of a war that was slowly being lost, along with the pervasive militarism that permeated their society, blinding people to the fact that the war was not going well.

Gen's father

These struggles form the majority of volume one as Gen’s family try to cope with having their neighbourhood turn against them, simply because they are opposed to sending young men out to die for a war that should never have been engaged in.

And then the date ticks over to the 6th August 1945.

The final 35 pages of the manga address the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb. It is haunting. You are given the slightest impression of what Keiji Nakazawa had to experience, and it enough to chill you to the core, and question what humanity is capable of.

The art style used is a very classic, simple, disney-esque cartoon style, lacking the detail that you get from other high quality manga or graphic novels, but this does not negate the emotional connections you build with the characters in this completely human story. You begin to feel like you truly know Gen’s family, and in this process Keiji Nakazawa gives us an intimate and deeply personal insight into his own relationship with his family and the life that he lived in Hiroshima.

There are further volumes of Barefoot Gen that deal with life after the dropping of the bomb. I have not yet read it, and feel I still need time to process volume 1 before I move onto the next part of the story.

Trampled Wheat

Barefoot Gen is, in my view, essential reading. Even if graphic novels are not your cup of tea, the story that it tells is an important part of human history, and it gives a unique insight into the events of 6th August 1945, that should form part of the education around the use of atomic weaponry, that is an ever present shadow in modern global politics.