This article contains spoilers for “Persona 5” and “Persona 5 Royal.”
The Phantom Thieves have re-emerged from the shadows to steal hearts once again.
Released in the US for PS4 on March 31, “Persona 5 Royal” follows in developer Atlus’s standing tradition of releasing updated versions of previous games in the “Persona” series such as with “Persona 3 Portable” and “Persona 4 Golden.”
“Persona 5 Royal” adds to the original base game of 2017’s “Persona 5” by introducing new characters, music and plot beats.
“Royal” retells the original story of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a group high school students in Japan who are gifted the power to travel to the Metaverse. The Metaverse is an alternate world shaped by the distorted desire of others, changing those desires by harnessing the power of mysterious beings known as Personas.
The main cast remains the same with the player character, codenamed Joker, whose regular name is chosen by the player.
As Joker, players fight alongside other students they befriend such as Ryuji Sakamoto (Skull), a foul-mouthed ex-athlete labeled as a delinquent, Ann Takamaki (Panther), a high school girl caught up in lascivious rumors involving her and a teacher, and Morgana (Mona), a strange cat-like creature that the protagonist encounters in the Metaverse.
Together, the Phantom Thieves target individuals with heavily distorted desires, ranging from a lecherous volleyball teacher at their own school to a candidate running for Prime Minister of Japan.
To complete this task, the Thieves must infiltrate the target’s Palace, a location within the Metaverse representative of how that person sees the environment around them.
Within a Palace, the Phantom Thieves must find and steal the person’s Treasure, a physical embodiment of their distorted desires. When a Treasure is stolen, the target will no longer possess their desires and will confess to their crimes.
However, within these Palaces, enemies called Shadows lurk around under the command of the Palace’s Ruler. In order to fight these Shadows, the Phantom Thieves engage in turn-based combat with the use of their Personas.
Same Palaces, new mechanics and Shadows
This turn-based combat comprises the entirety of the fighting within the game and is very heavily fleshed out in order to give players the feeling of control in the flow of battle.
Up to four Phantom Thieves can be in the party during battle, with the ability to switch out members attainable as the group grows.
Each character’s Persona comes equipped with different abilities and can learn new abilities as they level up, each with different elemental effects.
Depending on the elemental type of attack used, a Shadow may be weakened by that attack, crippling the Shadow and allowing the Thieves another attack turn.
With this extra attack turn, a character can either target another Shadow or perform a “Baton Pass” which hands the extra turn over to another character with increased attack stats.
If all Shadows are downed before the end of a character’s turn, the group can perform an “All-Out Attack,” a powerful move where all four Thieves in combat rush the enemies in a short cutscene to deal large amounts of damage.
In battle, the Phantom Thieves also have the ability to use melee and gun attacks to deal base damage to Shadows as special Persona skills cost Skill Points (SP).
To gain an even greater advantage in battle, the player character also possesses the power of “The Wild Card,” which allows him to negotiate with shadows rather than performing an All-Out Attack. If negotiations are successful, the Shadow will then become a Persona the player character can equip to use in battle.
These Shadows-turned-Personas can then be leveled up or fused to create more powerful Personas in the enigmatic area called the Velvet Room, attended by twin wardens Justine and Caroline and supervised by their master, Igor.
In order to aid in Persona fusion, the Velvet Room can now go into “Alarm Mode” after a large number of enemies have been defeated in a Palace. During Alarm Mode, more powerful Personas can be fused. However, this can only be done twice per session before the Velvet Room reverts back to normal.
While the Alarm Mode is useful for the first fusion, it becomes frustrating and pointless if a second fusion is performed as the created Persona will be completely different from the normal result and is often lower-leveled than what would be helpful.
Minor new additions have been included in “Royal” that make traversing Palaces much more interesting, such as the grappling hook and the inclusion of hidden “Will Seeds.” There are three Will Seeds hidden throughout each Palace and if all of the seeds are gathered, they will grant the player a powerful accessory item.
Yet most of the items the Will Seeds grant in later Palaces are worthless in comparison to the first Will Seed accessory found in the first Palace, which grants players the ability to use a skill to restore a large amount of HP.
Thieves by day, high school students also by day
Fighting through Palaces isn’t the only thing players will be doing in “P5R,” though.
As the Phantom Thieves of Hearts are still high school students, players must balance their secret activities with living a normal day-to-day life.
The game implements a calendar system, which allows the player two activities per day: one after school and one in the evening.
After-school activity time can be used to infiltrate a Palace, but players can also roam around nearby areas to purchase items for use in Palaces, hang out with other Phantom Thieves and friends to form deeper bonds as “Social Links/Confidants” and hone different Social Stats.
Time in the evening can be used in much the same way, but if the Thieves have gone into a Palace that day, players will be unable to leave their home, leaving players to perform activities to create items or level up Social Stats.
This ability to perform activities in the evening after Palace escapades are one of the first daily life improvements to “P5R” as the original game would force the player to go to sleep and progress to the next day.
This change is certainly a much-needed one as not only does it cut out dialogue from Morgana that forces you to go to sleep, but it allows better preparation for Palaces and lets players level up their Social Stats even quicker.
While the overall structure of “P5R” is the same as the original game, it is minor changes such as this that create much needed quality-of-life improvements and make the game much more enjoyable.
Another much-welcomed activity that has been added is the Darts and Billiards Parlor in Kichijoji. Within the Parlor, players can invite different members of the Phantom Thieves to increase their Social Links and increase the newly-added Baton Pass Rank.
Baton Pass Ranks can level up to three times with each level increasing the amount of HP, SP, and attack stats a character gains or recovers when a Baton Pass is performed. These Baton Pass Ranks give tough battles more depth if players are able to perform a Baton Pass in a pinch to recover a character’s low HP or SP.
Sadly, in order to level up the Baton Pass Ranks, players must play a darts mini-game controlled by flicking the controller whilst holding down a button to lock in the target. If the controller is moved too fast while pulling back to flick the controller forward, it can be registered as a throw, resulting in the player hitting a spot on the dartboard they did not mean to hit.
New faces and Personas take the stage in the third semester
Perhaps the most interesting changes to the base game that “Royal” introduces are the three new characters added.
The first character, Jose, is a young child who roams the depths of Mementos, the game’s randomly generated dungeon that acts as the “Public’s Palace” where side quests take place.
While he does not have much character depth or dialogue other than his introduction, Jose serves a very helpful purpose in Mementos. Floating throughout the corridors of Mementos are newly-added collectible flowers that can be given to Jose in exchange for strong items.
Jose has also placed Stamp Stations at the end of each floor in Mementos that can be collected and exchanged for “changes in the public’s cognition” which allows players to increase the number of experience points, money, and items the Phantom Thieves earn for defeating Shadows in Mementos.
The second new character, Kasumi Yoshizawa (Violet), is a new Phantom Thief who struggles to fulfill her late sister’s gymnastics ambitions.
Lastly, Dr. Takuto Maruki is a guidance counselor that appears at the Phantom Thieves high school in the wake of their first successful heist. Dr. Maruki acts as a new Social Link that allows players to restore SP in the midst of battles as well as warding off different adverse status effects.
Kasumi and Dr. Maruki are both key characters in the game’s newly-added story sections that take place during a third school semester after the base game’s final boss battle with Yaldabaoth. Unfortunately, in order to reach this new story content, players must level up Social Links a certain amount with specific characters, a concept the game does not convey to players.
To reach the new semester and story content, players much max out their Social Link levels as high as possible with Kasumi, Dr. Maruki, and Goro Akechi (Crow).
Fortunately, the new story additions are gripping enough to make up for the convoluted method to unlock it.
Upon reaching this story section, the protagonist wakes up in a world filled with characters who were previously dead as well as other strange occurrences; Morgana takes a human form rather than looking like a cat, and a Palace is visible in reality.
Teaming up with Akechi and Kasumi, the characters discover Dr. Maruki has created a “new reality” without pain or suffering with the power of his Persona, Azathoth.
Rejecting this new reality under Maruki’s rule, Joker, Violet, and Crow “wake up” the rest of the Phantom Thieves to the false reality and proceed to infiltrate Maruki’s Palace to steal his treasure.
This new Palace is very well-designed, as it utilizes the new grappling hook in interesting ways. The design of the Palace also sprinkles in details of Maruki’s past and motivation as well as puzzles involving the Thieves putting themselves into the doctor’s warped mindset.
The final confrontation between Maruki and the Phantom Thieves starts off as a basic boss battle before elevating past the superb quality of the base game as different forms of the boss appear.
While these different boss forms are defeated relatively quickly, they feel as if they are included just to demonstrate how well the Phantom Thieves of Heart fight together, something that the original final battle of “P5” didn’t convey as much.
Wrapping up the fight with a satisfying one-on-one fistfight between Maruki and Joker without being able to use their Personas, the game gives players control of the battle one final time to land these hits against the doctor.
The story wraps up with one last animated cutscene that is equally as satisfying as the final fight, giving players a feeling of completion while also including a post-credit teaser.
“Persona 5” was perhaps the best turn-based JRPG of the past decade; that is, until “Persona 5 Royal” was released.
While there are a few minor inconveniences, almost every new inclusion and change made to the game crafts “Persona 5 Royal” into a tour de force to be reckoned with in terms of quality, presentation and style.
There are many other new features and inclusions that haven’t been touched upon within this review that improve upon “P5” in every single way.
Without delving into other aesthetic choices such as how sleek and stylized the menus and interface are along with the expertly crafted music tracks and cues, it is easy to understand how “Persona 5” became the best-selling game in the franchise, and how “Persona 5 Royal” will carry on that legacy with its head and crown held high.