The Phantom Thieves are back on a road trip around Japan!
- Developer: Koei-Tecmo
- Release date: 23rd February 2021
- Genre: JRPG
- Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch
- Reviewed on: PS5 via Backward Compatibility
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
There are many who regard the Persona series as the standout class leader of the JRPG genre, and many, including myself, who regard Persona 5 and it’s upgraded later edition Persona 5 Royal, as the greatest JRPG ever made.
The game mixed bold stylish artwork, along with a wonderful and engaging cast of characters and a superb story, mixed with nailed down gameplay and a kickass soundtrack to pump the game along. With a new developer being handed the reins to make the next chapter of their story, one could be forgiven in thinking they would miss the mark and not capture the spirit and joy of the first game when making an alternative style sequel/spin-off. Fear not, as Koei-Tecmo absolutely nailed it!
Let’s be clear from the start.
As all the gang of Persona 5 reunite at the start of the game to plan their summer vacation, there is an expectation that players already know the individuals of the Phantom Thieves and their associates. There is no exposition as to who this group is or how they know each other, and this is exacerbated by the fact that they constantly reference their history in their dialogue. The worst case of this is with Morgana. With absolutely no explanation, players new to the series would likely have questions as to why the group has a talking cat. It’s quite clear the rest of the group has a history too, with little quips here and there which would be lost on new players.
However, if any new players suspend their disbelief and just go with the flow, they will soon fall in love with the funny, witty, and determined bunch of teens who have become the notorious stealers of hearts and desires of the wicked and evil of the world.
Here we go again!
So the loveable rogues meet up to plan their summer vacation but soon get tangled up in yet another case of changing the hearts of the wicked, whilst being closely monitored by law enforcement, with a new character called Zenkichi. The group also acquire a new member of their team, who manifests herself into human form in the metaverse, but is in fact an AI app on a mobile phone, called Sophia.
The team enters the metaverse to fight their way through puzzles and dungeons to complete tasks that will give them access to their target’s locked away “desire”. Once they have completed their infiltration route, they then send a calling card to that person in the real world and then go back to confront them in the metaverse one last time.
The key difference in Strikers from the main Persona series is the style of battle. Here in Strikers, the style is real-time musou hack and slash, akin to a Dynasty/Samurai Warriors game, rather than the turn-based strategy of before. All other aspects of gameplay are the same, though. The team has personas to use for magic attacks, they have to ambush enemies from behind to get the upper hand and there are puzzles to solve and dungeons to explore.
Fast and frenetic!
With a real-time hack and slash combat mechanic, gameplay can and does get hugely frenetic and wildly exciting! Upon entering a battle, the team gets locked into an area where hordes of enemies spawn that have to cut down. These range from multiple numbers of easy to kill foes, to large health-sponge boss fights. You only have a maximum of four members per battle, but each character has their own dynamic style, so each of them felt different to play, despite the simple variety of attacks.
Landing combos can unlock extra attacks if the enemy is staggered, along with L1 being used to aim and shoot your ranged weapons. When a meter has been filled the glorious “Show Time” super move unleashes a powerful super high impact damage move, complete with a different animation for each character. All of the above happens in real-time, it’s only when using your Persona’s magic spells that you get a moment to pause, locate the spell, buff or health item to use, before being thrown back into the fray.
The monumental change of pace in combat will come as a bit of a shock to seasoned veterans of the Persona series, and yet, with just a few attack moves, and a slimmed-down amount of spells and Personas, there is still a very nuanced skill required to hone your battle tactics and get the win, even on Normal difficulty. Watching your foes, learning their moves and getting out the way is just as important as knowing when to just go full out button smash attack.
A new combat mechanic that is key to success is using the environment for special attacks. This can range from jumping on nearby skateboards to mow down enemies to leaping up high to a lamp post and spinning around hitting all within reach. These environmental attacks are key to survival and extremely useful, but at the same time they are hilarious fun to activate. My personal favourite was to jump on top of a Police Car, leap off it, then shoot back down, making it explode and destroying any enemies within the blast radius.
The graphical art style is bold, bright and beautiful, and presented in the same style as the previous game, despite being from a new developer. From the stylish menu screens to the gorgeous and interesting environments that mix real-world locations with the fantasy of the metaverse, Persona 5 Strikers is great eye candy wherever the game takes you on its 40-plus hour journey.
The characters themselves along with the dialogue bubbles are of the highest standard; easy on the eye, clean to look at and with easy to read text. The game is voiced in English alongside the written dialogue, so players have the option to listen or read as both are presented at the same time.
The audio is one of the standout aspects of not just this game but the series. Both the action and sound effects of weapons, movement, and hits, alongside the over the top animations that convey weight and gravitas to add to the experience. Ryuji aka “Skull” smashing people in the face with a bent piece of pipe never gets old! Also, the voice acting is of incredibly high quality with each actor getting fully behind their on-screen, ahem “Personas!” (Groan – Ed)
Max Mittleman, who voices Ryuki Sakamoto, deserves special attention, as not only does he have some great, funny and hilarious lines to deliver, but he does so with such energy and gusto, it’s hard not to fall in love with the loveable rogue he plays on-screen.
The soundtrack is worth paying the price of the game alone. A mixture of Pop Rock, Jazz, Funk, and everything in between, means it’s really hard not only to fault the musical score that goes with the game but also to pick out a favourite! Ok if you push me, listen to the track “Daredevil” and tell me you aren’t impressed!
It’s not all good!
As good as the core of the game is, there are a few things which don’t quite hit the right notes. The main issue is really only one that Persona veterans would notice is that there is no quality downtime between battles where you can spend time with your team to build your confidant levels, do your daily chores, or complete side quests to gain money. This aspect in the previous game gave players the chance to delve deep into each character and their backstories. Without it, it feels like something is missing, and you simply have to grind through the linear discussions the team have together. The only thing the player can do when not in battle, or during the sometimes lengthy dialogue exposition dumps, is to explore a cut-down section of the local environment to go shopping for health items that can be used in battle. Although the areas to go shopping are limited, they are gorgeous to look at and it was still enjoyable exploring, albeit on a more simple level.
One of the few areas that newcomers to the series might notice a fault is during battles. As they are fast and frenetic, with so much action happening on the screen all at once, your concentration is focussed on managing the health of the team whilst defeating enemies, the characters unfortunately, have a propensity to want to discuss the situation with the enemy they are fighting or chat to each other during combat. This dialogue at times is really interesting or funny, but during the heat of battle is completely lost on the player concentrating on the job at hand.
Another small issue is the dialogue. Although for 90% of the time it is interesting, funny, and extremely well written, the remaining 10% covers how often the crew labour over a point they made ten minutes ago.
Despite the fact that there have been dramatic key changes to core aspects of the game, Persona 5 Strikers still wholeheartedly captures the Persona 5 vibe to perfection, albeit in a slimmed-down and vastly different gameplay style. As the story continues directly on from the end of the last game, the game could have been titled as a direct sequel to Persona 5, rather than a derivative spin-off title. Calling this a spin-off belittles the effort put into this quality game.
On a final positive note, however, from a technical standpoint, the game features a frame rate or graphical performance mode. Whilst playing the game on a PS5, using backwards compatibility, I have to admit that whatever setting I put the game on I didn’t notice (to the naked eye anyway) any differences in performance or detail for either option. The game still looked silky smooth when on Graphical mode, or vice versa, sharp as a button even on Performance mode.
As a fan of Persona 5 and it’s universe, and of Musou style hack and slash games, Persona 5 Strikers perfectly combined these two aspects remarkably well and with such easy going aplomb, one would think this is how all the previous Persona games are played. This is a testament to the abilities of Koei-Tecmo and publisher Atlus, who in trying something new with such a beloved franchise have made it work with such finesse, and in such great style. Get ready to have your desires stolen all over again in new and exciting ways! Welcome to the world of the Phantom Thieves!