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In Persona 5 Strikers, Time With Friends is Enough

Perhaps not every moment you spend with someone has to be life altering.

Persona 5 Strikers is very much a reunion, and in some ways, an awkward one. I haven’t seen the Phantom Thieves in a while. Almost a year, in fact. The last time I embodied Joker, the leader of the teenage superheroes, was in Persona 5 Royal, which is coming up on a full year since its western launch. That definitive edition of the original RPG ended on a pretty profound note. After a new adversary gave the group a fresh lease on life, each of the Phantom Thieves wound up in a completely different place emotionally, ending Royal on a mature note that recognized these characters wouldn’t be the same when they next came together.

Strikers undoes a lot of this by not being a sequel to Royal. Instead it takes place after the original Persona 5 timeline. That’s what makes the Musou-style action RPG underwhelming in some ways, but comforting in others. It’s simultaneously challenging in how different it is from previous Persona games while also feeling like comfort food — like seeing a group of friends you haven’t seen in ages just to find that, for better or worse, things are still the same.

That familiarity made me feel warm. It also made me uneasy. Like sitting in a room with my favorite people, realizing the gaps in conversation come faster than we anticipated. We don’t have as much to update each other about as we thought we would when getting together. Instead we sit in comfortable silence. Strikers is a fun spin on Persona 5 mechanics, and it’s certainly a fresh take on the series that has gone in some pretty wild directions over the years. But it also felt safe in ways that required me to re-evaluate what I want out of future Persona spin-offs. Maybe I’m content with that. Maybe I’m okay spending time with my friends, even if nothing’s really going on between us in the moment.

A few months after the original Persona 5, protagonist Joker and his (not a) cat Morgana have left Tokyo and their friends in the Phantom Thieves. The pair returns to the city to visit the gang they once saved the world with. Only it turns out the Metaverse, the paranormal other-world the group used to enter to reform criminals in the real world, is being weaponized by powerful individuals across Japan. These people, called “Monarchs,” are sending folks to regions of the Metaverse called “Jails.” The Jails then brainwash them into the Monarchs’ fervent supporters. Whether that be through buying an influencer’s merchandise, an author’s books, or supporting a local politician’s reelection.

Of course the Phantom Thieves are blamed for these changes of heart happening across Japan, so the group packs into an RV for a road trip to identify and stop Monarchs along the way. But they’re not without help this time around. This includes Sophia, an artificial intelligence able to exist inside the Metaverse, and Zenkichi Hasegawa, a cop who believes the teens are innocent and wants to find the true culprit.

Sophia and Zenkichi are the real stars of the show this time around. They’re the ones who actually develop across Strikers’ roughly 40-hour runtime. Sophia wants to learn about the human heart, and who better to teach her than the teenagers who made a career out of stealing them? It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff. An artificial intelligence trying to learn how to be human is well worn territory, even in larger Persona lore. But there’s an earnestness to Sophia’s story that made it reach me even when I thought I’d be most invested in seeing established characters like Ryuji Sakamoto or Makoto Niijima grow. Zenkichi is also a bit of a trope, but his “old man trying to be hip with the kids” relationship to the Phantom Thieves endeared me rather quickly. His involvement also allows some delicious moments of ACAB dunks

But new cast dynamics aren’t the biggest distinguishing factor for Strikers. This is an action game rather than a turn-based RPG this time around. Taking inspiration from the Dynasty Warriors franchise, much of Strikers is spent battling dozens of shadows (supernatural monsters) at a time in the Metaverse. And there’s an undeniable appeal to playing as any of the Phantom Thieves and just mowing through crowds of foes at one time. The distinct aesthetic of Persona 5 is captured in each fight, with sleek, stylish moves filling the screen no matter which character you play. While I spent the majority of the game as my favorite character, Ryuji, much of Strikers incentivized me to switch between multiple members of the party to handle different situations. This is largely because, despite the action-driven combat, many of the mechanics surrounding the hacking and slashing are pulled straight from Persona 5 proper.

Combat in the first Jail felt fairly simple, and lite stealth mechanics actually made me feel like it was more efficient to avoid enemies altogether, but a difficulty spike in the second dungeon quickly showed me how complex Strikers could be. Nearly every piece of Persona 5’s combat has been adapted into an action setting for Strikers. That means the Phantom Thieves and the shadows they fight each have elemental affinities and status effects to track. It also means constantly switching between characters like I would have done in the turn-based setting. 

This comes with the added pressure of Strikers playing out in real-time.  Rather than simply stopping and thinking about my next move, or managing my inventory to keep everyone’s health and stamina up, I always need to be on the move. It was an adjustment, for sure. Seeing concepts happen in a “real” fight, rather than with characters doing one attack and then walking back to their dedicated spot, was overwhelming. Despite the familiarity, I felt like I was learning each idea for the first time. But Strikers managed to click with me halfway through the second Jail, and became as natural to me as classic Persona.

Fighting as the Phantom Thieves more hands-on makes Strikers feel more distinct and memorable in the grand lineup of Persona spin-offs, but that’s one pillar of the franchise that always felt more or less unscathed in the transition from one game to another. It’s the social aspects of Strikers that leave me cold and conflicted. For me, the greatest appeal of Persona games has been the Social Links — or Confidants in Persona 5 terms — that allowed me to spend one-on-one time with party members and get to know them on a more personal level. Strikers doesn’t have this social sim aspect for you to meet up and chat between all the changing of hearts. Instead, it casts a wider net across the whole cast, focusing on their dynamic as a group, rather than taking individuals aside to see how they’re doing.

Because of this, I don’t really feel like I learned much new about the friends I first made in Persona 5. Sophia and Zenkichi are intrinsic to what’s happening. Meanwhile, the Phantom Thieves are pretty much just along for the ride. There were small asides where I could talk with Ann Takamaki about how she felt watching an influencer gain her level of fame through changing the hearts of the public, or to Yusuke Kitagawa upset about an author gaining his notoriety through brainwashing, but moments like these aren’t evenly spread through the group.

I spent so much time just enjoying the company of my friends that it didn’t really occur to me, until we all split apart again, that I hadn’t really sat down and spoke with them at all. Ryuji and Ann are trying to graduate from high school. Makoto and Haru are in their first years of college. Futaba and Yusuke are enrolled in their own schools, but I didn’t really get to know how things were going. It’s like bumping into someone you haven’t seen in awhile, asking how they are, and getting an abridged answer to end the conversation. These connections are what made Persona 5 so memorable and important to me. And I wasn’t able to expand upon them in the ways I had grown accustomed to. It makes me wonder just what I want out of a Persona spin-off. Are fun gameplay experiments with established characters like Strikers, the Arena fighting games, or the Dancing rhythm games enough? Or do I need to feel like I deepen my bonds each time for it to feel meaningful?

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Perhaps Royal tainted my expectations for what I would feel when I saw the Phantom Thieves again. I finished Strikers feeling a bit empty; I wasn’t expecting that. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy nearly every minute I spent with these dorks, again, but it was a more benign moment in our lives together. Saving the world is just another day in the life of a Phantom Thief. I was hoping for more moments in between to imply growth for everyone involved — like Royal included. But instead, we did what we always do. We blitzed through the Metaverse, took in the sights of Japan while driving from one side of the country to the other, and made new, cherished memories along the way. Then we walked away promising to do it again sometime. It was like we’d just… well, like we’d just driven across the country and back. Our friendships began under extraordinary circumstances, so maybe that means extraordinary events don’t merit life-changing conversations anymore. 

Compared to Royal pushing these characters out of their comfort zone and into new beginnings, Strikers feels like it’s left them frozen in time. It’s disappointing in a way, but also maybe worth holding onto. The youthful bliss of being with your friends and not having to worry about the future can be just as poignant as everyone going their separate ways. Enjoying this frozen, crystalized moment can be enough. 

Persona as a franchise revels in the mundane. It makes every moment, whether it be eating sushi together or changing the hearts of criminals, feel significant. Maybe Strikers is just an example of the new normal for the Phantom Thieves. Sometimes changing hearts and being heroes can be as casual as gathering in a coffee shop to study for your exams. Sometimes you spend the time you can with those you care about, and find joy in each other’s company, even if you have less to say than the last time you saw each other. It’s not the continuation of Royal I wanted, necessarily. But maybe it’s enough to just see my friends, know they’re happy, and know I’ll see them again. Soon, hopefully.

About the Author

Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.