Style is the substance of Persona 5

The story of ruthless rogues one-upping the rich and powerful isn’t entirely new to games. Deus Ex, Dishonored, Thief, and even Metal Gear Solid are very indirect power fantasies compared to, say, Uncharted or Call of Duty — in which supposed specialists hold their own against greater numbers, firepower, and recourses. You’re a “badass” in either case, but in stealth games, the root of that power comes from brains over brawn.

Still, there’s a cold calculated-ness to the execution of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored. Typically, when I play those games, enemies and obstacles are reduced to variables that need to be counted out. Usually that means shooting, stabbing, choking, or dodging them altogether: whatever combination is the least time and resource intensive “solution” to the problem keeping me from moving from point A to B.

There’s satisfaction in that. It’s similar to the feeling I get from vacuuming or picking up my room.

Yet stealth games typically dress up these obstacles as people. If I’m to believe that my role as player is to embody Dishonored’s Emily Kaldwin or Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen, then this kind of reducing people to variables, numbers, and priorities makes me feel… if not utterly vile, at least more like a mathematician than a fun-loving rogue. None of these older stealth series have ever made me feel like the thoughtful, charming, human cons at the center of stories like Ocean’s 11 or Entrapment. Certainly not like Persona 5 does, anyway.

See, those other series provide me with problems to solve. Persona 5, though, takes me step-by-step through the buildup, showmanship, and reveal. The sense of getting one over on someone “stronger” is given time and attention to breathe — to feel downright cool, as well as ruthlessly efficient.

As Jensen, Kaldwin, or Solid Snake I can plot a course to steal some high-tech or magical McGuffin but only Persona 5 lets me gloat about it with public calling cards and extravagant celebrations. 

It seems odd given that the moment-to-moment action of Persona isn’t  the kind of slick motion you’d expect from lithe, leather-clad thieves. For whatever refreshing time it spends hanging out with friends and potential lovers, its combat is still the staggered, turn-based cycle of traditional JRPG combat. Clocking in at more than 100 hours (more than 130 for me, specifically) Persona 5’s story about supernatural “Phantom Thieves” invading villains’ minds is an extremely slow burn.

That’s fine by me. The best parts of heist tales are never the running and gunning. If the guns come out, as they always can and often do in these games, it means something has gone wrong. It’s the thinking that comes ahead of time— the sense of one ragtag crew too vulnerable to use brute force instead relying on careful planning and execution to achieve their goals. The thrill of a good heist story— and the glitzy, elegant role I want to play— isn’t fighting the the bad guys on even terms. It’s witnessing the heroes come at their targets sideways, zigzagging between all the clever, carefully planned and executed guerrilla tactics in time with the characters.

The so-called Phantom Thieves have access to the Metaverse, a magical world where metaphor and inner strength are just as powerful as real-world resources like money and political influence. Inside the Metaverse are “Treasures, or the collective desires of corrupt human souls given form. Taking them means also taking the source of that corruption and bringing about a “change of heart” that turns the villains upstanding and penitent.

When it launched in 2006, Persona 3 introduced the now series-standard blend of dating sim and JRPG battles. By day Persona 5’s characters go to school, hang out at the mall, make friends with townies, and more. By night they fight paranormal beasties.

So the Phantom Thieves while away virtual afternoons casing the Metaverse and discussing the best ways to infiltrate it. Most of this could be handled in cutscenes. That’s how Uncharted does it, leaving the easily marketable explosions and gunplay that follow up to me to control. But if I’m seeing it this way, I’m not living the fantasy. I’m watching other people play it out and thinking how cool it would feel to be that kind of clever. Which is something I can already get from movies, TV, books, and other things that aren’t video games.

Persona 5, on the other hand, doesn’t just show me that I’m planning a heist. It makes me a participant. The simulation gives me  an acceptable fraction of the satisfaction a real mastermind one-upping their overconfident foe supposedly feels — as much as I can expect without actually turning to a life of crime, anyway. But it happens in smaller, subtler ways, too.

“Hold-ups” are a great example. That’s the game’s term for when the player manages to hit every enemy’s weak point in a single turn of combat. Previous Persona games had a similar mechanic, except they only ever triggered an “all-out attack,” where every member of my parties could go hog wild on our foes with a… well, with an all-out attack. That’s still there in Persona 5, of course, but there are other options— namely, the ability to turn enemies to the Phantoms’ side, or extort the creatures for cash and items.

If the day-by-day planning adds character to the heist movie premise then these little combat exchanges are me acting out the scenes. I’m not just bludgeoning or blasting my way through obstacles but neither am I just adding and subtracting numbers from a board. . I’m putting the screws to hapless goons or talking them around to my way of thinking.  Charm, manipulation, and sheer chutzpah let me wriggle my way past more powerful, well-protected foes’ defenses. Hell, even the menus, which should be the driest part of the game, animate with glamorous energy; colorful silhouettes of the Phantom Thieves flit across the data like they’re putting on a show.

It also builds on even more past mechanics. Many Atlus games — even previous Personas — feature this same kind of mid-combat negotiation, although in those games it doesn’t directly serve much narrative purpose. You gather more gods, monsters, and money to plow through bosses because rising difficulty demands it. In Persona 5, however, targeting weaknesses and twisting the opponent’s resources against them is the moment-to-moment fuel for my fantasy as a clever underdog biting back.

I might be fighting in more-or-less the same way I have in past Persona games — not to mention in JRPGs for the past couple decades — but by weaving the game’s thieving style and story into the gameplay it doesn’t feel like something I’ve ever gotten to play before. Not even in games that purport to peddle

Dishonored, Deus Ex, and other bookish takes on stealth  games have always sold themselves with trappings of swaggering piracy. Yet those aren’t the games I ever got to play. Persona 5, however, doesn’t prioritize substance over style or vice versa. It’s finally a game that  ties its swashbuckling to actions that feels equally energetic.