The following contains major spoilers for Persona 5 Royal, so read at your own risk.
Persona 5 Royal is an incredibly long game, so I’ve been waiting for quite some time before I spoke to anyone about the game’s new content. Specifically, the game’s third semester, where, along with giving you another 20 or so hours to wrap up things you might not have completed, a new antagonist and new conflict shows its face.
This third semester takes a pretty significant turn from the base game’s themes, and in doing so, is able to flesh out a character who, upon reflection, I think is easily the modern Persona games’ most captivating villain, and subverts the cartoonish, maniacal nature of everyone else in Persona 5, allowing Royal to end on a thoughtful and introspective note.
I told you there would be spoilers, but here’s one final warning. It’s been two weeks since Persona 5 Royal came out in the west, which would normally be a decent enough grace period before discussing these things. But I understand that a 100-hour game might take you a bit longer.
But here’s your last chance.
I’m talking about Takuto Maruki, Shujin Academy’s student counselor. Between Maruki and Kasumi, the new party member who has inhabited almost every piece of promotional material for the game, Persona 5 Royal’s therapist hasn’t been given the same spotlight, but he is, arguably, the more important addition, as he facilitates the events that make Royal more than just a definitive edition of an already great game. As we told you all before the game came out, seeing Maruki’s story through is a requirement to see Royal’s new content. For most of the game, he’s helping students deal with their own trauma, whether that’s Ryuji coping with his inability to compete in track, Yusuke talking through what he actually hopes to accomplish with his art, or Makoto dealing with the pressures of her being in her high standing position as student council president.
But all of these sessions are the prelude to a larger plan. As it turns out, Maruki is also a Persona user, and has the special ability to warp people’s cognition. He discovered this power when his girlfriend Rumi lost her parents in a violent crime, and he was able to alter her memories to think she’d lived with her grandparents her entire life, having lost her parents at a young age. He took away her truth, but took away her pain as well.
Maruki’s vision of a perfect world is one without pain, and because he has the ability to change people’s realities, he believes he should use this power to make the lives of others better, even if it’s an illusion.
This false reality is the basis of Persona 5 Royal’s new semester, where the Phantom Thieves have each been given things they wanted in their real lives. Ryuji is able to be on the track team again, Makoto, Futaba, and Haru’s parents are brought back to life, and Yusuke has a positive relationship with his old sensei again.
Meanwhile, protagonist Joker and his anime rival Goro Akechi are aware something is wrong.
Enter Kasumi Yoshizawa, an honor’s student at Shujin Academy who excels in gymnastics. When we meet her she tells us she lost a sister in a car accident, but once Maruki’s abilities are revealed, we learn that “Kasumi” is actually her sister Sumire, who blames herself for her sister’s death and couldn’t mentally handle feeling like she robbed her sister of her future. Using his ability to change cognition, Maruki made Sumire believe she was actually Kasumi, so she was able to carry on her sister’s legacy as a gymnast and not deal with the emotional weight of feeling like she was responsible for the passing of her sister.
Each member of the Phantom Thieves has to reckon with how imperfect these perfect lives they’ve been given are. And once they all come to accept that they can’t live in this lie, the clash of ideals between the group and Maruki results in one more Palace to infiltrate and one more treasure to steal. Maruki desperately wants these kids to accept this life he’s given them, as they’re the only people with the power to stop him from spreading his illusion across the entire world.
But ultimately, while he is imposing this false reality on others, he does have an altruistic goal: he wants to erase the suffering of others, even if it means it’s with a lie. He is empathetic and also sympathetic. Something that can’t be said for other surprise villains the series has held up as redemptive figures in the past.
After Maruki’s treasure is stolen and his Palace destroyed, the Phantom Thieves meet him one final time when he’s working as a taxi driver. He tells Joker that if the knowledge that trauma doesn’t stop you from starting over saves him and his friends in the future, then they’ve reached an understanding, and that’s the mindset he’ll hold on to moving forward. The two part on good terms, and while I don’t know that there’s much to be gained by bringing Maruki back in any future spin-offs, I would be glad to see him as a willful ally to the Phantom Thieves.
Persona as a franchise has trouble with the idea of redemption. Not only how to make it a genuine, moving piece of a person’s story, but in crafting characters who are worthy of it to begin with. Even in the case of changing a person’s heart, which is the core of everything Persona 5 is, these people’s searching for atonement for the wrong they’ve done is often portrayed as something laughable and pathetic. Watching terrible people grovel for the chance to make good on the wrongs they’ve committed approaches cartoonish levels, and that never actually goes anywhere on-screen.
Meanwhile, characters like Tohru Adachi, the surprise villain of Persona 4 and arguably one of the most reprehensible characters in the series, hasn’t exactly been portrayed with the same air of villainy he is in the end of the game. In his appearance in Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, he’s treated as an anti-hero, one who teams up with good guys to take down a more immediate threat. There’s apprehension, but no one here seems that worried about working with an incel serial killer. Then he’s made a playable dancer in Persona 4: Dancing All Night, which is, in its own way, making light of a character whose actions and beliefs are meant to be held in contempt by letting him get down with the J-Pop.
Akechi, whose betrayal of the Phantom Thieves is a key point in Persona 5, has had his own fair share of weird bastardization over the years. He was also a playable dancer in Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, and generally there’s an attempt to make him part of a friend group he never truly existed within. Royal gives him a chance to earn that spot by revealing that his reappearance at the end of the game, very much alive and willing to help the Phantom Thieves erase Maruki’s illusion, is all part of that same distortion he’s attempting to fight. Knowing he will die if Maruki is defeated, he still fights on, saying he will fight for the truth even if he must die trying. Fitting for a detective, and perhaps a proper conclusion to an arc that got cut off too short last time.
Generally, Persona walks a fine line between fandom-pleasing inclusion of old favorites and what is actually thematically appropriate, and I think it lands on the wrong side of its own history more often than it doesn’t. But Persona 5 Royal shows that, with the right story, it’s capable of creating villains who are flawed, understandable, and more than just a symbolic, driving force for Persona’s theme of the week.