This is the fourth installment of our Game In Progress review of Persona 5, and it contains slight spoilers for all confidant storylines as played through the game’s sixth dungeon. It’s nothing that will ruin much of anything, though. We promise. You can read the rest of Clayton’s review here.
I’m rounding the corner toward the final stretch of Persona 5, but it occurs to me I still haven’t discussed the actual plot of this immense game that much. (If you want 2,000 words of criticism on neo-liberal systems juxtaposed with JRPG grinds, have I got an article for you!) I want to talk more about the game’s larger story, but it seems fair to wait until I’ve finished it off before really analyzing it.
So let’s talk instead about what gives this game, and its immediate predecessors, its lifeblood: the characters themselves, who each have individual plot arcs we can choose to explore (or not) based on our whims. These are narratives portioned out through individual afternoon and evening chunks, but they’re also told mechanically—via the various statistical boosts the confidantes give you as they advance—and aesthetically, through the game’s cheery anime visual design and its characteristically overwrought vocal performances.
In most role-playing games, you pick a party you like and stick with it. You might pick them because you like the way these characters fight, or you know they’ll eventually acquire an ability or weapon you want, or you think they’re hot. (Hey: In Persona, there’s a great chance you can eventually hook up with that character, assuming, in this installment’s case, it’s a female character.) Because of the surplus of options for how you can spend your time, odds are there’s also an internal power-ranking going on in your head about which of the game’s many confidantes are the best. If you’ve got five people asking for your time, you’re going to narrow that down to a couple of possibilities. And after you spend that time, you weigh the investment: Was it worth your time? This internal ranking of character likability is central to the game’s sense of risk and reward.
So it’s in this spirit that I’m offering my ranking. I expect it will inspire no arguments, just polite applause and agreement. Thank you in advance!
21. Iwai—“The reason you know your Guts score”
Persona 5 is a huge game, chock-full of characters. The worst of them seem as if they were added in after the rest of the game was completed, the sort of “content for content’s sake” that bloats so many games. Take Iwai. Iwai is a monster. This guy sells weapons to children, which is helpful if you’re a child who is fighting demons in your spare time but is, generally speaking, an uncool thing to do. But the real reason I dislike him is the fact that you can’t unlock him until your Guts level is “dauntless,” and you are reminded of that fact every single time you want to buy anything from him for the majority of the game.
20. Chihaya Mifune—“The fortune teller who is bad at her job”
Chihaya is no one’s favorite, because she soaks you for 100,000 yen before you can even talk to her. Like many characters in this tier, her plot is a dour trip into her professional problems, with some interpersonal pathos thrown in. Her abilities are useful, but at what cost? Just kidding, we know the cost: It is 100,000 yen.
19. Ichiko Ohya—“The journalist who is bad at her job”
Ohya’s one redeeming characteristic is that she is a drunk who spends all her time hanging out in a bar, hitting on you and being sad. I’m generally quite fond of people like that, at least for a little while. But Ohya’s signature ability—lowering a Palace’s alert level—is completely pointless, and she has a weird bowl cut. Hard pass.
18. Toranosuke Yoshida—“The politician who is bad at his job”
I was extremely disappointed to find Toranosuke’s plotline so meandering, because the notion of a down-on-his-luck politician seems so rich with possibility in a game that ends up largely being about the corrupting nature of power. And yet within a few hangouts, Toranosuke’s plot turns into a bunch of weird arguments with fellow politicians, with no real stakes.
17. Haru Okumura—“Her?”
Haru pops in during one of the game’s most exciting Palaces but seems to lack any defining characteristic of her own. She’s rich and she’s transparently sort of dumb. One of the things that really works in this game is the way the combat system has been opened up to include more elements, but that required tossing in more characters to represent those elements with little thought given to what those characters might add. Haru is the poster child of that. She adds nothing.
16. Shinya Oda—“The l33t gamer”
Shinya is the most recent of my acquaintances, and I do not care about him. Is he a little kid? Why are we playing a game called Gun About? What is Gun About about? His power-ups—which let me shoot bullets at demons after sneak-attacking them—would probably be useful if I spent literally any money on guns, but I do not, because they are pointless.
15. Goro Akechi—“The mystery anime detective”
Akechi’s got the same problem as Haru, except that he at least appears to have been air-dropped in from a kid’s anime, solving his own mystery with a Phoenix Wright flair. That tension between extreme, real-world darkness and over-the-top cheeriness is central to Persona’s appeal, but Akechi tips the scales too far, feeling like a character from a lesser game.
14. Sojiro Sakura—“The creepy uncle”
Sakura hates you, loves coffee, and is a pervert. His social link also takes forever to level up, so I don’t even try. Life is short; hang out with people your own goddamn age. (This applies to Shinya Oda, as well.) Also you don’t need his SP-boosting curry if you just get the bandages from Takami.
13. Ryuji Sakamoto—“The Poor Man’s Yosuke”
Ryuji is supposed to be your best friend, a rage-filled outcast who was also once a great athlete. It’s not an archetype that makes much sense, and his plot arc is accordingly confused. It is extremely clear that he hates rules, however, and you know this because he wears a shirt that says “no mo’ rules” on it. I do not hang out with this guy.
12. Justine & Caroline—“The hard-ass doms”
I love Justine and Caroline, the Velvet Room twins who kick your ass and call you “slave” and murder all your demons with great delight and evil in their little hearts. Unfortunately, you can only level them up by fusing increasingly complicated personas, which I gave up on pretty quickly. I’m sure they’re great, but I am not hardcore enough for them. May they have fun kicking Shinya Oda’s ass around.
11. Hifumi Togo—“Your friend who is a model”
It is extremely weird for there to be two characters whose plot arcs involve a conflicted relationship with a successful modeling career that they overcome by developing a romantic relationship with you, but that is the case in Persona 5. Many games involve wish-fulfillment, but Persona is generally better at wrapping that within a larger, more varied narrative. Previous games had the feeling of you and your teammates gradually developing romantic connections like a teen soap opera; these model relationships feel more transparently designed to titillate. Still: the power Hifumi unlocks for you—letting you swap teammates in and out mid-battle—is absolutely essential. I acquiesce. Teach me shoji, master.
10. Ann Takamaki—“Your other friend who is a model”
While many confidantes are gated behind increasing charm or guts or story progression, Ann is available pretty much right off the bat. She is introduced, in the game’s early hours, by people marveling over her body, and soon enough, she is your girlfriend. This seemed a bit much to me, and yet she was the first character I maxed out. I am not proud of this fact, but I need to acknowledge that I have spent a lot of very pleasant time with her.
9. Sae Niijima—“The hard-ass prosecutor from the future”
You level up Sae as the story progresses, always flashing to the future where she’s interrogating you. I like this framing device in hindsight, and I like the way Sae is a total fucking hardass about this stuff even more. “Your team must have had an incredible understanding of shoji techniques!” she’ll scream. “Tell me, who was helping you!” It’s the sort of pulpy fun the game is great at.
8. Yusuke Kitagawa—“The guy from your MFA class”
Yusuke is an artist, which in this game’s shoddy translation, means he doesn’t use contractions when he speaks and talks about “beauty” a lot. Still, among the core group of combatants, he’s one of my most-used players, and I like the fact that he goes to a different school for artsy kids. I can deal with pretentious people, and he’s a hell of a lot better than nobodies like Haru and Akechi or your other so-called best bud, Ryuji.
7. Yuuki Mishima—“The lovable nerd”
Some of Persona 5’s best characters are its most pathetic ones. Take, for example, Yuuki Mishima, the fanboy who runs your website and eagerly clamors to be a part of the gang’s fame. It strikes an interesting discordant tone—he’s so hungry for fame that you have to go into Mementos at one point to snap him out of it. Even if he is sort of annoying, he’s defined by his flaws instead of blithely overcoming them in some upwardly mobile story of career empowerment, like those of the DLC tier. Also: experience-boosting powers are great.
6. Tae Takemi—“The doctor who is bad at her job but is still cool”
Like a lot of the tertiary characters in this game, Tae sucks at her job. Unlike many of those other characters, she wears a cool goth spider dress and eventually sells you the SP Bandages, which are sort of game-breakingly powerful.
5. Sadayo Kawakami—“The tragically useful teacher”
There’s nobody more pathetic than Kawakami, the frazzled, debt-riddled teacher who is also working as a maid part-time while withstanding verbal abuse from pretty much everybody she comes across, herself included. She is extremely useful, being the rare character who gives you more time, an important resource, but you always feel a pang of guilt for doing so. I wanted good things for her and was happy when they came.
I would not put Igor lower than this for fear of what Igor might do to me.
3. Futaba Sakura—“The wild card”
Futaba, like Mishima, is obnoxious on a surface level. The big headphones, the forced social awkwardness—it’s all a little much. And yet she changes the dynamics of the Phantom Thieves when she’s introduced, the gang’s cheery rapport upset as she annoys pretty much everyone with her inability to do anything normally. Many of the characters we’re supposed to like are written too poorly to dig into. The characters we’re supposed to be annoyed by, like Futaba, still pull something out of the player. And the effects of her powers—the weird glitches as she hacks into the battle—are among the most aesthetically pleasing flourishes in combat and can save you from a costly game over.
2. Makoto Niijima—“The queen”
Look, I may have a type: Yukiko, Mitsuru, Makoto. That being said, there is no moment in this game as good as when Makoto’s inner rage boils over and her persona is unleashed, revealing a righteous leather-clad motorcycle-riding agent of death. I started texting friends MAKOTO in all-caps after that; it’s the most interesting character moment of the game, a perfect fusion of its combat, confidant systems, writing, and visual design. Morgana even calls her “queen.” Which brings us to:
1. Morgana—“My actual best friend in real life”
You may not like Morgana. You may find Morgana obnoxious. But you are wrong. Morgana is, first off, versatile, serving much of the game as your back-up combat coordinator but still hopping in to deal out wind magic and many of the game’s best healing powers. He similarly serves as your steward and rule-master for the first part of the game, guiding you through the early hours and seemingly getting stuck in a cautionary loop whenever you approach Iwai. (That’s on Iwai, though. That dude is a monster. Morgana’s just looking out.)
But Morgana can only do this because he is always with you, unlike these other assholes. He is your roommate, your soulmate, your muse. In a game full of small details, he is the recipient of many of its most delightful animations, his head popping out of your desk, your book bag, his tail wagging leisurely in your room. Morgana does this because—and this is important—he is a talking cat. That might seem weird, but the game leans into it, making it one of the game’s defining mysteries, its answer purportedly buried at the bottom of dozens of hours of grinding in Mementos. Morgana is a mystery even to himself; he does not know why he is a talking cat and secretly suspects that he was once a human, a fact he clings to as he openly yearns for Ann, your inexplicable model girlfriend.
Morgana is, in other words, a talking cat who is your best friend whose memories lie at the bottom of a randomly generated 70-floor dungeon. He is the reason we play video games.
Developer: P Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4