Three years ago, Atlus released Persona 5 in the west, propelling the series from having a cult following to enjoying mainstream success. It has a wonderful story, whimsical characters, a vibrant soundtrack, and extremely polished turn-based combat. This year, Atlus (sort of) did it again with Persona 5 Royal, a pseudo definitive edition of an already refined JRPG. We got even more music, and the best part of it all? It might be some of the best music in Persona 5.
The Best Game Music of 2020 is a weekly feature that highlights some of the best soundtracks of the year.
For clarity’s sake, Persona 5 Royal won’t be up for our best soundtrack award simply because it’s not quite a brand new release. It’s partially an expansion, partially a re-imagining, and mostly the same. That conundrum has been part of the series before with Persona 4 Golden, but one thing’s certain: The new music in Royal deserves its moment in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, lots of the best music here is hidden behind dozens of hours of playtime. If you played Persona 5 in 2017, it’s hard to blame you for not wanting to stick through to the end. However, I assure you it’s worth the effort if you like the universe. The story presents enthralling questions about the pitfalls of ambition, with an engaging villain who has one of the best boss battle songs yet.
This piece will spoil the final act of Persona 5 Royal (yes, the coveted third semester). If you’re just here for the music but don’t want spoilers, look up “I Believe.” It’s pretty good.
The Royal Treatment
For those whose ears haven’t been blessed by composer Shoji Meguro’s work on Persona 5’s soundtrack, you’ll have a lot to catch up on. You might recognize “Last Surprise,” which joins that short list of JRPG battle themes that remain groovy, even after you racked up an 80-hour save file. You might even recognize the “Scramble” version of it that was performed at The Game Awards preshow this year, ahead of the release of Persona 5 Strikers.
While “Last Surprise” certainly provides a massive amount of charm to a game dripping with charisma, Persona 5 Royal takes battle themes one step further with “Take Over.” Between the two songs, you get a more clear picture of the Phantom Thieves, each painting a part of the picture.
“Last Surprise” tells the story of some scrappy daredevils who sneak up on foes to eliminate them. Consider the lyrics that lead up to the chorus:
Seems like it crept up out of nowhere,
All around you.
It’s not quite what you foretold.
That all leads up to the iconic hook, “You’ll never see it coming.” These sneaky underdogs shouldn’t be underestimated, because they can overwhelm you before you even realize it.
All these lyrics are brought to life by the wonderful talent of jazz and soul vocalist Lyn Inaizumi, who performs in the video above. She coolly sings these lines over a groovy track with a funky bass guitar that doesn’t know when to stop. The approach differs from something like Final Fantasy VII Remake, which goes for bombastic, epic sounds to get your blood pumping.
That all changes with “Take Over,” though. In Persona 5 Royal, this song takes a cue from more typical JRPG battle themes. While also telling a story about the Phantom Thieves, this one sounds more brave and courageous, with a touch of arrogance. Take the lyrics of the second verse:
You actually thought that you can get away with
Skeletons in your closet? Don't think so.
We're gonna reveal the truth out to the public.
Put your hands up, time to surrender.
These lyrics directly link to the story’s major beats, and in battle, they have this air of overwhelming confidence. Then the song blossoms into a huge chorus. The guitar takes a backseat as the horns play a victorious phrase, coinciding with Inaizumi’s excellent vocals. The strings follow up with a countermelody that flirts with and responds to the horns. After the second chorus, you’ll also notice the strings go off and do their own thing, playing this syncopated countermelody that nearly steals the show. It’s as if these strings represent the Phantom Thieves’ spirit of rebellion.
This song isn’t just about winning a fight—it’s about steamrolling some cannon fodder in style. That’s fitting too, considering how the game uses these two battle themes. “Take Over” plays any time you sneak up on an enemy, ensuring you go first. A swift victory involving an all-out attack is almost always guaranteed.
“Last Surprise” now only plays when a battle is initiated normally. You may not have gained the upper hand before the fight, but that doesn’t matter. You’re Joker, the leader of the Phantom Thieves. You’ll make your own advantage during the fight and grab victory before the enemy even notices.
As simple as it sounds, having two battle themes play during different moments really improves the overall experience of a turn-based JRPG. It goes a long way to avoiding any song fatigue, and the variety keeps everything fresh. Where the music gets even more interesting, though, is when it starts coinciding with the story.
When it comes to music, especially boss themes, the last Palace in Persona 5 Royal absolutely delivers. The dungeon’s theme, “Gentle Madman,” plays this haunting, sad, yet hopeful tune that embodies Maruki perfectly. He’s an earnest man who got hurt, but now he has the power to make sure other people never feel that sadness he once felt—even if it means taking away their free will and ambition. It’s a grim plan born of good intentions, and you know what they say about the road to hell.
The Phantom Thieves, after defeating a literal god, come out of retirement to fight for humanity once more. This time, their fight isn’t against some supernatural deity who preys on humanity’s lethargy and indifference. Instead, they must topple a man who’s trying to remove strife from the human experience.
The Phantom Thieves, of course, disagree with Maruki’s vision of a perfect world. A life without hardship has no meaning, and any challenge can be overcome with allies at your side. That’s where the song “I Believe” comes into play, and what a powerful track it is.
Normally, in most of the previous Palaces, the song “Life Will Change” plays during the final run to the boss. It’s filled with hype and excitement, acting as the Phantom Thieves’ anthem. “I Believe” takes motifs and thematic elements from “Life Will Change” and cranks it all up to 11, as if symbolizing how much our heroes have grown in the past year.
“I Believe” starts with a heroic, optimistic melody led by the strings, but this is quickly followed by the opening guitar lick from “Life Will Change.” Even the lyrics in the second verse call back to that old song. Once we get to the chorus, everything opens up with a massively major-sounding vibe. It almost sounds like something out of gospel music.
The strings flutter up to a major chord, while Inaizumi emphatically holds on the phrase, “I believe.” Her voice vibratos through the last syllable, like a powerful reflection of our heroes’ conviction. The rest of the chorus plays out, championing teamwork and friendship. These values are core to the Phantom Thieves, as they pulled each other through their shared hardships. Maruki’s trying to take away the sort of struggle that’s so core to their camaraderie, and the Phantom Thieves—through “I Believe”—wholly reject that worldview.
The Antithesis of Rebellion
So how do you follow that up in the final boss fight itself? You play “Throw Away Your Mask.” This now-unfortunately-titled track is essentially Maruki’s theme song. After a solemn opening that harkens back to the leading melody of “Gentle Madman”—his Palace theme—we jump into a heavy hard-rock riff. The instrumentation, melodies, and rhythm don’t let up, and the tense vibe can almost feel oppressive. After all, this is the biggest boss fight in Persona 5 Royal.
The lyrics, however, tell a much different story. Take a look at this part of the second verse:
We don't need to have this conflict,
‘Cause I can take you
To the place of delight.
To the whole world.
These lyrics depict Maruki’s entire motivation as a character. He’s pleading with the Phantom Thieves, begging them to let him help. He wants to erase all their problems so they can live happy lives.
As illustrated in the chorus, Maruki doesn’t want people to “strive for greatness” anymore, because in his eyes, that only leads to suffering. He fully admits that in his world, humans will never be great. At the same time, you’ll never want for anything ever again, so is it really that bad?
Maruki represents the complete, conceptual antithesis of the Phantom Thieves. Consider that in Jungian psychology, the persona is the form our personality takes in response to social context. We change depending on who we’re around and where we are, and the persona acts as a defensive buffer between our “true selves” and reality. In Persona 5, this is manifested by literal masks. The shadows in the Metaverse wear masks, as do our heroes. When a shadow loses its mask, though, it goes berserk and turns into a demon.
What makes the Phantom Thieves special is that they’ve accepted their true, rebellious spirits, which gives them the power to confront evil head on. That’s embodied by the anime superpowers they get when they remove their masks freely. Because they accept their true selves, they have complete control of their personas and can use them to fight corruption. Their meaning of “mask” has changed completely; what once was a subconscious defense mechanism has become their greatest weapon.
Maruki, however, asks them to do more than remove their masks; he wants them to throw their masks away, to stop pretending. Aside from aging poorly since March 2020, this song asks our heroes to simply forget all the growth they’ve gone through in the past year. He wants them to lose their literal and figurative masks, and then replace their true selves with false facades of happiness. He wants to rewrite their realities, to create a new world where they never needed to confront their rebellious spirits in the first place. After all, in his eyes, ambition is the enemy of true happiness.
Songs with lyrics are few and far between in video games, but it’s always nice when they fill in some narrative context between the lines. The final boss fight has two great ones attached to it, each telling the conflicting sides of the story. When played in succession, they put the big picture in perspective, all while you’re whooping the final boss’ into the next dimension. The music in Persona 5 Royal goes beyond simply being good. It’s used masterfully in its narrative to create powerful moments that resonate even after you roll credits.
This feature is part of our limited-run series on some of the best soundtracks of 2020. Tune in next week for the final installment!