Sequels generally have an issue: how much do you keep the same and how much do you change? At what point do you go in another way and at what point do you just focus on improving what you already have? It's a question many titles, including the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda, struggle with as they try to find their own voice while staying true to the series they are in. It is, however, not one that Persona 5 appears to have.
The fifth game in the Shin Megami Tensei spin-off series Persona, Persona 5, comes out with a bold direction that immediately grasps your attention. While Persona 4 was perhaps the most cheerful-toned murder mystery you may ever find, Persona 5 starts out moody and brooding and has a sharp edge to it, zagging where Persona 4 would generally zig. In fact, the scene after the opening moments that helps set up the framing device seems almost designed to tell you that this isn't Persona 4 before going into the main action that takes place.
I will say right here that this isn't a game for the faint of heart, as any time Persona 5 seems like it might decide to duck from a difficult idea, it doesn't. Persona 5 dives right into realms of police abuse, justice system misuse, privilege abuse, delinquency, and we're not out of the first few hours yet. Despite this seeming rushed, most of these ideas are given room to breathe and arrive at conclusions with the player's participation. One of the noteworthy things here is that, while it's restricted to just narrative changes, Persona 5 gives the player more agency in the story than past games by letting them respond to some conversation options in the way they want to from a small list of responses. This helps give the player and the player character a bit more agency in the game, something that could feel strained at times in past Persona games given the silent protagonist approach, which is important with the weighty themes and ideas of the game.
On a gameplay level, Persona 5 is at least as ambitious. Social links are back, now named confidants, and many of the other systems you'd expect from Persona 3 and 4 are as well like fusions, the turn-based combat, and more. However, while many would have been satisfied with a purely iterative sequel at this point, Persona 5 goes beyond that with building a stealth/infiltration system to fit the game's themes and style of play. While past Persona games have had elements of surprise and ambushes in the dungeons, Persona 5 takes a rudimentary concept and builds it into a full system of infiltration with hiding spots, specialized gear, new rules for ambushing, an alert system, safe rooms, and more. This adds a lot of depth to the major dungeons of the game, called palaces, as you are typically aiming to go from safe room to another one down the line or even to a second if you are feeling brave. It further builds on the individualized dungeons that Persona 4 brought to the series and gives the game a unique flare that you don't get in other RPGs.
One thing to note mechanically is that the inclusion of these new mechanics along with several others means that Persona 5 has a lot of tutorials spread out. The game largely does a good job of pacing it out after a bit of a frontload so that you don't end up feeling too bogged down in it, getting you into the action quickly, but there is going to be an investment on the front end as systems are introduced and explained. It does a good job of concisely getting across what you need to know and provides easy access to more information if you need to check it or can't remember in the future, but if you don't like games that have a lengthy windup to unlocking their mechanics ... well you should consider bending that rule for Persona 5 but do know that may be an issue.
However, Persona 5 also looks back a couple of titles to Persona 3 some as well. In particular, the Momentos section of play is a much improved and streamlined take on Tartarus: it's smaller, more geographically distinct, and is only a portion of the dungeon play you go through. Importantly as well, it has a different pace to the rest of the dungeon crawling, as instead of the meticulous infiltration work, the Momentos move along through the generated dungeons quickly with the team's vehicle and the lack of the alert system. This means that they serve as a change of pace and as it's tied largely to side quests from what I've seen so far, it avoids the burnout that Tartarus could invoke in many in Persona 3.
One final area that Persona 5's unique personality stands out so far is its aesthetics. The game has a striking visual style with a motif color of red (compared to Persona 3's blue and Persona 4's yellow) that it uses smartly in most cases. My one complaint on the color would be that it sometimes goes from a darker scene to a red one too quickly and is a bit hard on the eyes, but I'm more susceptible to that than most. The trademark wonderfully done Persona music also returns in this entry making listening to the game a treat to the ears.
I'm about twelve hours into the game or so at this point, and I've been having a blast. Persona 5 grabs some of the darker ideas of 3 with the gameplay improvements of 4 and combines them both with a large dose of its own personality and improvements to the formula. For those who may have worried after years of spin-offs like Persona 4 Dancing All Night or Persona 4 Arena, I have to say there's nothing that I've seen that makes me worry at all. Persona 5 is the work of a confident and skilled developer who has a clear vision and idea of how to execute it to take a formula and evolve it with new ideas and themes to help pave the way for JRPGs going forward.
Persona 5 was previewed on PlayStation 4 with a key provided by the developer. Persona 5 is also available on PlayStation 3.