Persona 5 Royal – A Mammoth Experience
Persona 5 Royal is undoubtedly the best version of 2017’s original western release; the combat is even better, there’s more music, and it features an emotionally-charged new story arc. However, be warned that its uneven pacing and behemoth runtime makes for a slog – especially for returning players keen to experience all the new content.
To briefly recap my Persona 5 Royal review-in-progress, Royal remixes the original game much like Persona 4 Golden did in 2008. Many quality-of-life improvements comprise the Royal treatment in addition to new characters, an extra Palace and an epilogue that gives all characters time to shine. These changes make for a more streamlined Persona 5 experience; it’s now easier than ever to improve Social Stats and relationship rankings with other characters known as ‘Confidants’. This, among more in-game free time to pursue countless character-enhancing activities, reduces much of the grinding for statistics prevalent in the original.
Akin to other entries in the Persona series, Royal follows a group of teenagers who awaken to supernatural powers, their true selves, known as ‘Personas’. Set in metropolitan Tokyo featuring several real-life locations including Shibuya and Akihabara, these teens discover they possess the ability to change the hearts of people with wildly distorted desires. To do this, they adopt the moniker of ‘ The Phantom Thieves of Hearts’ and confront their targets in an alternate dimension known as the ‘Metaverse’, where their targets’ desires manifest in grand dungeons called ‘Palaces’. Armed with Personas, much of your time in Royal includes battling through Palaces.
Spectacularly, Royal took an already-flashy combat system and polished it to new heights. In typical turn-based RPG fare, battles consist of identifying and exploiting enemy weaknesses. Here, in the Persona series, successfully striking a foe’s weakness knocks them down, resulting in a ‘1 More’. 1 Mores are the lifeblood of Royal’s battles, giving an additional turn to the attacker each time they successfully knock down an opponent – whether by weakness, critical, or the facelifted ‘Technical’ damage.
Technical damage – generated by hitting a status-afflicted target with a corresponding element – is especially helpful in Royal, as it can now down enemies, netting a fabled 1 More in the process. Additionally, the extra turn granted by a 1 More enables a ‘Baton Pass’, where you can pass the turn to another teammate and buff them with various bonuses.
Royal revamps Baton Passes so they are available from the beginning, while adding the ability to level up the bonuses granted by the manoeuvre later in the game to include HP and SP (required for casting magic skills) restoration. With a full party of four Phantom Thieves, Baton Passes can stack up to three times, with the final recipient empowered to unleash any skill at no cost to their HP or SP. Royal’s battles continually exhilarate by rewarding extra power and dazzling visual effects with each successful attack chain. And this doesn’t even cover the ultra-stylish ‘Showtime’ finishers progressively unlocked throughout the story.
Battles are only one component of Royal’s attraction; plenty of time is spent in the vivid Tokyo depiction with Confidants taking in plenty of side activities along the way. Aside from learning more about other characters, these activities often reward you with various benefits useful for in and out of battle. New to Royal is Kichijoji, a location housing Penguin Sniper, a darts and billiards lounge that is not only a fun pursuit, but also grants vital upgrades for late-game encounters.
Spending time with Royal’s characters, particularly the Phantom Thieves, is a blast and adds further story context. For the most part, they all feel like fully-realised characters and not just anime trope facsimiles. It’s easy to empathise with their high school struggles and issues common with finding their place in the world. However, many early-game interactions with adult characters such as Sakura and Kawakami are grating, perhaps a little too heavy-handedly establishing the ‘it’s up to us kids to prove the bad adults wrong!’ tone which makes more sense further into the game. This extends to many of the antagonists; you can understand how their distorted desires occurred, but their villainous caricatures and tilted power dynamics often make it difficult to elicit sympathy.
Pleasingly, Royal’s new characters are lovely additions and seamlessly slot into the existing narrative. Two new Confidants, the goofy but well-intentioned school counsellor Dr Maruki, and elite high school gymnast Kasumi introduce broader themes of mental health and societal expectations to the story. Persona 5 originally dealt with many messages relevant to teenagers and adults alike, but the new themes feel more relevant and relatable than ever. Maruki and Kasumi are integral to Royal, as is wunderkind detective Akechi, whose Confidant here is completely revamped. Between the three characters, they all offer interesting perspectives on the game’s events and societal issues at large.
While Royal cleverly foreshadows and connects narrative threads throughout the new concluding chapter, one character actually remarks about the many seemingly coincidental events leading to the events in question. I couldn’t help but agree that many convenient plot points do indeed occur, but I was willing to suspend all disbelief after 100 hours of gameplay. Call it a sunken-cost fallacy, but I found Royal’s new Palace and story content to be highly emotive and almost worth excusing the game’s haphazard pacing and obscene runtime.
Complaining about a JRPG being too long is like stating water is too wet. This genre is known for generating dozens of hours of playtime by nature, so there’s an unwritten contract you sign by playing, acknowledging this fact. However, why must we accept this to be a necessary component of the experience? It’s fallacious to believe that quantity equals quality, especially when said runtime diminishes narrative pacing and overall enjoyment.
Particularly for returning players, skipping through dialogue to save time isn’t recommended, as new information and character interactions are sprinkled throughout the existing game calendar. Seeing Royal through to completion took roughly 130 hours, a not insignificant portion of which felt bloated. If it weren’t for various improvements such as the ability to increase experience gained in the gargantuan Mementos dungeon, or your cat pal Morgana not forcing you to sleep as regularly, the hour count may have been upwards of 150. Whether this mammoth time investment pays off or not relies on your capacity to go the distance. According to PlayStation trophy data, roughly a third of Persona 5 players saw the ending, if that gives you any indication.
Royal isn’t without aspects prime for trimming down to make a more approachable prospect. Firstly, the Palace dungeons all outstay their collective welcomes. These Palaces, without fail, arbitrarily drag on and inexplicably slow the otherwise engrossing plot down. While the combat is fun and Royal’s dungeons largely inspire more variety than Persona 4 Golden’s comparatively monotonous floor-crawling, I was often wishing for the next story beat to come sooner.
Secondly, Royal falls into the trap of repeating information and dumping large exposition chunks. Frequently, characters converse in circles before getting to the point and rehashing past events still fresh in memory. I swear to Arsene almighty, if I hear the word ‘cognition’ again, I’m going to have a shutdown of my own. Most annoyingly is during emotional moments, many characters feel they need to express how they feel in as many words as possible. Considering the great English voice acting – Robbie Daymond’s turn as Akechi is exceptionally brilliant – and stirring soundtrack, Royal can absolutely do more with less.
And yet, I still love Royal. Who would’ve thought: you can love a game while being critical of its flawed aspects!
Ultimately – snazzy combat, visuals, music and literally everything else great about this game aside – Royal embodies the heart of the Persona series. These games are less about saving the world, and more about the meaningful relationships you form with other people. With Royal’s lens amplifying Persona 5’s original themes to include relatable mental health discussions, your impact on others is placed on the fore. Like in real-life, acts of kindness have flow-on effects more significant than you could ever imagine. To detail one of Royal’s main moral questions would lean too far into spoiler territory, but know that it’s heartwrenching to consider.
Royal improves Persona 5 in too many ways to count while retaining the heart of what makes it such an extraordinary JRPG. Granted, its frequent slow pacing demands so much of your time, but Royal is easy to recommend if a rich, long game is exactly what you’re seeking.
Persona 5 Royal was reviewed on a PS4 with code kindly supplied by 5 Star Games Australia
Adelaide-based Donkey Kong Country evangelist & enthusiast.
Chris writes for Player2.net.au, Vooks, PC PowerPlay and Hyper about games and the wider community.
Also loves the Crows & the Philly Eagles – feel free to say hi!