I finished the original Persona 5 roughly four years ago, and it immediately earned my most coveted award: Edders Really Liked This A Lot, Perhaps More Than Anything Else. Since its updated and expanded Royal version dropped on PlayStation some years later, I've been afraid to make my return. You'd think I'd be itching to delve back into what's essentially the definitive version of the Phantom Thieves' adventure, and yet it's precisely because it blew me away the first time that I've been reluctant to go back.
Now? Now I feel silly. After playing the early portions of Persona 5: Royal, which finds itself coming to practically every remaining platform this week, including PC, my goodness me, it's wonderful to be back in Shibuya with the gang. Already it's the Persona 5 I adored, with new cutscenes and pacing adjustments to make it – somehow – even better. Have you never played Persona before? Good! Let me twist your arm. Gi-give, no - give it here!
For the uninitiated, Persona 5 is about a guy, codenamed Joker, who moves to Tokyo following an 'incident'. He joins Shujin Academy as an outsider and, long story short, becomes a member of The Phantom Thieves, a group of high schoolers who set out to change the dark hearts of twisted people. It's one-part social simulator as you partake in the tremendous highs and lows of a high school year, and one part dungeon-crawler as you enter an alternate dimension and invoke powerful demons to batter the bad out of horrible people.
And the whole "Royal" thing is how Atlus have always handled their Persona catalogue, making adjustments, adding new bits, and bundling all previously released DLC in reworked packages. So, Royal is Persona 5's definitive edition, much like how Persona 4: Golden is Persona 4's updated equivalent.
I could talk about the Persona 5 Royal's turn-based combat, which is just the right amount of complex that anyone can overcome the trickiest of battles in ever stylish ways. And the fact that it's a JRPG with party members to manage and a deep well of stat-boosting equipment to dress them with. You may grind a demonic underground for loot, purging people of the darkness they hold within, stock up on plenty of healing potions in the process, then tackle a dungeon to alter events in the real world.
For sure, you're getting a good traditional video game here, in the sense that you'll hit enemy weaknesses and shore up your own with EXP. Really, though, what makes Persona 5 so memorable is how its traditional video gamey elements are intertwined with the passing of time. Your journey isn't an on-the-rails jaunt which sees you bounce between various destinations over an unspecified period. Progression is broken up into days where you must prioritise your to-do list, whether that's to pop into town to buy a gift for your bud or study hard for those upcoming exams.
By splitting up the Phantom Thieves' odyssey into days, not only does the game compartmentalise an expansive JRPG into manageable chunks, but it also grants you true freedom. You might be thinking, "aren't these chunks restrictive and therefore the total opposite of freedom, ED?" but I humbly beg to differ, as I'd equate freedom in this sense to doing what you want. Or to put it another way: you can choose the activities that are most meaningful to you.
Alright, yes, you're not totally let off the leash from the start. I've seen a lot of folks say that it takes a long time for things to "open up" - something like 40 hours. I genuinely can't remember if it takes that many hours to reach the grand opening of Shibuya, and I think that's my point. I understand why some people want to take the demon by the horns and clear objectives like it's Far Cry 6, but Persona 5 isn't wrong to gradually prize open those doors to Shibuya, only allowing you full access once you've understood that the foundations of your friendships require careful management.
Spending time with Ann down the mall or Makoto doing your homework not only feeds into the metagame, where you'll develop stronger bonds for stronger buffs, but your own connection to these characters. They genuinely become a circle of mates you're thankful for - which sounds extremely soppy, but it's true! To play Persona 5 is to be rewarded for simply spending time with an eclectic cast of misfits, like the brash Ryuji who spouts "For Real?!" lots, or the quiet Haru who likes tending to flowers, or Royal's newcomer Hifumi, a diligent gymnast.
Returning to Persona 5 through Royal feels like an NG+ remix run, where I'm simultaneously appreciating the game's small details and getting all excited whenever a brand-new bit appears. Granted, I've not stumbled into many of Royal's substantial refreshes yet, but I've appreciated its reworked intro sequence as well as a few fresh cutscenes which better fill in some gaps. And if you've never touched the game before, you can't get a much better first experience than Royal, which shores up many of the original's shortcomings.
Persona 5 – Royal or otherwise – is a beautiful thing. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if running your hands along the seam of a physical copy unveiled its inner workings like a watch's back being cracked open, with all its springs and ribbons ticking in unison. All the game's components mesh with one another to create a universe that just feels like it's meant to run alongside yours.