As an adult, I can think of no more acute version of hell than coming back from uni and going on a summer road trip with the people I'd known at secondary school. But in fairness, if we'd all been part of a secret supernatural crime-fighting team - who did battles with often grotesque monsters in peoples' subconsciouses, no less - and had reformed for one last job involving an undercover cop, a super-advanced AI, and our old pal the talking cat, I'd probably have way more interest. Such is the summer ahead of the teen codenamed Joker, the returning protagonist of Persona 5 Strikers.
Persona 5 was (rightly) a darling when it came to the PlayStation 4 a few years back. It was a winning combination of complex turn-based combat and a Breakfast Club-esque gang of teens coming together and learning to love/respect each other. They did this while spending their free time fighting through the id-castles of various perverts terrorising sections of Tokyo. The Phantom Thieves Of Hearts, as the gang became known, reformed these criminals by stealing a totemic treasure from the subject's Palace. Each Palace was, essentially, a dungeon run where the dungeon was made of obvious metaphor.
Though PC players got to sample the delights of Persona 4 Golden last year, we're still waiting for Persona 5 to break free from its console bonds, skipping us straight onto its new spin-off. And indeed, the reason this review is later than others is because our original reviewer Brendy (RPS in peace) encountered significant performance problems with it, to the extent that they stopped him from playing. So I stepped in. There are three of us on team who have now played the PC version, and two of us had no problems at all, while one had a crash on a cutscene that lost a day's progress. Luckily, I'm one of the former, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it if you're considering the PC version. My Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 GPU didn't have any problem running the game at 1920x1080, but our Katharine will be taking a closer look at its PC performance very soon.
Beyond that note of caution, though, Strikers has the same slick visuals and frankly absolutely banging soundtrack that stole so many of our hearts in Persona 5. Unfortunately, it's low on the heartwarming story front, and trades turn-based battles for Musou-style hacking 'n' slashing.
This fighting formula (made popular by the Dynasty Warriors series) is all about watching your hero absolutely beast their way through many hundreds of puny trash-mob enemies, and occasionally facing a big beefy boy with higher health and their own special attacks. Strikers gives it Persona 5 twist. You fight as a squad of four (in which you're able to switch control on the fly), and you can also summon your Personas - manifestations of the characters' psyches - for special elemental attacks.
Different enemies have different strengths and weaknesses. The big armoured knights are weak to Ice attacks, the little fairies hate Fire, and so on. Pokémon by way of Freud, right? And whenever you summon a Persona, the battle is paused so you can check the area of effect or work out which attack is best to use. Strikers also transplants other Persona 5 concepts like the All Out attack, triggering the whole squad to absolutely monster everyone in a wide radius.
It's interesting. You have to think carefully about who has health, who is weak to what, and you cannot rely solely on one character. But it also feels slightly uncomfortable when paired with the griding yet satisfying repetition that is a good Musou battle. The constant switching between the real-time monster mashing and pausing for a Persona summon feels like swapping tracks on karaoke before you get to belt out the chorus; in pausing you never have enough time to properly plan out your tactics with precision, nor can you wade in footloose and fancy-free and lay waste to every sentient garbage blob or unsettling sack-boy creature around you.
The arenas in which the combat takes place are just as weird and fun as before, though. The Phantom Thieves are doing their dungeon runs through Jails this time, which function basically the same as Persona 5's Palaces. Each is presided over by the shadow-self of a real world miscreant, and the environment matches their personality. The Tony Stark analogue, who even does a, "We're not so different, you and I!" speech, has a Jail that looks like a futuristic financial district. In his boss battle, he gets a big mech suit.
Figuring out why your enemies are doing what they're doing, and how to get into their Jail in the first place, requires some detectoring in the real world. Strikers finally lets you loose from the bounds of Tokyo this time, and you're sent on the road by a policeman, exploring various new cities for clues as you progress. But you also learn a bit about local attractions, customs and delicacies wherever you go, which is a nice touch.
It's here that you'd expect the game's character relationships to develop more, since the story (which I won't spoil) is really just a tweaked version of the plot of Persona 5, and the real joy there was seeing your party grow, form friendships, and learn lessons. But the problem is that at this point they've kind of already done all the bonding.
Ryuji is still a rebel who's really an adorable dork, Ann is still so much more than a pretty face, Yusuke is - well, he's still mostly the art fuckboy to end all fuckboys, to be honest. Instead, the character development focuses on Zenkichi the policeman, and Sophia, an AI who lives in your phone and is learning about humanity, and it's just... not as compelling. Sophia does have the handy extra function of acting as an avatar for anyone who didn't play Persona 5 (she asks a lot of questions), but you're still not going to get much out of the cute banter between the team.
In fact, I think my favourite character moments were actually during combat. Seeing Ryuji running around independently, yelling "Let's go, Captain Kidd!" at his Persona, made it feel more like I was hanging out with him than watching a cutscene where he goes on about food for a long time. There's also something lovely about the special Show Time attacks you can do. They're different for each member of the Phantom Thieves - so, Morgana the talking cat turns into a kind of giant catbus - and are a clear representation of how every member of the team is distinct.
For many, just seeing the ol' gang again will be enough. There's a lot to love about Persona 5 Strikers (Colm, as you'll see from the video up top, enjoyed the hell out of it), especially if you loved Persona 5. But for my money, there's also a lot to frustrate here as well. Little things, like the most efficient way to heal and regain stamina being to quit out of a dungeon and immediately load back in again, or the combat camera sometimes swinging around to the least useful angle, combined with larger oddities all add up to be intermittent-toothache levels of annoying.
Persona 5 had such a strong sense of cohesion, with the deliberate pacing of the combat matching the slow burn of story development, which is just absent in Strikers. It's not that Persona 5 Strikers does anything badly. I'm just unsure why Atlus felt the need to give it the Musou treatment. If you want to make a Musou game, make a Musou game. If you want to make an excellent Persona game... make a Persona game, innit.