Persona 5 Royal Review

The over-under here is that Persona 5 Royal is, for the most part, an improvement on the original. It’s not a dramatic or massive improvement; instead, it is comprised of dozens of small improvements throughout the journey and an excellent additional palace complete with one month or so of additional daily life gameplay and another (very large) mementos section. It’s hard to say whether paying $60 to replay an 80-hour game for its 20-ish hours of new content is necessarily a good investment, but I think the game at least justifies being a full-price re-release rather than simply a DLC pack that just adds a palace and a month to the main game.

The changes are numerous and integrated well into the game. Not just new scenes, but also revisions and changes to several mechanics from every part of the game, from combat to confidants. All of these changes are smart and improve the game. No single one of them in itself dramatically improves the game over the original, but taken together they make Royal more streamlined, more fun, and more interesting.

We’ll start with story and characters, because while many of the most impressive and interesting changes are here, I also don’t want to say too much or spoil anything, so I don’t have too much to say.

First, some of the dialogue, particularly the localization, has been rewritten and re-recorded. The localization and English voices in Persona 5 were already above average, but most of the awkward and odd moments have been cleaned up. The original version has moments where the voice actors clearly lacked direction or where the localization team didn’t quite capture the original meaning of a scene, and in a game as text heavy as this one, and as steeped in Japanese culture, that’s not surprising. Awkward lines that feel out of place still exist in Royal. Bad voice acting, particularly from bit characters, but also the occasional odd delivery from a main character, remain. But the overall quality has been improved. I hope that some of these changes are patched into the original release, because most of them correct errors rather than add new content.

The second change is two new confidants, one of whom becomes a party member late in the game, and a major improvement and revision of a confidant that was already in the game but largely underwhelming. I don’t want to spoil too much, but these new confidants are incredible, and easily the best in the game. In my opinion, social links in previous games were always a mixed bag, but in Persona 5 I felt there were far fewer interesting ones. Royal‘s new confidants feel dramatically important and contribute to the new palace’s story at the end of the game; to even get there you have to focus on all three of these new confidants. That makes these stories integral to the game in a way past confidants and social links in both this game and in the whole series, never were. I can’t overstate how clever this is. Your confidants, from very early in the game, are already setting the stage for this new palace. It feels like two interrelated stories being told simultaneously, and both are satisfying. Persona 5 Royal is big enough (and long enough) that it supports the weight of these two narratives well.

Finally, there are several additional scenes and events throughout the game. Most of these are just fun. A few give you insight into your party members, some help serve to set up elements of the narrative that lead to the final palace, and some just round out minor plot holes or other rough spots in the original. A very small number of these feel redundant, but none of them were bad or unwelcome by any means.

Daily life has also seen some big changes. There’s a new area to explore that introduces new features, like a jazz club, billiards, and darts, all of which let you power up your party members in some way. Morgana is less of a bed time nazi, and you can now do things in Leblanc after going to the metaverse, like studying, tidying up for Sojiro and kindness points, and crafting tools. Confidants will give you a phone call after hanging out which gives you a bonus opportunity to earn some points and can help you get through them faster. There’s less time pressure in the game overall, so having three new confidants to level and all the power boosts you’ll want from the jazz club and darts and such doesn’t result in an over-stuffed experience. It’s still meaningfully challenging to get all the confidants in a single playthrough (not counting new game plus), but it also still feels like you have more freedom in how you spend your time.

However, that one part of the game during summer, where you go from scripted event to scripted event through finishing Futaba’s palace to being forced to hang out with Futaba every day for a week to going to the beach to finals to the Hawaii school trip to Morgana being temporarily unavailable, where you literally can’t do anything but what the game tells you to for a long, long time remains unchanged and as frustrating and boring as in the original game, and it’s especially jarring given the added freedom Royal grants you almost everywhere else. I expected this part of the game to still be a problem area but I wasn’t expecting absolutely nothing to be done to address it, given that it’s a fairly infamous sequence.

Palace design has been improved with new collectibles and a new grappling hook that can be used to find secret paths, and even to ambush enemies later. Overall though, the palaces remain mostly similar. There’s some new shadows and many of them have been altered or rebalanced both to keep you on your toes and to make for more interesting and dynamic fights. But the parts that were annoying before are still annoying. Okumura’s palace is still largely annoying. Shido’s palace still features braindead, time-wasting, backtracking mouse puzzles. The casino palace is still a pretty neat place with a bopping theme tune, and Kamoshida’s palace is still a great warm up with a lot of neat, varied areas. The game’s new palace, is pretty good. There’s a color puzzle area at the end that’s basically a worse version of Okumura’s air locks that many players will hate and that I found annoying but mercifully short.

Mementos is still a drag, but they’ve spruced it up where they could. Time spent in mementos is more rewarding and there are ways to increase your efficiency in grinding for XP, money, or items. You can also collect “flowers” to exchange with a new vendor, Jose, for various consumables, which also makes mementos useful for acquiring certain items, like SP potions and stat boosting incense. It’s not a dramatic improvement, but mementos is now much more useful and it is useful in shorter bursts, and both of those improvements take the edge off of the monotony of it.

Boss fights have been drastically changed, most for the better. I really like the new phases, and each one has been improved from its original incarnation except for Kamoshida. You’ll know what I mean when you play it but the new phase felt in poor taste, even if it makes sense, and sort of just cheapened some of the drama for me. It’s gross and cringey, but hey, that’s Kamoshida for you, I guess. The new boss of the new palace is excellent but is mechanically a little bit too much like Yaldabaoth for my liking.

Combat itself has been changed in a few key ways. Baton pass has been improved, with a new focus placed on it, and it’s available to every character from the start, and playing darts with your party members powers up their baton pass rank, meaning they give bigger buffs when they hand off to an ally. Stacking baton passes is an incredibly powerful and satisfying strategy and the game sets up a couple fights designed to let you take advantage of the mechanic to its fullest. Guns now have less ammo in total but that ammo refreshes after each battle, instead of each infiltration. Guns are absolutely busted early on but even out as the game goes on and remain a useful tool throughout, even into the late and end game. I think they probably could have adjusted the power curve a bit as they can trivialize fights that are clearly meant to be challenging early on, but I definitely prefer this approach to the original, even with the weird balance.

And otherwise, the balance of combat overall is pretty good. It’s different. I don’t know if the balance is necessarily better or worse than the original version, but the changes make the game feel fresh and, in my opinion, more interesting and kinetic. Persona’s combat system has always been simple and satisfying and Persona 5 was no different, aside from a flair for the dramatic and a few additions, like guns and new attack elements. Royal tries to make this core combat deeper without adding too much in the way of complexity, and I think it succeeds.

Personas now also have new innate abilities called traits that are similar to passive skills, but are generally more powerful than the passive skills a typical persona of that level would have access to. These can be transferred via fusion, and add another layer of depth to building personas. Personas themselves have been changed a bit. In addition to new personas and two new arcana, many returning personas have also been rebalanced or otherwise altered, which helps keep things feeling fresh and interesting.

A new, third awakening persona has also been added to each party member, which improves their stats and grants them a new, unique, powerful skill. Makoto for example has a multi-target debilitate spell and Ann can gets a variation of the concentrate skill that targets all party members. These skills cost an absurd amount of SP to use (around 80), so they aren’t quite as game breaking as they seem when you first get them. Still, they’re powerful and these third awakenings are definitely a fun addition, though they happen incredibly late in the game, so you want have much time to play around with them.

Another new feature are showtime attacks, similar to limit breaks or other similar mechanics in other JRPGs. Showtimes are team-up attacks that become available under certain conditions in combat. While they are powerful when introduced, they have a nice curve similar to summons in a Final Fantasy game where they are a useful crutch in the mid-game but ultimately become just another tool in your toolbox by the end, illustrating how powerful your other abilities have become. They’re an okay inclusion but probably one of the less major changes to combat overall. Each one is worth watching once or twice, and you can’t miss them as they’re simply unlocked as the story goes on. They’re fun and over the top, and Persona 5 is great at introducing these sorts of chance-based mechanics that always feel great when they trigger. It’s just more of that, like most of the things Futaba does during combat. I think the original game was great at leveraging these sorts of mechanics in ways that kept combat exciting and engaging, and showtime attacks are a natural fit.

As good as Persona 5 Royal is, though, and it is very good, I don’t think it’s perfect. Persona 5, when it came out, managed to be one of my favorite games ever, and while I still waffle about which Persona game is my favorite between 3, 4, and 5, I consider 5, and now Royal instead, to be my favorite a significant amount of the time. A great many things are addressed and improved, but Persona 5 Royal is still Persona 5, for better and worse.

Royal still does that thing where an event will happen, then the party will meet up and rehash it, then you’ll rehash it again in text message chains that go on for too long, then you’ll bump into Ann outside school and they’ll rehash it again, then you’ll go home and Ryuji will text you when you walk in the door to rehash it again. Then you’ll go to bed and Morgana will rehash it with you before you go to sleep. Then you’ll have a dream and Igor and the twins will rehash it in a vague way. And then there will be a fast forward and Sae Niijima will rehash it in the form of an angry interrogation. And then, finally, something new will happen and the cycle will repeat.

I’m being hyperbolic but I’m convinced the text message interface in Persona 5 was designed specifically to repeat story plot points every five minutes in case you ever put the game down for a few days. And that’d be smart if it was optional. Like you can’t remember what was going on in the story so you can pop out your cell phone and refresh your memory; that’s a great idea in a game this long and this story focused. Instead, though, it’s just grating being told the same plot points ten times in a row in one of several different boring formats. What’s more irksome is that this constant rehashing, and the fact that your phone is often cluttered with repeated invites from confidants, means that you often times wind up with good story and character stuff mixed in with these messages that you’ll miss if you decide to skip through them. There’s enough actual character and plot progression occasionally mixed into these rehashes that you probably won’t want to skip through them even though you’ll be tempted to after the umpteenth time you have to reassure your group that all you can do now is wait because you did indeed steal Kamoshida’s heart two weeks ago and Ann and Ryuji need to remind you of that, in the form of fretting, two times a day until something new happens.

In short, the message spam is boring, terrible and represents an inordinate amount of gameplay time for how pointless and unnecessary it is. Royal does nothing at all to address this. The new palace does have noticeably less message spamming and plot rehashing than the main game, though, so that’s something I guess. Though it does arbitrarily restrict your R1 fast travel menu and make you visit each of your party members over the course of several in-game days right at the start, which doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to zip to your allies using the fast travel menu instead; you regain your use of it right after this sequence ends.

The other issue I had with Persona 5 in its original incarnation is the bickering and in-fighting, particularly among Ryuji and Morgana, and again, Royal doesn’t do anything to smooth this out. I like both characters, and their bickering was actually annoying, and there’s some merit to that. On your first day of school, getting lost looking for the right train is a neat little immersive trick the game pulls; it risks being annoying, but it does so to help you relate with Joker. Ryuji and Morgana’s fights are often uncomfortable because they know each other well enough to be actually mean to each other, and there’s merit in making us relate to how exasperating these fights must be to watch for Joker. But the frequency and duration of these fights make them actually trying, and they often pull an otherwise fine scene in a weird direction, letting all the drama, tension, or humor out of it. The game seems to believe that these sequences are funny, or that they inject levity into tense moments, and uses them accordingly. The game is very wrong about this.

The Phantom Thieves as a group have interesting dynamics. They are friends, sure, but they also have a sort of Ocean’s Eleven vibe. They’re a team of outlaws and the fact that they know each other’s secrets and that they often share short-term goals is usually how their relationship with each new member starts. The concept of confidants and the language used in the game about making deals reinforces this. But it also makes them feel a bit more distant from each other, and when they have what’s supposed to be a funny argument, you aren’t always sure how to take it. It doesn’t help that one relatively normal Morgana-Ryuji spat is arbitrarily determined by the story to be more severe than the others for some reason, even though they ultimately learn nothing and go right back to treating each other like shit after this with no further ramifications ever again. It’s like a bad action movie where you don’t have any sense of how much punishment a character can actually take, so there’s no real drama in it, it’s just down to the unknowable whims of the creators.

Another issue is a bit more spoiler-y, so people who haven’t reached the second palace in Persona 5 should be wary. The first palace in the game is rather heavy. Kamoshida is sexually and physically abusive toward his students, particularly Ann and her best friend Shiho. It’s implied that Kamoshida sexually assaults Shiho, ultimately causing her to jump off the school’s roof in an attempted suicide. This is a powerful and crystalizing moment for the Phantom Thieves. They know that stopping Kamoshida by stealing his heart carriers a chance of essentially triggering brain death in him if they make a mistake, and its not something they can do lightly. But when they realize what he’s actually capable of, they decide they have to act. That’s all well and good, and the game handles this sensitive subject matter with surprising grace and appropriate seriousness.

In the original Persona 5, however, the very next palace features the gang pressuring Ann into posing nude for Yusuke, and Ann clearly doesn’t want to and is obviously uncomfortable with the idea. Ann is described consistently as both being beautiful and standing out and it has caused no end of trouble for her. It also puts her immediately in a compromising situation again with Yusuke immediately after being in one with Kamoshida, but the game plays it for laughs the second time and the whiplash is just too much. Not only does Royal do nothing to fix this, it’s actually worse because it does something similar to Shiho.

Kamoshida’s new second phase in Royal features him calling “slaves” to help him fight. These slaves are his cognitive representations of the students he is abusing. The first one he calls is Shiho, the girl who was implied to have been sexually assaulted and who attempted suicide, and Ann’s best (and mostly only) friend. Again, it’s Kamoshida’s cognitive version of her, given that the real Shiho is in a self-inflicted coma she may never recover from. She’s dressed in a sexy bikini and wearing bunny ears, and you have to kill her. Ick. While I do think this makes sense given the context and given what we know about Kamoshida and his warped view of reality, the original version didn’t go there and in Royal it didn’t need to and doesn’t add anything by doing so. It is in poor taste and cheapens the drama that led up to the moment quite a lot. I don’t have an issue with the sexual jokes and such in the game, and I don’t think the other characters perving over Ann throughout the game is a problem or anything; in fact, a lot of those scenes are pretty funny. I think the issue is specifically that these are hard topics to watch and think about, and you want to feel like you can trust the creators to do it well and take it seriously so that you can let your guard down and really engage with these though subjects. When the creators are flippant about it, that undermines that trust, and that makes it more likely that people will keep the story at an arm’s length and keep themselves guarded. It’s not that this is necessarily some sort of moral failing, instead it’s simply poor storytelling.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that a scene featuring an eyebrow-raising depiction of gay men was reworked, or at least re-localized, to feel like it came from this side of the 1970s. The old scene was an uncharacteristically lazy joke anyway, so even if it didn’t bother you or make you raise your eyebrows, it’s now at least a little easier to laugh at Ryuji, which is always an improvement.

As a package though, I think I can generally recommend Royal for both new players wanting to see what all the commotion is and for older players looking for more Persona 5 or who were thinking about replaying it anyway. It’s not exactly a steal at full price, but I do think it justifies itself with a wealth of new and interesting content and a variety of improvements across the game in almost every area. If you didn’t like Persona 5 much, this won’t likely change your mind, but if you’re looking for the best version of one of the generation’s best JRPGs, then this is it.

Author’s Note I’m stuck in quarantine playing video games all day, and a lot of games I’ve been very excited about have released recently! I’ve decided to review/critique them. I enjoy criticism but reviewing games is new for me so there’s bound to be some growing pains and awkwardness. Please bare with me while I get a handle on this. In the coming weeks I want to talk about Nioh 2 and Final Fantasy VII Remake in some capacity, so I’ll see you then!