The Phantom Thieves are back in business! After what they thought was a one-off incident in Shibuya, the gang embarks on a cross country road trip to discover why peoples’ hearts are suddenly changing and pockets of the Metaverse are manifesting in the form of Jails. The police want to pin the blame on them, so Joker and friends will have to find the true culprit behind the change of heart incidents to clear their names and avoid jail time. Persona 5 Strikers is a direct follow up to Persona 5 (not Royal, notably) and continues some of that game’s themes and plot lines. It’s not entirely necessary to play the over 100-hour JRPG epic to appreciate the emotional core and gameplay of Strikers, but fans will have a much greater appreciation of what this game does while those unfamiliar may be a little lost in the terminology and proper nouns.
Much like Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Persona 5 Strikers is an adaptation of the Persona series into the tried and true Warriors/Muso formula. That holds true here to an extent, you battle tons of enemies at once and use the same Attack and Special combo chains, but that’s where the similarities end. Strikers plays less like a typical Warriors game and more like an action RPG. Instead of big battlefields, you explore large dungeons; spotting shadows to get the drop on and start combat right then and there. It’s striking (pun intended) how well Strikers takes the turn-based structure of P5 and turns it into an action game. While you can have four characters in your party at once and the AI is very competent at controlling them, you’re incentivized to switch characters constantly through the Showtime meter. Every time you switch by pressing a button on the D-Pad, your newly controlled character’s Showtime meter increases more quickly for a few seconds. Once this buff runs out, you can move on to the next party member to give them the same short benefit and so on. It’s exactly like having characters take turns, though with an explosive payoff in the end.
While you always have to have Joker in your party, it’s prudent to swap out your party members frequently or to fit certain situations. SP, used for Persona skills, is very limited as well as the items that replenish it, so when someone runs out you need to either put them on the bench or leave the dungeon, resetting all enemies and everyone’s Showtime gauges. You’ll need to judge the situation once you reach the library sprinkled checkpoints if it’s worth leaving or not.
If the admittedly hectic action gets too much for you, at any time you can hold the R button to summon your Persona and stop time. Here you can choose Persona abilities from a list to use like elemental spells, powerful physical attacks, buffs, debuffs, and healing skills. Skills targeting Shadows affect a certain area in front of the user. For example, the typical single target ice spell Bufu targets a circle while the typical multi-target spell Mabufu hits a larger, conal area. Meanwhile, skills like the healing spell Dia or the buff Rakukaja allow you to select a party member or target the whole active party automatically. Seriously, if you’ve played P5 you will start surprisingly comfortable with the combat mechanics here with how directly everything translates. Even guns feel basically the same as their turn-based counterparts; you hold L, time freezes as you aim your shot with a generous reticule, then hit R to fire with ammo replenishing between fights. I may have really enjoyed Age of Calamity, but this is by far the best Muso combat has ever felt.
Each playable character has something unique to them that makes them worthwhile and most importantly fun in battles. While Joker can obviously choose from multiple Personas, you, unfortunately, can’t view their strengths and weaknesses in combat. However, many of his Special combo enders use his gun which grants him an immediate follow-up attack to keep up the pressure. Ryuji, the thick skull of the group, can charge up some of his Specials to hit even harder or have his Persona Captain Kidd follow up with a lightning spell. Morgana as the mascot character and occasional mode of transportation can launch into constant spinning attacks or even transform into the cat bus to mow down enemies. Ann can enchant her whip with fire allowing her to deal elemental damage with physical attacks. Makoto can do the same with her fists and nuclear affinity while also riding her motorcycle Persona Johanna occasionally much like Morgana with his car transformation.
Many of Yusuke’s specials have him charge for a moment, and instead of being vulnerable he can counter attacks in this state to end the charge immediately and unleash devastating attacks with his katana. Haru (best girl, fight me) can hold the Special button to extend her combo finishers or continuously fire her grenade launcher. Newcomer Sophia uses yo-yos and can cumulatively increase her damage and reach by pressing the attack button with perfect timing. Finally, the final party member you unlock later on in the story can enter a Fury state by pressing the special button, giving their attacks a much longer reach and more damage at the cost of HP, or absorb health with certain combo finishers when not in Fury. Even if some of their abilities sound similar, like Makoto and Ann’s enchantment, I assure you no character plays like any other and they’re all a lot of fun to experiment with. My personal favorites were Joker for his versatility, Yusuke because his counters are just so darn satisfying, and Haru for her massive physical damage.
Teamwork is key here to get the most out of everyone’s specialities. If you exploit an enemy’s weakness, you can follow up with a 1-more attack. If you down multiple shadows at once though, the whole party can start an All-out-attack exactly like in Persona 5 dealing damage to the whole group of enemies. Occasionally during combat or after a 1-more, a party member will prompt you to baton pass over to them for an ability. It’s a bit like Level-5’s Rogue Galaxy on PS2; they’ll suggest the use of a skill and swapping to them will immediately trigger it without changing their position or having to watch the Baton Pass animation. This along with the short invincibility granted while swapping further serves to encourage swapping characters.
While you are encouraged to experiment in normal combat encounters, the same cannot be said for boss fights. While I played on normal difficulty, going into any of these fights with the wrong party setup will quickly get you killed, especially early on. This works both to Strikers’ benefit and detriment. It can feel great to finally figure out how to properly fight a tough boss and eventually whittle down their health, but it does make certain characters more useful than others and may irk some players who need to use a character they may not like playing as. I certainly enjoyed this aspect with the difficulty of these fights and some emphasis on resistances, but it is something to be aware of.
The Jails themselves are very creative and fun to explore. While one has you sneaking around a frozen city another may be a maze of Tori gates that teleport you around. As Phantom Thieves you can take advantage of your environment both in and out of combat, like surprising a shadow from around the corner, spinning on a pole to attack surrounding enemies, or dropping lights from the ceiling for an explosion of elemental damage. I was surprised with the amount of platforming there is to do here; there are some 2D stealth sections and some treasure chests require precise timing of your double jump to reach. Personally, I would welcome these additions to a mainline Persona game if they stick with the more designed dungeons here and in 5, they add a nice pace breaker to combat.
Winning battles, completing requests, and progressing the story increases the P. Thieves BOND, essentially a measurement of how close they are. Each level in BOND will give you some BOND points to spend in the skill tree of the same name in the incredibly stylish menu. Here you can purchase upgrades ranging from simple stat increases for the whole party or more BOND exp to regaining HP and SP upon an All-out-attack or lockpicking levels to open chests.
Outside of the Metaverse, you’ll explore the various cities of Japan to see the sights, purchase useful consumables and groceries, fuse personas in the Velvet Room, complete requests, and hang out with your friends. All of this centers around the Phantom Thieves’ new, moving hideout: a camper. The car functions a lot like other hideouts in P5, this is where you meet up with the Thieves to discuss the situation, enter a Jail, buy equipment and items from Sophie’s stylish shop, or conveniently access the Velvet Room. New to Strikers though is the ability to prepare meals for your friends using ingredients you buy in town. The first time you cook a dish your friends will talk about it and give their compliments to the chef (thanks for the lessons, Sojiro), but you can take the leftovers into a dungeon to use as powerful consumables to restore HP, SP, and even apply buffs at the same time to the entire party including inactive members. Money is much more scarce here than P5 though, so you’ll have to decide if you want to spend your hard-earned Yen on groceries, items, or equipment.
The Velvet Room functions a bit differently in Strikers, both for good and ill. You can only fuse by result here, which is fine for me since that’s usually what I use, but can be a bit annoying when you need to make space in Joker’s stock. If you need more room though it’s actually beneficial to simply delete Personas from your… mind? Personality? Regardless, doing so will grant you Persona Points you can use to level up Personas or increase specific stats. Unfortunately, this brings in Lavenza’s big problem with fusion that her counterparts Justine and Caroline didn’t have: some fusions require the used Personas to be of a certain level. It may not sound so bad on paper, but using PP to level up a Persona costs a ridiculous amount, and the level you get a demon at is often very, very far from the level you need them at. For example, to fuse Metatron, an endgame Persona, you have to get all three other angelic Personas up to at least level 60 when some of them start at around 20 or 30.
While I gladly 100%ed the rest of the game, even beating the game’s very tough superboss (who series veterans can probably guess the identity off) and proceeding to begin to do so AGAIN on PC, I passed on completing the compendium. Maybe I’ll do that in the 100% reward of new game plus and Merciless difficulty, but for now massive amounts of grinding is where I draw the completion line. While I enjoyed the game thoroughly from beginning to end, I felt that the endgame suffered from not having a town to explore and shop in, you only have access to Sophia’s shop which only restocks occasionally and made stocking up more annoying than it needed to be. I also just wanted to explore more of these fun and beautiful pieces of Japanese culture and history.
While I spent the majority of my time on the graphically inferior Switch version, the game’s art direction still shines through. Persona 5’s anime art style looked great on PS4 and it still looks great here, though is downgraded slightly for the wider camera angle and more enemies on screen. On Switch, the game runs at 30 frames per second, and much like Age of Calamity it frequently dips below that target, even if it’s not as frequent or severe as last year’s title. On PC though the game plays like a dream, with almost Persona 5 quality visuals and 60 fps, for the most part. Since we’re playing with pre-release code, there are some strange instances of slowdown that I can’t discern the cause of, especially on a Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti. The slowdown only seems to occur outside of combat in a single area and when approaching checkpoints, it disappears completely in combat. As such it’s not the most pressing issue, it just takes slightly longer to walk through one room, but regardless I hope this is fixed before release. The audio is also a bit of a sticking point and unfortunately makes this a product of its time.
While the music is absolutely incredible, I’ll be listening to the new battle theme, opening, and in particular the song Counterstrike for years to come, however the quality of voice acting suffers from COVID. Since all of the actors had to record from home, some lines feel like they lack the proper direction or are too quiet or simply off in some way. This is easiest to hear with Max Mittleman’s lines as the loudmouthed Ryuji, you can tell he’s trying not to annoy his neighbors in a few deliveries. It’s really unfortunate since these are all great actors, but there’s really nothing that can be done.
Finally, let’s talk about the story: it’s surprisingly great! Persona spin-offs aren’t known for their great plots, the most egregious example is Persona 3’s The Answer which serves to actively sabotage that game’s characters along with being not fun in the slightest. Striker’s story may not be as engaging throughout as Persona 5, but in my opinion it succeeds with that game’s themes where the original just gave up. Questions like “how do you reform society if the system itself is corrupt?” and “is forcing bad people to be better through essentially mind control ethical?” are further explored here, though it doesn’t go as far as I would like and one character’s Shadow design strays into some meanspirited fatphobia. The new characters Sophia and Zenkichi are highlights and are the main actors who engage with these themes.
Sophia is a lot like Persona 3’s Aigis, in that she’s an AI who slowly learns what it means to be human over the course of the story. While her story may not be as subtle as Aigis’, she straight-up asks you about emotions at the conclusion of each arc, she is just as charming. She often uses onomatopoeias to explain complicated concepts and her voice actress absolutely nails these comedic moments. Hearing her explain returning to the real world from another dimension as a “Wowowowowoooo” feeling will never get old and I hope she returns for future Persona 5 spinoffs. Zenkichi on the other hand is a wisecracking detective working for Public Security and serves as the Thieves police contact as he helps them avoid being arrested and catching the real culprit. If Sophia is the emotional connection in the Metaverse, Zenkichi serves the same role in the real world. He may be hilarious and constantly shocked at a talking cat, but his ideals and deduction to his form of justice often to his own detriment and that of his daughter make him instantly likable and fit right alongside our “criminal” heroes, even if he is a cop. Overall the story feels like a proper follow-up to the events of Persona 5 and I loved spending more time with my Tokyo friends. The dialogue is also far more comedic than its predecessor, which is a welcome change given the somewhat lower stakes.
Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers is a fantastic sequel to one of the best JRPGs of all time. It’s less of a Warriors game and more of an action RPG with fun, fluid combat, great characters, and an excellent story and soundtrack.