By Joe Delaney
Imagine that you are an interdimensional warrior, going to battle with demons in other worlds to protect your own. Not only that, but you’re also a high school student with lots of friends, some of whom are girls who want to date you. I know those both seem like wild, unattainable fantasies, but that’s exactly the life you live when you play the Persona games.
Starting out as a spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series, the Persona games developed a cult following over the last two decades. In recent years though, this dungeon crawling RPG / teenage life sim has gained more mainstream success, mainly due to the popularity of the most recent entry, Persona 5.
2020 might be the biggest year of all for the series, with not only the release of Persona 5: Royal, the definitive edition of the game, but also the Steam release of Persona 4: Golden. The latter is an especially big deal, because before now, P4G was a PS Vita exclusive, which means that approximately 47 people got to play it. It’s great to see this cult classic reach a wider audience, because in my opinion, it’s an even better game than its sequel.
Before you get all worked up, the title of this article is not “Why Persona 4 is good, and Persona 5 is bad.” Just because I like P4 more, that doesn’t mean I think P5 is worthless. It’s a good game, and in some respects, it’s better than its predecessor. Obviously, it’s a better-looking game, and on most days, I’d say that P5 has the better soundtrack of the two. I also like that you can date your hot teacher, who also works as a maid prostitute. Any game that lets you do that is OK in my book.
Beyond that though, Persona 4 is superior to Persona 5 in every way. And I brought the evidence to prove it. (Quick disclosure, I have not played Persona 3. I’m sure it’s good, but this article isn’t about Persona 3. When I’ve played it, then I’ll talk about it.)
Both games share the same basic structure: spend half your time hanging out with friends, building your social links, and the other half exploring dungeons and fighting monsters. For years, the dungeons in the series were all procedurally generated, which were nothing special, but they got the job done. That changed when it was announced that P5 would have dungeons that were designed by human beings, and not an algorithm. I was thrilled when I heard this news. “Yes,” I said, “Real dungeons in a Persona game! Designed levels are always better than procedurally generated levels.”
I have never been more wrong.
Just like most aspects of Persona 5, the dungeons seem really cool at first, but they really overstay their welcome. They are all visually stunning, but their style is masking a severe lack of substance. Zelda dungeons, these are not. The puzzles require little to no mental effort, serving as nothing more than time-wasters. Worst of all, unlike the dungeons in Persona 4, almost all of them have roadblocks that make you stop playing for the (in-game) day. In P4, if you came in prepared, you could finish the dungeons in a single go, giving you more time to dedicate to your six girlfriends.
What also made P4’s dungeons special was how each one of them correlated with one of your party members, or someone else close to your main character. They may not have been as pretty to look at as P5’s dungeons, but each dungeon revealed something about your party members, giving them an extra layer of depth. For example, Kanji’s bathhouse dungeon conveyed his insecurities regarding his sexuality. P5’s dungeons are all connected to minor villain characters in the game, and they don’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. We already know these guys are douchebags.
“Okay, the dungeons aren’t that great,” you, a Persona 5 fan, may be saying right now. “But people don’t play these games for that! They play it for the story and the characters!”
You’re right, that’s true. And the story and characters in P5 are inferior to P4, too.
P5’s premise is genuinely compelling: you and your friends are vigilantes who are trying to expose some terrible people for their crimes. It’s like Cancel Culture: The Game, but instead of finding a bunch of old homophobic tweets to ruin their careers, you’re breaking into the villains’ “mind palaces,” where you can change their hearts to make them better people.
For the first 60 hours of the game, this story really held my attention. However, by the SECOND 60 hours of the game, it was really starting to test my patience. This game is just too long, and it does not earn its absurd runtime, which for me was 120 hours. P4’s relatively concise 70-hour campaign may have had some filler included, but P5 just had so much unnecessary bloat.
It’s not just from the overlong dungeons either. The cutscenes were in some serious need of a good editor. Whenever the main party was discussing its latest plan, the game made sure that every single character had to throw in their two cents about the situation at hand.
“We need to stop the bad guy!” Makoto would say. “This guy is bad, we need to stop him!” Ryuji would shout. You know when you get a work email about a coworker who got promoted, and it starts an infinite chain of “congratulations!” emails because your asshole coworkers keep hitting reply all? That’s the dialogue in Persona 5.
P5’s dialogue is not just long, but boring, too. The writers seemed to think that players were too dumb to understand the story, so it’s full of repetitive exposition explaining what’s going at every turn. During each dungeon, the characters would all stop to talk some bullshit about how some monster was a manifestation of the bad guy’s cognition, or some shit. By the time the game was over, I’d heard the word “cognition” so many times, I was ready to grab a gun and blow my cognition out.
The sad thing is that these exposition dumps are really the only group interactions your party has. A huge part of P4’s appeal was the dynamic between your party, how they really seemed like a group of close friends. The characters had chemistry with each other. Some of the best scenes of that game are just days at the beach, or at a hot spring, completely unrelated to the story.
P5’s party just don’t seem like friends. I couldn’t tell you how Ann and Makoto feel about each other, while I could vividly describe the dynamic between Chie and Yukiko. You only get to really know the characters as they relate to your player character. The only interaction I can really remember between my party members was Morgana being creepy toward Ann. Speaking of Morgana…
Morgana is the worst character in Persona 5. Worse than obvious villain detective kid. Worse than the girl who gets added to your party 75% through the game and whose name I don’t remember. Most of the game’s repetitive dialogue comes from Morgana’s stupid cat mouth, and he spends the rest of his screen time bossing you around, telling you to go to bed. He is such a step down from Teddie, who’s one of the best characters in P4, if not the best. Sure, he was a bit of a creep sometimes, too, but he was a loveable creep. Plus he was dealing with some existential dread because he was a living bear costume, so he was going through some shit. Morgana doesn’t have the same excuse. He’s my least favorite part of the game, and I wish I could change his heart to make him less of a shitty character.
That’s enough complaining about Persona 5 for one day. As I stated earlier, I really don’t hate this game. Aside from the graphics and music, I think the individual social links you develop in the game are great. Along with banging your teacher/sex maid, you also get to bang a goth doctor and an alcoholic reporter. I’d also say that Sojiro, P5’s guardian character, is more likeable and interesting than Dojima, his P4 counterpart. Beyond these points though, there’s still no doubt in my mind that P4 is the better game.
I’m clearly in the minority on this one. Persona 5 has become the fan favorite in the years since its release, and Persona 5: Royal has solidified that. To be fair, I’ve based my opinion on the original version of the game, but I highly doubt that “Persona 5: But Even Longer This Time” will change my heart. I’m pretty certain I’ll always prefer the creepy murder mystery and genuine friendships of Persona 4 over the vigilante antics of some kids who don’t even seem to like each other.
One day, when I have a whole week of free time, I’ll give Persona 5 another shot. I’ll just be sure to skip through all Morgana’s dialogue. Maybe that will cut a dozen hours or so from the runtime.