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Persona 5 puts players in the shoes of the nameless protagonist with a codename of Joker. He's sent to live with his uncle after an incident where he's arrested for trying to stop a guy from attacking a woman on the street. Joker isn't in town for very long before he discovers a strange phone app that allows him to venture into an alternate reality borne of the psyche of humanity rather than physical locations. In this other world, he can enter the palaces of certain humans — or the metaphysical representations of the person's psyche. Deep in the heart of each palace is a treasure that represents something important to the individual. Their secret weapon is the power called Persona, which allows them to summon powerful demons to grant the heroes immense powers. Together, the newly created Phantom Thieves must figure out the source of their power and to defeat the corruption plaguing society from the inside out.
Persona 5 is a stealth-themed RPG. Joker can duck behind walls, sneak into vents, and dodge enemies. Enemies who spot your protagonist become alerted and charge at you with terrifying speed. Escape is difficult, so instead, you must hit them before they can touch you so you don't start a fight at a disadvantage. Being spotted puts the palace on alert, so the more times you're spotted, the higher the alert goes, and the enemies become correspondingly powerful. You can lower the alert by ambushing and defeating enemies.
The combat system has a fair amount in common with the previous Persona games. You have four characters and take on enemies with combat mechanics that focus on hitting enemy elemental weak points. Physical attacks are now divided into bash and pierce. The traditional fire, ice, lightning and wind elements have been joined by gravity and nuclear, which last showed up in the pre-Persona 3 games. Finally, darkness and light now have traditional damaging attack spells in addition to their usual instant kills.
Every party member now carries a melee weapon and a gun. Guns have limited ammo but do pierce damage and can be fired multiple times during a turn. You can't replenish ammo easily without leaving the dungeon for the day. Every character has his or her own gun, which has different properties. Joker has a single-shot handgun that does reliable damage, while Anne has an Uzi with a high ammo clip but hits randomly.
Attacking enemy weaknesses knocks down the enemy and gives the character who knocked them down an extra turn. If you knock down all enemies, you'll trigger what is called a Hold Up, which allows you to perform the franchise's traditional All-Out Attack that can reliably kill an entire enemy team. As in previous Persona titles, you want to go for All-Out attacks as often as possible. A neat feature that makes it easier to trigger a Hold Up is the Baton Toss. Once party members have a certain level of friendship, hitting an enemy's weakness allows them to use Baton Toss to transfer their extra turn to another party member. A character who gets a Baton Toss also gains a massive boost to their attack and healing for a single action.
Another of the major changes is actually a reversion to the pre-Persona 3 status quo. All the monsters you fight are demons rather than vague shadows, so they share the strengths and weaknesses of your persona and can be recruited to serve as new persona for Joker. This is done through the time-honored Shin Megami Tensei tradition of negotiation. Once you get enemies into Hold Up mode, you can threaten them for money, items or convince them to join your party. As the game progresses, you unlock skills that help with negotiation, including special chat features from your party members. During negotiation, you can choose to initiate an All-Out Attack, so if things are going south, you can attack the enemy instead.
Combat in Persona 5 follows the style of the recent Shin Megami Tensei games in that it's based on overwhelming enemies before they attack. Early on, enemies can do tremendous damage with a single attack, and an unlucky crit can wipe out your party. While downed party members instantly get back up after a fight, it's a game over if Joker goes down, so you have to be careful with your risks. This is where the stealth mechanics really shine. Sneak up on enemies and beat them down before they act, and you'll dominate the field. Get lazy and careless, and you might get rolled quickly.
Persona 5 also makes some significant changes to the dungeons. Each of the main heists take places in a palace that belongs to a ne'er-do-well. Unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4, these are true dungeons and not randomly generated levels. Every stage is predefined with shortcuts and puzzles, and they're extremely cool. For example, the second palace is set in an art museum where you have to sneak around laser fences and hop in and out of paintings to reach inaccessible areas. From what we've seen of Persona 5, the dungeons are large, well designed and exciting. Between heists, you can visit the underground, which is a large, random dungeon filled with enemies and missions. You drive around in the shapeshifting cat Morgana, who's been transformed into a bus for this particular event. There is no stealth meter like in the main dungeons, but otherwise, they're very similar.
Outside of combat, the franchise also sees the return of Social Links. In the Japanese version of Persona 3 and Persona 4, Social Links were called Community. Persona 5's are called Cooperation — and for good reason. Every Cooperation partner you get contributes in some way to the Phantom Thieves. They might be a shopkeeper, an informant, or a friend. Leveling up these characters not only gives you a boost when fusing Persona of the same arcana but also provides benefits ranging from special effects in battles to increasing experience gain or access to new areas. For the most part, they're very similar to Social Links, right down to party members getting new persona when they're maxed out.
In addition to Cooperation building, you can also do various social events. Some of these are used to build Joker's social stats, which are necessary to complete certain Cooperation events. Others can earn you prizes and build up your stats. There are even minigames to play, such as a batting cage where one can unlock bonus items. There are a lot of little things to do in the world of Persona 5, but like the previous games, you have a time limit. Every day is divided into day and evening, and any event takes up at least one of those slots. Certain major events (like venturing into a palace) take up multiple days. Every major palace has a time limit for completing it. If you fail to steal the treasure before that day, then the thieves have failed, and you have to reset to an earlier save.
One area where Persona 5 is head and shoulders above its predecessors is in visual presentation. While it doesn't have the best graphics on the planet, it might have the most stylish UI to ever appear in a video game. The game is absolutely dripping with class and swag, and it shows in every element, from the awesome menus to the impressively excessive cut scenes. This even shows up in the dungeons, which have a lot of neat details. Likewise, the soundtrack is excellent, with tons of stylish and jazzy songs that help set the tone of the game.
We've only gotten to play a bit of Persona 5, but what we've played is absolutely worth the wait. It's more refined, more polished and infinitely more stylish than even the excellent Persona 4. The combat is fast and furious, the dungeons are a delight to explore, the plot is intriguing, and the gameplay is pure fun. Assuming the whole game lives up to what we've seen, Persona fans of all walks should be delighted that the long wait was worth it. Persona 5 is due out for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 on Feb. 14, 2016.
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