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‘PERSONA 5 STRIKERS’: GAME REVIEW

When it comes to musou adaptations of popular franchises, the final product can often be spotty. It’s easy to assume the worst for Persona 5 Strikers, Omega Force and P-Studio’s hack-and-slash offshoot of the popular Persona role-playing series. Your favorite Persona characters duking it out with demons can’t be nuanced or inventive in any way, right?

Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. Entering Persona 5 Strikers with the mindset that it’s “just” a musou game would be an insult to the sheer amount of work and care that went into bringing this new adventure to life. From top to bottom, this is the sequel fans have been waiting for — or at least a flavorful appetizer to chow down on in the meantime. And while it’s a leaner experience than 2016’s Persona 5 or 2019’s Persona 5 Royal (Strikers offers roughly 40-60 hours compared to the 100-plus hours of those predecessors), Strikers is every bit as complex and nuanced as a traditional Persona game.

Set just four months after the events of Persona 5, the Phantom Thieves enjoy a Tokyo reunion for summer vacation. While planning their trip using a new app called EMMA, they happen upon a new fashion and pop idol named Alice Hiiragi. Alice offers her “keyword” to add the protagonist and Ryuji on the social media network, but the pair soon find themselves whisked away to what appears to be the Metaverse, clad in their Phantom Thieves gear once more. There, they must traverse an alternate version of Tokyo and a “Jail,” which appears to be a different version of the Palace dungeons the team explored in the previous game.

Persona 5 Group Image

Naturally, a Shadow version of Alice is stealing the hopes and dreams of innocent people she’s forcing to worship her. These “Desires” must be restored to the people they’ve been stolen from, and the Phantom Thieves must work together to change Alice’s heart to do so. The gang gets back together once more for a reunion tour of the Metaverse to find out what’s going on with the Jails, EMMA and a bizarre young woman named Sophia who happens to be an AI.

With the Phantom Thieves back in business, you’re on board with them too. There are a number of Jails to conquer throughout the game, as well as corrupt individuals whose hearts need to be changed if they’re going to repent and save those whose Desires they’ve stolen. Hiiragi is an especially egregious offender, as she’s wrecked relationships, bank accounts and reputations along her journey thanks to her selfishness and evildoing.

Luckily, changing hearts is still a fascinating business, as is becoming a Phantom Thief. Persona 5 Strikers is a satisfying combination of Dynasty Warriors-esque hack-and-slash gameplay and Persona‘s traditional RPG elements. In lieu of of turn-based combat, this time you’ll face off against Shadows in real-time while pulling off a variety of combos, summoning Personas and launching All-Out Attacks on your unsuspecting enemies.

Persona 5 Video Game Mona Image

But you can’t just waltz into a Jail because you have a hunch someone’s heart needs to be changed. You’ve got to do a bit of sleuthing first.That includes looking around town or wherever the crew happens to be at the time (there is traveling involved) and finding clues about the culprit behind the Jails, or the potential “Monarch.” You can get a little shopping done here as well from local stores and vending machines while exploring a couple screens’ worth of cities and towns. You need to fill a meter to 100% that represents what you know about a target.

Information you glean from others might include whispered rumors, posters, unusual gatherings and other rumblings that might point to foul play. After you find your target, you’ll explore the Jail a bit until it’s time to issue a calling card, the Phantom Thieves’ declaration of “war” against their target. That’s when it’s time to use the app EMMA and start liberating people and their Desires. The protagonist, Joker, is in control by default as you jump into each battle. You don’t leave the overworld to take on Shadows, as the Jail around you becomes your arena. You can summon Personas (Joker can have multiple) and start wailing on enemies by inputting strings of combos via face buttons.

Face button combos are easy ways to cleave through smaller mobs, but you’ll have to think a bit more about battle as the game wears on. You can swap through available Personas by way of the shoulder buttons, then use special attacks piecemeal. This consumes SP, or magic/ability points. You need to use Persona abilities in certain circumstances, particularly against enemies weak against melee or the elemental attacks from the Persona you’re using, while other times you can conserve SP by pulling off a combo with a “free” elemental attack at the end of it. These little nuances make combat feel satisfying while still maintaining a challenge, offering a nuance far deeper than the simple “kill everything that moves” gameplay of lesser musou genre entries.

Persona 5 Joker Image

And, of course, Joker isn’t on his own. You can switch between characters by way of a Baton Pass to directly control others and their Personas’ abilities and to chain together combo attacks for “1 Mores” (freebie hits), All-Out Attacks and other group tag-team efforts to make short work of enemies. Regular battle and pulling off hits will net you usage of Showtime attacks, cinematic moves featuring a character and their Persona that deal devastating damage to enemies and simply ooze true Persona style that never gets old.

You can also use interactive parts of the environment to get around and cause damage. There’s plenty of verticality to Jails, so while you might normally look around the corner in vanilla Persona games, here you have the power to double-jump and grapple to traverse your environment, so the next path out of danger might take you on top of a roof or swinging from poles.

There’s also another important addition to your time within the Jails: Sophia. She takes a humanoid form while exploring the Metaverse, but heads to Joker’s phone to live in the real world. Sophia has amnesia and can remember only that she’s “humanity’s companion,” but appears to fight with a Persona-like character called Pithos. Unraveling her mystery is just as exciting as looking into the story behind each Jail.

Other aspects of the gameplay, however, are less interesting. The Phantom Thieves value stealth over jumping right into crowds of enemies, encouraging you to take longer routes so you can be spared gangs of demons. But that often isn’t the most exciting or engaging way to go, especially as the screen often swaps to platforming-like segments you need to complete to get where you’re going.

Persona 5 Video Game Ferry Dock Image

Occasionally, you’ll need to protect Futaba (Oracle) from advancing Shadows that gang up on her while she works to crack the code on various terminals. These segments aren’t valuable for much, other than letting your party slam around some baddies for a set period of time while Futaba needs cover. They can, however, be useful for earning additional Persona pickups and experience to supercharge the party you’ve built.

There’s plenty to keep you busy outside of battle, too. You still get to improve social links between party members, though this time it’s known as a Bond. Occasionally you’ll treat friends to ramen or spend time with them elsewhere and this will up your overall Bond points. You can then spend points to upgrade certain buffs that unlock as the game wears on; a higher chance of unlocking new Personas, healing after battle, et cetera. You can fuse and power up new Personas in the Velvet Room, explore the city when you have some free time and go shopping in local stores or use Sophia’s handy delivery system.

Persona 5 Game Menu Screen

Whether you’re clearing out a Jail, cooking up new recipes, shopping and investigating, or spending time with party members to raise your Bond, it’s clear a lot of love and effort went into making this follow-up feel true to the source material while adding another layer of combat that makes everything feel speedier and more accessible to players familiar with button-mashing for combos. A special amount of care also clearly went into the game’s menus — especially in Sophia’s store — which are truly next-level and set a new standard for competitors.

If you’re looking for what is, for all intents and purposes, the true sequel to Persona 5, Strikers is it (for now, at least). The game is a meaty, full-featured, All-Out Attack on the senses. If you were ready to dismiss it because of its roots in the musou genre, it’s time to re-evaluate what these games are capable of. When it comes to hack-and-slash titles, this game is veritable royalty.

This game was reviewed running the PlayStation 4 version on a PlayStation 5 console.

Photos courtesy of  Omega Force and P Studio

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