It took me quite a while to get around to playing Persona 5: I don’t normally play games close to their release date, but given how much I liked Persona 4 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, I would have expected Persona 5 to be an exception. But some of the stuff I’d heard about the game on release gave me pause: what struck me most about Persona 4 was how life-affirming that game was, whereas Persona 5 sounded like it might be kind of creepy?

So I didn’t pick it up for a while. As time went on, I started hearing more good things about Persona 5, though, or at least getting more good feelings about it: not so much hearing specific good things as seeing people whom I trusted behaving like fans of the game, making it clear that there was something there that mattered to them. And then my wife played it, and ended up playing it two more times over the last year or so, when going on a game binge; I trust her taste in games, too. So clearly I should give it a try; I just needed to find a spare 80 hours or so to spend on the game! Which finally happened this summer.


And, when starting the game, I could see why people had had serious questions about the game. The series as a whole has always taken on dark themes, and placed teenage protagonists in uncomfortable situations, but it’s generally handled that material in a respectful way; the first section of Persona 5 crossed the line for me, however. It starts off with a teacher who is physically abusive to students on his sports teams, and who goes way too far in his behavior towards one of the female students in the school (Ann, who isn’t on the sports team and who becomes one of your fellow persona users). And then it ratchets up the behavior, with the teacher telling Ann to sleep with him, otherwise he’ll bench her friend on the team; when Ann refuses, he then rapes her friend, who tries to commit suicide.

That alone is a potential deal breaker for me: it starts off in a place worth exploring (abusive treatments within school sports teams), but then it goes in directions that are quite a bit more sensationalistic. Those latter events are, unfortunately, also realistic in their own way, but they require quite a bit more care with how you handle them, otherwise they end up turning into voyeurism and going in exactly the wrong direction.


And that voyeuristic direction is, unfortunately, exactly where Persona 5 goes. Because Ann, the character in question, isn’t just any old high school student (who happens to be a persona user), she’s also a model. This isn’t new ground for the series, and it’s actually something the series has handled well in the past: I liked Risette as a character in Persona 4, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions is an entire game about idols that manages to be wonderfully humanizing instead of objectifying. And, in fact, in many ways, Ann is a quite good character in Persona 5 as well, presented as a fleshed-out human being.

The problem is, Persona 5 also dresses up the persona users in costumes when they go into the game’s dungeons; Ann’s costume is a shiny, tight-fitting red body suit, with a zipper going all the way down the front of the costume straight through her crotch. That alone would be enough to give me pause (and, for what it’s worth, all the characters’ persona outfits are pretty extreme, but the female characters’ outfits are significantly more sexualized than the male characters’), but the animations that play in various combat-related situations go out of their way to show off Ann’s breasts and butt.

So, basically, the game is constantly sending the message to you: sure, Ann might be a good friend, she might be a good teammate, she might be good at fighting, but we know what you’re really interested in: check out those tits and that ass! And, I should add, there’s nothing about the way that the game presents Ann’s personality that makes that behavior seem natural for her: yes, she’s a model, yes part of that is wanting her body to look good, but there’s a big difference between that and constantly putting yourself in male gazey poses.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to ogle bodies in fictionalized situations. (And sometimes, in the right contexts, in real-world situations, though that’s much more delicate.) But this is a game that leads off by raising issues of sexual harassment, power, and objectification right from the start; and what the game’s developers are saying with their presentation of Ann is that sure, they think repeated sexual objectification of women, of teenage girls is a great idea! And, well, I don’t.


Fortunately, that initial section of Persona 5 is the worst part of the game. The game’s treatment of Ann in dungeons remains bad, but it doesn’t get any worse; and other female characters don’t get the same sort of poses. The plot goes in its normal Persona direction, with the usual strong statements about friendship, about family, and about constructed family; this iteration of the series did particularly good job emphasisizing both the importance and the difficulty of doing the right thing. And Social Links continue to be a surprisingly effective delivery mechanism for delivering story that’s separate from the main plot, and for giving you choices with real tension.

So yeah, I can see why people are fans of the game, and why my wife played it multiple times; I’m a fan of the game now too! Even setting aside the significant problem of the start of the game, I don’t think it reaches the level of Persona 4 for me, but that’s a very high bar: not being as good as the best Persona game still leaves a lot of room for a game to satisfy.


Persona 5 actually isn’t my second favorite Persona game, either: that would be Tokyo Mirage Sessions. And Persona 5 imitates Tokyo Mirage Sessions in a couple of different ways: both are set in Tokyo instead of in an invented smaller town, and dungeons are (with one exception) constructed instead of randomized. Both of which seem like fine changes; constructed dungeons are a little more interesting, and while I liked the smaller towns from Persona 3 and Persona 4, Tokyo is fine too, always nice to say hi to Hachiko.

There’s a pretty significant tonal difference, though. Tokyo Mirage Sessions somehow manages to combine being virtuosic with having a real heart. The music is amazing, the battle combinations make fighting a joy. Your character is actually the least virtuosic of the whole cast, but he’s the core of the group, helping bring out the best in them.

Persona 5, in contrast, is constantly probing darkness: the very conceit of the game involves physically exploring the psyche of the powerful, and those psyches don’t reveal the powerful to be good. Persona 5 has a heart as well, but the heart is smaller-scale (though no less important!), focused on individual interactions and frequently linked to families, both birth and chosen.


I continue to be a Persona Team fan. They build stories with heart; people and relations matter to them. As part of that, they look into people’s psyches; and they’ll show us both the good and the bad there, instead of focusing exclusively on one side or the other. And they build games with style, and they’re actually getting better at that aspect of their games over the last decade. They messed up with Persona 5, but ultimately not in a way that was fatal for me; I just hope they’ll be a little more thoughtful in the future.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.