Review: Persona 5 Strikers wants to understand and redeem its targets but can’t follow through

Persona is a series of constant ups and downs. On one hand, there’s a lot to enjoy about these games between the characters (well, barring some of Persona 4‘s, anyway), the comfortable gameplay loop of daily life management and the little moments of mundanity that come with it, and, of course, the music. But on the other hand, there’s so much about the series that is utterly infuriating, what with it’s consistently conservative views and pervasive queerphobia. It’s a series that’s difficult to navigate given the myriad ways it loves to delight and disappoint simultaneously, always following every high point with plenty of low ones and vice versa.

Persona 5 Strikers keeps that tradition alive and well. Persona 5 Strikers is an action game designed by Omega Force, who’s best known for their work on the Dynasty Warriors series of games (otherwise known as “Musou”). Given that, you might expect Strikers to be a Musou game. It’s not — well… not entirely. If you’re expecting the usual mainstays of Omega Force’s games where you’re cutting down massive hordes of foes without even trying, there’s very little of that here. It’s very much a Persona game through and through (just in the form of an action game) instead being X style of game with Persona trappings like so many other sequels/spin-offs have been in the past decade.

Rather than fighting through massive hordes of enemies, you’re mainly spending your time navigating dungeons the same way you would in Persona 5 proper via light stealth gameplay and a bit of platforming here and there. When combat does arise, you’re usually facing off against small groups of shadows, exploiting their weaknesses to set up all-out attacks to wipe them out instantly. The Musou design mainly comes through in the combat. Although you may be fighting against smaller odds, the general motions remain the same rhythm of mashing the main attack button and pressing the other to modify your combos. If you’ve played any of Omega Force’s Musou games, you’ll feel right at home.

The Musou formula is honestly a great fit here. Persona 5‘s aesthetics work well paired with the style of action Omega Force deals in. Cutting down large swaths of foes while Persona 5’s stylish visuals pop off does a lot to make the action feel as cool as it looks. Musou games have always had flair — slashing through hundreds of foes with a handful of strikes always feels pretty cool — and Persona 5’s particular sense of style helps greatly in making the proceedings that much more exciting. It can be rather chaotic looking in motion, but when things click, it’s very satisfying. Hitting an enemy with their weakness to set up a chain of follow-up actions, swapping between party members each step of the way, utterly pummeling your target all the while, then capping it off with an all-out attack never stops being sick the same way it always feels good in Persona proper.

Persona 5 Strikers screenshot

Each member of the Phantom Thieves has their own gameplay quirks — usually buffs some sort like adding elemental damage to their attacks or being able to better withstand incoming attacks, or something like parries or entering a powered up state that increases damage at the cost of constantly losing health — that provide some semblance of depth. I never found myself digging too deeply into them, though, because most of the fights ended so fast or moved so quickly that I didn’t really have time to delve into them and figure out how best to apply those skills.

In most fights I focused on just casting spells to hit enemy weaknesses in between combos. I appreciate the ways Omega Force always caters each adaptation of their long standing formula to fit whatever property they’re working with, and the tweaks they made for Persona 5 Strikers definitely work well, it’s just the game gives little incentive to really dive into those systems and make the most of them. Partially this is due simply to how quick battles are — outside of bosses and mini-bosses (which do provide a fair challenge most of the time), I was ending fights almost as quickly as they began — but mostly due to how the game itself doesn’t really bother to teach you everyone’s unique mechanics. If you want to know how a specific character plays and how best to use them, you have to purposely find the corresponding tutorial tucked away in the menus. A minor inconvenience, granted, but still hardly ideal.

Persona 5 Strikers is a direct sequel to Persona 5, set some months after the end of that game as the Phantom Thieves get together to hang out during summer vacation. Unbeknownst to them, however, someone is once again using the Metaverse to change people’s hearts all over the country, creating an epidemic that they’re being blamed for. The catalyst for these events is a smartphone app/assistant called EMMA. It’s basically the same as something like Siri is on iOS, except with the added function of being able to lead people into the Metaverse — just like the MetaNav app did in the original game.

The team is joined by Sophia, a fully sapient and amnesiac AI who was somehow locked away in the Metaverse, and who’s a fun addition to the team, and Zenkichi, a police officer (ACAB) who’s assisting their investigation while also keeping tabs on them. This time around, their adventure leads them all across Japan rather than being confined to Tokyo. The road trip setup provides plenty of room for the usual sort of antics you’d expect as the gang tries to find moments to enjoy their travels across the country while still performing their investigation. If Strikers does one thing right, it’s nailing those moments where the cast is just hanging out and getting up to their usual antics.

Persona 5 Strikers screenshot

Instead of infiltrating Palaces this time around, the Phantom Thieves are exploring Jails. Jails are essentially the same as Palaces were in Persona 5 proper: manifestations of their targets’ distorted desires ruled by their shadow, known here as “monarchs.” The big difference here being that Jails encompass entire cities instead of manifesting at a single location, and how they serve to capture the desires of the greater public to control them and do whatever the ruler wants. In just about every case, it’s usually lending their undying support to the monarch so they can attain fame or power in the real world. The early targets, a model named Alice Hiragi, an author named Ango Natsume, and a city mayor named Mariko Hyodo all use the jails to fuel their fame and power by making people become unhealthily obsessed with them, such that they’ll do literally anything for them, while allowing them to get away with their misdeeds: abuse of those who work with her and purposely trying to ruin relationships in the case of Alice, blatant plagiarization and manipulation of his “fans” to silence criticism (often going so far as assaulting people to do so) in the case of Ango, and overworking basically everyone who works in the public sector in the case of Mariko. Exactly the sorts of people the Phantom Thieves were formed to take down, basically.

The difference in Strikers is that, where in Persona 5 the targets of the Phantom Thieves were crooks through and through, people who the game never thought to give any sort of redemptive arc to (and rightfully so), Persona 5 Strikers is more interested in understanding and offering sympathy to its targets. It doesn’t want to just condemn them for their actions but to try and offer a path to redemption. Their goal isn’t so much to just ensure those with power be brought to justice, but instead to make them see the error of their ways and offer hope that they can change and redeem themselves.

This is because the crux of each targets’ motivations lies in some deep-seated trauma that remains unresolved. Alice’s trauma is based around unrelenting bullying and verbal abuse she received while in high school, for instance. Ango’s is a result of learning all his accomplishments as a writer were rigged and that his publisher is merely using his name value to profit, while Mariko’s revolves around the grief that comes from being indirectly responsible for the death of a child due to an accident — and subsequently being blackmailed to cover up the truth. All incidents that can weigh heavily on a person, but maybe not act as justification for their behavior.

The function of these scenes feels less intended to engender sympathy with them, but to justify why the Phantom Thieves feel compelled to help their targets. In Persona 5, the Phantom Thieves would change the heart of their target so they could properly face consequences for their actions, forcing them to live with their newfound shame and guilt at what they had done for the rest of their lives. And given the severity of their actions, the Phantom Thieves actions are justified. After all, hard to think of how you could make someone who committed horrible acts of abuse — enough to drive someone to attempt suicide — worthy of redemption, to name one example.

Persona 5 Strikers screenshot

But Strikers wants to be more understanding of what drove these people to turn down the wrong path. It wants — to try, at least — to draw a correlation between their trauma and their actions in the present. The problem is there isn’t any sort of willingness to interrogate where things went wrong, how these people’s trauma influences them. It doesn’t want to examine the broader factors at play — it comes close a couple times, but quickly backs off. Instead, they act as mere tragic backstories with no substance behind them. Any attempt to leverage them to garner sympathy doesn’t work when their motivations basically come down to, “Well, if I can control people, I might as well make the most of it.”

Obviously the game is attempting to use the Jails as a heavy-handed metaphor for refusing to face one’s trauma and work through it, but it doesn’t work when the solution here is to “change their hearts” by force. Because the targets aren’t deciding to better themselves of their own volition, but only because they’re encouraged to do so after having been forced to change via supernatural means. It may have been easy to take at face value in Persona 5 proper due to how easy it is to want the bad guys to get their comeuppance, but when the means are being framed as helping… it feels weird — doubly so given how the game is even critical of the Phantom Thieves’ methods while still positioning the true culprit’s actions (which are admittedly worse) as the only one in the wrong. The lack of self-reflection/awareness is astounding.

It’s a common problem with Persona writ large: being unable to ultimately follow through on the ideas and themes it plays with. Persona 4‘s cast all grapple with the expectations that society places on them, laying the groundwork for them to find what makes them happy and follow their own path by having them confront their own insecurities directly via their shadows… only to then end each social link with having them settle back into what’s expected of them, more or less invalidating whatever growth they were poised to have (Naoto and Kanji being the most extreme examples given their obvious queerness). Likewise, Persona 5 talks big about reforming society, but ultimately can’t commit to any real action, revolutionary or otherwise, because it’s vision of “reform” is just removing a few bad actors because the problem isn’t the systems themselves, it’s just a few bad apples.

That Strikers is no different in this regard isn’t surprising in the least, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. For as fun as seeing the cast interact with one another again is, that the core stories of these games, mainline or otherwise, continue to be this way is exhausting. At this point, anyone playing these games knows that’s what we’re in for. But again, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

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