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Persona 5 Royal Part 1: Context and themes

Where I scream about my fascination with mythology, religion, RPG’s and how it enhances an already amazing game for me.

Ricardo Rico

This is a tough article to start off since there are so many things I want to say about this game. I guess some context is necessary first. I’ve been a turn-based Role Playing Game (RPG) fan all of my video game life, while it wasn’t the first game I played (that was literal Frogger on the Atari 2600), the first game I finished by myself was Super Mario RPG and that triggered my love for the genre.

About two years later, I played my first Pokémon game in Pokémon Blue/Pokémon Stadium, and it has been hard to look back ever since. As I went on to try new games and my mind matured, my love for turn based game kept growing as well as a deep fascination with religion and Godlike figures. The mere concept of the human mind requiring to create these beings to try and explain natural phenomena present in EVERY single part of the world and civilization, to a different degree, is a sociological and anthropological “Why?” question that I’d love to have answered during my lifetime, but I doubt that would come to pass.

Color my surprise when, around 2009, I came across a little PS2 title called Persona 3. A turn-based RPG where you can recruit a wide variety of mythological creatures to fight for you, as different Personae from your psyche, while you traverse something akin to a reality where thoughts take form. The game had been out for three years and had already had a re-release called Persona 3 FES (to this day nobody knows what that stands for, the best guess is Festival).

I fell in love with it the moment I played it, and that’s how my love for Atlus games came to be. As I dug more around Persona games, I discovered that Persona 4 had been released in 2008 and got my hands on it as well. While the gameplay was more polished than in Persona 3, the story and themes in the game were not as appealing nor as interesting as its predecessor.

After that, I was excited expecting the next release in the series. Persona 5 released, after comically long delays, in April of 2017, and man, was the wait worth it. The game was surprisingly satisfying and exceeded all the expectation I had for it. I don’t think I had had fun with a game as much as this one since Persona 3 and/or The World Ends With You, another masterpiece which I will surely talk about in the future.

With that said, when a re-release for the game was announced, I was not excited at all: I just thought “what will they add? The ending was kind of abrupt, but it felt like a real ending”. As time went on, I grew to like the new additions and finally decided to buy the game again, despite having played the original for over 400 hours. All this story is to justify me telling you that if there’s a genre in video games for which I can be a true critic of it is turn-based RPG’s. And this will be me telling you that Persona 5 Royal is the best turn-based RPG released this decade and probably ever.

The place to start to talk about the game is its themes, since they are the foundations in which everything was built upon. The most prevalent theme in the game, since it’s where half of the gameplay happens, is the Collective Unconscious, a psychological term that refers to the structures of the unconscious mind shared by all members of a species. While there is no way to prove something like this exists, and nobody actually researches it, the game uses it to its advantage to create a world inside the human subconscious where each person has its own views of the world.

For example, the first major enemy in the game is a PE teacher that sees himself as the king of the high school our protagonists attend. So, when you enter to his subconscious mind, the school becomes a literal castle ruled by the teacher. What makes me love this game though is the way it uses this concept to make references to mythological and religious figures. Since you’re dwelling in the collective subconscious knowledge of people, the creator of these figures, you can interact and negotiate with them to gain their assistance in battle. At the same time, each of our protagonists can summon what is called a Persona, the physical manifestation of each character’s psyche inside the collective unconscious to fight for them.

Each starts as references to historical, fictional or fabled creatures. There’s Ishikawa Goemon, the famous samurai in Japanese folklore; Arséne Lupin, protagonist of the book series The Great Gentleman Thief written by Maurice Leblanc; Carmen, the main protagonist from the opera of the same name; William Kidd, the famous pirate; Zorro, the Californian outlaw… you get the point. At the same time, you can get assistance from mythological figures like Thor, Oberon, Titania, Mary, and even from Lucifer himself.

As a fan of all things around religions and myths, I truly appreciate the length Atlus goes through to try to include something from every major civilization, belief or mythological era. If you pay attention throughout the game, you will be able to see that they could have gone much farther with this theme. However, they used more for the setting than for what they were trying to convey, which is what we’re talking about next.

Since Persona 3, three key figures have been at the center of the production and creation of the series: Katsura Hashino, its director; Shigenori Soejima, its character designer; and Shoji Meguro, its composer. Together, they developed a concept to be core the of each game. For Persona 3, it was Death; for Persona 4, it was Truth; and for Persona 5, it is Rebellion. These concepts were what Hashino, Soejima and Meguro used to make each game unique and interesting.

I think it’s only fair to define Rebellion and go from there. I found two definitions for it, but I think this one is the more appropriate: “The action or process of resisting authority, control or convention”. The overarching story of Persona 5 is that you’re trying to reform society by stealing the subconscious desires of all the evil people you encounter.

We’ll keep going with the PE teacher example. Since he’s the king of the castle, he can do whatever he wants. He physically abuses male students with unreasonable training routines and punishment if they can’t keep up while sexually abusing female students on top of the same physical punishment.

Each of our protagonists was wronged by this teacher: he broke Ryuji’s leg so that he couldn’t be a member of the track team anymore, and he tries to coerce Ann into having sex with him by using her best friend’s starting position in the volley ball team as a blackmail tool. Not only that, his subconscious version captures and tries to kill the protagonists, Ryuji and Morgana.

The characters awaken their Personas by opposing the position they find themselves in and breaking their own mental shackles that did not allow them to do something about it. I think the major antagonists could have been less obviously evil, but you do feel motivated to make them change and face consequences for their actions. Although the theme of rebellion throughout the game is superficial, the moment you get to the final dungeon (penultimate if you unlock the new content) is when they finally flesh it out fully.

I should stop here because this is getting long enough as it is, but I’ll come back to finish this next time. On my next text, we’ll be talking about gameplay, music, overall improvements, the things the game did badly and my overall thoughts. Until then, have a great day, stay safe and I hope to see you guys later.

Featured image taken from La vanguardia.

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