The stakes may be low as the Phantom Thieves band together once more in Persona 5 Strikers, but it's good to be taking hearts with style again.
It's an exciting prospect when one of your favorite games—in a series that typically doesn't receive direct sequels—gets what's more or less, well, a direct sequel. Mainline entries in Persona have a sort of definitive conclusion then get spinoffs or reissues, while a brand new storyline starts in the next full game (Persona 2 being an exception). Persona 5 Strikers, however, picks up where the original left off: The Phantom Thieves are back together to fight evil in the Metaverse as the cops keep a watchful eye on their moves. But now we have musou-style action RPG gameplay that's explosive, frenetic, and at least in the early stages, pretty damn tough.
I've spent about five hours with Persona 5 Strikers, which encompasses the opening scenarios and the entire first palace (or dungeon), and it's a blessing to be kicking ass as these characters again with all the lavish style you'd expect. With what seems to be a story with lower stakes and tiny slices of life simulation elements, it kind of feels like a Persona 5-lite in its narrative. The best way to put it is that Persona 5 Strikers is like the movie companion to your favorite anime.
Return Of The Metaverse And Humanity's Companion
It's summer vacation. Makoto and Haru have already started college, while everyone else is finishing up high school (except for Futaba, who broke out of her shell and started high school, props to her). Joker decides to return to Tokyo after a string of group texts, and everyone's going to have a carefree and lovely time with their leader back in town. Except, that's a lie.
Here's the deal: A pop-star and fashion icon named Alice Hiiragi has exploded onto the scene and attained fame and fortune, and fans of hers are acting very obsessive. Turns out she's using the Metaverse to control people's desires and basically turn them into stans that devote their lives and bank accounts to support her. Joker and Ryuji were in the right place at the right time to uncover Alice's sinister Wonderland palace, or jail, as it's called in Strikers. So, of course, the rest of the gang isn't going to let it slide either, and like that, the Phantom Thieves are back in business and have told their vacation HOLD UP.
Your new squadmate, Sophia, is a cutesy artificial intelligence that manifests as a human in the Metaverse and a phone app AI in the real world, calling herself "humanity's companion." The new evils you face in this game are a bit easier to take on with her assistance and as a playable character. To make things convenient, she's also your shopkeeper and can order goods from the dark web with instant shipping. An older man named Zenkichi Hasegawa, meanwhile, is a detective tasked with tracking your activity, but there's certainly more to him than he lets on since his motivations have been kept under wraps in the story thus far.
Whereas Persona 5 hit you with a gut-punch to usher you into its world, attitude to charm you with it, and social commentary to leave a lasting impression, Strikers takes it somewhat easy. And that's fine, not everything needs to have a traumatic slap to the face to make you wake up, get up, get out there. It's just heartwarming to see everyone happy and together again. I mean, after all the hardships they endured in the original game, they deserve to live without something like the impending doom they faced in their pasts. But, little do they know they'd find themselves back in the Metaverse fighting shadows like they hadn't missed a beat.
Victory Won't Come Easy
And boy, does Persona 5 Strikers likes to remind you how stylish and expressive the Phantom Thieves are. Every character's personality and combat sensibilities are part of how they function during fights. You get the satisfaction of directly controlling them and hitting unique attacks and combos that exhibit their individuality. I'm not going to lie, tearing through mobs using Makoto's bike persona Johanna and slamming into the ground for high-damage, as well as charging up Ryuji's bat swing to inflict electricity damage, has been one of the best feelings in the game.
The major shift in gameplay is really the star of the opening hours and the thing you'll be eager to get more of. With Omega Force and Koei Tecmo as developers, this game takes the real-time action foundation of the Warriors games then layers on almost everything you remember from Persona 5's combat system: elemental affinities, spell casting, buffs and status ailments, swapping personas, party composition, all-out attacks, Showtime attacks, guns and melee—and it just looks cool as hell.
It sounds great on paper, and it has mostly translated well in practice. The way this game incorporates Shin Megami Tensei and Persona combat mechanics means things can get messy. Juggling mechanics intended for turn-based combat can be a challenge when the going gets tough. Maybe it's just the early hours and having to get used to a new, hyper-fast battle system, but fights against harder enemies got overwhelming.
You'll have to swap between characters in order to use their abilities, manage their SP, constantly get a read on what spells powerful enemies are lining up in order to dodge them, get your combos in while keeping an eye on the party's HP as you handle mobs that'll surround you—all in a matter of seconds. It helps that pulling up your persona spells list stops time all together, also giving you breather to assess the situation, but you're no longer a turn-based tactician in this game. And forget about button mashing your way through tougher fights, it won't get you very far.
Some of these challenging fights in the opening palace are as wild as they are satisfying when it all comes together, especially when you come to grips with the ways each character works and pull off some slick moves in the process. Just don't expect to breeze through it all at first.
Living And Exploring Under Less Pressure
While many of Persona 5's original stylings and structures make up large parts of Strikers, it's not exactly a one-to-one translation. In this opening chapter, you're in familiar places in Tokyo, and it's apparent that you're not here to grow relationships with Confidants, worry about school, take on jobs, or work on your social skills. Later in the game, you'll visit different cities across Japan, though I suspect they'll feel more like hub areas to roam around to push plot points forward, have a few quick conversations with the squad, or stock up on supplies before jumping back into dungeon crawling.
A calendar marks the events of the story but there is no countdown for when you absolutely need to finish a dungeon, or any need to stress about planning how to fit as many meaningful activities into your days. Rather, it's simply a narrative framing device instead of something to manage. This also means that there are no consequences for leaving a dungeon in order to replenish HP and SP and stock up on items, since time won't pass and you're not under a deadline.
To be clear, it can still be quite the challenge to make it to new checkpoints to progress within a dungeon, since the focus shifts to overcoming some difficult battles in between. That's enough to encourage you to swap party members and get the most out of each character. The fact that this cast is more than just Joker really comes through in Strikers, too.
As you explore dungeons similar to how you would in Persona 5—jumping between cover points, ambushing shadows for the advantage in battles, and solving light puzzles—you can control anyone. It's a small thing, but it lets you choose who takes charge of pulling off a shadows mask and darting across rooftops in the Metaverse. So, I’m thankful that Makoto can be the star in my Strikers playthrough.
Only Getting Started
Since this is pitched as a game for fans and newcomers alike, it does that thing where it needs to remind you of each character's quirks and traits in rather tropey ways. Like, yes, we know Yusuke sees art in everything around him, and that Ryuji isn't the smartest person in the world (but he has heart so relax on roasting my guy for not knowing things). While I'm not expecting the emotional payoffs I experienced in the original game, I am happy that there's more to do with this band of knuckleheads I know so well.
Technically, you can call Persona 5 Strikers a sequel, but in the same way spinoff or complementary movies of an anime series work, the game seems to be more of a celebration of getting the gang back together to do the cool things you remember them doing. There are some new faces and a new plot to unveil, and that's as exciting as trying to wrap my head around this new combat system to the tune of remixes and all-new songs that hype me up for the toughest fights--and while there's no "Life Will Change" here, the new adrenaline-inducing song "Daredevil" is a damn fine theme to get you pumped to take hearts yet again.
It's quite ambitious as a continuation of a beloved RPG, and while it's not built as a 100+ hour experience, there is a lot to dig into as we're just getting started. Persona 5 Strikers launches on February 23—and four days early for special edition owners—for PS4 (with PS5 compatibility), Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam, and we'll have plenty of coverage in the lead-up to its release.