Editor's note: Persona 5 Strikers is out now on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This review, first published on February 9, 2021, has been updated to reflect all platforms. -- February 23, 2021
It's always nice to see your friends again, even if your time together doesn't always live up to the highest highs you've experienced in the past. Persona 5 Strikers is a lot like that--it comes with some special moments that foster a deeper appreciation for what Persona 5 is and what it represents. From the wild action-RPG combat to the summer road-trip premise, characters we know and love get to show off how much they've grown and prove they can still kick ass in style. Strikers does trip over a few clumsy tropes along the way, and sometimes tries a little too hard to recapture Persona 5's magic, but when it's all said and done, I'm glad this reunion happened to begin with.
It's the summer after the events of the original game, and the Phantom Thieves have a little free time. With Joker being back in town, why not enjoy the break? Before they can even make plans, they're caught in another round of beating down the metaphysical evils of the Metaverse and changing hearts. This time, the phenomenon is happening all across Japan. Although you follow similar patterns established in Persona 5--fighting through surreal dungeons and living life in the real world--the context is quite different both narratively and gameplay-wise.
What's Worth Fighting For
Your first few targets have been manipulating people's desires in order to feed their ambitions for fame and fortune, but there's a bigger mystery as to how and why there's strange behavior en masse. You begin to unveil that tragic pasts have led them down a dark path of exploiting the Metaverse. The broader message isn't to excuse behavior or to say that trauma will surely corrupt its victims--rather, that our circumstances and the people around us (or lack thereof) have significant influence over how we internalize and process pain, and eventually who we become.
Through each story beat, the main cast relates to these tragic situations because they were once in similar positions in the original game. It shows how much our fellow Phantom Thieves have matured since the events of Persona 5--they've been able to conquer their traumas, and Strikers gives them the opportunity to impart their wisdom onto others.
However, the story doesn't always hit these topics with particular nuance, leaving some of its messaging feeling either a bit shallow or hamfisted. Dialogue sometimes relies on surface-level exposition and cliches, or talking in circles to belabor the point. Many of the villains also boil down to being an avatar for a certain type of character flaw in a very matter-of-fact way. I felt somewhat detached from the stakes at times.
Although it's not deliberately explored in depth, Persona 5 Strikers does have a surprisingly poignant message about the role of technology in our lives--the perks, the pitfalls, the power it affords certain people, and how it can be abused. As per usual with Persona, the story also presents genuine human connection as a source of strength, and by the end of the journey, both those themes come into clearer focus.
These narrative themes extend to the arcs of the new characters Sophia and Zenkichi, great additions who stand out and fit well alongside the Phantom Thieves. Sophia is the cutesy artificial intelligence, a Siri-like phone companion who takes a human form to fight in the Metaverse. Her bubbly attitude and gradual understanding of human mannerisms gives a warm vibe.
Persona 5 Strikers does have a surprisingly poignant message about the role of technology in our lives--the perks, the pitfalls, the power it affords certain people, and how it can be abused.
Zenkichi is a goofball adult, but as an inspector with Japan's public security, he's an authority figure that everyone rightfully distrusts, especially as he tries to play ball with the group. However, his growth is key to some of Strikers' more important themes--defying flawed institutions lets him break through mental barriers to overcome his past failures, which also helps him rebuild a relationship with his daughter.
The integration of Sophia and Zenkichi only feels natural, and that's due in large part to how well Strikers builds the story around them.
On The Road Across Japan
Strikers changes the scenery at nearly each chapter of the story, and with an RV on hand and Makoto with a driver's license, this becomes your home away from home. While this game follows a familiar flow to Persona 5, it's much lighter on the social simulation elements. There is a calendar to contextualize the timeline of the story, but absent are the deadlines and pressures of time hanging over your head.
You have what are called Requests, which are simple side quests let you access new gear or increase your Bond rating. And the Bonds system--which levels up after certain moments between characters--unlocks powerful perks to increase your effectiveness in battle. You can leave and enter Metaverse dungeons at any checkpoint during exploration to recuperate without penalty, too. It serves to tighten the narrative pace and create a less stressful vibe.
From the sun-soaked beaches of Okinawa to the bustling city center of Dotonbori, it's exciting to share the experience of touring Japan with these characters. Even though there isn't much to do in these cities other than shop for items, or talk to NPCs and your companions, taking in the new scenery is pretty sweet. It makes for some of my favorite chill moments: watching fireworks over Yokohama, celebrating Tanabata in Sendai, riding the Ferris wheel in Sapporo, sharing meals at every stop, or just talking in the RV. Cooking up meals for HP and SP items in the RV will grab the crews attention, too. After all the battles and tragedies the Phantom Thieves overcame, it's nice to see them enjoy life, even as they continue fighting against a looming evil.
It's not always smooth sailing, though. At times, Strikers falls into cringey tropes that undermine its ethos. For example, one villain's Metaverse form is an overweight caricature, using obesity as shorthand for evil--even in context, it doesn't make sense since this storyline has nothing to do with gluttony. There's also not one but two bathhouse scenes that try to put the female cast in uncomfortable situations as a meaningless gag. And with some of them having troubled pasts, I'd rather not see them treated unfairly amongst friends.
Striking Back, Striking Fast
With each stop across Japan, there is work to be done. And the way Strikers faithfully incorporates Persona 5's RPG mechanics and the Phantom Thieves' lavish style into its frenetic musou-style action made me eager to put in that work.
You explore dungeons as you would in Persona 5, sneaking up on shadows for ambushes or confronting them to initiate battles, but now you jump straight into real-time action. Each character has their own elemental affinities, persona abilities, and unique properties for their attack combos. And you can swap to any one of the four in your party to take direct control and make the most of their capabilities. While you can stop time by pulling up spells, combat moves so quickly that you need to be consistently attacking or dodging as you devise ways to exploit enemy weaknesses.
It's a lot to process in the first few hours of the game--tutorials are laid on thick and the battles got chaotic before I had a firm grasp of things. But the various mechanics started to make sense after some practice, and as I began to form general combat strategies, I got to a point where I was just itching to start fights.
It's incredibly satisfying to tear through mobs of shadows while juggling the challenge of tougher enemies that hit harder and have a ton of HP. You can't necessarily get away with spamming spells they're weak against--it's best to learn how to use characters' SP-free elemental combos to complement the assault. Joker still wields a roster of personas created through the velvet room, which will help you earn much-needed all-out attack opportunities by hammering away at weaknesses. And throughout combat, you build up a meter to execute showtime attacks, which is another ridiculously bombastic move that lays heavy damage on every enemy insight. You'll feel unstoppable when it all comes together.
I almost forgot I was playing a musou-style game developed by Koei Tecmo and Omega-Force, and I think that's a testament to how sharp Strikers is as a Persona game.
Throughout the game, you're encouraged to make use of every member with the various affinities they can cover for combat. It's also great to see how all their personalities and charm come through with how they function in battle--Haru's heavy axe swings for area-of-effect damage, Yusuke's charged slashes, or Makoto's rapid punches and biker persona all offer distinct advantages, but are also reminders of their individuality. You can even directly control any of them during dungeon exploration, which is a sweet touch that lets your favorite character be the star of your show.
As gratifying as it is to crunch through waves of enemies and chip away at the stronger bosses, this is a somewhat inelegant combat system. Things can get messy when there's an overwhelming amount to parse on screen, making it hard to telegraph enemy attacks--and this can pile on in a moment's notice for devastating results.
There are times when the presentation of the game can get in its own way, especially when it's delivered through pivotal combat sequences. For example, some story-driven battles would become a mess of dialogue, audio cues, sound effects, and music all overlapping.
Dungeons are designed well enough, and although they rely on basic formats and aren't as imaginative as they are in Persona 5, the late-game one in Osaka brings a scale and aesthetic that matches the bombast of that point in the story. What is an annoyance, however, is that exploration is often interrupted by superfluous dialogue that over-explains each step of the dungeon's process.
So while your time in the Metaverse isn't without its blemishes, these are the moments when Strikers proves itself as a strong adaptation and representation of Persona 5's gameplay qualities. At its best, I couldn't help but feel that Persona 5 was always a perfect match for action-based combat.
The Power Of Music
Whether you're in combat or going about your tasks, the Strikers soundtrack is going to steal your heart. Music is integral to Persona's identity, and yet again, the Atlus and Koei Tecmo sound teams manage to impress and build on the tremendous work from Persona 5.
Old favorites like "Last Surprise" and "Rivers In The Desert" get metal/punk-style rearrangements with uptempto percussion that carry a new attitude to perfectly match the chaotic action. The new battle theme "What You Wish For" is an instant classic with its upbeat acid jazz rock style. The Osaka dungeon rearranges a song you hear throughout the game and establishes a heightened tension in what's already an intimidating symphonic-metal track. That same dungeon switches things up to a layered and heavy synthwave track that's as catchy as it is dark.
Each town you visit comes with new, comforting background songs, too. One standout is Okinawa, which features Islander instrumentals and borrows a melody from the Persona 5 anime credits song "Infinity" to create a heartwarming tune I could leave on loop. But no song will sell you this soundtrack quite like "Daredevil." It carries the same vibe as "Life Will Change" but with a more aggressive attitude backed by groovy disco-metal instrumentation. And Lyn's soulful and assertive vocals instill an unwavering confidence. My only wish is that the game gave it more time to breathe in the moments it was used.
The Strikers soundtrack showcases the range of the composers from Atlus and Koei Tecmo, and also their ability to make music that stirs up the spectrum of emotions, and it becomes inseparable from the entire experience.
The Ties That Bind
Once I reached the final hours of Strikers, I was reminded of Persona's ability to create an unmistakable sense of finality. Many parts of this game are quite goofy or hammy, but when the pieces fall in place for the last dungeon, and all the music kicks in at the right time, my heart was fully in it. Strikers has a deep cast of characters and the way it brings the entire crew together for these final moments makes the Phantom Thieves feel whole. Everyone puts in the work and everyone shines in their own right to save the world (again), ending the journey on a high note.
For all its shortcomings, Persona 5 Strikers reminds me why I loved the Phantom Thieves to begin with and shows how they've matured since we last saw them. Once you get your head around it, the action-RPG combat is a challenging thrill, and no one can pull off flourishes in the same fashion as these characters. I almost forgot I was playing a musou-style game developed by Koei Tecmo and Omega-Force, and I think that's a testament to how sharp Strikers is as a Persona game. If you have any love for Persona 5, what say you save the world one more time with some old friends?