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In ‘Persona 5,’ the Biggest Monster Is Adulthood

‘Inception’ meets ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ in the year’s best role-playing game so far

‘Persona 5’ (Atlus)
‘Persona 5’ (Atlus)

This piece contains spoilers for the first several hours of the video game Persona 5.

The dungeons of Persona 5 are all governed by monsters, though in this case “monster” is a term that broadly applies to human adults. In the new role-playing video game — developed by Atlus for the PS3 and PS4 as the sixth entry in the 21-year-old Persona series — our hero Joker attends high school by day and explores these dungeons with his friends by night. The twist is that these dungeons exist on a cognitive plane that only a select few teenagers can perceive; where most people see a local high school, Joker and his teammates can see a castle that’s home to a dangerous lord. The first dungeon is the easiest, but also the bleakest, as it represents the subconscious of one of the most breathtaking villains in modern video games — a high school gym teacher named Suguru Kamoshida.

An Olympic volleyball champion, Mr. Kamoshida now coaches volleyball and track at Shujin Academy, the Tokyo high school where Persona 5 begins. Mr. Kamoshida is a dark, handsome, and deeply wicked man. He beats his players, who limp around school with visible cuts and bruises. He stalks and harrasses female students, coercing them into sex. If a student confronts Mr. Kamoshida, he may credibly threaten expulsion. It’s a dark state of affairs that few students discuss openly. For years, the staff and parents of Shujin Academy have turned a blind eye to Mr. Kamoshida’s transgressions because they cherish the prestige that he brings to the school’s sports programs, which were uncompetitive until the winsome coach arrived. Mr. Kamoshida is, in the words of Principal Kobayakawa, “the star” of the school, and so he is afforded total impunity. Accordingly, the students resign themselves to his daily brutality, which drives one student to jump from the school’s roof as an attempt at suicide. She survives, and that’s when the game’s first mission — the rebellion against Mr. Kamoshida — begins in earnest.

Persona 5 follows a band of students who call themselves the Phantom Thieves of Hearts. Joker founds and leads the group, whose earliest members include fellow outcasts Ryuji, a hothead jock; Ann, a teen model with few friends; plus a talking cat named Morgana. (This is a Japanese role-playing game; just go with it.) Thanks to a mysterious smartphone application, the Phantom Thieves are able to infiltrate the subconsciouses of their targets, whose disordered souls map fortified dreamscapes — known as palaces — onto their idealized surroundings.

When the Phantom Thieves infiltrate a palace, they transform into costumed vigilantes who wear masks and cast powerful magic in combat with the “shadows” that patrol each palace. These sequences are where the game’s art and music really shine, with slick pop battle themes, bold action menus, and brilliant character animations that pummel enemies with flashes of color (mostly red). Outside of combat, you might find Joker in class fielding questions that’ll be on the midterm (yes, this game makes you study for exams, and then take them), hanging with his friends at the arcade, taking dates to the park, or hitting the batting cages alone, all per the player’s discretion. Joker’s social life is a reprieve from all the supernatural melodrama, though even doing laundry and returning books to the library becomes a joy in its own right.

Back to the action: For the Phantom Thieves, “stealing a heart” means extracting the avatar of their targets’ distorted desires — their “treasure” — thus destroying their palaces and reordering their consciences for the better. Mr. Kamoshida’s palace is Shujin Academy, which he reimagines to be a medieval castle, and where his shadow self roams around wearing a gold crown, a red velvet cape, and nothing but a pink Speedo underneath it. He’s accompanied by demonic knights and a cognitive replica of Ann, who wears a bikini and happily clings to Mr. Kamoshida without speaking. Mr. Kamoshida’s treasure — the crux of his perversions — is his Olympic gold medal. Once the Phantom Thieves extract that treasure, Mr. Kamoshida unravels, his conscience prevails, and he publicly confesses his crimes.

The villains who follow Mr. Kamoshida mostly experience a similar downfall. The vices (such as vanity and greed) that give birth to their respective palaces manifest in the material world as the violent pursuits of some ignoble end. In the game’s calendar system, each mission plays out over the course of several days, with the player given a deadline to steal the treasure before the latest villain harms the Phantom Thieves or others.

The Phantom Thieves wield a deeply invasive power, one that allows them to read people’s deepest anxieties and fetishes without oversight or detection. It’s a power that’s more easily misused than properly mastered; and, as the Phantom Thieves gradually discover, there’s a grand conspiracy of scientists, politicians, business leaders, and petty criminals who plan to use this cognitive warfare against their enemies toward selfish ends. The Phantom Thieves never suffer such selfishness, despite everything we know about the chaotic whims of teenaged egos. Only once do they raid the subconscious of a fellow teen — to reel her in from the clutch of depression. Ultimately, the Phantom Thieves’ good nature reigns over their occasional hubris as they target villains of increasingly prominent stature. As their own public profile rises (along with the stakes of their missions), the story presumes that the Phantom Thieves, just by virtue of excluding adults from their ranks, would never abuse their access to the cognitive metaverse.

(Nothing will make you appreciate how amazingly strange and convoluted Persona 5 is more than writing several hundred words about it once you’ve finished playing.)

In its 100-hour runtime, which spans a full calendar year within the story, the Phantom Thieves are the game’s least dynamic figures, so sure of their purpose that they go on to destabilize business and politics without a second thought. They note the ethical peril that’s inherent in their operations, and then they never really bother to resolve it. Admittedly, privacy and self-determination are tricky questions, and the game itself assigns the Phantom Thieves a public approval rating that fluctuates wildly based on the game’s events.

Here in the real world, the broadly popular Persona 5 has faced its own specific criticisms surrounding its Japanese-to-English translation, which sometimes reads awkwardly; its in-game romance dynamic, which prohibits Joker from dating any male characters; and its tonal inconsistencies in dealing with physical abuse and sexual harassment. It’s a long and involved game that took nearly six years to develop, and yet it still feels lovably rough around the edges. Having shipped more than 1.5 million copies for its worldwide debut earlier this month, the Phantom Thieves are riding a high tide of public support — though, clearly, they’ve still got some growing up to do.