The Phantom Thieves are back again, as Persona 5 gets put into a blender with Dynasty Warriors and remixed into an action combat game – with feeling!
While many hugely popular video games end up scoring sequels, the formula’s usually exactly what you’d expect – more of the same, with a few extra features and graphical upgrades added on, rushed to market to make sure that the maximum amount of mileage can be extracted from the characters and ideas from the original. And sure, “more of the same” is usually what fans of a franchise want, even if it can result in some spectacularly generic games.
And then there’s the Persona series, which has been cheerfully riffing on its base concept for over 20 years now, reaching its peak with 2017’s Persona 5 – a brilliant, story-rich mash-up of RPG, graphic novel and social life simulator that sold by the millions, which wasn’t bad for a game with over 100 hours of content in its main story alone. That already hefty campaign was then extended and expanded with last year’s Persona 5 Royal, with Dancing in Starlight – a rhythm game featuring the same characters – turning up in-between, just to make sure that you had the game’s continuously-playing tunes properly stuck in your head.
Those who completed the story and its extensions spent enough time with the characters and world of Persona 5 to be properly eager for a sequel. And with Persona 5 Strikers they’ve got what they were hoping for – in a way. It’s a game that looks and feels, when you first start it up, effortlessly familiar with its sharply stylised design and flamboyant animation. But while Strikers does continue the story of the Phantom Thieves from the last game, this isn’t your regular sort of sequel.
Your first less-than-subtle hint of that is provided right near the game’s opening, when you’re thrown into battle against a massive wave of enemies, rather than the small groups of Persona 5. This time, the turn-based battles of that game have been retired in favour of a fast, flashy, fluid and furious real-time combat system that feels a bit Dynasty Warriors. So, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Strikers is a co-production between the Persona development team and Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors studio Omega Force. An improbable mashup of two very different games, it acts both as a story sequel to Persona 5 and a bold reimagining of that game’s combat as something for action combat fans.
The story is suitably bonkers, with Joker heading back to Tokyo several months after the conclusion of the previous game’s story, hoping to spend summer with the other Phantom Thieves on a relaxing camping trip. But thanks to a phone app (yes, another one!) those plans quickly get put on hold. The app, EMMA, is being used by loopy multicoloured fashion icon and social media influencer Alice Hiiragi to bring people into an alternate universe known as a Jail – effectively a dungeon similar to the Palaces from Persona 5. The Thieves come across an artificial intelligence in a box, Sophia (“humanity’s companion”), who joins the team, interacting with them in the real world by inhabiting a mobile phone. If you’re on board with the story by this stage, you’re in for a wild ride.
Despite the combat overhaul and early introduction to it via the first Jail, the main focus here remains the story – those who are hoping for non-stop action have probably come to the wrong place. But the gameplay in the story-based sections is heavily simplified compared to the original game, to the point where it’s much more of a graphic novel. There’s far less stuff to manage as you make your way through Tokyo and then out into Japan on a road trip, and that may disappoint some. But if you’re here for the story and the characters, Strikers plays out as a much more relaxed and passive experience.
“If you’re on board with the story by this stage, you’re in for a wild ride.”
The combat is exactly what you’d expect from the Dynasty Warriors team, with the concept of personas woven is via the ability to pause the action and switch between the different Personas’ abilities, adding some tactical breathing room to the more difficult fights, as does the ability to switch characters in battle. It’s like Final Fantasy VII Remake on 48 hours of energy drinks, and if you’re a fan of chaotic combat then you’ll have a great time with it. Those who prefer the story, though, are well catered for with difficulty options.
Developed with the PS4 Pro as the primary platform (the original Persona 5 was a PS3 game!) the graphics are better than the main game or its Royal reworking, with a choice of ‘Graphics’ or ‘Performance’ modes for the first time. If you’re using a 4K TV, the former mode delivers pin-sharp visuals, while the latter option, as expected, lowers the resolution and bumps up the frame rate – but not to a huge extent. Players being given the choice is always welcome, regardless.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced action game, you’ll find some quality large-scale fighting chaos in Persona 5 Strikers – but you might find yourself frustrated by the RPG-lite elements and very, very extensive story content that surrounds it. This one’s aimed more at Persona 5 fans looking to spend more time with their favourite characters – and by the way, story-wise this is a direct sequel to the original game, not the updated Royal version, so don’t worry about being out of the loop if you didn’t play the newer version.
It’s as endearing, funny and bonkers as you’d expect from a game in the series, and the English voice acting this time around (all recorded at actors’ homes because of the pandemic) is better than it was in the original game (Japanese is, of course, available if you prefer). The reliance on extremely long sections of press-to-proceed story, some tedious “investigation” missions and the sometimes too-crowded battles do let it down somewhat, but for fans of the series, it should fill that Persona 5 shaped hole in your heart just fine.
Persona 5 Strikers is available February 23 on PS4 and Switch.