A game that makes me want to replay Persona 5, and not always in a good way.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Persona 5 Strikers before playing it; my feelings swung back and forth several times between its original announcement nearly two years ago and the first time I finally got my hands on it. When the game released in Japan and we learned that it was going to be more of an action-RPG and less of a Musou game, I was actually disappointed, since I was fairly excited at the idea of Persona 5 getting the same treatment that The Legend of Zelda did with Hyrule Warriors. I steeled myself for a game that I didn’t really enjoy playing that I would power through in order to see the first canonical sequel to one of my favorite video games. Having finished the game, I now feel the opposite about it from how I expected. Persona 5 Strikers’ gameplay was an absolute blast and I had a ton of fun with it. Ironically, the story ended up being the biggest obstacle to recommending this game rather than the selling point.
To reiterate what I said in my preview from last month, Persona 5 Strikers is not a Musou game, but it’s also not quite a Persona game either. The basic combat mechanics are lifted directly from the Warriors games, featuring real-time action with each character having a unique moveset based on branching combo trees. Light attacks chain together into unique heavy attacks that finish your combo in different ways based on when you use them, and you can cancel out of your combo to dodge at any moment. That is pretty much where the similarity to the Musou franchise ends, since the remainder of the game is built around full-on JRPG dungeon crawling. Though battles take place on the dungeon map, combat and exploration are two distinct game states—just like Persona. As you explore the dungeons you’ll solve puzzles, find chests, and even go a little out of your way to seek out extra objectives in order to complete sidequests.
Even the combat, copy-pasted as it is from Warriors games, features plenty of elements lifted straight from Persona 5. Each character has their own persona (with Joker himself still having access to more than one) with elemental spells, status effects, and stat buffs. Time freezes when you’re using your persona’s abilities, breaking up the non-stop action and giving you the chance to methodically consider the current state of battle. Most enemies have elemental strengths and weaknesses that can be targeted by your persona’s abilities, and striking an opponent with the right spell will allow you to take advantage of follow-up moves and All-Out Attacks. As you start to understand the mechanics, you’ll get into an exciting and tense rhythm, pummeling enemies with basic attacks until you’re in the right position to hit opponents with just the right spell to deal massive damage.
Outside of battle, the dungeon crawling is made fast and dynamic through the placement of cover points that you leap to with the press of a button. While in cover you can ambush enemies to start battles with an advantage, or you can choose to speed away from danger when you’re not interested in fighting. Cover points can also add verticality to an area, granting you access to a vantage point where you can safely scan your surroundings. These flashy moves fit into the stylish world of Persona perfectly, and they make the act of simply walking around a large dungeon feel oddly exciting. This verticality does occasionally lead to some bad platforming sections though, and jumping from one rooftop to another without a cover point to handle the jump for you can be awfully frustrating. This platforming is thankfully rare, but whenever it does pop up you may almost wish that the game never added a jump button in the first place.
Although action within the dungeons feels like a perfect adaptation of Persona 5’s gameplay, things out in the real world are anything but. The Persona series is famous for balancing supernatural adventures with the mundane pressures of a social life, and the social side of things is more or less absent in Strikers. Your time in the real world will almost entirely be spent going from shop to shop to stock up on items or watching cutscenes that advance the main story. The closest thing there is to a social link is the “Bond” system, which is framed as the Phantom Thieves’ affinity to each other but is really just a glorified EXP meter to unlock party-wide upgrades. The real world cities you visit end up feeling more like filler keeping you from the next dungeon than an opportunity to make friends and immerse yourself in the culture of Japan.
And those main story cutscenes aren’t as enticing as I’d like them to be either. The most successful piece of the story is a new character, Zenkichi Hasegawa. Zenkichi is a detective for Public Security who sees the Phantom Thieves as the prime suspects for a new Change of Heart epidemic that’s been sweeping Japan. He doesn’t believe that they’re really responsible though, so he makes a deal to provide information to them in exchange for their cooperation in catching the true culprit. Zenkichi is the one thing from Strikers’ story that feels truly new, as he’s an adult character in a series that typically focuses on teenagers. His personal struggles balancing his career and his family while also searching for his personal sense of justice is a breath of fresh air rarely seen in a main cast member of a Persona game.
I felt I had to highlight Zenkichi specifically because he’s the only part of the story that really compelled me, and the rest of the story feels more like a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel than a whole new Persona adventure. The overall plot is largely the same as the original Persona 5, just with a couple proper nouns changed and circumstances adjusted to make it less obvious. Jails are just Palaces, the virtual assistant EMMA is the Metanav, and there are even more similarities I can’t talk about for fear of spoilers. The Phantom Thieves are still as great as ever and I enjoyed the chance to see them on screen getting into brand new antics. I laughed when Yusuke celebrated his newfound wealth from a successful painting, when a baffled Morgana refused to be called a raccoon, and when Haru cheerfully talked about her disdain for the police. But these moments of fanservice are really the only appeal the story had. Even though I enjoyed being reminded of everything I loved about Persona 5, it was disappointing to see that all Strikers’ story could do was retread old ground. At one point near the end of the game a character even remarked on how similar the events of the game are to everything that had happened a year earlier.
An unoriginal story doesn’t have to be a problem in a spin-off game. After all, no one’s complaining that the plots of the dancing games are weak. The problem is that Strikers devotes way too much of its runtime to the story to just dismiss it as a thin excuse for gameplay. Cutscenes are just as long as Persona 5 with entire hours passing between the end of one dungeon and the beginning of the next. It’s fine for a side game to have more spectacle than substance (and some of the spectacle in Strikers is really fun!) but fleeting moments of spectacle every couple of hours can’t pull the weight of so many cutscenes that just make you wish you were replaying Persona 5 instead.
As for performance, I’m just as impressed with Strikers’ Switch port now as I was when I wrote my preview, and my feelings largely haven’t changed. The resolution is low and the framerate is capped at 30fps, but the signature style Persona 5 is known for has not been compromised to run on a handheld—although a low draw distance for object pop-in and LOD changes is pretty noticeable. The game rarely stutters and that 30fps stays pretty consistent all the way to the end of the game, so the experience is pretty good if you can put up with the silly draw distance. The one weird thing I’d say can make or break the port is that the Switch version doesn’t have volume settings—a feature that the PC port does have. I don’t have access to the PS4 version but based on what I’ve seen other reviewers say on Twitter, it doesn’t have volume settings either. This may sound like a nitpick, but voice acting frequently gets drowned out by sound effects in battle, so if you’re not prepared to be staring at the dialogue boxes in the top right corner of the screen during the fast-paced action of a boss battle, it may be worth considering picking up the PC version if you have an option.
I rarely feel as conflicted about a video game as I do about Persona 5 Strikers. The story is just kind of a letdown, and as a result the cutscenes feel more intrusive than Persona 5’s. Despite that I can’t deny how much fun I had with the gameplay, and I’m probably going to end up replaying it on PC for the chance to enjoy it in surround sound (another feature the Switch version weirdly lacks). For as much as the story disappointed me it just wouldn’t be true to say I don’t like Persona 5 Strikers. I like it a lot, and I felt really happy with it when I finally finished it. It’s a game that I want to recommend, but that recommendation has to come with a big caveat: if you’re a Persona fan that loves the Phantom Thieves but you’re just not interested in the gameplay, it may be more worth your time to just play Persona 5 again.