Persona 5 was another phenomenal entry in the Shin Megami Tensei Persona series, where once again the fate of humanity is left in the hands of a group of high school students who fight against Shadows by utilizing the power of their inner selves, their Personas.
It had a unique take on the gentleman thief genre and like Persona 3’s S.E.E.S. and Persona 4’s Investigation Team, Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves of Hearts were a memorable bunch of misunderstood but well-meaning do-gooders who were a joy to follow as they balanced their hectic school lives with thrilling and dangerous otherworldly heists to steal hearts. These charming masked rogues truly live up to their name as they have stolen hearts both in-game and in the real world.
Well if you can’t get enough of the escapades of Joker and company, then you’re in for a treat. Just when you thought they were out of surprises, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts are back and in a manner we never saw coming: A Musou style game. Find out in this review of Persona 5 Strikers if this amalgam of Persona and Musou can trigger a change in your heart to join the Phantom Thieves in an all-new adventure.
Persona 5 Strikers, known as Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers in Japan, is a collaboration between Atlus and Koei Tecmo combining aspects of both the former’s Persona 5 and the latter’s Dynasty Warriors series of games. For the uninitiated, Dynasty Warriors started as a fighting game that turned into a third-person hack-and-slash series which pitted one player, or two, against an army of soldiers with the occasional bosses to beat using a variety of simple but powerful combos, essentially creating a whole new genre called Musou.
It’s this gameplay mechanic, along with Persona 5’s RPG elements, that are at the forefront in Persona 5 Strikers, which we’ll just call P5S from here on out. The game will have you control one of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts and puts you in an open environment where you will battle hordes of Shadows and enemy Personas. The combining of elements come from the fact that each playable Phantom Thief has a wide array of combos to use, and various mechanics like Persona’s One-More and Weakness systems, including Status Ailments, are carried over from Persona 5.
Phantom Thieves Road Trip!
Set months after the events of Persona 5, P5S sees the Protagonist returning to Tokyo during summer vacation to reunite with his fellow former Phantom Thieves. Thinking their “stealing” days are far behind, this couldn’t be further from the truth as the group inexplicably find themselves once again in the Metaverse via a new phone app.
As if things couldn’t get any more bizarre, the former thieves meet a police officer who informs them of changes of hearts incidents happening all over Japan, similar to the group’s modus operandi, and naturally the Phantom Thieves are the prime suspects. And so, with their summer vacation plans put on hold, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts find themselves back in business and on a journey across Japan to get to the bottom of these occurrences, clear their names, and possibly enjoy a normal summer vacation like they planned.
Narratively, P5S is a direct sequel to Persona 5, or Persona 5 Royal if that’s the version you played. That’s why to appreciate the story, you’ll need to be familiar with past events as there are numerous references and nods to the previous game. This isn’t anything new for the Musou genre, as Koei Tecmo have had previous collaborations of existing IPs like One-Piece, Attack on Titan, and Berserk where they usually cover stories in medias res.
Noticeably lacking in P5S compared to those other collaborations was some sort of Gallery or Encyclopedia Mode which could have eased newcomers into the world of Persona 5, providing tidbits like Character Profiles or Terminologies. Oftentimes, the group will make side comments of how their current predicament feels both similar and different to their previous adventures, and to fans of Persona 5 this shouldn’t be a problem as this is canonically a sequel but complete newcomers may get lost in the narrative when certain events or people are mentioned.
As for the story, this may also be subjective. For complete newcomers, it’s definitely engaging, as it follows the exploits of a group of individuals who uses their powers to reform society and help those in need, despite being branded as criminals by some. To those who already played the original game, it may actually feel like a retread of the plot as certain elements felt very reminiscent of the events that happened in the original game. Not to give anything away, the ending of the original game already made it seem like the days of the Phantom Thieves are completely over but fortunately, P5S still manages to shake things up makes it engaging enough for a returning player to follow.
The Musou genre has a very unique appeal and it’s no mystery why games of this kind are still being made. The feeling of being this powerful character charging into a battlefield and laying waste to a bunch of nameless grunts gives off a very satisfying feeling of power, as well as being a fun stress reliever.
Now on the other hand, it can’t be denied that Musou games have a very repetitive feel to them. You’ll be fighting mostly the same group of enemies and pulling off the same types of combos, and you’ll be repeating this process over and over either to get stronger or advance a campaign. Combat in Musou games can also be rather simplistic, with you often mashing the same button combinations with minimal variety. Does P5S also suffer from these criticisms?
Persona 5 fans need not worry as the P5 DNA is still very much present here. For starters, the visuals of the menus and UI should already make you feel at home. While there’s no longer any Social Links/Confidants and daily time management of school life and dungeon crawling, requests are back and these will serve as your sidequests in the game. These can range from fulfilling certain conditions in combat to a string of fetch quests given to you by NPCs or even from your fellow Phantom Thieves.
Advancing through the campaign and spending some time talking to your friends will also net you Bond Points, which you can use to level up various buffs for your party, with new abilities getting added as you progress through the campaign. These can range from increasing attributes like HP and SP, as well as increasing the money you earn from combat.
The Velvet Room too is back, where a familiar face is waiting to help you fuse, register, and strengthen Personas you obtained in combat. What’s new is various actions will net you Persona Points and it’s with these that you can increase your Persona’s attributes.
Compared to the actual Persona 5 RPG, these returning mechanics may feel very simplified, but it’s actually fine because that’s just part of the experience. The other half of the fun is provided by the Musou side of P5S.
Part Dynasty Warriors
The Musou side comes into play by pitting the Phantom Thieves of Hearts against hordes of Shadows and enemy Personas in third-person hack-and-slash battles. In forming your party of four, you’re only able to control one character in combat but are free to Baton Pass between characters, with the rest being controlled by the AI.
Turn-Based combat may be gone, but there is still a semblance of it where attacking an enemy will put you in a closed space where you need to defeat everyone and you gain rewards like Experience Points and Money after. In true Phantom Thief fashion, you’re even able to sneak up and Ambush enemies to gain an advantage at the start of combat. Not only that, but there are various objects around the battlefield the Phantom Thieves can interact with to perform crowd control attacks or hide behind to initiate an Ambush.
Being a direct sequel to Persona 5, P5S will give you access to the entire Phantom Thieves of Hearts roster. Skull, for example, is still pretty much the muscle of the group and will have access to powerful charge attacks. Fox is still an Ice specialist with powerful crowd control sword skills. Noir not only has devastating crowd control combos but also powerful gun attacks. And of course, Joker is still the all-around specialist with the power to wield multiple Personas in combat that players can tweak according to their preferred style.
There’s also a sense of character building since like in Persona 5, Personas can only learn a set number of skills and you will need to choose what to add and remove. The various persona abilities like Agi, Bufu, Zio, Garu, Dia, and Megido are still here, so choosing what to keep and remove is still a factor.
Joining the Phantom Thieves on their adventure are two new playable characters. There’s Sophia aka Sophie, an AI the group meets who not only manages the game’s shop but wields Yo-yos and Holy based attacks in combat and can deal damage from a distance. And the other is Zenkichi Hasegawa aka Wolf, the police officer the Phantom Thieves meet who ends up awakening to a Persona himself and sporting a stylish Metaverse outfit and mask, and wields revolvers and a greatsword in combat. Sophie and Wolf are great additions to the cast, both narratively and in gameplay. Their stories are just as compelling and they are simply fun to watch on screen, whether it’s Sophie’s charming innocence or Wolf’s constant annoyance of being called an old guy. Something the Phantom Thieves love reminding him of.
In addition to experimenting with different characters, what made the combat in P5S fun is the addition of Persona’s RPG elements. Traditional Musou players will need to rethink their approach to this game because you will need to also take in consideration status ailments and exploiting enemy weaknesses, which means constant pauses in between combat to analyze enemy attributes and choosing actions from a menu like a turn-based RPG.
There is still of course the powerful crowd clearing Musou attacks, here called Showtime Attacks, that each Phantom Thief can use when they filled up their Showtime gauge which they can unleash to both deal massive damage and look stylish in the process.
One-More and All-Out Attacks have been incorporated here, and very well enough that you’re encouraged to trigger them. Aside from simply button mashing, you’ll need to exploit enemy weaknesses to get extra attack opportunities to keep up the momentum.
Bosses are also a challenge as there are attack patterns to study and weaknesses to exploit to be able to deal those powerful All-Out Attacks. It was great in the sense that it didn’t make button mashing alone the only way to beat bosses in P5S.
Changing Hearts Across Japan
The Phantom Thieves are on a road trip across Japan so unlike the previous game, you’re not limited to just various streets and locations in Tokyo. There will be new areas like Sapporo and Osaka with some new places to explore. What P5S actually does better than the original game is make each area feel more lively despite being smaller in scale. NPCs moved about a bit more fluidly and you can hear different shopkeepers talk as you visit and browse shops to buy items.
These non-combat areas aren’t just for show, as this is where the Phantom Thieves will need to get to work, gathering intel on their next objectives. While the areas you visit could have been bigger and with more stuff to do, I appreciate the restraint and control of keeping it small, so as not to divert your attention too much.
The various dungeons you visit, called Jails, are diverse both visually and in gameplay. There’s a sense of linearity since there is one clear path to the end of a dungeon, but some exploration was still encouraged to find hidden chests.
What feels especially refreshing in P5S is the sense of verticality the game has. Musou games usually have wide flat battlefields with little elevation. P5S borrows Persona 5’s cover and moving systems where the Phantom Thieves can do some platforming and the game occasionally shifts to short side-scrolling views, all the while avoiding detection and getting the sneak on Shadows.
Look Stylish, Sound Stylish
You can’t ever talk about Persona without mentioning the audio, and it’s very good to know P5S doesn’t disappoint. P5S shines in the music department as there are familiar tracks from Persona 5’s memorable soundtrack present here, along with some new ones and remixes. The music jives perfectly with the action going on during battles, and it really adds a great overall experience while playing.
Props have to be given to Sophie’s English voice actress as she managed to make Sophie sound so lovable as a character. The voice actors did a great job that I wished I could hear them better, which brought me to one of my gripes in P5S.
A staple in Musou games would be the monologue that players see and hear during gameplay, usually in the form of some character speech bubble. While that’s still present here in P5S, it’s actually hard to pay attention to what they say when you’re busy looking at enemy weaknesses and choosing your next move. Add the music and sound effects, and it can often drown out character voices, which is sad because of the great voice acting (both in English and Japanese) in the game. In a turn-based setting this is not a problem as you sit through the dialogue and wait for a fight to start. It’s a bit more challenging to do in a real time battle where you’re constantly paying attention to what you’re attacking that you may have no time to look at any dialogue bubbles.
Performance on the PlayStation 5 is assuredly top-notch, with frame rate and resolution modes should you choose, although for a game like this, frames is the only way to go. Loading times are almost non-existent, which ensures you’re always in the thick of the action right when you want to be.
What we Liked:
- Memorable characters, both returning and new
- Persona’s RPG elements compliment the Musou style combat
- Excellent soundtrack
- Gameplay has a strategic touch, which doesn’t rely on button mashing
What We Didn’t Like:
- Slight retread of the original game’s plot
- Character dialogue can get drowned out by the sound effects and music
- Slight repetitiveness in combat
Verdict: Buy it!
Despite some of the nitpicks, Persona 5 Strikers is still definitely a worthy sequel to the original Persona 5. It’s actually hard to say if P5S is dominantly a Persona game with Musou mechanics or a Musou game with Persona RPG elements, as the balance between the two has been fine tuned to perfection. The melding of gameplay between Persona and Musou actually resulted in a fresh gaming experience that made it fun to play for the duration of its 30 hour or so campaign, despite some of the repetitiveness and grinding that Musou games tend to have.
It’s hard to tell where Persona 5 goes from here, but who knows what other genres it will be sneaking into in the future. Surely, Persona 5 Strikers has taken our hearts as far as a sequel to Persona 5 goes and we very much look forward to more surprises that the Phantom Thieves of Hearts may have in store.
*Persona 5 Strikers was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro and PlayStation 5 via a review code from the Publisher.