Persona 5 Royal Review – Phantom Thieves of Time

Take your time. It’s right there, on the load screen. A simple and frequent reminder that the game you are playing is enormous, and that you shouldn’t rush through it. But like everything else in Persona 5 Royal, even those simple words have layers of depth. Although the game is about the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, the truth is, they’re the Phantom Thieves of Time, as in all of your time for the foreseeable future if you decide to start this journey.

For the most part, it is time well spent. The entire story of the original release of Persona 5 is still the bread and butter of Persona 5 Royal, and that game clocked in at 110 hours for me when I first played it back in 2016. Royal adds an additional story arc at the end of the game, but spends the entirety of the game setting it up by introducing some of the relevant characters straight away. Their presence adds more than just a sprinkling of new content throughout the original main story; they add entirely new perspective to everything that’s going on.

Long story short; there’s an additional 20-30 hours of content in Persona 5 Royal, and it’s kind of like adding a tenth scoop to an already excessive and wobbly ice cream cone. Sure, it’s a delicious treat, but there’s always that risk of it toppling over and making a mess, such as if you burn out before the end. And even if you finish it, you’ll be overly full and stuck in a sugar coma. You might never want to eat ice cream again. And as you work through it, you can’t help but ask yourself: do I really need this much? And are you really going to get another cone right away by starting new game plus?

For certain people, the answer will be yes, and without hesitation. Persona 5 was a treat of a JRPG to being with, and is often found near or at the top of “Best RPG” lists. Royal takes a game of that caliber and manages to significantly improve it, not only with more of everything, but with quality of life improvements, boss fights with new phases, and the Thieves Den, a place where you can appreciate the game’s art, music, movies and even play a brand new card game. If Persona 5 was your favorite RPG, well, your favorite game just got better.

Persona 5 was not my favorite RPG. Yes, I enjoyed it a great deal, but I also found it exhausting. For the months leading up to the release of Persona 5 Royal, I seriously doubted whether or not I would even play the game. Eventually I saw a video on YouTube describing all the new features, and that convinced me to take the plunge, but when the time came to request a review key, I did so with trepidation. There’s nothing more valuable to me in life than time, and I wasn’t sure if I would be willing to spend so much of it on a game I had played before, a game which took up too much of my time to begin with.

Three weeks, 131 gameplay hours, and a platinum trophy later, here we are. Somehow, it did it. Persona 5 Royal completely drew me into its world, its characters, and its challenges all over again. Once again, I am exhausted, but I am also fulfilled. Persona 5, both in its original form and its improved Royal version, is a wonderful game, and I would say that it is worth most of the time spent on it.

As a game based on a persistent calendar with a specific beginning and end date, Persona 5 Royal has extremely unusual pacing. The typical gameplay loop consists of living life as a normal high-schooler until the Phantom Thieves discover a target, and then playing through a lengthy dungeon that culminates with a boss fight before going back to being a normal high-schooler again. The loop usually has an hour or three of setup before it begins, and then gives the player about three weeks of in-game time to accomplish the objective. It’s up to the player how to spend that time and those familiar with previous Persona games will know that time is precious.

Each day can be spent in shops and venues around Tokyo for developing social stats such as guts, knowledge or charm, which are relevant to the other common task: getting to know the people in the game. Time spent with these confidants levels them up to a maximum of 10, with each level benefiting the Phantom Thieves in some practical way. A completionist player such as me will want to max out every confidant in the game, so every block of time must be well spent. But don’t worry too much if you played Persona 5 with a 100% guide in hand. Persona 5 Royal provides much more free time than the original game, and despite the addition of two new confidants, a player with a base of knowledge about using time efficiently should have no problem maxing out all of them without a guide with time to spare, especially if they know which ones have early deadlines. This is the first time I ever played a Persona game without a step-by-step calendar guide telling me exactly what to do, and I enjoyed the game more for it. But I did still follow guides for the best answers to dialogue choices so that my confidants would level up as quickly as possible and in the interest of using time efficiently.

To that same end, each time I went into a dungeon, I did so with the goal of exploring it as far as possible in a single trip. While the game allows you to delve into the dungeon multiple times, hopefully getting to a new safe room (checkpoint) on each trip, each attempt uses a block of time that could be spent on something else. It’s quite possible to complete the whole thing in one go (especially on Normal difficulty), assuming there are no storyline based barriers, so that will be the goal of a player trying to maximize their time for confidants and other activities.

As such, pacing suffers. It’s not unusual to spend 5 or 10 hours in a row without ever going to a dungeon or participating in combat. And the game frequently puts the player “on rails,” preventing them from working on confidants or social stats, often for hours at a time. These lengthy story sections are regularly preempted or followed by long stretches of free time in between dungeon runs, and this is where Persona 5 Royal shows its biggest weakness: Repetitive dialogue.

Since there are literal weeks to complete objectives, the game is set up to gently nudge the player towards going to the dungeon, and when I say gently nudge, I mean it sends lengthy text message conversations reiterating information that has already been repeated several times in the main story’s dialogue. Persona 5 Royal does this constantly. Never mind that there is a gigantic interface element in the top right corner of the screen which persistently reminds the player of the upcoming deadline. In fact, the game never stops beating the player over the head with reminders and tutorials. If the game teaches you something using the main story, you can bet a tutorial window will pop up afterwards saying the exact same thing. If there’s a locked door that needs a key, surely the characters will describe the need to find a key with several paragraphs. If there’s a puzzle that needs solving, there’s no avoiding the dialogue that basically hands you the solution. And if you see a treasure chest, you can count on someone saying, “Hey, that’s a treasure chest! What should we do?” HOW IS THAT A QUESTION? This is a situation where less would definitely have been more. The endless waves of redundant dialogue that more often than not just states the obvious takes an overly long game with rough pacing and draws it out even further.

I forgive it, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. I don’t recommend this game for players offended by being spoon-fed, those who hate tutorials, or those that just want to jump right into the action. Persona 5 Royal is a slow burn, but if you stick with it, you’ll find and engrossing and deep JRPG that rewards the persistent player with emotional payoff, creative dungeons and bosses, and excellent character development.

It also has combat that is great until you master it, at which point it gets a bit mindless. The series has been sticking with the same basic combat for a while now, and has for the most part the same skills and abilities that have been staples going all the back to the earliest Shin Megami Tensei games. It’s a strong battle engine, but one that can really be mastered to the point that most combat becomes trivial. Normal difficulty in Persona 5 Royal is way too easy, as the game is much more generous with items that restore skill points than its predecessors. I saw the game over screen exactly once in my entire playthrough, and it was very early on. By the endgame, my confidants provided so much insurance to my party in the form of special abilities that save me from danger that I really didn’t have to worry at all, even against bosses. I definitely recommend playing on Hard if you have experience with the series and want any sort of challenge at all. Only new players or players that don’t care about a challenge should play on Normal.

In either case, combat in Persona 5 Royal basically involves learning your enemy’s weakness and then exploiting it. With the game’s Pokemon-esque system of collecting Persona, it isn’t difficult to give your main character attack abilities to cover every weakness type. If you do your job well, the enemies will not even get a turn to act in 90% of the battles throughout the entire game. Further into the game you may encounter enemies without weaknesses, but even then they rarely pose any sort of real threat. It’s weird because I’ve always enjoyed the combat in Shin Megami Tensei games, but what’s the point of a battle engine where the enemies don’t even get a chance to attack you most of the time? And I think the developers agree with me, because you eventually get the ability to skip a fight against weak enemies by sprinting into them. You get the experience anyway, which makes grinding a breeze, again making the game even easier.

But if you do turn the difficulty up, you can expect enemies to survive your initial onslaught, and that’s where the battle engine starts to become interesting. You have to start worrying about your own weaknesses, the skills that enemies can use to exploit them, and running out of resources while in a dungeon. Even attacks that don’t strike weaknesses still hit like trucks. Truly the battle engine shows its strength on the harder difficulties. If the game wasn’t such a marathon, I’d be tempted to play it again on the hardest setting, but, the Phantom Thieves have already stolen enough of my time I think.

Overall, Persona 5 Royal is the best version of arguably the best game in the series. I still prefer the PlayStation 2 era Shin Megami Tensei games, such as Digital Devil Saga and Nocturne, but there’s no doubt that Persona 5 Royal is a masterpiece, albeit one that drags on a bit. If you can accept it for what it is, pacing issues and redundant dialogue and all, you’ll find a top tier JRPG that will last you longer than most. And if you’ve already experienced and enjoyed this journey once before, Royal is a good enough reason to play it again. The main question you have to ask yourself is… will you let it take your time?

Ari completely Persona 5 Royal on Normal difficulty with a Platinum Trophy in 131 hours before starting New Game Plus. He received a copy of the game for free from SEGA of America.

9/10+Enormous campaign
+Strategic battle engine
+Wonderful character development
+Feature rich
-Often repetitive and redundant script

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