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Beneath the Mask: Unmasking ‘Persona 5 Royal’

The Phantom Thieves have arrived to steal your heart, this time with an extended reach as Atlus’ stylish JRPG is hitting a wider variety of platforms like the PC and Nintendo Switch

A promo illustration for 'Persona 5 Royal'

Persona 5 (the sixth installment of the Megami Tensei franchise) was initially released in 2016 for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. Persona 5 Royal, an extended edition to the game with new characters joining the original cast, was released as a PlayStation 4 exclusive in 2019. Persona 5 is regarded as one of THE best JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Game) of all time and rightly so. It’s really got it all — the plot, the gameplay, the soundtrack, the visuals; the entire aesthetic. 

Being a PlayStation exclusive, a lot of us had to rely on a PlayStation 3 emulator or borrow a friend’s console to experience it. The latter is, of course, the easier method, but most of us used the former. The emulator is clunky, takes an eternity to install and playing with a mouse and keyboard is a herculean task until you reset the configuration. Yet, it was a rite of passage, like staring at the tattoos on the characters’ faces due to the graphics not being optimized well. We all did it under the assumption that a Persona 5 PC port is as ridiculous as expecting a pig to fly. So ridiculous that people I know have said, “If Persona 5 gets a PC port, I will jump off a building!” and “Ditto my dude, if it comes out on the Switch, I’ll join you.”

Then it was announced earlier this year that not only were we getting a PC port but also a Switch release. No more playing on clunky emulators, we can now enjoy conducting metaphysical heists with ease. People who had previously played the game on the PlayStation 4 are now buying it for PC, the Switch and the PlayStation 5 to replay this game entirely. So, what exactly is it about this game that makes it so good?    

You step into the shoes of a high school student with the moniker Joker. Falsely accused of a crime when in reality he was trying to prevent one, Joker finds himself expelled from his old high school and sent away to Tokyo for a year of probation. One step out of line and it’s don’t pass go, go directly to jail. Juvie in his case.

Thrust into the care of a grouchy coffee shop owner, his temporary quarters a dusty attic on top of a café. His new school isn’t better — Joker’s reputation as a criminal precedes him, labeling him a delinquent and a problem, when he is neither. 

Making matters worse, an ominous virus-like app appears on his phone. And if that wasn’t bad enough, on his first night in Tokyo, Joker finds himself in a place called the Velvet Room where a mysterious man named Igor warns him of the incoming ruin and the only way to stop it is to rehabilitate himself.

Turns out the app is a gateway to access the Metaverse — a realm where the subconscious desires of humanity take root. People whose desires are corrupt enough form a ‘Palace’ run by a ‘Shadow’ version of themselves and all Palaces contain a ‘Treasure’ — the manifestation of their desire. Joker is tasked to reform these corrupted individuals by stealing their ‘Treasures’ prompting a change of heart.

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Over the course of the game, Joker meets like-minded individuals, misunderstood by the world around them, together they form the vigilante group The Phantom Thieves of Hearts.

Each of the Phantom Thieves possesses a Persona, a manifestation of their personalities, which aids them in their battles in the Metaverse. All the main cast’s Personas are a nod to picaresque heroes — Joker with Arsène (Lupin), Morgana with Zorro and Akechi with Robin Hood, among others. The themes of rebellion, ruin, justice and freedom run deep in the game. Joker’s high school is called Shujin Academy, Shujin can be written as:  囚人(Shūjin), meaning convict or prisoner, which is what Joker is — a prisoner of fate.

Persona 5 explores the concepts of the collective unconsciousness, masks, identity, relationships, freedom, archetypes and shadows, all of which honestly sounds like Jungian psychology — because it is. Rejecting the tabula rasa (that the mind is a blank slate to begin with) Swiss psychologist Carl Jung put forward the theory of collective unconsciousness. Jungian archetypes are characters, symbols, themes and images that are universal, springing forth from the collective unconsciousness. The four main archetypes are the Self, the Persona, the Shadow and the Animus/Anima.

The persona according to Jung is the mask that is presented by the individual to the world, a mask that conceals our real self. In the game, the Personas of the characters are archetypes themselves taken from various sources of mythology and literature. In the Metaverse, all the Persona users are masked; to summon a Persona for the first time, the user has to overcome a trauma and take off their mask. The Personas in the game that exist in the Metaverse defend their user. Similarly, according to Jung, the persona is used by people as a defense mechanism, allowing you to fit into the world around you.

The shadow in the game is the manifestation of a corrupt person in the Metaverse. Simply put in Jungian psychology, it is the animalistic, darker side of our personalities. 

Another example of a Jungian archetype is the trickster. One of the most well-known trickster archetypes would be the shape-shifting Norse god Loki. “Trickster” is one of the names Joker is referred to as well. The trickster, as the name implies, tricks and outsmarts the foe through duplicity and astuteness, which is pretty much what Joker does. Like Loki, Joker is a Wild Card who is able to wield multiple Personas depending on the situation.

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To quote Jung on fate: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Joker, the prisoner of fate, operates in the Metaverse (the unconscious world) stealing the Shadows’ Treasures and thereby creating a change in the real (the conscious) world.

Moving onto the gameplay itself, this JRPG is part social simulator, part dungeon crawling. It’s easily one of the longest JRPGs, as the events of the game take place over the course of 10 in-game months, give or take – which would mean it would take you well over 150 hours, if you want to do a thorough play-through.

In those 10 months, you live out the life of a diligent high school student in modern-day Tokyo, and the game does a great job of capturing the city. He attends school, does part-time jobs and in his spare time he can participate in activities that give a boost to his skills in the Metaverse. You can also build relationships with characters known as Confidants, which can lead to Joker unlocking abilities for combat in the Metaverse. Some of these relationships can even lead to romance, prompting the well-known debate of ‘who is best girl?’ The answer is highly subjective. Aside from masquerading as a high school student, you also need to carry out your duties as a Phantom Thief in the Metaverse which has a turn-based combat system. This involves infiltrating Palaces and traversing through the collective unconsciousness — Mementos where you can carry out requests given to you by those who require the assistance of the Phantom Thieves. There is also the Velvet Room where Joker can fuse Personas together to create an even more powerful Persona to help him.

Fans of the Persona series will have at least one track from this game on their playlist. Shoji Meguro composed an incredibly catchy music score for the game which has around 110 tracks. The themes of the game are reflected in its acid jazz soundtrack and slick designs and aesthetics. The character designs are iconic and echo the characters’ personalities. The same goes for the Metaverse, the unique Palaces, the Personas and the Shadows. 

Overall, Persona 5 and its extended edition Persona 5 Royal are incredible games. One that even a non-JRPG player would no doubt enjoy. It also serves as a good introduction to the Megami Tensei franchise for the uninitiated. Despite being a lengthy game, you’ll likely find yourself immersed, captivated and eagerly fighting your way through the Metaverse as Joker to prevent the incoming ruin. Persona 5 Royal is guaranteed to take your heart. To quote the lyrics from the track “Last Surprise” — “You’ll never see it coming.”