Persona 5 is a game that is unafraid to tackle some serious subject matter. Suicide, sexual harassment, child abuse, extortion and plagiarism all figure heavily into the plot, and that’s just the first half of the game. Dungeons are equally ambitious thanks to their bombast and gaudiness, each one the manifestation of a tortured spirit. But for all the grandiosity, Persona 5’s best moments lie in the more mundane, in the daily life of our protagonist that reminds us that he is still a high school kid with high school priorities.
After completing the game’s first palace, the Phantom Thieves choose to celebrate their inaugural victory by splurging on a high-end buffet. The scene is largely out of control of the player, instead playing out as a a vignette that serves as a bookend to the game’s first major story arc. There are jokes about eating too much, sneaking a cat into the building and how out of place the trio looks there among more levity. It’s a welcome pick-me-up after dealing with a sexual pervert who also abuses high school students.
After completing the second palace, the Phantom Thieves celebrate by cooking a communal hot pot. During the meal, the group spends time getting to know one another a bit better. The following conversation serves as both as idle chatter and as character building, with the shared meal acting as a symbolic catalyst for their strengthening bonds. The whole scene oozes comfort and warmth, something that the genre isn’t exactly known for.
Not long ago, a friend asked me what Persona 5 is about, I was not as prepared to answer as I thought. It’s an RPG, I said, but you also live a life day by day. You have to nurture bonds with friends, get a job, read books, answer questions in school–but that Sims-like description doesn’t do justice to the game. After thinking on it, I decided that conflicting themes are the crux of Persona 5. The play between dealing with a dangerous shut-in who is tortured by a horrific past, and a talking cat who complains about not getting enough fatty tuna on his sushi is far and away the best reason to play.
That contrast between the very serious and the lighthearted is a pillar of the Persona 5 experience. Unlike in other JRPGs, we get a look at the daily life of a student in our world, something we can relate to. And just like our own lives, it’s filled with ups and downs. Each story arc forces the heroes to confront some very serious issues, but between arcs we get to see them in their natural state, catching movies or grabbing lunch with each other.
My favorite scenes in Persona 5 are those quiet moments where Ryuji eats too much ramen, Yuske reflects on a new piece of artwork, or Sojiro teaches Joker how to brew the perfect cup of coffee. They not only serve to break up the grim tone of the major arcs, they also build the characters in a way that other RPGs struggle with. The real-world setting certainly helps by providing a relatable touchstone for the players, but the relationships between characters would shine even in a fantasy world. For this reason, Persona 5 boasts the best storytelling of any RPG in recent memory.