‘Persona 5 Strikers’ review: a symphony of style and substance

Musou gets Jokerified in this superb spin on the Persona formula

As individual games become more like brands selling a formula that can be warped into something new at will, we continue to see successful titles experiment in new genres.

The Persona series is no stranger to this style of innovation, but its latest attempt to diversify is braver than most. For the first time, Persona 5 Strikers shifts the series into the busy genre of Musou, a common spinoff combination that can be hit or miss, depending on the property. Some collaborations are seamless, but not every game fits so easily into the hacking and slashing Dynasty Warriors mould.

But players often throw a lot of stock into the brands that they trust, betting that the underlying greatness won’t become stale with a new lick of paint. And there aren’t many franchises that I trust more than Persona. Atlus’ JRPG series has its irksome faults, but I find that more often than not, it has its finger on the pulse with its loveable characters and thought-provoking narratives. Not many games speak to the emotional diversity of the human experience in such blunt terms.

Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers. Credit: Atlus

Once again in Persona 5 Strikers, you’ve got a group of hopeful, troubled kids fighting ancient oppressive systems. They’re trying to thrive in their youth while facing the truth – and that’s hard! I find that Persona games lure us with their style and empathy, and then carefully reflect comfortable and uncomfortable parts of ourselves, creating strong emotional ties to the story. Strikers is no different, and achieves this through its multi-dimensional ‘Monarch’ antagonists and fascinating new characters like Sophia, an endearing AI that aids the group.

The best thing about Sophia is that her coded naïveté makes for a wonderful introduction to the game’s world for new players. She’s constantly providing comic relief and probing the inherent absurdity of The Phantom Thieves’ predicament, figuring as a super stand-in for players who may be new to the franchise.

The game definitely exists to complement the original, but I still think any Musou fan who orbits the franchise could get a lot out of Persona 5 Strikers. Perhaps you’re not keen on Persona’s slower combat, and you prefer something more stimulating?

Strikers has all of the style and musical excellence that may have piqued your interest in Persona, but with more adrenaline in its combat. Musou games are inherently repetitive, but Strikers in particular throws enough tactical considerations at the player that it never gets old. You’ve got Striker Swaps and the Baton Pass system, which let you hot swap characters in to deliver devastating attacks. But this is just one facet of a wonderfully meaty combat system that has stealth, guns and even the same Persona countering system from the base game.

What helps is the magnificent environmental design in the game’s ‘Jails’, which are complex combat arenas spread all over Japan. The first one has you infiltrating a saccharine distorted vision of Shibuya’s iconic 109 shopping building. The Monarch of this jail is the bubblegum sweet Harajuku girl Alice Hiiragi, who steps on everyone she sees and misuses her overwhelming popularity. Hiiragi is an exercise in excellent character design who makes for a compelling first boss as you get to grips with this brilliant game. Boss battles really up the ante in a meaningful way too.

Persona 5 Strikers
Persona 5 Strikers. Credit: Atlus

While I thoroughly endorse playing Persona 5, if you’re approaching Strikers as a standalone title – perhaps as a PC player – you could always look up a quick recap if you ever get lost with the story. Because it’s such an engaging game to play, I don’t think the context is a huge deal. The dialogue is so witty that you get a read on the characters regardless.

But If you’ve given Persona 5 the 80-100 hours necessary to complete it, I bet you almost feel as if you owe it to the game to check out its spinoffs. 2019’s Persona 5 Dancing rewards fans through music – it’s a fantastic rhythm-based sidecar that still resonates because it feels like visiting old friends.

While it technically is one, I think it’s almost reductive to call 2021’s Persona 5 Strikers a spinoff given how ambitious and impressive it is. It’s more like a sequel, a whole new Persona game albeit with a different combat system.

I went in thinking it would simply strip out all of the systems that make Persona ‘Persona’, leaving behind a catchy combat gameplay loop and resting on the series’ narrative stopping power. But how pleased I was to be proven so wrong. Strikers is so deeply faithful to its IP. Persona Fusion is here. You walk around Shibuya and talk to disaffected NPCs. The music is dynamic and immaculate. And gosh, don’t get me started on the user interface and the in-game menus.

It sounds negligible, but the way highlights and text boxes grace the screen and augment even the most banal aspects of RPG busywork is so effective. Sophia’s shop oozes neo-Y2K cool. Good graphic design in games can sometimes be an afterthought, but Persona 5 Strikers constantly delivers in its visual presentation. The main menu is one fluid, aberrating animation that looks so slick in motion, especially at 60 FPS on the PS5.

Given the great library of music associated with the Persona franchise, the soundtrack is naturally full of absolute bangers, with elevated remixes of old tunes and some superb new ones. Other additions like the BOND Skills system work their way into the game effortlessly, providing overarching buffs that are always a joy to develop alongside your Personas.

It does have its dull moments, which is fair enough for a game of its size. The introduction is particularly long (par for the course for Persona, honestly) and the investigation sections feel a little tedious when you’re so close to the action. Beyond the nitpicks, there’s nothing major to worry about!

‘Persona 5 Strikers’ is available 23 February for PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC.

The Verdict

Persona 5 Strikers is a magnificent marriage of the style of Persona with the substance of Musou. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable for fans and newcomers alike thanks to its engaging combat system and consistent writing. With exciting environmental design and an exercised mastery of user interface, Strikers also delivers a feast for the eyes – here’s a game that never skimps on details. Ultimately, it’s an absolute no-brainer purchase if you loved Persona 5.

All I want now is for Persona 5 to get a performance boost on the PS5 to bring it up to speed with Strikers. Generally, I think the world could do with as many Persona games as P-Studio is capable of right now. They’re fantastic forces for good, and they always bring so much joy and innovation with them. I know it’s February, but seriously, don’t sleep on Persona 5 Strikers. The combat system skeptics really have nothing to worry about. This is a faithful Persona game through and through, one that is riffing successfully in an exciting new space, delivering the best game I’ve played so far this year.

Pros

  • Immaculate user interface, character and environmental design
  • Tactical combat that goes far beyond basic Musou gameplay, and stays faithful to Persona
  • Persona 5 fans can spend more meaningful time with these beloved, well-written characters

Cons

  • Long intro, but that’s par for the course
  • It has its dull patches, but they shake out quick
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