Persona 5 Strikers Review

February 9, 2021
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When a Persona 5 spin-off made in-part by Dynasty Warriors developer Omega Force was announced, most folk assumed it would be a Persona-skinned, musou-style action game similar to the studio’s other licensed series like Hyrule Warriors or One Piece: Pirate Warriors. In reality, however, the simple but engaging real-time combat of Persona 5 Strikers is structured much closer to action-JRPGs like Kingdom Hearts, barely resembling a musou game at all – and what seemed like it could be a throwaway summer vacation romp actually delivers the story of a full-blown Persona 5 sequel nearly worthy of the ‘2′ Atlus avoided putting at the end of its title.

Persona 5 Strikers rejoins the lovable gang of misfits that make up the Phantom Thieves just a few months after the end of Persona 5 (awkwardly pretending Royal never happened), swapping its signature turn-based combat for combo-driven hacking and slashing. It feels familiar in that you still call on personas to cast spells, exploit the elemental weaknesses of your enemies, and explore elaborate, otherworldly dungeons, but the JRPG fundamentals of the original have been replaced, and many of the elaborate systems around it – like Persona’s iconic calendar system – are slimmed down significantly.

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Another shift is the time scale: instead of going day-by-day over the course of a year, Strikers is condensed into a single summer vacation road trip that takes the Phantom Thieves all across Japan. It’s a fun twist on the previous structure, and the overarching story is a genuinely great one. It retreads some of the same ground as the first game in a way that generally feels cleverly referential rather than derivative, justifying itself as a different adventure while tying into the previous one (and even pushing back on some of its assumptions) enough to feel like a proper sequel – at least story-wise.

Considering all that’s different, it’s truly remarkable how much Strikers still feels like Persona 5, and rejoining the Phantom Thieves as someone who has beaten the original and earned the platinum PlayStation trophy for its expanded Royal edition genuinely felt like coming home. It was a thrill to slip so seamlessly back into this world, and Strikers maintains everything from Persona 5’s wild, stylistic flair through all its menus and UI to the almost visual novel presentation of its dialogue (with the same excellent English voice cast returning) to the downright incredible soundtrack, this time full of excellent high energy remixes alongside entirely new tracks. It was easy to forget I wasn’t just playing more Persona 5 when I wasn’t in real-time combat.

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That said, no matter how much developer Atlus tries to frame Strikers as an accessible game for newcomers to the series, I really can’t imagine playing it without having beaten (or at least having played a significant amount) of Persona 5 beforehand. The characters are all sharp and entertaining on their own here – including a couple of excellent new additions to the cast, who even managed to handily outshine Royal’s new characters by the end – but their backstories and the events they went through in the original game are referenced far more often than they are explained. That stretches from mentions of small character moments that occurred in Persona 5 all the way to its climactic finale. You could probably still enjoy the overarching story of Strikers without that context, but don’t expect to understand things like why there’s a talking cat insists he’s not a cat and can also turn into a bus.

There’s also the fact that you start with a full JRPG party of eight playable characters pretty much from square one. I greatly prefer having the whole gang together right away, rather than there being some arbitrary reason why you have to gather them all over again, but there certainly seems to be the assumption that you will already know the general strengths, weaknesses, and specialties of each one. So while I enjoyed that Strikers treats its story as a genuine sequel and didn’t waste time telling me what I already knew, I couldn’t shake the feeling that anyone who hasn’t played Persona 5 will probably not have nearly the same emotional connection to its characters and events. Granted, that’s true of most sequels, but given Strikers isn’t being outwardly framed as such a direct follow up (and Persona 5 still isn’t available on PC or Switch like Strikers is), it feels particularly notable here.

Too Fast For Eyes

Thankfully, Strikers’ combat is a lot of fun regardless of your familiarity with Persona 5. Fights are broken into discreet encounters triggered by stealthily engaging a lone enemy, but once you do so they’ll explode into a whole horde of baddies. While that’s decidedly different from a musou’s usual open warzones, these battles do share that genre’s signature deluge of weak opponents that act as little more than fodder to satisfyingly hack through. However, swimming through those oceans of pushovers like sharks are tougher enemies that need a more nuanced touch to take down, usually relying on exploiting one of their elemental weaknesses to stagger them for follow up attacks and additional damage.

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The combat mechanics aren’t especially deep, but they’re not mindlessly shallow either. You build a party of four characters between fights and can then swap between them on the fly while the other three are controlled by AI, with each Phantom Thief offering their own flavor of Strikers’ simple combo system. Mashing the attack button will string together a short combo, but ending that combo early with the Special button will result in a unique finisher depending on how many hits precede it – for example, three hits first will generally unleash an elemental AOE spell attack (saving the mana of casting it manually), while just one can range from Yusuke’s rapid, agility-buffing slashes to Haru chopping enemies with her axe like they were firewood. There’s also a dodge button, All Out Attacks to use when you stagger enemies, follow up attacks that seamlessly swap you to another character, and the ability to pause time and cast familiar Persona spells, but the action really is as straightforward as that two-button combo system most of the time (a foundation that will be recognizable for anyone familiar with many of Omega Force’s other games).

That means fights can feel fairly similar as the campaign goes on, primarily distinguished by the element a baddy might use or be weak against (which can occasionally be pretty punishing if you unluckily build your party wrong and enter a boss fight without any characters that are able to exploit its weakness). But where the combat stays entertaining is in the differentiation and personality of each character. The hard-hitting, lightning-based knucklehead Ryuji remains one of my favorites, with a special that can make him resistant to flinching and combo finishers that can be charged up for more damage. Compare that to Morgana, who makes adorable cartoon noises as he moves and can even transform into a bus mid-fight, and each character feels mechanically distinct despite being functionally similar.

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As you travel around Japan, most of the metaverse dungeons you’ll be fighting through take over a large section of whatever city you are in, rather than just being a single (albeit heavily warped) building. They’ll even turn a few of the real-world areas where you’ll peacefully shop for items in between excursions into remixed combat arenas. It’s a really weird and cool way to spin the Persona 5 formula – cities aren’t quite as visually unique as each Palace in the last game, but that variety is replaced with an oddly delightful bit of digital tourism that comes from visiting and learning about real locations across Japan.

Crucially for fans of the original, the pace of these infiltrations is drastically different as well. While infiltrating a Palace in Persona 5 felt like a combination of a race and an endurance test, where management of your magic and health was critical to making it through without wasting calendar days, Strikers is significantly more relaxed. You can nearly always come and go from each dungeon as you please, which fully heals your team and respawns enemies, and there’s no calendar clock ticking away as a time pressure. I didn’t mind that change, because you do still have to be prepped with support items and a plan as you proceed (particularly against longer boss fights, where the villains almost always had about twice as much health as it seemed like they needed to), but it’s a very different type of JRPG where challenge is concentrated more in bursts.

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Similarly, other systems like the persona-summoning Velvet Room and Confidant bonds have been slimmed down significantly. On the positive side, the recognizable Velvet Room summoning interface has been streamlined in a way that made managing my loadout way less of a hassle (partly because there are fewer available personas total). On the other hand, the loss of Confidants and the side stories that accompany them is probably the biggest way Strikers diverges from what a proper “Persona 5-2” would likely be. Instead you gain Bond with your whole team just by fighting or progressing the story, which can then be spent on persistent skills like increased damage or battle rewards. It’s a fine system, with skills worth perusing and some cute ways to get additional Bond like buying local recipes to cook with the team.

But while Strikers’ main plot is great, the loss of the smaller stories that came from choosing which characters to hang out with during downtime can definitely be felt. The members of your team certainly get entertaining moments and opportunities to shine throughout, but there’s also less character growth outside of the new party members (who, again, are seriously great). That said, this is obviously a very differently paced game as a whole; while Persona 5 takes more than 100 hours to complete, the month-long adventure in Strikers took me around 42 hours (which included doing most of the fairly uninteresting optional Requests that earn you better items for revisiting older areas). I didn’t mind this comparatively shorter length since it never feels like the central plot is being unduly rushed along, but it’s undoubtedly a more restrictive experience affair than its predecessor.

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