Persona 5 Strikers opens with a thief on the run, just like Persona 5.
Joker, the game’s protagonist, nimbly jumps across a building in Persona 5 Strikers’ first cutscene. He’s in the Metaverse, a mirror dimension in the world of Persona where humans’ true desires are made manifest. When Joker encounters a Shadow, he dives off the roof and rips off its face mask, exposing its true self. Joker and his enemy fall into a crowd of Shadows below, on the Metaverse version of the crowded streets of Shibuya. Shadows surround and outnumber Joker, again, harkening back to Joker’s capture at the start of Persona 5. But instead of getting hauled off to an interrogation, setting up Persona 5’s frame narrative, Joker stands his ground in Strikers, draws his knife, and summons his Persona.
Suddenly I’m in control. The UI crackles with Persona’s usual flair, but the Shadows are not patiently waiting for me to take my turn, as I’ve grown accustomed to in 300+ hours of Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal. No, these Shadows are booking it towards me — a crowd of Bicorns, Pixies, and Jack-o’-Lanterns. With a single hit of the square button, I slash my knife through the crowd, and they all shatter into nothingness.
This was when I first thought I understood Persona 5 Strikers, as I played through the first chapter of the game as part of a preview. This is a Musou game from Omega Force, developer of the Dynasty Warriors franchise — hack-and-slash action games in which players kill legions of enemies in giant real-time battles. Strikers looked and sounded like Persona, much in the way that Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity looks and sounds like The Legend of Zelda, but any hope I had of a true Persona 5 follow-up left me during that big battle.
But I should not have judged Persona 5 Strikers so quickly. Despite what its opening moments showed me, Persona 5 Strikers maintains far more of its source DNA than expected.
A Persona 5 follow-up at its heart
After dropping out of the Metaverse and into the real world, I found a Persona game waiting for me. Set six months after the ending of Persona 5 (Royal doesn’t exist in this timeline, it seems), Joker and Morgana the cat are back in Shibuya to visit the Phantom Thieves. Things have changed in the past few months — with the senior girls, Haru and Makoto, now in college and the socially anxious Futaba actually attending school — but the Phantom Thieves reunite as if no time has passed. And as a Persona 5 veteran, playing Strikers feels similarly familiar.
After my Dynasty Warriors-esque battle in the intro, I sit through long conversations with my friends. I make dialogue choices and my allies respond. Then, with Morgana in tow, I roll around the city. The map is a smaller version of what it was in Persona 5, and the perspective is identical. It looks and sounds just like the beloved JRPG — so much so that my wife thought I was replaying Persona 5.
I spent a majority of my 6+ hours in Persona 5 Strikers doing what I did the majority of the time in Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal: chatting with people and choosing dialogue options. It’s Persona 5 first and Strikers second.
A faster breed of Phantom Thief
Persona 5 Strikers is a leaner game than Persona 5. Because it’s summer vacation, I don’t have to go to school. And I don’t have after school and evening free time to increase my relationships with my friends or improve my intelligence. Those systems aren’t in Persona 5 Strikers.
The Persona roots remain, though. I still have a Bond level with my pals, which I can use to buy different perks that enhance the entire team. It’s not individual like in Persona 5; I can’t choose to strengthen Ryuji’s level by hanging out in the arcade with him, for example. Instead, when all the Phantom Thieves battle together, we get some Bond experience, and when we hang out and chat in the real world, that gives Bond as well.
The combat is where things really change, but even the fast-paced Musou stylings of Persona 5 Strikers stay grounded in the Persona formula. Outside of a few massive battles — like the opening one, or areas where I have to defend Futaba, a support character, during a hack — battles tend to take place within a small arena.
While exploring the dungeon, I can play as any of my four party members, each of whom play drastically different from Joker while maintaining the same combat personalities they had in Persona 5. And as long as I’m not in combat, I can swap out my party members for other Phantom Thieves — including Sophia, a brand new character for Strikers. Our crew can sneak up on an enemy and surprise attack them by pulling off their mask. Alternatively, enemies can strike first if they spot us, stunning our infiltration unit at the start of the fight. But instead of sneak attacks turning into a turn-based battle with three Shadows, I’ll end up fighting thirty at once in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. The game’s rapid pace is a huge change from the turn-based Persona games, but it’s drastically smaller than other Musou games.
These battles take place inside Jails, a slightly more open version of Persona 5’s Palace dungeons. These Jails are in the Metaverse, and the Phantom Thieves need to infiltrate them, sneak around, deactivate traps, and solve puzzles to reach the inner sanctum of each Jail. Along the way I can change out my party members and grind XP on enemies in arena-like battles. But after every fight, the makeshift arena fades away, and it’s back to prowling the dungeon.
The fighting is as complex or as simple as I care to make it, although I experienced several difficulty spikes during my playtime — spikes I mitigated by being more methodical and purchasing more healing items, although I also could’ve just grinded out more levels if I wanted an easier experience. In combat, I can slam my hands on the controller to do some sweeping attacks and maybe a special move to get through most battles. But I can also delicately weave combos, or use my Persona’s skills to combat enemy weaknesses; bringing up my Persona drastically slows everything around me, letting me make some tactical assessments or catch a quick breather.
Six hours in, Persona 5 Strikers feels like a smart twist on one of my favorite games of the past decade. The stuff I love is still here, and while there are aspects of the Persona gameplay that I do miss in Strikers, I’m still enjoying the combat enough that the removal of individual social links, stats, and time management systems hasn’t started to sting just yet.
According to people who’ve finished Strikers — since it launched in Japan last year — there’s still plenty of game left, with numerous Jails to battle through after my time in Shibuya’s Metaverse. I could be heading for a massive shift, and the aspects I loved about Persona 5 could melt away in favor of more familiar Musou elements. But if what I’ve played for the first Jail of Persona 5 Strikers follows through until the end, it’ll be a worthy follow-up to Atlus’ star franchise.