I guess we should start off with the caveat. I couldn’t have picked The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn or tons of other games for this award, this year, even if I wanted to. I didn’t play any of them. I have played only three games that were released in 2017: Persona 5, NieR: Automata, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins (that is a lot of colons in video games, this year, sheesh!) Now I have serious doubts that I would have chosen any other game because I’ve heard some stuff about Zelda that turned me off and about HZD that sounded dull. Maybe the new Mario game would have interested me, but I don’t have a Switch so that wasn’t happening either. These flaws might not prevent these from being very good games, but it would prevent them from being my Game of the Year.
Persona 5, so far as I can tell, is a nearly perfect example of what a game can be when equal attention is devoted to gameplay, story-telling, and character design; a modern example of what blending them all together toward a unified goal can achieve. The characters are all interesting including heroes who are realistically goofy teenagers. The conflicts the game introduces are all things that people and teenagers are facing even in the real world, today, which gives it a strength in being able to connect with its audience. The gameplay fulfills the fantasies of many teens – and adults – who wish that problems were simple enough to be punched or stabbed away while also advocating for the power of strong, interpersonal relationships and a willingness to put yourself out there for others.
The visuals are top notch in part because they completely eschew the modern trend toward photorealism in favor of a unique, bold style. People have even tried to invent awards just for the menu system which is colorful and flashy but never distracting; in fact, it uses the flash to guide players. The combat gameplay is finely tuned and polished; of course, it absolutely should be considering Atlus has beeen doing variations of this system for literally decades. Even the non-combat gameplay manages to be incredibly engaging and, it bears repeating, everything in the game works together to form a cohesive whole. For example, ***small spoiler (jump to the next paragraph to skip it***, shortly after arriving in Tokyo the Protagonist has to take the subway to make it to his first day of classes. The game forces you to navigate this subway trip manually the first time and it is a very confusing experience as you try to navigate one of the hub terminals of Tokyo to arrive at the school. This makes sense from a character perspective – of course a 17-year-old kid who has never been out of his comparatively tiny town is unused to navigating a massive subway system. It also contributes from a gameplay perspective, giving players an opportunity to really familiarize themselves with the navigation system and forcing them to endure this confusion with the protagonist which allows for greater empathy/a stronger bond to him.
Atlus also provides some pretty excellent value in this game. I spent approximately 140 hours playing it and I did not even do everything there was to do. Many players will probably spend less time but that will still end up being closer to 80-100 hours and, in direct contrast to the current trend of AAA, open-world RPGs very little of that will be spent in pointless fetch quests or ticking things off of a map. 95% of this game is spent doing things that directly impact important characters or story points. For even more value there are several free costume and item DLCs available for players to go along with the paid ones.
However, the most ingenious part of the design of this game is the conversation system. For starters, it’s designed with every bell and whistle you could imagine. While you usually can’t directly skip over conversations because user input is frequently required you can fast-forward over them to your next dialogue choice. Didn’t mean to fast-forward? Open up the conversation history with the press of a button and you can see everything every conversation participant has said so far, including options you didn’t select when given choices. You can even replay the voice acting from this menu. But the best part is probably the implementation of the dialog choice system.
Mass Effect popularized the idea of branching conversations which allowed for users to make their own dialogue choices based on some snippets meant to indicate the tone of the response. This complicated system worked pretty well for two games but eventually broke down when it came time to end the trilogy. There were so many choices that branched in so many directions it was impossible to keep up with when it came time to conclude the story. Persona‘s system, first of all, reduces player confusion by having the exact, complete text of the choices available at the time of the choice. Persona 5‘s system also doesn’t really attempt to branch at all. Instead it changes the tone of conversations – and therefore dictates the personality of the protagonist – but eventually circles them back around to where they would have been in the first place. This allows for Atlus to create a game that will still be unique for most players, the ultimate goal of Mass Effect, without creating the crippling problems that attempting to change wide swathes of the story or character intentions had in that game.
Just for variety there are a fair number of dialog options which can affect how much your friends like you, dictating the speed of relationship progression. None of them make them hate you or like you less or abandon you entirely. So you can’t really screw things up like you could in some BioWare games. Some might worry at how interesting the game can be given this reduction of scope but it works out a lot better for the story and characters given the limitations of today’s technology. It’s a smooth middle path that neatly avoids the potential pitfalls of giving players too much freedom to write a cohesive story and giving them so little that they feel trapped or bored.
The story absolutely benefits from this linearity. It’s nearly impossible to effectively tell a story in open-world games. For years developers have struggled to help players strike a great balance between stopping to do side quests and actually progressing the story. Whether or not you’ve written a terrific campaign it can get lost in the weeds and lose its sense of urgency if a player turns around and spends hours ticking items off of a map. Even if you think you can strike that balance it ends up being a bit odd, tonally, when you go out on a quest to collect some frogs for a researcher even though it means you don’t immediately answer Gondor’s call for aid. One game that suffers for the decision to go open world, for example, is Final Fantasy XV. That game has a dual identity as a sandbox game starring a quartet of good-looking, good-hearted dude-bros wandering around the countryside and the skeleton of a very interesting main story. But because it is split between the two the sandbox gets abandoned partway through and the story never gets filled out.
(For what it’s worth, Assassin’s Creed: Origins does a great job fixing the tone problem with its side-quests by designing a protagonist to be someone who helps out people great and small as a matter of both personality and occupation. It makes sense for him to take temporary breaks from his quest for vengeance in order to help a poor scholar retrieve his scrolls or to search for a missing child. So it can be done, but it takes a lot more thought or time than many are willing or able to put into their games, these days.)
Despite the linear story, Persona 5 still gives players lots of freedom; you typically have several weeks to complete main quest stories during which you can complete side quests, participate in a large number of hobbies, or work an after-school job. But because of the way the story is structured these moments fit in with the tone as well as representing activities you might actually expect characters with these personalities and experiences to want to do. For example, a character might suggest that exams are coming up and it would be wise to take a break from fighting evil for a bit to hit the books. Other times if you have completed a main quest before it’s deadline all you can do is wait to see what the fallout is. That’s a great time to build some lockpicks in your bedroom or watch a rented DVD. With so many choices and with such interesting characters to talk to it rarely feels like the game is restraining you from really exploring the world around you. The sense of urgency is maintained by regular conversations with your party members about the stakes of the mission and a good dose of the feeling that life must go on, even under all of the dire threats these high-schoolers face.
The game isn’t perfect, of course. Perhaps the most annoying flaw is also the one that got the most meme treatment: Morgana’s constant prodding to go to bed. Most in-game days are spent in class all morning, followed by an opportunity to do one thing that afternoon, and another that night. If you choose to dungeon crawl that’s usually the only thing you can do for the day but otherwise you have lots of options. During periods of special events or between-quest-story-telling, however, you frequently cannot do anything except watch the story progress, even if seems like the events of the day should leave one or more of those time slots available. Instead, Morgana will insist you need extra rest to force you to progress to the next day’s story. These periods are usually great for the massive story and character hits that get thrown at the player but they’re also frustrating for the lack of player input. The trade-off that most video games aren’t willing to accept is that you’re just going to have to sit there and watch the story unfold for a bit before you can resume participating more actively. If the player is heavily invested in the story of the game, this can be a worthwhile payoff. If they’re not then it makes no sense to have it. Atlus is determined to tell a worthwhile and interesting story with their game so they took that gamble. If you’re as big into stories as I am this is entirely worth it for Persona 5‘s quality effort.
My biggest beef, however, is actually with the decision to block the built-in software for recording and taking screenshots for the entirety of the game. When I discovered that my PS4 has these functions built in I was finally able to get into recording and streaming for fun. There are still thousands of people out there with their own capture cards so blocking recording on the PS4 doesn’t actually prevent gameplay from being uploaded to social media. The only people Atlus are actually preventing from sharing are the people who can’t afford the capture cards. It’s unfair, it’s unreasonable, and most importantly it’s ineffective at achieving their stated goal of preventing spoilers from leaking out. Especially since the game has been out in Japan for over a year and for the rest of the world for several months. Stop blocking the built-in capturing, Atlus! And everyone else, for that matter!
In a world where video game developers have gone from completed single-player games to cutting out story DLC to adding in multiplayer modes to unbalancing multiplayer modes in order to encourage loot box gambling it is refreshing to see a company that shirks all of that to deliver a focused and completed game. If you’ve been dying for a video game with above average gameplay in its genre and a terrific ability to tell a quality story in a fascinating world about interesting characters I cannot recommend Persona 5, my 2017 Game of the Year Award Winner, enough.