February 25, 2021

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An Epic Video Game About Why People Suck on the Internet

8 min read

IWCriticsPick

IWCriticsPick

“Persona 5 Strikers” is an epic, addictive, 30-hour JRPG about why people are such enormous assholes on the internet. To anyone familiar with Atlus’ long-running “Persona” series, that premise won’t come as much of a surprise. In a genre associated with vast fantasy worlds and the motley crews of big-headed heroes who band together to vanquish those worlds from an ancient evil of one sort or another (i.e. any of the “Final Fantasy” games), “Persona” has always been an unusually grounded alternative — the fate of humankind somehow tends to hang in the balance by the time players reach the final boss, but the journey there is less “Lord of the Rings” than “The Breakfast Club,” and the typical villain you might meet along the way isn’t an evil wizard so much as, say, a high school volleyball coach who’s abusing the female players on his team. Each installment of the franchise concerns a new and unrelated set of contemporary Japanese teenagers who are granted access to some kind of collective unconscious, and while the stakes tend to inflate rather suddenly as players near the end, the goal of saving the universe is always secondary to the self-understanding that characters experience along the way. And also who they choose to kiss.

Released in 2016, “Persona 5” was hardly the first entry in the series to focus on the ever-complicating relationship between ego and technology in the modern world; previous games have explored subjects like the perniciousness of online rumor-mongering, and television’s ability to distort the truth. But this one elevated the series to new heights of global popularity with a picaresque adventure that met the social media era on its own terms — it was a turn-based Tokyo story about trauma, talking cats, and how the internet makes everything feel so possible that most people can’t help but want more of themselves.

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Spanning an entire school year as all mainline entries in the “Persona” series do, the game introduced us to a group of guileless yet maddeningly evolved anime kids as they fought against the evils of a society in which it’s never been easier for people to project who they want to be, nor so difficult for them to make peace with who they are. For the villains (and also for some of the heroes), that gap between public façade and private truth had grown so vast that heavily fortified palaces sprouted up in those cavities, with violent “shadows” protecting their deepest parts of their psyches like they were guarding the crown jewels. Assuming control of the “Phantom Thieves,” players slipped into their targets’ subconscious, stole their “treasures,” and freed them from underneath the crushing weight of their own warped desires. A self-doubting art professor who plagiarized his students paintings for ego and profit, a cruel business magnate who dehumanized his employees (and his own daughter) in order to grow his company, Yaldabaoth the God of Control masquerading as the Holy Grail… we fought them all, and forgave those we could.

An over-achieving spinoff that picks up right after the events of “Persona 5” (and probably requires at least a passing familiarity with the original in order to follow), “Persona 5 Strikers” has been pitched as a simplified crossover with Koei Tecmo’s “Dynasty Warriors” series that transplants the characters from Atlus’ JRPG into a hack-and-slash musou game full of button-mashing battles that pit the player against hundreds of enemies at a time. The reality of the situation is a lot more exciting. In stark contrast to a clever little curio like the 2018 rhythm game “Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight,” “Strikers” bears so much of the source material’s DNA that it often suggests a bonafide sequel, or at least a kicky and super-extended coda in the vein of “Final Fantasy X-2.” Not only does the game force the insanity of the musou genre to accommodate the “Persona” series rather than the other way around — resulting in a frenetic but controlled (and addictively FUN) combat system that finally achieves the action/strategy balance the JRPG genre has been struggling to solve for so long — but “Strikers” also adds a necessary dimension to the story that helps it ring true in the Twitter age and close some of the more open-ended thoughts left hanging in the air at the end of the main saga.

Both “Persona 5” and “Strikers” hinge on the relationship between trauma and desire, but where the previous game was preoccupied with how those energies might collapse together inside a single person, “Strikers” explores how they can project outward to seduce perfect strangers. Specifically, how a “stan or destroy” culture of social media stardom allows private trauma to barricade itself (and fester) behind public validation, as the hard realities of knowing thyself don’t stand a chance against the dopamine rush of being validated — or even revered — by others who don’t.

And so we find our young heroes driving around Japan in an RV over summer break and beating the hell out of some very familiar monsters as they try to save corrupted celebrities from their shadow selves. It’s just supposed to be a fun road trip for our silent protagonist (referred to by his Phantom Thief codename “Joker”) and his friends, but things go haywire before they’re even able to get out of Tokyo. A new teen idol named Alice seems to be able to make anyone fall madly in love with her at the drop of a hat — “step on my neck, Alice!” screams one NPC — and the next thing we know Joker and the gang are back in the wonderland of the Metaverse where they’re joined by a cutesy AI named Sophie who comes to fight alongside them (one of two new party members). From there it’s on to Sendai, Sapporo, a Kyoto dungeon set in the labyrinthine shrine of Fushimi Inari Taisha, and beyond as the Phantom Thieves try to connect the dots between a famous author, a shouty politician, a Siri-like virtual assistant called EMMA, and — this being a “Persona” game — some crazy biblical shit that threatens the future of humankind.

It’s a joy to spend another in-game calendar month in this game world, which is rendered in such a vibrant cel-shaded style and so loud with personality that it hasn’t aged a day in the years since “Persona 5” came out. Playing “Strikers” on a Playstation 5 never betrays that it’s technically a last-generation game, as every little detail feels designed to its own exuberant specifications even when the action is moving at breakneck speeds. While a tad overwhelming at first, the battle system quickly starts to feel like second-nature, and decoding the chaos in real-time provides a genuine rush that only grows stronger as the game’s enemies do; this is the rare JRPG that makes you want to encounter random battles. So much so, in fact, that you may grow a bit antsy during the long cut-scenes that separate each new jail, and even start to resent the pared down nature of a spinoff that leaves you wishing its systems and game world were as deep as a mainline “Persona” entry.

Still, “Persona 5” fans will delight in getting to reconnect with these characters, all of whom remain both impressively enlightened and frustratingly naive in equal measure. It’s unfortunate that none of the relationships players chose to pursue in the previous game are carried over here; in my case, Makoto seemed to have no memory of the whirlwind romance she shared with Joker during her senior year of high school. Beyond whatever logistical difficulties might have prevented developers Omega Force and P-Studio from porting over that save data, that lack of continuity also seems emblematic of a game that was made under the mistaken impression that newcomers would be able to swan right in to this story — it feels like veterans are denied any deeper exploration into the (excellently performed) cast because the game is convinced that many players are meeting them for the first time. Not even the alternately fun and laborious post-game content delves into those areas, to the extent that it feels like “Strikers” is bending over backwards not to challenge the pre-established canon.

“Strikers” compensates for that miscalculation in several different ways. First and foremost, the story frontlines new characters like Sophie and Hasegawa Zenkichi — a 30-something cop who the Phantom Thieves amusingly treat like he’s older than the Crypt Keeper — to such a degree that it deflects attention from the original crew, and in doing so complicates what it means for someone to experience “a change of heart.” While the Phantom Thieves have always been unusually forgiving sorts, “Strikers” reckons with the hard work of rehabilitation to a greater degree than the previous game ever did, while also recognizing how the world is never as black-and-white as it might seem when you’re reading about it on your phone. The most engaging chapter of this episodic and ultra-linear adventure involves its teenage cast sifting through the fallout of a deadly accident and trying to figure out who was at fault, and the Phantom Thieves’ ability to recognize the humanity of all involved while still holding certain parties accountable is an almost utopian glimpse at how Gen Z might approach restorative justice.

“Persona” games often stumble over the prescriptiveness of their storytelling, but “Strikers” is never more engaging than when it makes the case for self-examination; when it begs people not to outsource their opinions to the internet or forfeit their will to someone who might use it against them. While most of the game’s bosses are famous people who feed off public support in order to avoid the pain of introspection, the Phantom Thieves’ ultimately have to confront how that same temptation props up rabid fan culture in the first place, and reflects the day-to-day nature of online abuse.

By the time you reach the apocalyptic final showdown, “Strikers” takes aim at the motivation behind every anonymous shitpost and quote-retweet pile-on, as the game argues that internet obsession and vitriol are two sides of the same coin. Like several “Persona” titles before it, this one argues that people are so afraid of not getting what they want for themselves that they’d rather make everything about someone else and be unburdened from wanting anything at all. But the emphasis on A.I. companions and hashtag celebrity allows “Strikers” to peel back the colorful surface that “Persona 5” left behind. For all of its histrionic drama and exasperating PG-13 sex comedy (oy vey, the scene at the co-ed hot spring), “Strikers” is remarkably perceptive about the prisons that people create for themselves and each other because they’re afraid of how they might live with their freedom. The game is an all-out attack on a fear we know far too well, and winning that battle has seldom been so much fun.

Grade: B+

“Persona 5 Strikers” will be available for the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch on Tuesday, February 23. This review was based off PlayStation 4 code provided by Sega.

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