Persona 5 Strikers Review – A Perfect Sequel To An Incredible Story

“Hey, it’s been a while.” This is the first text I’ve received from Ryuji since October, when I decided to boot up Persona 5 Royal for a second playthrough. So yeah, it’s been a while – I wish you’d texted sooner.

Joker, Yusuke, Ann, and the rest of the group have been apart from each other for about as long as it’s been since I last heard from Ryuji. It genuinely feels like I’m part of the gang – even Sojiro admits it. “I hear ya,” he says. “Even though it’s only been a couple of months, it feels like it’s been a real long while.” Then he says my room is waiting for me and I have a little cry. It just hits harder when you’re in lockdown and can’t see your real friends.

This real-time parallel only accentuates the fact that Persona 5 Strikers already feels like an effortlessly natural continuation of what came before. There are no growing pains here, or tenuous links to the past. While Strikers focuses on reinforcing the bonds that you forged in Persona 5, it’s also a perfectly self-contained experience that’s worthwhile in its own right, teeming with proprietary intrigue.

This intrigue is probably most prominently attributable to Strikers’ completely reworked combat system. While Atlus’ famous P-Studio worked on the game, this is, ultimately, a Koei Tecmo Warriors title – except only sort of. If you’ve played musou before, you’ll have a decent idea of what to expect here, although I imagine you’ll still be quite surprised. Strikers’ combat structure is labyrinthine, but all the walls are knee-high, so you can see everything and take shortcuts. Everything unfolds in real-time, as opposed to Persona 5’s turn-based system, but you’ve still got to take elemental affinities into account – both offensively and defensively – while juggling standard melee, guns, and special abilities like Showtime and All-Out-Attacks.

While Joker has access to his usual suite of Personas, the other members of the Phantom Thieves – who are all playable except for Futaba – use their respective Personas from the original game. Morgana fights with Zorro, while Makoto rides Johanna, the weird motorbike with a face. Each of these members is still confined to their original types – Haru uses Psi, while Ann uses Fire – but they’ve all got their own gimmicks to make up for the fact that Joker has his Wild Card. Yusuke can use his melee weapon to pull off powerful counter-attacks, while Ryuji can infuse his bat with electricity. Compound all of this with the party-based switching system designed to resemble Persona 5’s Baton Pass mechanic and every fight becomes a maelstrom.

Or so it seems – despite the ostensibly chaotic nature of large-scale mob combat, Strikers is one of the most stylishly controlled games I have ever come across. If you stun-lock an enemy with a four-part melee combo, you can hit them with a 1 More or All-Out-Attack. Doing so triggers a rapid beat-’em-up animation complete with comic strip buzzwords. After executing this, you might gain access to Showtime, a special move for which every single character has their own unique animation. This isn’t just a different sword swipe, mind, or a snazzier gun spin – it’s a fully-choreographed cutscene that accounts for the exact enemy types you’re currently facing, which culminates in a sleek snap back into a swanky freeze frame, complete with audio design that makes it feel as if your meticulousness is palpable. I have never seen combat that is simultaneously so fast-paced and so reluctant to cede control or purpose.

That’s one of the highest and truest compliments I can pay Strikers. If you step back for a moment and examine a cross-section of the game, encompassing any individual part of its overall makeup, it’s immensely impressive. The art is chic and polished, the direction is precise and emphatic, and the music – as always – absolutely slaps. All of this comes together to create a brilliantly cohesive atmosphere that makes the game feel just enough like Persona 5 for you to always remember it’s a sequel, but sufficiently different for it to never feel derivative.

This is important, because I don’t think anything on display here is necessarily copied. Strikers is certainly referential – almost brazenly so at times – but this is simply because Persona 5 is an innate part of these characters. In general, it’s extremely subtle in its hearkening back to what came before. At one point, a new character tells the Thieves, “It’s none of your concern.” I immediately thought of a similar line from the beginning of Persona 5, where Sojiro looks at the TV and says, “It’s none of my concern.” It’s important to recognize that a lot of Sojiro’s original arc has to do with allowing himself to care again, to open up after being closed off for so long. While it might seem like an innocuous coincidence, the cadence and tone of this similar line in Strikers are the exact same – believe me, I double-checked after realizing – and the opposite is true in this case, in which the person doesn’t need to learn how to be caring, but how to be cared for. It’s remarkable.

Instances like this are dotted throughout the entire experience, but my favourite one happens later on in the story (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the actual content – this is just a single line out of context). In conversation with the rest of the Thieves, Yusuke speaks of “pale imitations,” which refers to his most famous line from his original awakening in Persona 5: “A breathtaking sight. Imitations they may be, but together they make a fine spectacle.”

Ultimately, I think that’s the best way to consider Strikers. It truly is a breathtaking sight. Yes, these characters may appear to be imitations of their original selves, but they are just as strong as they were before – and, together, their experiences in each game contribute to a story that is far stronger overall. I think this is bolstered even further by Strikers’ eschewal of Persona’s regular social sim aspects for a more communal means of growth. While I was upset about the lack of Confidants at the beginning of the game, the new Bond system – which causes the entire Phantom Thieves group to level up simultaneously – evokes an amazing sense of community. It means that you’re not just best buds with Makoto and Haru – they’re best friends with each other, too.

If Persona 5 was about forming bonds with new people and recruiting them for a common cause, Persona 5 Strikers is about taking the Phantom Thieves and proving that the friendship they share is lasting, that it can and will endure any hardship. I think, right now, that message is immeasurably important, and hits harder than a bullet formed from the Seven Deadly Sins.

That thought leads me to what I think is the most honest one-liner I can come up with after spending dozens of hours with Strikers: if this game has proved anything to me, it’s that I will always be happy to spend more time with the Phantom Thieves. I can’t count the amount of times this game made me smile, or laugh, or shout so loud at 4am that I got in trouble for waking somebody up. No matter how much time passes – whether it be in-game or in real life – I will always be grateful for another opportunity to hear Yusuke talk about art, or watch Makoto smash into a shadow with a motorbike, or listen to Ryuji exclaim “For real?” to something that is either painstakingly obvious or absolutely demanding of a far more serious response.

After all, these are the Phantom Thieves of Hearts – they’re incapable of changing for the worse, which means every second spent with them makes everything a little bit better.

Version reviewed: PS4. A code was provided by the publisher.

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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.

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