I miss my friends.

I mean, they’re still around — I can pick up my phone and call them, or play games with them online. But this pandemic is now almost a year old, and America has done less than zero to curtail it. I’m lucky that I haven’t been deeply affected by it as many others have, but I still can’t see my friends in person, and it’s starting to grate even on me, your resident local shut-in. I miss going out to eat with them, going to movies and concerts with them, getting to laugh with them in person…it’s rough.

Persona 5: Strikers does not help me miss my friends less. It doesn’t know it, but it’s rubbing my face in with its road-tripping energy. Until I can see my friends in person, I’ll just have to vicariously live through the Phantom Thieves.

Don’t Take Your Time

Returning to the streets of Shibuya with Joker and Morgana felt like coming home, in a sense. Despite my…tumultuous relationship with the game — and don’t worry, we’ll get to that — I still felt a sense of nostalgia as the Phantom Thieves reunited with their former leader a year after the events of the first game to go on a road trip. This being a videogame, things don’t exactly go according to plan, and the Phantom Thieves are forced to travel across Japan to save the country once again.

You’d be forgiven to think that Strikers is a spin-off, given the subtitle and the fact that it’s a Koei Tecmo production, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth. This game is Persona 5: The Direct Sequel in all but name and genre. The characters have a year of history between them, so there’s little in the way of set-up. I wouldn’t recommend playing this game if you haven’t played the original already.

Where Persona 5 was about methodically taking out enemies in turn-based encounters, Strikers has Joker and friends slashing and dashing through tons of shadows. It’s almost like Dynasty Warriors…except, not really. Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors were effectively Dynasty Warriors reskins, but Persona 5: Strikers eschews the formula, with the Phantom Thieves progressing through dungeons instead of defending bases or fighting literal thousands of foes. It’s the most blended game Koei Tecmo has made, with every action mechanic being given a Persona-flavored coat of paint. You’re able to exploit enemy weaknesses by using your Personas, which open them up for stylish All-Out-Attacks that do big damage to your target and surrounding foes. You’ll go nowhere fast if you don’t capitalize on these mechanics, especially when fighting more powerful enemies. These have staunch defenses that, when broken down, let you do even more stylish All-Out-Attacks that are ripped straight out of the original game.

Combat is fun, flashy, and punchy, with actions feeling responsive at all times. Joker is objectively the best character, thanks to the fact that he can fuse Personas to give him access to tons of powerful spells. But I loved how much the rest of the Phantom Thieves shine in Strikers. Each of them feels entirely different to play, while demonstrating their personalities through their mechanics. Ryuji can charge up his specials to do big damage, for example, while Yusuke can calmly counter enemy attacks. Mysterious newcomer Sophie can time her attacks to increase their damage and range, and Haru can hold a button to do big AOE damage for a period of time. They were all, frankly, more fun to play than the protagonist himself.

However, it's a bit difficult to stay engaged for the entire 30+ hours of playtime, for a few reasons. Exploiting weaknesses is far and away the best way to get through most encounters, so you'll find yourself spending more time sitting in a menu spamming your persona's effective spells to stun-lock and damage them than actually engaging in action combat. It still feels great! But there’s one spoiler-y fight in particular that really showcases the game’s physical, moment-to-moment combat, and I wish there were more situations where that would be the best course of action. Because spells are most effective, you'll find yourself drained of SP all the time, forcing you to go to a checkpoint to leave the dungeon and get your SP back, before immediately reentering to continue making progress. It’s very choppy, and while I'm on the PS5 so load-times are quick, it could have easily been circumvented by checkpoints automatically restoring your HP and SP. Not huge issues by a long shot, but worth considering.

All Grown-Up

I did not like Persona 5 very much. The high of its ending carried me for a while, but my thoughts have heavily soured since. It had too much gross content in it, and its overarching conclusion was basically “keeping the status quo is actually really cool!” It fell short of the things it was trying to achieve, especially as the game went on (for way too long, I might add). Persona 5: Strikers does not have most of these issues. It has more depth, and writing that makes its characters infinitely more likable.

This time around, the Phantom Thieves are infiltrating Jails, which form as manifestations of their target’s trauma. These Jails let their Monarchs take control of people and bend them to their will. The antagonists of Strikers aren’t nearly as cartoonishly evil as they were in Persona 5. The Phantom Thieves are forced to come to terms with the fact that trauma isn’t an excuse for doing bad things to other people, along with the fact that even good people can do bad things. Their never-ending optimism is curtailed by an excellent addition to the cast, Zenkichi Hasegawa, a world-weary adult who reminds this troublesome bunch of kids that the world is not nearly as black and white as they’d like it to be. It’s incredibly refreshing in comparison to the weak efforts from Persona 5, and it’s delivered in half the time as its predecessor — even though just like that game, it overstays its welcome by the end.

That said, there’s one instance of fat-phobia in this game that I simply can’t ignore. It slapped me in the face, not only because it showed up in the first place, but because it showed up in a way that makes no sense at all for the character it's attributed to. I'm being purposefully vague because of spoilers, but a game that's about the physical manifestation of Id should know better than to so carelessly shoehorn in this ridiculous disdain for fat bodies out of what can only be described as laziness. Moreover, this game keeps sexualizing Ann and I have absolutely had enough. Her animations are ridiculous, the breast physics on her character are ridiculous, and the way the game's camera frames her in and out of combat drives me feral. It's not nearly as egregious as Persona 5, but I am getting older and less patient for this garbage as a result. Do better, I am begging you.

We Fight For Our Friends

Replacing Social Links is the Bond system, and surprise surprise, I like it more too. Battles and social events alike will level up your Bond with your friends, which gives you points that you can spend on upgrading the various systems of the game, from upping your team’s stats, to increasing the range of items you’re allowed to cook, to even restoring health and SP after battles.

I love the Bond system because, like the Social Link system, it marries the themes of the game with its mechanics. However, unlike Social Links, it’s not predicated on picking the “right answer” to make someone happy regardless of how you feel (or to get in their pants). The Bond system is about sharing in friendship, no matter what’s happening, and it makes sense for a series that should be about the relationships between all of these characters, not just how each of them feels about Joker. It will never happen, but I wish that the Bond system is what we'd end up getting in the inevitable Persona 6.

Together Again Someday

By the time I was finished with Persona 5: Strikers, I was filled with happiness, as well as a deep, deep sadness. It’s a sunny game about a group of friends that love each other, going on a road trip to save the world and eat a lot of delicious food while great music plays in the background. As the credits rolled, I could only scream into the void: I miss my friends! I miss going on trips! I miss the summer! Get me out of this hell! Strikers unfortunately can’t save me from this pandemic, but it did something almost more impressive: it restored my faith in Persona 5. It’s better than the original game by multiple miles — so good, in fact, that it retroactively makes me feel good about owning Persona 5 merchandise again. If you were a fan of the original, I can’t even imagine how much you’ll love this game. But even if you didn’t, you might find something to love about it anyway. At the very least, it’ll probably make you think about how great your friends are, and that’s worth the price of admission alone.

That's all for now! Have you played Persona 5: Strikers? Do you have a deep pit in your heart because you miss your friends too? Let me know @mintmakesthings! And if you enjoy my work, please consider supporting me on Buy Me a Coffee! Till next time!