Persona 5 Strikers is a slick Persona 5 spin-off-slash-sequel that not only changes up the genre but also drastically alters the series' pacing for the better.
Anyone familiar with the popular JRPG Persona series knows they are big, beefy, all-consuming games.
A "true ending" playthrough of Persona 4 Golden took me roughly 70 hours, while playing Persona 5 and its director's cut Persona 5 Royal both clocked in at well over 100 hours.
Each of these behemoths plays out like traditional turn-based JRPGs, infused with a snazzy sense of style, creating a visual spectacle while your turns play out.
While I'm yet to finish Persona 5 Strikers, I've played enough to appreciate its swift pacing. Especially when compared to the mainline Persona games.
Time to hit the road
Persona 5 Strikers takes place six months after the events of vanilla Persona 5, reuniting the charming group of teen misfits known as the Phantom Thieves to embark upon a Summer road trip.
Being a Persona game, things can't go smoothly without some meddlesome adults getting in the way. This time, police suspect the Phantom Thieves of committing several seemingly unrelated cognition-altering crimes causing people to behave erratically.
Cue Joker and his friends visiting a supernatural dimension similar to the Metaverse from Persona 5, only this time they're infiltrating Jails, not Palaces, to find the true culprit.
Also, Strikers' gameplay adopts a more action-RPG approach, taking inspiration from the mob-battle Musou genre popularised by the Dynasty Warriors series, with turn-based action stepping aside for hack-and-slash combos to take centre stage.
Along the way, you'll meet new characters, such as AI companion Sophia, cook recipes, and vibe with plenty of sick tunes.
Unfortunately, due to the crossover of development between Persona 5 Strikers and Persona 5 Royal, none of Royal's new characters appear in Strikers, which is devastating for Yoshizawa stans like myself.
I choose to interpret this as development studio Atlus acknowledging that including more than one playable redhead — with Sophia being Strikers' sole representative — would be too powerful a move.
Everybody was Musou fighting
Strikers' Musou translation of the traditional Persona combat works surprisingly well after an initially overwhelming introduction. There's a lot of visual information to parse but it soon becomes readable once the game takes the time to go over the basics.
Face buttons control basic and special attacks that chain together to send waves of enemies flying everywhere. This aspect of fighting is basic enough, although success against tougher enemies hinges on mastering more advanced techniques.
One area where any apprehensions about the genre spin-off quickly dissipated was how strongly Personas — the supernatural, magic-wielding manifestations of one's true self — are used.
Joker's whole schtick, other than being the protagonist, is that he can wield multiple Personas, with each capable of using different types of magic.
On PS4, holding R1 pauses combat and brings up a list of available skills, where you can also freely swap between equipped Personas to use a skill with the affinity match-up — such as fire, wind, electricity, etc. — best suited for the encounter.
This pause is also available when controlling one of the three other party members you choose to bring into a Jail. Even though they only wield one Persona, it's a great ability so you can identify enemy weaknesses and take a moment among the frenetic action.
Of course, the rest of the combat is satisfyingly tight, highlighted by the flashy All-Out Attack and Showtime finishers — it's just that it would fall apart without such a handy feature.
Take your time
I love Persona 5, so any excuse to revisit the charming group of misfits known as the Phantom Thieves is a welcome one.
What I don't love about Persona 5 is its sluggish pacing. In reviewing Persona 5 Royal last year, I lamented how large sections of gameplay dragged out longer than they needed to.
Persona 5 contradicts itself with the loading screen tagline of "take your time". There is so much to do and an engaging social life aspect you're encouraged to slow down and enjoy.
How the in-game calendar works, however, is to implicitly pressure you into cramming in as much as possible in a short space of time, which becomes exhausting as the hour count ticks up into triple digits.
What I immediately appreciate about Persona 5 Strikers is how briskly it keeps things moving. From its fast-paced combat to the more focused story elements, Strikers is much easier to jump in and out of.
Whereas leaving a dungeon in a mainline Persona game automatically progresses in-game time forward, Strikers allows you to freely move between the real world and Jails without the looming spectre of time passing.
In fact, the against-the-clock mentality of Persona 5 worked against me in the early stages of Strikers until I figured out I didn't have to do everything in one hit.
By leaving a Jail, all party members' health and skill points completely regenerate, plus you can then spend earned money on better equipment.
I initially thought this would be a cheap way of cheesing dungeons but realised I was approaching Strikers in a way incongruent with the Warriors-style design.
Although my experience with the Warriors series only extends to other spin-offs such as Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors, I recalled that each of those games focused on discrete levels, separated by menu navigation between each encounter.
Due to how seamless Strikers weaves both gameplay and narrative elements, there's no selecting an individual level to play in a menu. Scattered throughout Jails are checkpoints, which act as fast-travel points both within the dungeons and entering from the outside.
It wasn't until I had my arse handed to me multiple times by a mini-boss — because my entire party's HP and SP was depleted prior to the bout — that I realised the sections of gameplay between checkpoints are the "levels".
Once I embraced this mindset, took advantage of exiting and healing at checkpoints instead of fighting against the game design, I enjoyed Strikers even more.
While I would recommend series newcomers begin with Persona 5 or Royal — as an existing connection with the Phantom Thieves improves the experience — Persona 5 Strikers is an essential spin-off for series fans.
Persona 5 Strikers was played on a PS4 Pro with a digital copy of the game kindly provided by Five Star Games.