Playing Persona 5 Strikers feels a little bit like coming home. As someone who’s sunk north of 300 hours into both the vanilla Persona 5 as well as Persona 5 Royal, there’s a lot of value in once again joining the Phantom Thieves on another Metaverse-hopping quest. If there’s one thing about Strikers that’s clear from the get-go, it’s that this collaboration between Persona developer P-Studio and Omega Force (Dynasty Warriors) has resulted in something that feels distinctly like Persona 5, despite occupying a different genre.
Thanks to Atlus and Five Star Games I’ve been lucky enough to get an early look at the English release of Persona 5 Strikers (Known in Japan as Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers) to preview the first major chapter of the game, set in the familiar district of Shibuya. This roughly five hour dose of the game afforded me the chance to check out a healthy chunk of the story and a full dungeon, spending plenty of time tinkering with its RPG elements and trying out all of its playable characters.
Set six months after the end of (the original version of) Persona 5, Strikers sees the Phantom Thieves get back together for a much-needed holiday reunion over the summer break, only to almost immediately find themselves back in action when they’re framed for a mysterious new spate of citizens suffering cognitive breaks. Add to that a popular new virtual assistant app named EMMA that can seemingly access the Metaverse and it’s like things never changed.
The Shibuya portion of the game that I can talk about follows the Thieves as they investigate an ultra-famous idol and fashion designer named Alice, whose surge in popularity reveals itself to be the result of kidnapping Shibuya denizens’ Shadows in the Metaverse through the use of the EMMA app. Why this otherwise normal-seeming app is able to access the Metaverse in the same fashion as the far-shadier and more exclusive Navigator app from the first game forms Strikers’ core narrative mystery, as well as who or what is targeting the people whose Jails are being created.
If you’ve not played Persona 5 in any form and this is all sounding like nonsense, I implore you to start there first. A passing knowledge of the events of that game feels almost necessary to enjoy Strikers’ narrative and character interactions, never mind that it’s one of the last generation’s best JRPGs.
If you are jumping into Strikers as a Persona 5 fan, you’ll no doubt appreciate how much this spin-off feels just like the main game in a multitude of ways. From the stylish and dynamic menus and UI elements, to the calendar-day structure of its narrative and Persona-fusing RPG elements it’d be hard not to mistake it for the same game at a glance. Going in fairly blind I was shocked at how much it doesn’t feel like an Omega Force musou-style game. The Dynasty Warriors comparisons pretty much begin and end with combat, which is predominantly real-time, third person hack and slash fare against huge groups of enemies.
Even then, a deft transplant of key Persona 5 combat mechanics like Persona skills, follow-up attacks, baton passes and All-Out Attacks adds a deep layer of strategy to proceedings. Most importantly, as far as I can clean from the first five-ish hours, Strikers rides that same 50/50 split between dialogue heavy narrative in the real would and action-packed exploration and combat in the Metaverse’s dungeons, or Jails as they’re called here.
Like Persona 5’s Palaces, Jails form the game’s dungeon-like gameplay component, tasking the Phantom Thieves with exploring and completing a set of objectives before taking down the “Shadow” version of the Jail’s owner. Of course, with new gameplay rules comes new level design and, at least in the Shibuya Jail, that boils down to wider spaces with more freedom of movement and interaction. It’s actually a fair bit more involved than I was expecting from an Omega Force game, trading their typically-simple, planar maps for winding paths, a heap of verticality and tons of secrets to uncover. Without the passing of days to worry about, they’re also much more forgiving for when you need to make a quick escape to the real world for a breather.
And you’ll need to do just that if you’ve any hope of succeeding in Strikers’ first big battles. While I managed to work my way through the Shibuya Jail with the kinds of tactics you’d expect from a Dynasty Warriors-esque combat system – that is, hacking and slashing at swathes of baddies – the more one-on-one fights certainly threw me. Bigger enemies and bosses can wipe a party quite handily, at least on the higher difficulties, so taking advantage of the game’s pause-and-plan mechanics and exploiting weakness becomes imperative. The need for strategy is another nice way that the game bridges the game between the Persona 5 fans know and this musou-inspired spin-off. The final encounter with the Shibuya Jail’s “Monarch” wound up cooking me a few times before I started treating it more like a standard Persona 5 boss fight and it’s very assuring to know that line of thinking still works here.
If I have any cause for concern at this early stage, it’s that combat can be a tad hard to read when things really ramp up. I’m sure a lot of that comes down to only being five or so hours into a 30+ hour game and having much to learn, but there’s a lot to keep track of on screen, especially when enemy specials and status effects are being thrown around.
With one of six or seven Jails under my belt, I can say with certainty that I’m keen to tackle the rest of Strikers and see where the Phantom Thieves’ one last adventure takes them. There’s plenty to look forward to as well – particularly when it concerns the two major new characters Sophia and Zenkichi and the parts they’ll inevitably play. I look forward to traversing new locales across Japan too, and seeing what twisted nightmare-scapes await me in future Jails. I’m hoping the combat grows on me more as it develops, as that’s the only aspect here that’s really unproven at this stage, but I’ve got plenty more to see yet.
If Persona 5 Strikers can hold the momentum it has by the end of the first chapter for the remaining handful I’m quite confident it’ll sit proudly alongside the main game/s. As a spin-off, it shows a ton of promise in leveraging the strengths of both studios involved and as a vehicle for fanservice it’s already got its hooks in me. Strikers feels like coming home. If home is a cafe attic in Shibuya that doubles as a hideout for a group of magical secret agents and their talking cat.