Omega Force is out of control, y’all. Ten years ago all you’d expect from an IP-branded “Warriors” game was a lighthearted collection of homages, references and maybe a thin plot summary holding the battles together. Nowadays it feels like Koei Tecmo has leveraged its relationships to turn Musou into more of a platform than a series or brand. In 2020 we’ve seen this “platform” graduate from high-profile spinoffs or original stories to canonized entries in some of Japan’s biggest franchises. Persona 5 Strikers sets a new precedent, challenging the boundaries of what we’ve seen before.
Persona as a series isn’t new to things like vaguely canonized spinoffs. This really started with the Persona 4 Arena series, then continued with the Dancing games that sort of latched onto the proper game stories. But those were more playful, and easily set aside along with the more obvious non-canon fare (Persona Q). Strikers, however, is a different beast entirely. There is no way to consider this game as anything but a direct sequel to Persona 5.
Persona 5 Strikers Review
Six months after the story previously concluded, Joker and Morgana are back in town to visit for the summer. Naturally, Joker’s barely said hello to his friends before weird stuff starts happening, oddly similar to what transpired before but conspicuously different in many ways. The Phantom Thieves have no choice but to get involved, as their reputation brings suspicion their way when the bad stuff goes down. The metaverse is back somehow, and the script has flipped.
Instead of Palaces, in which a person’s distorted desires take shape to mirror their actions, Jails are much more predatory. The Monarchs running each Jail are attacking other peoples’ desires, stealing them and using them to gain power, affecting the real world as a result.
A brief introductory/tutorial sequence starts things off Musou style, pitting Joker taking on a massive crowd of Shadows by himself. This ends of being a misdirection, however. As soon as that’s over it quickly dawned on me that Persona 5 Strikers isn’t a simple Musou take on Persona. It’s a Persona take on Musou. What does that mean? Well if you’re expecting to hop in and have a Hyrule Warriors-like action party, that is not what you’ll find here.
Strikers is so unlike any other Musou game I was legitimately befuddled for a while as I played. If anything, this is a regular-ass Persona game that just trades out the turn-based combat. Despite some other systems being a little lighter than in a native ATLUS RPG, there’s literally nothing else about this game that resembles a “Warriors,” until the moment you enter combat. And you won’t even be doing that but so often.
Structurally, Strikers is built into Persona 5. This is the world you came to know from the original game, albeit somewhat truncated. The biggest difference, aside from the combat, is a move away from the social link systems. Here you have a “Bond” score rather than something more complicated, which goes up with plot development and just playing the game. It’s basically an overall group leveling bar, but with an aesthetic nod to the social stuff. You do get points to spend on a skill tree of sorts, which grants passive boosts and abilities such as healing after a fight.
Beyond that, everything is just like you left it. Strikers uses the same art assets, the same UI elements, maps, whatever else you could think of. It’s even super heavy on the story; I expected to be in and out of scraps and was taken for a loop by how often there wasn’t any action. Just like a real Persona, for better or worse! The voice and depth of the writing doesn’t miss a beat here, either. In fact I’d argue that some of the villains are more interesting here than several from the first game. That isn’t to say this game doesn’t trip over itself the way every other Persona game game does, when it comes to contradicting its own themes in order to lean on things like tropes and/or crass humor at the expense of people living on the margins.
Anyway, combat. This is where the similarities start to melt away, but also where the ones that stay not only stand out, but often overpower the differences. Much like Persona 5 (and perhaps more similarly in a prototype sort of way to Persona 5 Royal), Joker and the crew spend more time dashing around the environment, taking cover, and prodding nooks and crannies for treasure than racking up KO counts. You literally still have to sneak up behind baddies and rip their masks off for an advantage.
When combat does start, it still feels like an RPG encounter despite the Musou mechanics at play. The music changes, the world around you stops, and the focus shifts from exploring to exploiting. The groups aren’t even that big, generally only comprising a dozen or two at most. You’re pressing buttons like a Musou, but the whole combat structure is more focused and intimate. Except for, well, when it isn’t.
I’m used to Musou games being my vibe out and relax games. You can engage with them on whatever level you want, and get something out of the experience. Persona 5 Strikers slapped me in the face and called me a fool for underestimating it like some kind of anime villain. This game doesn’t let you take it easy the same way its siblings do. Just playing on normal, I found myself having to pay attention to nearly any encounter that didn’t start and end with a free All-Out Attack.
Persona 5 Strikers isn’t a game where you can just ignore grunts and worry about damage later. This is still a Shin Megami Tensei property, and there’s no effort here to deepen your HP/SP pools. You’re squishy, you run out of SP, you get your ass kicked if you aren’t careful. Running into a named unit, a minor inconvenience in other Musou, is a moment of serious decision making. Save your SP and climb up the hill, or go all out and hope there’s a checkpoint before the next one?
Part of that danger is the “1-More” combat structure carrying over into Strikers. Magic skills are a threat, even if a nameless grunt is using them. Zio is Zio, it hurts like it should and may impede your movement. Get knocked down or frozen, and you can wiggle the stick to break free but that’s your only bit of leeway. In particularly chaotic encounters (one early boss comes to mind) I’ve suddenly lost a character without even realizing they were in trouble!
What I’m getting at here is Persona 5 Strikers, like any other Persona (or similar), forces you to engage with it on its level. From the perspective of the default difficulty option, if you want to survive cleanly and comfortably you will have to use skills, have to dodge, have to Baton Pass… the whole bag of tricks is important and no part is tertiary. Getting through Jails is a battle for survival, something that makes total sense for the source material but is irregular for the Omega Force side of things.
That said, Strikers isn’t just bizarrely oppressive for a Musou game. There are plenty of caveats and systems in place to help you out as well. If you just had a bad moment in a boss fight, you can retry it instead of going back to the title. You can leave Jails at your leisure, and a series of checkpoints make sure you can come back in where you want. Time doesn’t pass if you dip out, but all your HP/SP refills! If you need to stick around and grind a bit, you can do so totally risk-free. You can really tackle this game at your own pace, a welcome countermeasure to its intense pace.
As the game continues and you get stronger, a lot more options open up for you in a fun and fulfilling way. Characters have “Mastery” unlocks, which can range from getting extra follow-up attacks on their combos to things like certain gun attacks not consuming ammo. Summoning a Persona totally pauses the action too, giving you ample time to decide what to do. Additionally, when a Persona uses a skill as part of the combo commands, that doesn’t consume SP at the cost of some benefits to hitting a weakness.
And these extras come in as you play the game, not as you pump numbers into bars or resources into menu icons like in many other Musou titles. Granted, you do exactly that to power up your Personas, so sometimes you still just have to arbitrarily pump some numbers up. But for the majority of play, there’s a lot more of an organic feeling of progress than I expected.
Oddly enough the biggest problem I’ve run into really isn’t this game’s fault. In Japan, Persona 5 Strikers came out first, with Royal following months later. It’s the other way around here in the states, and that makes the lore situation… a little muddled. If you look at the literal in-game dates, there isn’t a conflict in terms of the “when.” But because Strikers/Scramble dropped before Royal, nothing that happened in that game exists here. So if you’re coming off of playing Persona 5 Royal, it’s going to be off-putting to a degree.
In retrospect it kind of makes Strikers feel like more of a spinoff than I think it’s supposed to, or makes the additional content in Royal feel kind of nonexistent depending on how you look at it. If you’re someone who cares about canon, especially in 100+ hour JRPGs, it might be helpful to keep that disconnect in mind ahead of time.
I also have an issue with Strikers’ defensive options. Normally in Musou games, defense isn’t much of an issue. You can either block pretty freely, or it’s easy enough to get out of the way of something or recover from a mistake. Persona 5 Strikers seems to stumble here a little, in the pursuit of being stylish and fast. You have a dashing move that doubles as a dodge, but it doesn’t interrupt your own movement very smoothly, and its invincibility seems to not even last as long as its animation. Paired with the physical inconsistency of magic spells flying everywhere and it’s hard not to feel like you take damage when you shouldn’t. As a result of this there are times where I felt like I was playing more keepaway than I wanted to, because jumping in the thick of things was asking for damage I struggled to avoid even when I saw it coming. Having access to items, healing skills and bonuses from Futaba helps, but this part feels like it didn’t translate from Persona to Musou as well as other aspects.
Frankly when it comes to assessing the ratio of source material to house style in Musou games like this, I find that kind of evaluation tiresome and reductive. It’s a lens I feel tries too hard to justify the Musou aspect like it’s some kind of embarassing compromise. It’s far more productive to look at how the developers perceive and interpret the source material into their own style, looking at the experience as distinct and an enhancement to the overall context. Also Musou is dope and that’s the truth, baby. But with Persona 5 Strikers it feels… different. It’s almost like the game wants to draw attention to the parts that are and aren’t in line with what Persona 5 does, and make us reconsider what that means and why it matters.
As a bigger fan of Musou than Persona, but still with plenty of knowledge and love for the latter, it’s really hard to digest Persona 5 Strikers. It subverts everything I’ve come to expect from Musou games, while going hard on the authenticity of the Persona side everywhere it can. And honestly, I embrace the more straightforward structures and safety nets replacing the parts that had to go. It’s almost more in line with an older MegaTen game, focusing on the challenge of living and fighting in its world than making sure you’re managing your time efficiently. It’s a welcome change of form and stakes in one way, and a strange but intriguing change of damn near everything in another.
Do I think Persona 5 Strikers sets some kind of new standard for Musou, or redefines what we’ll see from projects like this going forward? Hell no. Frankly I’d be upset if it did. But like the open world exploration of Dragon Quest Heroes or the single-character movie adaptation style of Berserk: Band of the Hawk, Persona 5 Strikers’ aggressive adhesion to its source material makes an impression. Challenging the Musou part to fit in rather than the other way around, this game manages to catch even someone like me, a lifelong Musou evangelist, off guard. I’m here for it, at least in this specific moment.
- Persona’s pop vibes mix with the Omega Force buttrock guitar shreds better than you’d ever expect.
- Legit interesting story expansion to Persona 5 that doesn’t feel phoned-in at all.
- Engaging combat that finds truly fascinating ways to blend these two disparate styles.
- Being able to play as all the Phantom Thieves in character action style rules (though you have to lean on Joker a lot).
- Chaotic combat can make failures feel unfair.
- Camera is way too close.
- If you want the complex backend systems of a Persona you won’t find them here.
- Fusion feels a little undercooked.
- The AI goes into business for itself sometimes instead of supporting the player.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.