ATLUS hasn’t made a strategy RPG in almost a decade. Eight years to be exact, and that was a Nintendo 3DS re-release of the Nintendo DS game Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2. In that time, Persona has shown itself to be a malleable property. Fighters, rhythm games, action adventures, dungeon crawlers, you name it. Persona spin-off games, even if not always high art, are wildly experimental and consistently fun. I adore SRPGs and have wanted the developer to revisit them for some time. Persona 5 is one of my favorite games, so the announcement of Persona 5 Tactica got me excited that ATLUS was internally developing SRPGs again.
What we got is far from anything I expected, but in ways I’d be hard-pressed to say are bad. Far from it, Persona 5 Tactica is a wonderfully made game in so many areas. As I played it, I felt it was charming, and fun, but a bit uneven. In the time I’ve had to play the game ahead of launch, it’s felt like a rollercoaster of an experience.
Persona 5 Tactica has an exact place where it lands in the Persona 5 timeline, but thanks to its initial setup you’d be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t matter much. After the events of December in the main game, the Phantom Thieves are transported to an alternate world while hanging out one day. In this version of the Metaverse there are separate sub-worlds called Kingdoms, with rulers who treat their subjects cruelly. One of the game’s newest characters, Toshiro Kasukabe, is a politician from the real world who finds himself trapped here. He joins forces with Joker, the Phantom Thieves, and a rebel named Erina in overthrowing the rulers of these Kingdoms and liberating their citizens.
As a game, Persona 5 Tactica isn’t very similar to many SRPGs I’ve ever played. That’s not saying it is wholly unique, but acknowledging my own blindspots in the genre. I typically play strategy games in the vein of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, and at first glance, Persona 5 Tactica appears similar to it. It is instead closer to the likes of XCOM and Mario + Rabbids. Taking cover at the end of turns and distance-based attacks are your bread and butter, and not something that can be ignored unless you want to be severely punished.
At first, I found these XCOM inspirations to be a misfire (pun intended), but the more I played the more I found it to fit. This could have been a normal SRPG, but that would hardly fit when adapting a game all about stealthily moving between cover. Persona 5 Tactica ends up offering some of the most fun I’ve had with the genre on a gameplay level in years.
You can build a party of three characters from the entire Phantom Thieves and Erina. Every character falls under a role they specialize in that will give the whole party buffs: Gun Damage, SP, HP, or Melee Damage. Joker, despite being a great all-round fighter, is not even required to be in your party after a certain point. I wish there had been a few more characters to choose from because, after the first world, you won’t see much variety unless you go out of your way to change up your party. But what it gives up here it does so to make character building wildly flexible.
Your entire party shares a level, but each of them has their own unique skill tree that is explored with their own pool of points called “GP”. Each character’s tree is built similarly, and aren’t very massive (thanks to Persona 5 Tactica being on the shorter side) but how you go down these trees offers a lot of freedom to the curious and indecisive. At any point, you can not only respec your entire skill tree for free but even remove specific abilities to get their GP cost back. Let’s say you used all of your points to build up a character’s support abilities, but find they’re now lacking in damage output. You can choose one or all of those abilities to be removed from the tree and then dump all of those points elsewhere. While this could definitely be taken as removing consequence, Persona has always been about rewarding adaptability in its gameplay.
This typically happens with the Velvet Room, which can now be used with all characters in your party. Personas are obtained as rewards in battles and then can be taken into the Velvet Room and fused together. The system isn’t as complex as it typically is, but it works well in allowing you to further customize each of the Phantom Thieves. Elements are now tied to status effects, so equipping your characters with Personas that enhance their latent Status attacks or giving them an extra is pretty engaging. Where Fusion shines the most is with weapons, where you can turn one or two of your Personas into a gun for each party member. These guns are typically better than anything you’d find in the shop, and require a Persona of a specific level and type. It’ll actually change the weapon model and will give your characters status effects on their gun attacks. It’s a cool system and comes into play right when the normal loop of buying gear starts to get a bit dull.
Guns are the only thing you can buy in the shop because they’re meant to be the main form of interaction with each enemy. They don’t cost SP to use, and they don’t come with a risk that physical attacks might have. Those aren’t entirely useless either, but their main purpose is to reposition enemies. If you run up to someone in cover and attack them this way, you’ll take their spot in cover and then knock them far away leaving them open for a gun shot by another enemy or a Persona Skill. Since these now have special status effects with them, you can do clever things like use Garu, Agi, or Psi skills on enemies in cover to move them out of it. In Psi’s case, you can pull enemies close to the user depending on where they are. Skills like Bufu will freeze an enemy as well, making them unable to act in the following turn.
Character movement offers a level of freedom you rarely see in these kinds of games. When it is the player’s phase of a battle, they can switch between any of their units as long as their current action hasn’t been used up. This means you can move characters around, switch to another one, and then switch back if you didn’t act with them to reposition them if you want. The immediate benefit to this is that it allows you to fully customize how your turn plays out, not requiring you to commit to an action until you really feel like you’re ready. But combined with stage gimmicks that play with verticality in interesting ways, what Persona 5 Tactica does is open itself up to be exploited by the player’s advantage in devilish ways. I can’t think of anything more “Persona” than that.
Exploiting enemy weaknesses returns, but not exactly in the way you think. What catches enemies off guard isn’t elemental attacks, but if they’re in cover or not. Multiple different kinds of enemies react in different ways to attacks, but generally, if you hit someone when they’re out of cover that character will get a One More. If this happens their movement is reset at the position they attacked on, and the enemy is downed. You can essentially take several turns in one if you have a good strategy and massively expand your movement per phase.
Enemies can do this too, so if you’ve forgotten to end your turn behind a piece of cover you can find yourself swarmed fast by a bunch of enemies doing repeated damage. What they can’t do is use Triple Threat, this game’s version of the All-Out Attack. When you down an enemy, a triangle is formed between your three characters. As long as one downed enemy is in this triangle, you can use an All-Out Attack to deliver serious damage to anything in this triangle.
So say you start by climbing up a ladder and knocking an enemy down below to a party member waiting. This will trigger a follow-up attack, which will give the initiator a One More. So they run across the rooftops to extend the triangle and pop any unguarded enemies along the way. Your Triple Threat range is now hypothetically massive, and you can take out large amounts of enemies in an instant thanks to your planning. All of these mechanics are pretty simple, but the way they work in tandem with one another is something that seems wholly unique and is brilliant to see play out.
Despite adoring all these features, however, I think they make the game just a bit too easy once you gain any amount of mastery with them. Obviously, I am speaking from the perspective of someone who played the game on Normal difficulty, but I never found it to offer a meaningful challenge in the main campaign. It’s so easy that you don’t really need to engage with a lot of the systems to succeed. If you’re looking for that, I’d recommend playing on Hard mode. I was still content with my Normal playthrough and had a lot of fun with the game’s missions thanks to each world’s clever gimmicks, but if you come to this genre for the challenge you might be left disappointed.
But, having said that, the side missions offer up a challenge in the best way possible: turning SPRG maps into puzzles. Typically you’ll be given goals like “defeat every enemy” or “move to the other side of a map” but with the added restriction of needing to do so in an incredibly short amount of turn phases. Most of them expect you to figure it out in one. Doing all of the quests in a world will give you a special fusion, but the real reward for me was just the satisfaction of beating them. They’re really challenging, and even if I didn’t do all of them I love it when game developers realize their game is flexible enough to be played in entirely different ways.
The presentation on Nintendo Switch, despite some issues, is overall quite strong. The story plays out with visual novel-like dialogue scenes, with occasional fancier cutscenes sprinkled throughout. The backgrounds look great, with sprites being varied and touting a gorgeous art style. While the later sections of the game don’t have as many rendered cutscenes as the first world does, the fantastic voice acting keeps things engaging. This is the first time a new Persona game has been released simultaneously worldwide, and the localization is just as good as we’ve come to expect from the team at ATLUS. The dialogue is sharp, and the humor comes through from the banter of the Phantom Thieves.
I don’t have an exact resolution, but models look very crisp both docked and undocked. The game targets 30 frames-per-second and hits it consistently but I did notice a couple of frame pacing issues in the early missions. The Switch version’s biggest issue is just the load times, which can drag down starting a mission. The loading segment into every battle is a star made up of guns that is meant to shake and then have all of them fire off when the map is loaded. I’m sure on stronger hardware this is brief enough for the effect to land, but when you have a long period of a shaking star of weapons it comes across as comedic. Given that I’m a naturally patient person I’ll accept slow load times if it means a great portable experience though, and Persona 5 Tactica is exactly that.
Persona 5 Tactica’s story centers around the risks and rewards of rebelling against authoritarian regimes. I don’t think this story presents any groundbreaking new ideas, but I admire where its heart is at and overall it doesn’t make any glaring missteps in presenting its story about fighting back against oppression. Thematically there are many ideas I inherently agree with, with the writers mainly using Erina as a mouthpiece for these. She’s a delight to see in both cutscenes and gameplay, and I imagine will be a fan-favorite if this game takes off. The Phantom Thieves themselves work well to enforce these ideas, having gone through all of their arcs from the original game and well-versed in rebelling against broken systems. From a pure fan perspective, they’re also just a lot of fun to see banter amongst themselves. I think all of the post-Persona 5 spin-offs have managed to retain the group’s chemistry, and Persona 5 Tactica is no exception.
The only one left to truly grow in the story is Toshiro, and that’s where some of the story’s weaker aspects come into play. Toshiro fills the role of the adult of the group, starting opposed to the young teens’ methods and stern in his beliefs. I don’t think he’s a bad character, and the game being centered around him does lead to some excellent moments, but the writing doesn’t exactly stick the landing with him as much as I would have liked. It also doesn’t help that he more or less fits the exact same role as Persona 5 Striker’s Zenkichi Hasegawa (an adult authority figure who eventually learns to accept the Phantom Thieves and works with them), but the novelty doesn’t really work as well the second time. Despite also being in Persona 5 Tactica for nearly the entire runtime, his arc feels unevenly paced and backloaded. I like him as a character, and where the writing takes him is enjoyable, but it hits you hard and then shortly after the game rushes to the finish line. Not something to condemn, but it makes the game stand out amongst Persona spin-off stories that typically go on too long for their own good.
If you’ve been a long-time fan you probably are going to expect the story to not be a big focus. I wouldn’t say Persona 5 Tactica’s story is bad, in fact, it’s quite good given the flimsy spin-off premise. I think my problems stem from the gameplay and story faltering at around the same points. When the story starts to rush to its conclusion, the gameplay variety begins to suffer. It’s hard to talk in too much detail here without spoilers, but it felt that there could have easily been about 5-10 more hours of content. It’d allow the gameplay ideas to be fleshed out more, alongside the story beats that take you from mission to mission. The second half isn’t as strong as the first when it comes to stage design and mission variety, but it still retains a level of quality throughout.
I might not adore the story, but it’s good enough to not bog down how much of a great time I had playing the SRPG on offer. I sincerely loved playing this, so much so that I was let down when it started to wind down. You could definitely make a sequel with this core to expound on all the good game ideas, but it won’t stop Persona 5 Tactica from feeling like a bit of a stepping stone. Optimistically I think the mechanics they developed would work as a great foundation to build on top of, but outside of the Repaint Your Heart DLC (which I did not have access to while writing this) it’s unsure if that will happen.
So much of this game works incredibly, that it makes the moments where it falters stand out more. Persona 5 Tactica is a great SRPG with gameplay that beckons you to learn its ins and outs to make it yours. When I do get my hands on the DLC I’m certain to dive right back into the main campaign on a higher difficulty afterwards. While I wish the game was longer, I can accept the value in a shorter Persona experience that packs this much of a punch. It might not offer the full package of a game like Devil Survivor 2, but it instead delivers an approachable SRPG that Persona fans could easily use as a jumping-off point into the genre. If you’re a fan of this series, but maybe not of SRPGs, you’ll probably still feel right at home.
The thing about roller coasters is that even some of the best ones have moments of downtime, but ultimately remain thrilling and fun. The ride didn’t leave me changed in any way, but I certainly want to get back on and go again.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by ATLUS