Persona 5 Tactica is a great spin-off, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. It may boast slick, accessible, and surprisingly deep strategy mechanics, but developer ATLUS’ latest Persona game lacks a core pillar that makes the mainline entries in the series great.
The original Persona 5 isn’t just one of the best RPGs out there; it also deftly explores the trials and tribulations of adolescent life. Though half of your time is spent using supernatural powers to infiltrate the minds of corrupt adults to steal away their evil desires, the other half is spent living as an ordinary teenager. You hang out at the arcade, eat trashy fast food, and try to get good grades - just like everyone else.
Persona 5 Tactica sidesteps this element entirely by having the vast majority of its action take place in the metaverse (Persona’s name for the realm of the subconscious, not the Facebook thing). Though Tactica begins with a warm and charming scene between our teenage heroes - the Phantom Thieves - at their home base in Cafe Leblanc, they’re swiftly whisked away to a supernatural ‘kingdom’ where a tyrannical despot oppresses the local citizens called Lady Marie. From here, we’re thrown into the action and forced to get to grips with Tactica’s slick turn-based mechanics, with the teenagers becoming soldiers in a revolutionary war.
However, between missions, the Phantom Thieves don’t get to return to reality. Instead, they chill out in a metaverse version of Leblanc, where they prepare for their next engagement. It’s charming in its own way, but a poor substitute for the sprawling slice-of-life sim offered by the original Persona 5.
World enough and time
Persona 5 doesn’t just have you go through the motions of real-world teenagerhood—the game forces you to live it by subjecting you to a brutal time-management system. With your mornings consumed by schoolwork, it's up to you to decide how to spend your afternoons and evenings - and you only have so many.
Do you spend time with friends? If so, who? Will you train with lovable misfit Ryuji or go in for some cerebral people-watching with the artistically inclined Yusuke? Perhaps you’d prefer to do something solitary. You could read a book or work out at the gym. Maybe you’ll stay in and study, instead? After all, mid-terms are coming up, and you don’t want to look like an idiot.
What’s more, all of your decisions here boost your stats in certain ways. Swotting up in the library will increase your knowledge, while doing bold activities will bolster your guts. These affect the game in all sorts of ways, unlocking dialogue options and even allowing you to form entirely new relationships with people.
These systems are conspicuous by their absence in Persona 5 Tactica. In Persona 5, protagonist Joker and his allies learn and grow together, slowly, over an entire academic year. By the time Tactica rolls around, set as it is after the plot of the original game, the characters have already grown up.
This is why Tactica’s story feels like a victory lap rather than a full-on race. The main ensemble has already developed. By the time of the spin-off, Makoto has already come out of her bookish shell, shut-in Futaba has learned to talk to other people, Yusuke has processed his traumatic family history, and Haru has escaped the long arm of her wealthy family. All of these characters are already fully baked. From here, they have nowhere else to go - a flaw that leads to a sort of character development cul de sac.
This isn’t the case for Persona 5 Tactica’s newest characters, however. The game’s first chapter introduces us to well-meaning politico Toshiro, revolutionary rabble-rouser Erina, and the haughty and authoritarian Lady Marie.
The story of Persona 5 Tactica is very much centered around Toshiro and his efforts to confront the worst aspects of himself. The first two story arcs revolve around the awkward but charming politician wrestling with trauma from his arranged marriage and toxic upbringing, respectively. Yes, the Phantom Thieves are there, but they’re really just a vehicle for Toshiro to battle his own demons; the first of which takes the form of Lady Marie, a dark reflection of his bride-to-be.
Erina has a story of her own, too. Seemingly unaware of any life she had before taking up her fight to save the kingdom, the revolutionary leader finds herself attempting to carve out her own identity amongst the chaos of Persona 5 Tactica’s ongoing story. Mirroring Morgana’s arc of self-discovery from Persona 5, Erina’s tale makes for a gentle narrative thread that’s rewarding to tug at.
The new characters that crop up in Tactica make the Phantom Thieves seem all the more stagnant by comparison. Their well-written banter still charms and delights, but it never changes. In this way, the strategy game is never really able to escape its status as a spin-off title, forever in the shadow of its predecessor.
Either Joker and friends must be given more room to grow as characters, or, perhaps, ATLUS should move away from the Phantom Thieves and find new focal points for its stories. With Toshiro and Erina, the studio has already shown that it’s more than capable - it simply has to take the leap.
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Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.