First Impressions: Examining the Blend of Persona and Musuo in Persona 5 Strikers

In November the crossover title Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity released on the Nintendo Switch. It was a game which blended the lore and characters of Breath of the Wild with the 1-vs-1000 gameplay of the Dynasty Warriors franchise. While I wasn’t impressed with the storytelling in Age of Calamity, the mechanics redefined my expectations for Warriors crossovers. The game expertly utilized gameplay elements borrowed from Breath of the Wild to build on the core concepts of a musuo title in a way that added a satisfying amount of complexity and creativity. The core premise of musuo gameplay is the weak attack and strong attack. Weak attacks are quick jabs that can easily combo together for a series of swipes against an opponent. The strong attack button, when thrown into such a combo, executes a finisher that differs based on the number of weak attacks you performed leading up to it. Additionally, when used outside of a combo, strong attacks typically have a different effect depending on the character. What makes each character unique is how their combos function and the way in which their standalone strong attack gives them something that feels distinct for that person, giving them a playstyle all their own.

Age of Calamity built on those basics by layering more button inputs and abilities overtop of them. In addition to their strong attacks being different each character also has a button for a special ability, one that doesn’t necessarily become part of a combo string but which has its own useful function like new movement options, creating obstacles on the field, or powering the character up in some way. The game also added the Sheikah Runes from Breath of the Wild, and while every character has the same core set of runes, each rune works differently for every character that you can play as. It’s the same concepts that drive Warriors but simply expanded. Use the same essential building blocks for every character but make those blocks function differently in order to build something entirely new; that’s the key to the musuo experience, and Age of Calamity did this in a way that really showed me just how much potential these game mechanics have.

Coming fresh off of both Age of Calamity and Persona 5 Royal in 2020 (both of which I played pretty close to when they released), my expectations for Persona 5 Strikers was defined by both. If this game could combine Persona-quality storytelling and time-management with Age of Calamity’s strong combat and clear distinction between character playstyles, I would have been blown away by what it had to offer. I tried to keep expectations in check by reading reviews and by reminding myself that this game was technical developed earlier than Age of Calamity (it released a year or so ago in Japan), but ultimately I came to Persona 5 Strikers hoping it would be the best of both its influences. As to whether or not those expectations were met and how I feel about it – well that’s what the article is all about.

Returning to Leblanc to see all these goofballs was a nostalgic experience.

Persona 5 Strikers effectively functions as a sequel to Persona 5. It is set six months after the events of the first game during summer vacation. Joker, the leader of the Phantom Thieves, travels to visit his companions for the group to spend their summer together on a road trip. Naturally not all is well – supernatural shenanigans soon hijack their plans and the first “chapter” of the game is spent learning the ins and outs of this new phenomenon. As that chapter comes to an end the heroes come away with a new mission: to travel Japan resolving these crises all over the country, converting their fun summer road trip into round two of taking the hearts of evildoers. It’s a fun setup that promises some interesting new scenarios for this familiar group of faces. At the time of writing, I’ve finished chapter one and am making final preparations to hit the road to head to other parts of Japan.

Similar to Persona 5, the game begins in the middle of an out-of-context action scene that gives you just a taste of what it is like to move and fight before then jumping backward in time to show how you got there. Also like Persona 5, the taste of gameplay you get is oh-so-brief before leading into plentiful exposition. A lot of your time in this game is spent with the Phantom Thieves just chatting – discussing the events currently happening in their lives, gathering information and talking about what to do next, as well as interacting with other significant characters. JRPG players, particularly those who have played Persona 5, will be in familiar territory here, but if you’re normally an action game fan the distinction between how much dialogue takes place in this game compared to the other Warriors titles I’ve played could be jarring. I think for a lot of players coming off of Persona 5, part of the appeal of Strikers is revisiting these characters who you came to love so much in the first game, and in that sense the dialogue helps to fulfill that promise. These characters are largely as you remember them but it’s clear that the time they’ve had to reflect on the events six months prior has helped them grow. They’ve matured while still keeping the essence of who they are, and a neat part of the first chapter is getting to see what they learned from their first go-around as Phantom Thieves.

Now while there is a lot of talking in this game, the talking is primarily a tool to convey information to you as the player. It is a story for you to experience rather than a narrative to shape. None of the mechanisms for interacting with your friends and allies are present in Strikers. You won’t be having private conversations with Makoto about how college is going or reminiscing with Ryuji about old times while jogging in the park. The kids do these things together as a group, but you don’t have opportunities to develop confidant relationships for a mechanical benefit. The game does have a BOND system where the bond between the group as a whole grants skill points that you can spend on a number of beneficial effects, but these bonds raise at set points in the story and as a result of participating in combat. Naturally without the confidant system you also don’t have any of the gameplay elements related to raising those ranks such as going to the movies together, eating at a diner, giving other characters gifts, etc.

The dialogue is well-written and nothing about it screams “this is a spinoff.” All the characters feel like their genuine selves and their interactions would make sense in Persona 5 proper.

While the structure of Strikers has a lot in common with Persona, the meat and potatoes are pretty different. You’ll have long story sequences broken up by trips into a large dungeon that takes multiple delves to fully explore. However, these delves don’t advance time and time management is not a factor in the game. You can leave dungeons (called “Jails” this time around) as many times as you need to in order to fully recover your health and energy as well as shopping for new supplies before heading back into the breach. Joker doesn’t have daily obligations like school or work to worry about and no social stats to advance, so side activities dedicated to improving Joker’s non-combat skills don’t factor into this game either. These features aren’t necessarily needed for a game like Strikers and I imagine that they would have been complicated to implement in a game where you move around the country instead of spending a significant amount of time in one location. However, it does change the stakes compared to Persona 5 as you don’t have the same level of threat from Jails as that presented by Palaces. It feels like the game is balanced around expecting you to refresh every time you hit a checkpoint where you can replenish your characters, which changes your approach. It’s less about resource management to progress as far as possible in a short amount of time and utilizing your time wisely; instead, you make a bit of progress, heal up and maybe buy an item or two, then press forward a little more.

There are still times you have to return to the real world in order to accomplish some actions in cut scenes that enable further progress in the Metaverse, but at least in chapter one there’s really no reason to use these moments to go into town and explore to see what’s different. Most of your shopping can be done from the preparation screen at your hideout and since there’s no other activities to engage in, the loop is a bit less satisfying compared to Persona 5 proper. At least during the main gameplay segments of Persona 5, that game made it easy to take breaks from action if you wanted some dialogue scenes or side activities or to jump into some combat if you were tired of talking, and often accomplishments in one gave you reason and motivation to return to the other. Leveling up a confidant gave you new abilities in the metaverse while finding or fusing new personas created opportunities to advance your relationship faster with new confidants – each of the game’s core mechanics influenced the other in a way that created variety and kept you playing. In that sense Strikers doesn’t quite hit the same way.

I’ve spent a chunk of time talking about specific mechanical ways in which Strikers doesn’t perfectly emulate Persona, but I do want to emphasize that the developers still did a really good job making it feel like you are playing Persona 5 when you engage with this game fully. While the time and resource management don’t work exactly the same this still feels very unique compared to most RPGs or adventure games where a dungeon is a place you don’t really plan to visit more than one time. In something like Zelda or Final Fantasy a dungeon is a place you visit once, and needing to leave to replenish your resources points to poor preparation or coming in underleveled. Conversely, you spend time with the Jails in Strikers; I was surprised with the size and complexity of the first dungeon and had to make the most of my exploration in order to make sure every character was well-equipped and had the stuff I needed to push to the next checkpoint. Playing Strikers feels like playing a meaty DLC for Persona 5, just fresh enough not to feel like more of the same and just familiar enough to tickle your nostalgia for the original.

The villain designs are weird and flamboyant as ever – the first boss literally has a bunny tail that says “eat me” directly above her ass.

I’ve spoken at length about how Strikers compares to Persona 5, but what about the Warriors influence? What does it feel like to explore a Jail and engage in combat? Interestingly enough, moving around the Jail is actually pretty similar to Persona 5 with a few key exceptions. In the overworld you can run around freely with the ability to either jog at a slower pace or dash at full speed. You can jump at any time with a dedicated jump button and there are designated points in the environment which allow you to dash to them from a distance and either hide, climb, or trigger some sort of effect. Enemy shadows roam around in masks and getting caught by them raises the security level of the facility, making it more dangerous. Conversely, you can sneak up on them and ambush them from behind to get an advantage going into combat. The Jails have floating collectibles similar to Persona 5’s Mementos as well as treasure chests tucked away in areas where you may need to go a bit out of your way or solve a small puzzle to find. It’s all essentially Persona until you enter combat, at which point you can finally feel just a tinge of the musuo influence.

When a shadow’s mask is removed, a group of enemies appear on the field and a battle arena forms around you, marking off how much distance you can put between you and the bad guys before it counts as an escape attempt. Enemies can be battered with weak attacks and pressing the strong attack button during a combo executes a different finisher depending on your character and on how many weak attacks preceded that finisher. There’s a dedicated button for dodging enemy attacks which can be held down to dash around the battlefield. Each character has a gun unique to them and brandishing that gun temporarily slows down time so you can aim and fire bullets at your opponents. Guns have limited ammunition but as best as I can tell, it replenishes per battle, so you only have to worry about bullet management in the context of a specific fight rather than during your lengthy exploration of the Jail. Finally, each character has their own Persona, with Joker having the ability to utilize multiple Personas just like in P5. Similar to using guns, holding the Persona button stops time so you can aim, but it also allows you to select which skill you plan to use. The weakness and resistance system from the main game returns here and so you are incentivized to change characters based on whose Persona can hit the enemy weakness. Character changing is done with the control pad on the Nintendo Switch, a solution that seems elegant until you know that which character is assigned to which button changes every time you swap characters during combat. This can make it frustrating to baton pass during hectic battles because you have to take time to look and see which of your characters is assigned to which direction, and the next time you switch in the same battle it may still be a different command.

A few other mechanics carry over from Persona 5 proper. One of the most significant is the all out attack, a special move executed against a downed enemy. Hitting a standard enemy with their weakness or breaking the shield gauge on a miniboss or boss creates the opening for an all out attack. Against weaker enemies, the all out attack is enough to take them out even if they are at full health. This can make ambush encounters very fast – it was somewhat common for me during the first Jail to ambush a foe, find them immediately vulnerable to an all out attack due to the ambush, and then wipe out the whole crew with a single all out attack. Bosses of course don’t take nearly as much damage but this move is still one of the most important tools in whittling them down. A mechanic that comes to this game from Persona 5 Royal is the showtime move, a special attack a character can execute when their showtime gauge is full. Showtime moves charge slowly but can be sped along by investing bond points in skills that increase the rate as well as effective use of baton pass to add a temporary multiplier mid combat. Similar to all out attacks, they can clear a horde of weak enemies or take a healthy chunk out of a boss, making them an essential to winning key battles.

All Out Attacks are one of the two types of maneuvers you’ll be angling for to deal maximum damage to big enemies.

The way these mechanics interact with one another leads to a musuo experience that feels a lot different than any other Warriors game that I have played. Battles take place on a much smaller scale, generally featuring fewer enemies as well as smaller areas to fight in. As I’ve already mention, combining the small enemy numbers with an ambush and an all out attack makes some battles breeze by, but those tides can certainly turn against you too. Getting ambushed by an enemy is punishing, leaving your whole party momentarily paralyzed and giving enemies an opportunity to wail on them without consequence. Your characters in Strikers are generally a lot squishier than the heroes in other musuo games I have played, and one or two mistakes can absolutely mean the end of your crew. This gives you an incentive to play in a more careful, stealthy way; how you start a battle isn’t a guarantee of victory or loss, but it pushes you very firmly in one direction in a way that’s not mirrored in other Warriors titles.

A lot of the mechanical focus in the game falls to the use of personas. Enemies meant to be more challenging than simply fodder have shield gauges which are broken primarily by hitting them with their weaknesses. Once the shield gauge is broken you can use an all out attack to take away a more meaningful chunk of health than your other attacks. This de-emphasizes the combos your characters have at their disposal – similar to Persona 5, you probably won’t find yourself using your melee weapons that often except for in combat against total throwaway enemies. That’s a weird feel for a Warriors game, though, as the combo-based action is normally the emphasis of the combat mechanics. This is exacerbated by the fact that the combos in Strikers don’t feel nearly as good as the ones in Age of Calamity. A lot of characters don’t feel particularly distinct from one another, and even within a single character their combos may look slightly different but it feels the same no matter which one you are using. Maybe it’s because the enemy groups are small enough that changing the range and shape of your attacks doesn’t feel significant, or maybe it’s because a lot of the characters follow similar patterns (three weak attacks and a strong attack is almost always the setup for a short-ranged elemental blast based on your character’s persona, for example). But I found myself missing how distinct each character felt in Age of Calamity.

Another result of this approach to the gameplay is that Strikers seems to be more difficult than the other Warriors titles I have played. With each character having relatively low HP and SP on their own, you really have to tap all four characters in your party to chip away meaningfully at boss enemies. But the problem is, each character other than Joker is bound to a single element, and you don’t have any meaningful way of knowing what elements you need in advance of a battle. Having a crew where two of your characters can’t eat away at the enemy’s shield gauge makes it nearly impossible to come away victorious; during both major battles I played during chapter one, I had to retry and change the party composition to better improve my odds. Fortunately the game supports this – when you lose a battle, you can either retry the match with different gear or a different party composition, load your last save file, or restart from the beginning of your current infiltration. Against the main boss of the chapter, that still wasn’t enough; their attacks were so powerful than one AI ally accidentally standing in their path could spell the end for that character. In order to finally win I had to buy accessories that reduced the type of damage that boss specialized in as well as making sure that most of the characters in my party had access to one of the boss’s weaknesses. This makes preparation essential to victory, but there are no tools for preparation other than fighting and losing to learn what you need to know about the battle and then plan accordingly. Even with those preparations, two good hits from the boss would take out any of my characters, meaning I had to play very defensively as well as utilizing every tool the environment had to offer in order to get an edge. Grinding can help a bit but ultimately Strikers is about strategizing, which feels weird in a series normally known for its high octane combat.

If there’s anything these kids are about, it’s the #aesthetic.

The heavy Persona influence on the game’s structure, narrative delivery, and combat mechanics all work together to make it so Strikers is almost nothing like your momma’s musuo. When I play it I feel like I am playing Persona 5 again, just a DLC with some new experimental mechanics to add something new to the experience. My original hope was that the blend of Persona elements with Warriors gameplay would create something spectacular, but ultimately I’m disappointed by how poorly the systems seem to work together. This is not to say that I’m not enjoying Strikers – I like it a lot so far, actually! But I hope that neither Persona nor Warriors tries to take any cues for future games from this experience, because neither is improved by their union. All the game really has to be to keep my attention is a reunion between this crew of characters to whom I have become so attached over my ~140 hours with them in Persona 5 Royal, and in that sense it delivers in spades.

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