There’s a saying about first impressions: we rarely move past them. Your initial impression of a thing colors every interaction with it, establishes a bias for which your mind seeks confirmation and little else. It’s something that became very evident to me when I started regularly writing first impression articles for Adventure Rules – often my thoughts about a game and its mechanics during the first few hours would hold fast to the point where if I wrote a first impressions article, I wouldn’t bother writing a review because I felt like I was repeating myself. Once you get familiar with a game’s mechanics it simply becomes about the loop – how satisfying is it to engage those mechanics over and over for a period of time? Does the narrative give you reason to continue to do so? These are important questions but more often than not I didn’t feel like answering them, feeling that my initial thoughts on the gameplay of most titles were sufficient to cover how I felt about the game even after I finished with it.
For every rule there is an exception, and I’ve certainly played games where my thoughts changed over time. Sometimes a game that seems fun at first turns sour halfway through; other times a game that had a tough time making a positive impression was much improved by a new mechanic, excellent storytelling, or learning to maximize the systems at play. This article is posted one week from my first impressions of Persona 5 Strikers, a game which I stated does a great job of feeling like Persona 5 during the story and dialogue scenes but which suffers mechanically from the blend of musuo and JRPG gameplay. It’s a statement that felt true during the first “chapter” of the game, a chapter in which I had put in a solid ten hours of play. I felt like ten hours was plenty of time to know how I felt! And yet as the second and third chapters progressed and I unlocked new features as well as slowly mastering the mechanics of the game, I gained a new appreciation for what Strikers brings to the table.
At the time of writing I am at the end of the “third” chapter, with an opportunity to finish up any shopping or side quests I’d like to do at my current location before moving on to the next section of the game. This article will share what ultimately brought me around on Strikers from “I’m really enjoying this despite what I perceive as flaws” to “I’m really enjoying this because of what is unique and interesting about this game.” I’ll talk first about some of the new mechanics that were introduced after the first chapter of the game, then discuss how mastery of the existing mechanics helped to change my view on them before finally exploring how the time in which I am playing Strikers has influenced my appreciation for the narrative.
The first chapter of Strikers is spent in familiar territory: you’ll mostly be running around in Yongen and Shibuya with access to some of the familiar locations in the setting cut off to make the world a bit smaller. But Strikers deviates from its predecessor by sending the party to other parts of Japan, and exploring these new locations is a key element in what makes Strikers feel unique. Every town you visit has unique shops which carry items you can only purchase locally. These shops restock on a timer by either progressing the story or passing a significant amount of real-world time. The unique boons you gain from the local products means you’ll be wanting to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the stores in each town, which addresses one of my complaints from chapter one: Sophie’s shop made all the other ones seem obsolete. While I did still find myself using her store a lot for weapons and armor, I regularly checked the shops in town to see if they restocked on specialty healing items as well as ingredients for yummy recipes.
One of the biggest new mechanisms introduced after the beginning of the game is cooking. The Phantom Thieves can buy or earn ingredients in order to prepare meals at their hideout, and these meals cover a major blind spot in the first chapter’s available wares: the ability to restore SP. SP is the energy used to activate Persona abilities in combat and because the battle system relies so much on using Persona magic to strike enemy weaknesses, running out of SP is essentially a death sentence. SP recovery becomes easier when cooking is available because some of the first meals you can prepare restore SP. Ingredients for cooking are cheaper than most medicines and the effects of cooked meals are better, making it well worth your time to stock up and prepare food yourself. Additionally, the first time you make any recipe gives a substantial boost to your BOND meter. As discussed in my first impressions, BOND points are used to unlock beneficial effects and are a key part of customizing your experience. Cooking makes them a lot more accessible, and exploring shops to find new recipes is a must each time you arrive in a new place. Speaking of BONDs, I mentioned in the previous article that it seemed like every opportunity to build bond points is scripted; however, that turns out not to be the case. There are in fact missable bond opportunities that you can only find by making sure you check in with your companions at key story points or by buying recipes so you can cook new meals. This kept me more alert and combined with the unique goods at local shops to make exploration outside of the jails (the term for dungeons in Strikers) feel a lot more worthwhile.
The final new mechanism that really changed things up for me was the request system. In Persona 5 your characters can receive requests through their Phan-site or from confidants to accomplish small tasks in the realm of Mementos. These are essentially side quests, optional battles for rewards that you can complete in-between the bigger story beats. Requests are back in Strikers but instead of exploring a procedurally-generated grinding hub like Mementos, you instead can return to previous jails or even complete tasks in your current jail. Requests generally require you to find an item during exploration or to defeat specific enemies under conditions such as using a particular character or wielding the enemy’s weakness against them. Most requests are simple and not particularly time consuming but the rewards are actually worthwhile – better weapons for your characters or new inventory in Sophie’s shop help you keep your gear in tip-top shape, and some requests unlock the maximum level cap on BOND skills so you can further advance them with your points. It’s a little frustrating that you don’t know which BOND cap is going to increase until you complete the request, but more often than not the reward feels worthwhile.
What all these new mechanics helped me do was to better understand and maximize the old ones. I mentioned multiple ways above to gather BOND experience and that’s very important to customizing Persona 5 Strikers to your own needs. Early on you gain BOND levels rather slowly, and the number of points you gain per level are only enough to buy the cheapest abilities. This means that if you want something like Oracle Recovery which restores a bit of HP and SP after each combat and costs 15 points, you have to save up for multiple BOND levels to invest your points. The benefits you can actually afford, like a small boost to HP or SP, don’t really feel like they do anything. But once you can gain BOND levels more quickly, those levels also start putting out larger point values (at the point in the game where I am I get 9 per level), and that makes it much easier to invest in the stuff you really care about. One strategy I recognized early was to invest heavily in skills that increased the amount of resources you get – BOND xp, money, Personas, etc – because once those resources start overflowing, you have the tools you need to get ahead of the game rather than just keeping pace. Instead of only spending money on weapons and armor you can buy unique local items for powerful effects; instead of only using Persona points to keep Joker’s team leveled up you can create wilder combinations with more potent skills available to you. Learning these systems made progression through jails feel more streamlined and fun rather than like battles of attrition, and bosses became more reasonable to defeat even if I didn’t have quite the optimum combination of party members at the table.
That’s not to say that any mechanical complexity in the game went out the window, and the similarities between Strikers and Persona 5 in terms of gameplay elements is something I’ve grown to appreciate more with time. Just like the difficulty curve in the original game, as you move deeper into Strikers you’ll be relying less and less on the simple combination of “strike weakness, All Out Attack” and more on putting together clever combos by taking advantage of party composition and the more technical abilities available to your characters. A key concept from Persona 5 is the technical, a more powerful hit caused not necessarily by capitalizing on a weakness but by combining certain conditions. Using a physical or nuclear skill on a frozen enemy, inflicting a status ailment and then hitting with a psychokinetic skill – these combos become more essential and you go through the game, and during my most recent boss fight my failure to capitalize on technicals right away put me on my ass as a rage-induced boss repeatedly put my crew in the metaverse equivalent of the hospital. You don’t have to grind to break the game and it doesn’t feel like grinding to an overly high level would be all that rewarding – instead, you have to pay attention to details and strategize in order to get the best outcomes. It’s a different type of satisfaction than what one may normally derive from a musuo but it feels great to solve the “puzzle” of how to best overcome a particular enemy.
In my first impressions write-up I discussed how I felt the musuo elements of Strikers were rather weak. While I still don’t think they match up to the quality of Age of Calamity, I’ve come to appreciate what Strikers does bring to the table. Yes a lot of the combos can feel similar between characters because they follow similar logic – one weak attack followed by a finisher is almost always an upward swipe to knock enemies into the air while three weak attacks and a strong nearly always leads to a Persona skill being used. But other combos are more distinct and learning to maximize each character’s standalone strong attack makes a big difference. There was a moment playing as Haru where I realized that holding down the strong attack button caused her to fire a barrage of rockets from her gun – up to that point I had only been doing single presses, missing out on the raw destructive power of raining missiles on a horde of distant shadows. Some of the unique advantages for each character are only unlocked over time by getting what are called master arts, improvements unlocked by playing as that character rather than letting them be controlled by the AI. These boons made a big difference for Makoto, for example, as they enabled her to get her nuclear boost from circumstances other than just pressing strong attack and also made that boost more useful. Spending time with the mechanics and the characters expanded my understanding of them, and once I knew how to best take advantage of what each could do I started having a much more positive experience with the game’s combat.
I’ve already shared a fair amount of praise for the game’s story and dialogue. In my first impressions I described how delightful it was to be spending time with the Phantom Thieves again and that the discussion scenes did an excellent job of making me feel as if I was playing an extension of Persona 5 rather than a spinoff. That has continued to be true, but the opportunity to think about it more and to experience more of the game’s storytelling has given me a greater appreciation for why Strikers resonates so strongly with me right now. There are games that have benefitted from releasing during a global pandemic. The go-to example is Animal Crossing New Horizons; that game released at what many agree was the perfect time to resonate with gamers everywhere. Being able to customize your dream home while trapped in a home that may be less than ideal, having access to human connection online when human connection in person wasn’t possible, listening to calming music while doing no-pressure activities during a time when stress was at its peak – these elements worked together to make Animal Crossing shine. In the same way, I have come to recognize that part of why Persona 5 Strikers hits me so hard is because it’s a story of a road trip and friendship at a time when I deeply miss those things.
A few years ago I got the opportunity to travel out of state for a friend’s wedding. It was the first time I was getting to see some of my closest companions from college after quite some time apart, and not only were we getting to see each other but we were getting to travel together. Long rides in the car vibing to music or chatting about current events, deciding which restaurant to eat at as we coasted by towns we’d never visited, figuring out sleeping and shower arrangements while playing cards or video games in the evenings – everything about the trip was rejuvenating and it was all made better by the familiar faces of friends I hadn’t hugged or conversed with properly in months. Those memories are even more precious now during COVID, a time where I haven’t been able to experience the joys of travel either alone or with somebody and when all of my social interactions take place through Twitter posts and Twitch chat. Watching Joker reconnect with his old friends while also attending holiday festivals and chilling together in a camper talking about who is going to sleep where taps into the memories of when I got to have experiences like that. It’s not the same as getting to travel myself, but it helps to distract from that urge by being a pleasant reminder of what those sorts of trips are like.
The game isn’t just special because it reminds me of my real-life friends, though. Having played Persona 5 Royal around September/October last year, it has been six months since I have seen these characters just as the case happens to be for Joker. Persona 5 shows the journey of each of these characters from broken, powerless children into vigilantes whose spirits of rebellion allows them to stand up to gods in the name of justice. Strikers doesn’t seek to undo that journey but instead to examine it. What does someone like Ann do when faced with someone who reminds her of the girl she was at the beginning of Persona 5? What lessons do these kids carry within from their original tenure as Phantom Thieves? We get to see the emotional journeys of these characters in Persona 5 but not necessarily what that means for them long term. Strikers truly examines how each one has been shaped by their experiences and how they have grown into healthier people as a result. There’s an emotional payoff to seeing Yusuke become to another young artist what the Phantom Thieves once were to him – hope in a time where he thought he couldn’t have such a thing. Persona 5, both the original and Strikers, is about trauma – the difficult circumstances that make a person feel powerless and afraid of the world around them. In the first game, the Phantom Thieves overcome their own trauma by connecting with and relying on each other. In this game, they get to give that gift to other people who are hurting. It’s a compelling narrative that feels like a natural extension of what Persona 5 was trying to accomplish, and I think I personally am playing it at just the right time for that message to resonate with me as strongly as possible.
My first impressions of Strikers were overall positive but with a lot of criticism for what the game was trying to accomplish mechanically. I’m happy to say now that having tripled my amount of time with the game, the gameplay has only gotten better and the story continues to deliver on the premise of once again spending meaningful moments with an excellent cast of characters. If you yourself are playing Strikers and find that the first chapter isn’t quite living up to what you think you may want from the game, I’d encourage you press on at least through chapter two to see what the meat of the experience really feels like. As you learn about the game and master elements both old and new, the concepts click into place and deliver an experience that strikes many of the same chords as Persona 5 while having its own unique timbre as well. Based on other reviews I have read it seems like I may be at around the halfway point, and I’m excited for the rest of what Strikers brings.