On the surface, Persona 5 and Warriors don’t seem like an obvious mix. One is an RPG that’s about as turn-based as you can get, with dungeons designed to labyrinthine and laden with puzzles; the other is a series noted for frantic action combat and huge battlefields that encourage strategic use of open spaces. But if Koei Tecmo has proved anything over the years, it’s that the core of Warriors can be adapted to just about anything, and in ways that take both it and whatever’s being adapted in fascinating new directions. For that, Persona 5 Strikers might be the best case study yet.
The assumption many might have going in—myself included—is that it’ll be a fundamentally Warriors-style game with a Persona 5 skin and some stylistic flourishes. That’s what we’ve seen with the likes of Dragon Quest Heroes and Hyrule Warriors, after all. Persona 5 Strikers is the other way around, really: it takes Persona 5‘s structure, storytelling, and approach to dungeon and encounter design, and then mixes in some Warriors flavour in the combat system.
In other words, exploring dungeons in Strikers works almost exactly like it does in Persona 5. Each one is its own puzzle-filled maze, themed around whatever particular antagonist you’re chasing at that time. Enemies roam the paths, and contact with them starts a battle, but you can also give yourself the upper hand by sneaking up on them or ambushing them from cover. The difference comes when the battle starts: instead of choosing commands from a menu in a turn-based fashion, it’s the unchained action of Warriors, but on a smaller scale that helps accentuate the nuances of Warriors that often get overlooked.
All the Persona 5 staples are mixed into that action setup. Targeting elemental weaknesses is still a priority, not just for the increased damage but to create openings for All-Out-Attacks that do big damage to foes all around the target. Status ailments and the Technical hits that arise from certain status/elemental attack pairings can win or lose a battle. You still have a full array of Persona skills to learn and use, neatly mapped to a shoulder button that freezes time while you select your moves, but they’re now more powerful and more expensive to encourage more selective use and avoid turning the whole game into a pseudo-turn-based thing anyway. It’s a true hybrid approach that retains everything that makes both Persona 5 and Warriors what they are.
But the crossover is more than just a systemic one. A recurring theme among Koei Tecmo games—Samurai Warriors, Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Nioh most overtly, but in subtle ways across a great many of their works—is a fascination with Japanese history. By contrast, Persona is very much about the Japanese present, combining deep dives into contemporary issues affecting the country’s youth with authentic depictions of Japanese life, from small towns like Persona 4‘s Inaba to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo in Persona 5.
Persona 5 Strikers manages to balance both of those. Taking place some months after the events of Persona 5, it sees the Phantom Thieves of Hearts reunite for a summer vacation that soon goes awry thanks to a nationwide epidemic of strange behaviour. It’s reminiscent of the “change of hearts” we’ve seen before: a person with high standing in society suddenly confesses to great sins, as a result of the Phantom Thieves infiltrating a physical manifestation of the target’s subconscious and forcing them to face the impact of their actions. Only this time, the changes of hearts are happening among regular citizens, in a much more widespread fashion, and seem to always involve becoming dangerously obsessed with some public figure.
The similarities between the cases mean the Phantom Thieves are prime suspects, but also the only people who can solve the case. They know how the “cognitive world” works and have the power to explore it, and to confront the people who are using this power for greed rather than justice. In this, you get the quintessential Persona-style exploration of modern day issues, from toxic fandom to data security in an age of AI assistants.
But in an indirect way, there’s also that historical element that Koei Tecmo loves to explore. Persona 5 Strikers takes the Phantom Thieves on a tour across Japan as they track change of heart breakouts, each new location being a place of historical significance and a chance for the group to not necessarily explore that, but connect with it. It means detailed re-creations of places like Aobayama Park in Sendai, home to that famed statue of Masamune Date, and Fushimi-Inari Taisha in Kyoto with its thousands of torii gates. This isn’t to say that Persona 5 Strikers is the history lesson that something like Samurai Warriors is, but these location choices provide a deliberate backdrop and connection to the issues that the game explores.
Being a direct sequel, Persona 5 Strikers also takes the opportunity to revisit the personal struggles faced by the Phantom Thieves in the first game: not to relitigate them, but to show how much each character has grown. Each new villain acts as a foil to one of the main characters and, coupled with their own Phantom Thief-like powers, a glimpse at how our heroes themselves could have turned out had they chosen different paths.
Take Alice Hiiragi as an example: a fashion designer turned idol superstar who winds up using her change of heart powers to curate an obsessive, dangerous fanbase. Her story is an exploration of toxic fandom, but also a lens through which to look at Ann Takamaki, one of the Phantom Thieves; Ann is a model rising rapidly through the fashion world, who shares a similarly troubled past to Alice. Through both Alice and the way Ann responds to her, Persona 5 Strikers shows how far Ann has come since Persona 5.
To its credit, Strikers achieves all this with much more brevity than Persona 5 did. One of my biggest complaints with Persona 5 was its length—it’s not just a long game, but one that feels needlessly so as a result of poor pacing. Persona 5 Strikers is also a long game, but comparatively shorter at 30-odd hours, and more importantly, the pacing is much more fluid. There’s still plenty of downtime and opportunity for moments of quiet reflection, but without the padding that dragged Persona 5 out.
There’s one slight victim here, though: character bonds. In lieu of individual character bonds between the main character and each other member of the cast, meticulously built up through the social link system, there’s a single “Bond Level” representing the bonds between the Phantom Thieves as a group. This increases as a result of a variety of different things, from winning battles together against tough foes to completing special events with individual members of the group, but what drives it most of all is, simply, main story progression. Increasing Bond lets you unlock new party-wide passive abilities, like stat boosts or additional attack effects.
On some level, this makes sense. The Phantom Thieves are already a tight-knit group by the time Persona 5 Strikers starts, and this is a story that’s more about their combined efforts from the very start, so treating their bond as a collective thing rather than a bunch of individual relationships fits. On the other hand, the way it’s been implemented lacks the depth and sense of intimacy that comes with the typical Persona Social Link system, and you don’t get as many of those quiet, character-centric moments that aren’t being driven by the main plot.
Strikers is also a direct sequel that relies heavily on the assumption that you’ve played Persona 5 first. If you haven’t, there’s a lot of stuff that will just flat-out not make sense and never get explained—not just little details, but stuff as fundamental as what the whole “change of heart” incident actually is. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth knowing going in—if you try to play Persona 5 Strikers as a standalone thing, you’ll miss a lot of what makes it work (and Persona 5 isn’t even available on two of the three platforms that Strikers is).
Complaints about the Bond system aside, Persona 5 Strikers is an impressive effort indeed. “Warriors but with Persona characters” would have been cool, but the reality of Strikers is much more ambitious: a game that combines the best parts of each franchise in a way that builds upon them both. Persona 5 isn’t a game that needed a sequel, but in drawing on what both Koei Tecmo and Atlus do best, Persona 5 Strikers makes it work brilliantly.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.