It’s been a shockingly packed year for great new video games. Over the course of the last 12 months, it seemed like there was never really a pause, or a moment when there wasn’t something interesting to play. To celebrate, this week Verge staff will be publishing essays on their favorite releases of the year, the games that spoke to us personally. Expect to see a new one each morning, culminating in a list of our collective 15 favorite games of 2017 on Friday.
I knew it was love just shy of the 10-hour mark. In that time, I’d befriended a handful of troubled students, discovered my alter ego as a masked vigilante, and infiltrated the psyche of an evil man: a teacher abusing his students. His darkest desires, laid out in a literal dungeon, were now mine to plunder and change for the better. As I made my final play, the stakes shifted. Sneaking had given way to an all-out sprint as I raced past enemies on high alert. Even the game’s music had changed from a steady background hum to an exhilarating vocal track.
There is a righteous fury to Atlus’ role-playing game Persona 5, where teenagers mete out justice as they see fit. Their powers allow them to dive into the physical manifestation of a person’s psyche and the twisted desires they harbor. By exploring these “palaces,” and stealing their heart — represented by a piece of treasure — these kids have the ability to improve the human condition. The thought would be terrifying if it weren’t so simple. Nuanced perspectives are limited, but rather the world exists as those with good intentions, and those with devious desires. In this fantasy, defeating evil is as easy as changing someone’s mind. And once you do, evildoers won’t just alter their bad behavior. They’ll actually confess and seek penance.
Describing what makes Persona 5 so good — the engrossing mix of bonding with its teenage heroes, and spending your nights saving the world — often sounds pretty similar to previous games in the series. You are a high school student, thrown into a new school, who discovers he has the power to battle evil forces. Over the course of the year, he and his friends fight to change the corrupted desires of several influential public figures. As otherwise normal high school students, however, they still have to get good grades and keep up their social lives.
Persona 5 takes the hallmarks of the series and polishes them to perfection. There’s a staggering amount of depth to Persona 5. It’s a dungeon crawler, but without the repetitive lag the name suggests; each new dungeon comes with its fair share of puzzles and is unique to those who inhabit it. A shut-in character hides a palace that manifests as a tomb; an egotistical narcissist summons a castle. The game’s battles are expertly balanced with time to spend with friends, self-improvement, and downtime for everyday activities represented through mini-games or choices. My favorite way to spend a spare moment was to go to the library and check out a new book to read on my commute to school. Even a part-time job in a flower shop became fun as I selected which plants to put into a bouquet.
It’s easy to lose dozens of hours in its world through commonplace activities like making coffee, doing laundry, or studying for exams. (Actually completing Persona 5 will take you close to 100 hours.) But outside these mundane pleasures, the sheer spectacle of the game is staggering. Its gorgeous, cell-shaded world is brimming with personality, whether you’re walking through the streets of a fictional Tokyo or opening a slick in-game menu. The characters’ over-the-top hero costumes, an embodiment of their rebellious natures, add to the magic of the game’s world. Every victory is hard-earned, whether you’re pulling off an Ocean’s 11-style heist or fighting a mythical monster on top of an ancient pyramid.
Atlus has lovingly crafted a world that is brimming with personality and attention to detail. It’s built on a beautiful fantasy: that even the worst of life’s problems can be solved with friendship and goodness, a notion reinforced by living an otherwise normal life. You are not just playing the hero at his most dashing, but in every other aspect of his existence as well. There’s nothing glamorous about a part-time job or fighting evil in freshly laundered clothes. Everything you do still feels impossibly cool anyway.