It’s difficult to determine whether Persona 5 Strikers is a complex game built around simple themes, or a simple game built around complex themes. It explores the ideas of friendship and forgiveness against the straightforward backdrop of a road trip, and asks you to complete a series of repeated tasks – investigate an area, explore a jail, defeat a mini boss, defeat the actual boss (a monarch), move on. But friendship and especially forgiveness are not such simple themes as they may first appear, each jail’s design is not merely aesthetic but metaphorical, and on the gameplay front the game’s musou mechanics can be as complicated as you make them once you combine them with personas. It has depth. I want to give Persona 5 Strikers the benefit of the doubt and push it forward as a complex game that takes apart difficult themes in simple, accessible ways, but there’s one roadblock – Persona 5 Strikers is too quick to forgive.
Once you have defeated each monarch, they fall to their knees and confess their sins with real remorse. Back in the real world – these battles all take place in an alternate reality known as the Metaverse – the monarch has no memory of what has happened, but does have a change of heart, reverses their ways, and makes a full confession. The repetitive structure of the game means you see a lot of confessions, but consequences are harder to come by.
I’m talking specifically about Strikers here, rather than Persona 5 itself, even though both games have a similar rhythm. In Persona 5 however, these bosses are treated as villains. The Phantom Thieves often have a personal stake in taking them down, and they are positioned as bad people – living embodiments of one of the seven deadly sins. When you fight them, you defeat them. It lacks some nuance in places, sure, but it never tries to convince us that the teacher grooming his high school students or the sleazy mobster are good people having a bad day.
Strikers inverts that, and instead of defeating your foes, you’re helping them. You’re guiding them to the light. They’re not bad people, they just made some bad choices, and once they see that, they can be good people again. ‘Bad people are bad’ could do with a little bit more exploration, but Persona 5 Strikers flips the script too much, and it feels like the villains don’t get what they deserve. There’s always a reason, always some justification for why they are the way they are. It’s a toxic attitude being fostered by the game, that people are never at fault for their own actions, that an apology is enough, and that you are absolved from the consequences your behaviour had on other people so long as you feel bad about it.
It also does a disservice to those you can actually help. One of the monarchs is Akane Hasegawa, daughter of Zenkichi Hasegawa, a newcomer to the Phantom Thieves in Strikers. She’s a young teenage girl whose mother was killed in a car accident, and she resents her father (a cop) for not catching the culprit. She retreats into stanning the Phantom Thieves because she’s lonely and scared and angry. It’s a very righteous anger, and the worst thing she does in the real world is lash out at her father. This is normal for a girl in her situation, and so when the Phantom Thieves help her in the meta world, the forgiveness has weight. When she repents, that really is enough – Akane doesn’t need to be punished, she just needs to see that her dad is actually trying.
This is diluted somewhat when you see how the other characters are treated. The first monarch is Alice Hiiragi, a fashion designer, model, and singer who uses EMMA (imagine if Siri was a god that let you control minds) to boost her popularity. She traps her fans in a weird, BDSM hypno-fetish lifestyle where they have no will of their own. They break up with their partners to dedicate more time to Alice, they go into debt to buy multiple copies of her albums or magazines, and they surrender their entire will. She destroys lives.
In the end, that’s all okay, because Alice was bullied, you see. Yeah, girls at school used to pick on her because she was quiet, so it’s only natural that she became a complete and utter tyrant. People were mean to her in the past, so that means she gets to be mean to others. Don’t blame me, blame society.
There are a few other motivations, ranging from hurt feelings to dark origin stories to someone being told they ‘didn’t have a heart’ because they struggled with processing emotions. There are some that do actually change the context of the monarchs’ actions, and others that feel more limp, but it’s worth zooming in on Alice Hiiragi because the excuse is so utterly pathetic.
She was picked on. That’s it. Not beaten, not psychologically tormented, but picked on. She wasn’t popular and she didn’t like it. Bullying at school can have long term damage on a person’s psyche, but the game never suggests Alice’s is particularly severe, and even if it was, the way the game makes it an excuse is gross. It’s not just a misstep with Alice either – the Phantom Thieves look for the good in everyone, even when it means completely sidestepping the damage these monarchs have caused to other people.
It’s not just that it makes it harder to root for the Phantom Thieves when they’re happy to disregard context, it puts a rather unpleasant idea at the game’s core. When Alice admits her behaviour, it feels like she’s being celebrated for her bravery and honesty. Confessing what a horrible bastard she is must have been hard for her, so let’s get her a present. She’s a YouTuber crying on stream after being caught saying a slur. She’s sorry, and that’s enough. There’s no need to fix things anymore, there’s no place for consequences or dues or making amends. Just sorry. It doesn’t seem to be the hardest word, at least not for Persona 5 Strikers.
Next: I Wish Other Games Loved Food As Much As Persona 5
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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