As someone who’s played through the original version of Persona 5 twice, the most immediately noticeable and impactful of Royal’s changes come in the realm of combat. It’s hard to keep old-school, four-person, turn-based battles interesting in this day and age, but nobody in the business does it better than Atlus. In addition to some spot-on rebalancing of abilities and enemies across the board, the role guns play in your arsenal has been totally reimagined. Bullets now refresh after each battle instead of only at the beginning of an infiltration, with the trade-off of being able to hold less ammo overall. This feels almost game-breakingly powerful in earlier areas, but as time goes on it allows guns to settle in as a much more versatile and dependable tool rather than something you hoard only for really tough enemies.
Showtime attacks are another excellent addition, in which two members of your party team up for a devastating super finisher. The animations are deliciously clever and over the top, and they stylishly highlight your party members’ personalities and relationships. I’ll never get tired of watching Makoto and Haru double elbow-drop a harbinger of the apocalypse in a flashy, hilarious nod to pro wrestling. Showtimes trigger randomly, but are more likely to happen when your party is in big trouble or when you’re just about to finish off an enemy. That adds an extra layer of drama and unpredictability to especially intense battles at just the right moments.There are also some new encounter types, including a volatile variant of certain enemies. They’re more powerful than the normal form and launch a devastating counterattack for every hit they take that doesn’t finish them off – but they also explode and deal massive damage to all of their allies once defeated, often ending the battle in one blow. This serves to spice up areas where you might have to fight a lot of similar enemies in a row, and encourages you to change up your usual tactics.
Even the Velvet Room has been enhanced. Every time you complete a normal encounter, there’s a chance it will trigger a fusion alarm in Igor’s sanctum. Any personas you fuse while it’s active will come out more powerful than would be possible under normal circumstances and may even have their abilities replaced with more potent versions… but if you overuse the gallows during an alarm you might get unexpected results. I decided to press my luck and ended up with a copy of Phoenix that had a full card of extremely powerful passive skills… but no attack, support, or healing moves, rendering it hilariously almost useless. The risk and reward aspect makes fusion a lot more exciting, and I found myself using the Velvet Room a lot more often than I would otherwise with the incentive of powered-up personas.
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The combination of all of these new battle and progression options can make certain areas feel a lot easier than they were in the original version, at least if you’re a Persona 5 veteran. But rest assured, the new and enhanced boss fights still offer a significant challenge even on Normal difficulty. And you may remember our old friend The Reaper, the semi-secret enemy who is supposed to be Joker’s ultimate challenge? In Royal, he’s immune to the Despair debuff, so you can’t kill him the cheesy way by fighting him on specific days. This means taking him down is truly the toughest task available to undertake, and it felt absolutely amazing once I finally pulled it off.
The fantastic story has been majorly expanded with a third semester featuring one new palace, a new area in the Mementos mega-dungeon, and a new heart to steal. It’s a bit longer overall than the previous palace story arcs, but not by a lot. And there’s not a whole lot else I can say about the new storyline without risking major spoilers, other than that it pits our team of Phantom Thieves against a really fascinating new antagonist with very, very different goals, motives, and ideals from anyone they’ve faced before. Persona’s deep, thematic exploration of human society and the perils of the psyche continues to ask challenging and relevant questions about justice and suffering that left me rethinking my own convictions – and it’s when a game isn’t afraid to go to those places that it really becomes a work of higher art. It all culminates in an epic, action-drenched, multi-phase boss fight that will put all of your skills to the test and serve as an appropriately climactic capstone to everything that brought you this far.
The third semester is only one part of the expanded story, though. The main campaign has also been significantly beefed up with two new confidants joining the already rich cast: bubbly, aspiring gymnast Kasumi Yoshizawa and calming but dorky school counselor Takuto Maruki. Each has a dauntingly deep, tragic backstory filled with its own impactful twists and turns that were both painful and compelling to uncover. And one of the returning confidants from the original Persona 5 has had their role in the story significantly tweaked and expanded – but I won’t spoil who.
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To balance out the extra time it will take to max out your relationships with these new characters, Royal has quite a few new ways to spend your free time optimally, like a random chance to have a dream that gives stat or relationship points every night that you go to bed without doing anything else in the evening. And focusing on fresh faces is really rewarding in palaces, not just outside of them. Kasumi and Maruki can permanently increase your HP and SP, respectively. Kasumi can also give you a new way to use your grappling hook to ambush enemies from a distance and inflict them with harmful status effects, which is pretty game-changing against some tougher groups. One of my only disappointments is that Kasumi can’t join you as a permanent party member until the third semester, but you’ll see quite a lot of her and get to test out her skills a couple of times before then.
Aside from the new area that opens up in semester three, the whole of Mementos has been brilliantly fleshed out with new collectibles and unlockables courtesy of the mysterious Jose. He can sell you powerful items in exchange for flowers that spawn in the depths, and unlock perks like increased experience points once you find enough hidden stars. Mementos often felt like a slog in the original version – it was definitely my least favorite part of the adventure. The fact that Atlus has made it feel so much more alive, adding new rewards for exploration and a healthy dose of personality, is a massive improvement by itself considering how much time you spend there. It’s also implemented a mercy-kill rule where you can run straight over monsters that are several levels below you instead of having to fight out a foregone conclusion – but you still get experience, money, and item drops. The amount this cuts down on the feeling of endless grinding is nothing less than a godsend, and I spent much more of the 130 hours of this playthrough doing interesting and engaging things instead.I could practically fill a TV documentary with the long list of other small and medium-sized improvements found in Persona 5 Royal, but here are a few of my favorites: The Thieves’ Den is a new hangout area that will follow you across multiple playthroughs. Here, you can decorate with statues of personas you’ve unlocked, listen to the absolutely superb new and returning music, and rewatch any cutscene. Those new tracks are just as awesome as the classics, adding variety and fitting in perfectly with the energetic acid jazz that is such a huge and memorable part of Persona 5’s identity. If you were finally getting tired of the catchy “Last Surprise” – and let’s face it, after two playthroughs of the original version it’s hard not to be a little bit over it – there’s even a great new battle theme that plays during ambush encounters. Which is to say, you’ll be hearing it during most battles if you’re playing optimally, relegating Last Surprise to being a welcome, every-once-in-a-while nostalgic treat.
Incredibly, every single level of every single social link has been expanded with new dialogue, so there’s always something new to see even in familiar scenes. There’s an entirely new free-roaming district of Tokyo to explore: Kichijoji, which includes a jazz nightclub and the ability to level up your party members’ powerful Baton Pass ability with a fun, skill-based darts minigame. All of the classic palaces have been expanded with new hidden areas and new collectibles to find. Every major boss fight has been rebalanced and had new, interesting, and challenging mechanics added. It’s almost daunting how much extra cool stuff Atlus was able to pack in here. Put together, it’s probably at least another full game’s worth of content.