Persona 5 Strikers Steals… My… Heart (okay it doesn’t quite work this time around)

Oh, Persona 5. What is left to say about you? I’ve confessed my love for that game before, and I will probably continue to do so until my mind begins to slip and I forget the people and things that mean the most to me. Actually, I doubt I’ll stop even then. Someone like my sister will be visiting me in a care facility, and she’ll be like “It’s me, Joey. Christy. Do you remember me?” And I’ll be like “Eh? Who’s that? Is that you, Morgana? Turn into a freaky cat truck so we can get back to grinding XP.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. But I do love the Persona games. A lot. Persona 5, in particular. So when I heard about Persona 5 Scramble, as it was called before the name changed to Strikers, I… wasn’t as excited as you might have guessed. I mean, I was somewhat excited, because give me Persona-anything at this point and I’ll be happy. I played and loved all three dancing games, for example. But if you’d asked me in 2017 what I wanted from the P-Studio team, it would not have been a “Dynasty Warriors Persona game.” What I’ve played of those types of games, musou games, is limited, I confess. I’ve played a couple of demos and I rented one of the earliest Dynasty Warriors games but bounced off of it. If you tell me a team is making a “musou-style game” with an existing IP, what I imagine is the assets (characters, environments, music) of the original IP slapped onto the 1-vs-100 battles of a Dynasty Warriors game and, well, that’s about it. There might be a story, told in brief cut scenes or in-battle dialogue segments, but the focus of a game like that is the fighting. That, to my understanding, is what draws fans of those games to that series.

I don’t have anything against that kind of combat in games, but it’s not really my thing. So when the playfully teased “Persona 5 S” turned out to be Persona 5 Scramble, a musou-style game, I was definitely excited to have more P5, but I couldn’t help but to be disappointed that we weren’t getting a “true” P5 sequel, or even Persona 6, or a remake of Persona 3. I knew I was going to buy Strikers at release and play it, but my expectations were pretty low.

Joey. You silly, silly boy. How wrong you were. Well, in my defense, I think the above explanation justifies my mild apprehension toward this game. It’s not that I was dreading it or anything. I just wasn’t expecting it to be much in the way of a real sequel to P5. I was expecting to plod through the combat, basking in the occasional injection of colorful dialogue from the characters I’d come to know and love. But, as I said, I was so very wrong.

Persona 5 Strikers should really be called something like Persona 5.5 or, less seriously still, Persona 5 2. Or, you know what? Persona 5 Summer Blast or something along those lines would have worked perfectly. Between the name and the pre-release marketing, the focus on the new combat system really distracted from what this game really is, which is a direct sequel to Persona 5. The story follows the exploits of our beloved Phantom Thieves during the summer after the previous game’s story ends. So much of the game is the same that it feels like a real sequel in many ways. The Metaverse still exists, and just as in P5, the team enters dungeons (now called Prisons instead of Palaces) to battle shadows and take down powerful bosses/”Monarchs.” After each Prison is successfully infiltrated, the Thieves regroup and move onto the next, all the while uncovering the mystery of who is behind it all.

So, in structure and narrative, the game is absolutely a direct sequel to P5. It doesn’t have the calendar system, where you have to manage your time and can only perform a certain number of actions in a day – which makes sense, because much of that system is centered around the idea that the protagonists are students who have to balance their school life with their extracurricular, paranormal activities, while in this game they are on summer vacation and there is no fall term to worry about (for the player, anyway). While that’s a welcome omission, this game is also missing the social link/friendship/dating mechanic of P5, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you don’t have to worry about who to spend your time with and making sure you level up everyone so that you can unlock certain Persona fusions. A curse because that is one of my favorite aspects of the core games.

What really make this game feel so familiar and like a direct, full sequel, however, are the art and the voice acting. New levels and characters fit right into the P5 universe, which I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about, but I guess I was expecting Koei Tecmo to be handling more of the game than just the combat systems. Everything outside of combat feels like it was made by the same team(s) who made P5. The art is stylish, the menus are dynamic and fun, and the dialogue sounds exactly as it should. All of the excellent voice actors from P5 return as well, which is a critical part of making this game feel like a warm, welcoming cup of hot cocoa. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time with P5 but I was so smitten with the performances of all of the voice talent involved, more so than any other game I’ve ever played. Halfway through my playthrough of that game, I found myself searching for the actors on IMDb, finding and following them on Twitter, and getting so excited when I’d hear them in a different game or anime. They brought the same charm and talent to Strikers, and I’ve once again loved every moment of hearing Max Mittelman (Ryuji) exclaim “for real!?” or Cassandra Lee Morris (Morgana) swoon over Erika Harlacher’s Lady Ann. My favorite short quip comes from the amazing Erica Lindbeck, though. It’s a very simple, small line, and she chirps it when you pick up a piece of loot in the prison: “Meh. I give it a 5 out of 10.”

Okay, so the game wasn’t the vehicle for non-stop musou combat with a sprinkle of story that I expected it to be, which is great. But let’s talk about the combat, because I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked that, too. In the previously mentioned musou games I dabbled with, there are waves after waves of enemies that surround you, and I was usually very easily able to get by with learning one or two simple combos and button mashing. While that is true, in essence, here, there are seemingly far fewer enemies, probably because P5’s elemental weakness/”All Out attack” return, and with them comes the opportunity for slightly more complex, strategic combat. It might sound convoluted, but I quickly and easily found a rhythm of scanning for weaknesses, attacking with Personas, taking advantage of environmental attack points, throwing in a few physical strike combos, and tagging teammates to increase Showtime meters (which are carried over from Persona 5 Royal). I got into trouble a couple of times early on, but once I found this rhythm I never struggled with any of the Monarchs or even the very difficult Dire Shadows (once I was appropriately leveled, of course). While I do still prefer turn-based combat, I ended up really liking this system, too.

I feel like I’m doing that line-by-line, clinical thing, but my love for this game and the other Persona games goes deeper than stunning art and excellent voice acting. The confluence of elements that make up these games creates a feeling that this world, these characters are real and I feel welcomed among them. Early in the game, I was happy to bounce around familiar settings from P5, but as soon as an RV camper was introduced and I was told I’d be going on a summer road trip all around Japan with my friends, I felt that warm and fuzzy feeling that I’ve come to know so well. Yes, the combat is great, but I was with my friends, and my favorite moments ended up being things like our time on the beach, or our many adventures with food, or any number of smaller, personal moments. Riding the Ferris wheel in Sapporo with Ann. Watching the fireworks with the whole gang, including the new, absolutely adorable Sophia. This entry, whatever the gameplay is, was just another excuse for me to hang out with my old, virtual friends. And I was 100% here for it.

I’m currently finishing up the platinum trophy, but there is one trophy that requires an ungodly amount of grinding for Bond points. Why does Atlus insist on always having at least one pain-in-the-ass trophy? The good news is that the music is, of course, bangin’, so I’ll just enjoy the amazing soundtrack while I grind these last hours away. I really loved my time with Strikers, and the steady release of Persona content since P5 (Royal, Dancing in Starlight/Moonlight, Persona Q 2, and now Strikers) has really kept me happy while awaiting news of the next mainline game. I fully plan on watching the anime for all three Persona games this summer, too. I’m glad that Atlus is dedicated to producing content outside of the core games, because it gives fans more time with the characters they love. As much as I am looking forward to Persona 6, I will be sad to leave my P5 friends behind, so having anime, manga, etc. to help me extend our time together is wonderful. Atlus has built up enough trust with me that I feel confident I will love P6, though, so as Futaba would say: “Bring on the buffs!” Er, “bring on the sequel!”

Video Game Crushes: Ann Takamaki

I am fairly deep into Persona 5 Strikers right now, and although I’ll probably dedicate a separate post to my thoughts about the game overall, I will say now that I am loving my time with it. I doubt I’m the only Persona 5 fan that was expecting this game to be a simple, shallow distraction while we waited for a new mainline Persona game (or a remake of Persona 3, *fingers crossed emoji*), but it feels far more like a true sequel to Persona 5 than I could have hoped for. Part of the reason for that feeling, I think, is that so much of my love for Persona 5 was due to the excellent cast of characters, and all of our favorite Phantom Thieves are back at it in Strikers, with their original voice actors in tow. The subject of this particular post is one such character: Ann Takamaki, aka Panther.

Before I start, I have to acknowledge the issue of age. While these entries aren’t meant to critically analyze these characters, I want to be clear that I understand there are issues with how this series sexualizes some of its teenage female characters, and Ann happens to be a prime example of that. Aside from that, I am quickly becoming an Aging, Ancient Gamer, so for me to be writing about characters that are so much younger than I am is, maybe, a little icky for some. I understand that, but I want to make it clear (if it’s not obvious) that I don’t have actual crushes on these characters, especially the morally problematic ones such as Ann. My “crush” on Ann is as a character, for one, but more importantly it comes from the context of the game. If I allow myself to live the fantasy presented to me, that I am a teen boy in high school, then Ann would be my crush in that fictional world. I know this might seem like an excessive and unnecessary prelude for some, because the romance aspect of these games is often cited as something that people love, so I know I’m not the only one with a “crush” character, but I delayed writing this entry for so long because I worried that it might come across as lecherous or gross. My opinions about Ann as an element of a product created by people are very different than my feelings about her as a character in this fictional world that I love. Okay. I think I’ve probably said more than I need to, so let’s get back to Ann.

Although Persona 5 was my introduction to the series, I had some idea of what to expect in terms of gameplay and content before playing it. I knew there was a social aspect to its RPG elements, and you could increase your link with characters to the point where you romanced them. Being a fan of romance options in games, I had fun guessing who I might romance before I actually sat down to play the game. Makoto seemed like an obvious choice, followed closely by Kawakami (who I think resembles Alison Brie, particularly in the show GLOW, who is my celebrity crush). Ann? The seemingly stereotypical preppy, pretty girl? Nah. Booooring.

Ann is one of the first characters you can romance, though, because she joins your group very early and you’re able to spend a lot of time with her before you even meet other characters. So, as my social link with her crept up, I almost felt like the game was treating her like the default choice. Early on, I was sure I’d resist the temptation to up and romance the first character that came my way. As the story progressed and I spent more time with her, however, I began to have a… change of heart. Yes, yes, I said The Thing. Take a shot if you’ve played the game and were waiting for that.

It’s easy for me as an American to look at Ann and imagine that she is probably very popular and highly sought after. She has some of the very basic markers of “traditional beauty” for western women and girls: the fair skin, the blonde hair, the impossibly blue eyes. As it turns out, these features make her something of an oddity in a Japanese high school, and she talks about feeling alienated and ostracized. I was a little dismissive of that at first, I have to admit. “Oh, really? The blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty feels like a freak? Okay. Sure.” But Ann’s background and history really broke me down over time, and I began to think that my western idea of what is “beautiful” is probably a bit restrictive. Not in the sense that I think her beauty is superior to anyone else’s, but more that I imagine that others value it the same way I might. That’s not to say that Ann wouldn’t be considered beautiful in Japan. She’s a model, so clearly her looks are valued by people. But as many people can attest, high schoolers can be cruel, and students who are different are often not exactly treated kindly.

After I let the fact sink in that she, like Ryuji and Joker, was a bit of an outcast, I began to see her differently. She’s not motivated by popularity and the adulation of others, as I suspected she might be from the game’s promotional art. She’s incredibly determined to be successful at her career, to the point where she is even unavailable for a time due to balancing her work and school life. I certainly don’t fetishize work culture, but I like that she has the drive to keep trying, even when she faces the setbacks that she does. One of those setbacks is that she isn’t as fit or trim as the other models she’s competing against, which is very weird to consider given the fact that virtually everyone in these games is pretty thin. She makes a couple of valiant attempts to lose weight and get fitter, but her love of sweet always wins out in the end. It me, as the kids say.

Part of what might be at the center of her tenacity is her seemingly eternal optimism. She’s not the kind of flighty blonde you might find in other media, where her optimism comes from a lack of awareness or detachment from reality. Ann is smart and knows when things are grim, but she also knows that it’s important for a friend group to have someone who reminds them that things aren’t as terrible as they seem. Hope is never lost. In Strikers, the first major enemy you face is an idol whose twisted desires for revenge have made her into a cruel, abusive, malevolent pop star who delights in using her fame to treat people the way she was treated when she was in high school. Recognizing a fellow outcast and victim of bullying, Ann acts as the group’s moral compass when tensions run high and some want to make her pay in much harsher ways. Ann’s ability to empathize with even some of the most unlikeable and aggressive enemies is something I admire. She doesn’t empathize with Kamoshida, though, which is good. Because fuck that guy.

Aside from all that, she’s just a great, funny teammate with some serious firepower. Get it? Fire power? Because her particular magical affinity is fire? What’s that? You didn’t know that because you’ve never played the game? You’re just being nice and reading this because you’re my friend? Fair enough. But, trust me; it was almost a funny joke. Seriously, though, in my first playthrough of the game, Ann was my heaviest hitter. While JRPGs have a long history of making the “pretty” girls healers, Ann was nothing of the sort for me. She was a whip-cracking, flame-slinging, Persona-wielding, badass bitch, and I was here for it. Or, er, there for it. In the past. In that fictional realm.

I love so many of the characters in the Persona games, but Ann has become something of a representative of my love for the series and characters as a whole. She’s great all on her own, but being my first bae in a series that I would come to adore and obsess over, she’s kind of a symbol of my love for the entire series. I have an Ann poster, t-shirt, statue, phone case, mask… I even have an Ann tattoo! So, yes, I have a crush on the fictional character of Ann, but she also represents my even bigger real-world crush on Persona and all of the magic that has come with every single game I’ve played since my first adventures in Persona 5. I am grateful that I’m getting a whole new set of adventures with these characters in Strikers, and I hope there are even more games with this cast to come. This summer, I am planning on watching every Persona anime available, so I’m excited to get even more time with my virtual, fictional friends soon. *nerd emoji*

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