A great strategy game that might be too much for all of its platforms.
One of the chief complaints about the modern Persona trilogy is that they have a very slow opening; it took me ten hours of gameplay before I was out of tutorial land in Persona 5 Royal when I reviewed it last year. Persona 5 Tactica, the newest spinoff of the “jazz-inventing” RPG, aims to resolve this with a streamlined story and high-speed battle system that on paper looks to be as close to a “Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem” as can be found without idol singers, but instead takes a hard left turn into the realm of action-focused strategy instead. The result is probably the fastest Persona experience available today, but it’s going to take a little bit longer to play on Switch compared to other platforms.
Persona 5 Tactica operates a streamlined version of the strategy gameplay of a Mario + Rabbids or the XCOM franchise. A three-member team made up most of the Phantom Thieves in Persona 5 Royal and an original character are set on a grid-based map to complete an objective; these objectives typically involve defeating all enemies, taking down a boss, or having one/all party members reach a particular point on the map. There are obstacles strewn all over the map that provide cover, which is vital for defense as attacking an enemy in the open will give the attacker a “1 More” bonus attack, which can stack. The three party members chosen each have their own movement range, and moving behind partial or full cover (represented by yellow or red on top of the obstacle providing the cover) reflects resistance or immunity to enemy fire from those directions. Each character has their own elemental affinity – the Phantom Thieves represented by their basic Personas – that can affect the enemy’s ability to move or change their position, as well as gunfire and a melee attack at close range. With the right direction, a close range blow knocks the opponent a few spaces away to set up 1 More attacks later or into a wall for added damage. The melee attack required finer movement than I would have expected to pull off in certain situations, but once I got rolling with the battles it was a blast trying to figure out the best way to stack up attacks to keep inside turn limits for maximum rewards.
Outside of battle, Tactica borrows some elements from a previous Persona spinoff; the Persona Q series. All of the Persona wielders can use their trademark Personae – Joker and Arsene, Morgana the team mascot and Zorro, Ryuji and Capt. Kidd – and the ability to equip “sub-Personas” opens up pretty early on for added elemental variety. There’s even a full Persona fusion option complete with “Pokedex” and ability to pay a small fee for added fusions. Aside from that, the growth systems are very basic: the only bit of equipment that can be changed is guns and those only unlock at particular story points. Instead of each party member leveling up individually, the team has a level which provides a level cap for Persona fusion and basic stats, with additional HP and skill points (SP) tackled via a basic character skill tree. Skill points are earned with story progression but predominantly through side missions which provide a lot of opportunities for experimentation and challenge even on the lower end of the five-point difficulty scale. One mission was particularly vexing, as I had one turn to get the original character to an objective 24 spaces across the map with their movement range of six spaces; I basically had to give Joker a particular sub-Persona so he could use wind magic and its “push” effect to create enough openings for the OC to 1 More their way to the end. There’s also an option to replay any map if you missed any objectives, accessible through the map in the story.
The story of Tactica takes place at a point between the ending of Persona 5 (whether original or Royal is unclear, but probably the original) and the events of P5 Strikers. After a politician expected to become the next Prime Minister of Japan disappears, the crew is meeting at the home base of Leblanc when they get transported to another world called a “Kingdom”. After losing all but one of the Phantom Thieves due to tyrannical circumstances, Joker must take Morgana and Erina – the playable original character, that politician is the non-playable one as required by Persona spinoff rules – to rescue their friends and save the Kingdom from a tyrannical Bridezilla, hopefully getting back to the real world afterwards. As with most spinoffs, they can’t actually affect the main plot as outlined in Persona 5, but the speed at which it’s handled works out well. My chief complaint is that despite coming WELL after the complete edition P5 Royal, the major character introduced in Royal as well as one other vital character isn’t in the main story at all and is instead in the non-canonical day one DLC. And though they’re probably playable in game somehow, I would bet dollars to donuts that they’re not going to affect the story in any way simply because there doesn’t seem to be anywhere they’d fit in.
The art style of Tactica takes some cues from the Persona Q spinoff RPGs from the 3DS, and they could probably adapt it wholesale to a Persona Q2 HD should Atlus ever get that bug again. That style is mostly used for pre-map conversations, with a typical 3D effect used for the player characters in battle that works well. The biggest problem is actually that of the plot; aside from named characters, you see basically three types of enemies on the maps; the lanky ones, the giant shouldered ones, and later the guys with drums – the only signifier of strength being different colorations. This can be explained in universe by the tyrant of the Kingdom basically turning the residents into one of these types of creatures, but it does get old after a while. What doesn’t get old is the soundtrack; once again, the battle themes are certified ear worms and even the music in the base is a nice mix of older Persona tunes. The only problem is that the default mix is a little biased towards the music; there were a few times where Erika Harlacher (Ann) was speaking and I had to rely on the subtitles because the music was drowning her out.
Regardless of whether I was playing handheld or docked, the biggest problem I had with Persona 5 Tactica was transitions in and out of the battles. There are two different types of load screens that come up: an “explosion” one and a “gun” one, both of which run for about 10 seconds with the Switch version; the two also show clear artifacting before completing the load. Once that’s done, the battles themselves are fine; it’s just I never like having the “wait, did the game freeze” moment when I’m playing anything but especially if it’s in a review process. There was a minor improvement following the game’s day 1 patch, but it’s still a bit of an issue.
I never got into Mario + Rabbids despite multiple attempts, mostly due to the Rabbids, but throwing characters I care about into this formula worked really well for me. Persona 5 Tactica is certainly the most replayable Persona game in years for someone who doesn’t try to see every romance option, and if Atlus can get out from the crunch for Persona 3 Reload to fix up the load times this could be a sleeper for best strategy game on Switch.