Never let it be said that Atlus is one to let its star franchises go untapped. It’s now been seven years since the Phantom Thieves were first introduced in Persona 5, and since then we’ve gotten an enhanced re-release of that game, a dungeon crawler, a rhythm game, a musou, an anime, a manga, and several crossovers with other franchises, such as Joker making an appearance as a fighter in Super Smash Bros. While we continue to wait for the inevitable unveiling of Persona 6, Atlus has decided to keep the spinoff train rolling right along with Persona 5 Tactica, a tactical RPG featuring the beloved cast in yet another new adventure. We’re happy to report that Persona 5 Tactica doesn’t feel like a half-hearted attempt to cash in on the Phantom Thieves once again — this is an engaging strategy game with plenty of cool ideas and fun moments.
Persona 5 Tactica picks up during the events of Persona 5, when the Phantom Thieves are hanging out in Café Leblanc and find themselves suddenly pulled into an alternate universe that might or might not be the Metaverse. Our daring heroes’ powers don’t work quite the same here, and they soon find themselves accosted by a crazed, powerful bride named Marie who commands a legion of Shadows. Marie rules over her domain with an iron fist, and she easily crushes the Phantom Thieves, kidnapping and brainwashing all but Joker and Morgana. These latter two are just about to be subdued themselves when they’re saved by Erina, a mysterious girl who leads a small resistance effort that Marie is hellbent on stamping out. The two thus team up with her and set out to reclaim their friends, hoping to defeat Marie and escape from this strange world.
It’s a fine enough narrative, driven by the strong characters and relationships of the Phantom Thieves, though it feels decidedly more low-stakes than the central plot of Persona 5 — this really feels like more of a ‘bottle episode.’ Even so, the plot takes some interesting turns across its run and has some notably emotional moments, ultimately feeling like it justifies its existence regardless of whether the events depicted here will be considered ‘canon’ in the long run. Characters like Erina or Toshiro, a hapless politician whom the Phantom Thieves inadvertently freed from a dungeon, add some welcome spice to the mix of the old gang, and the established characters are as enjoyable as ever in their banter and conversations.
Gameplay in Persona 5 Tactica is more XCOM than Fire Emblem, centering much of its strategic challenge around effectively utilizing cover. Though there’s a loose grid-based system, characters can freely move around in a wide circle and if you end a turn next to a wall, that character will take cover and be effectively invulnerable to any enemy attacks. The same goes for enemies, but if you can manage to flank their position, you can push them out of cover and expose them to follow-up attacks from other team members. If an exposed enemy takes damage, they’ll be downed and trigger a “One More” for the character who put them down, which grants them an extra turn. In practice, this leads to almost puzzle-like gameplay where you spend each turn trying to figure out the most optimal way to balance damage, turn uptime, and enemy placement.
Every character has a firearm they can use to hit enemies—sometimes multiple at once—from afar, while they can also dish out the pain up close if they go in for a melee attack. Additionally, most characters have Personas that they can use to burn some SP and inflict magic attacks on foes that cause a variety of debuffs, such as how psy-based attacks hypnotize enemies. We appreciated how this combat system adapts (but doesn’t directly copy) the traditional SMT elemental system, playing with fan expectations and creating a battle flow that feels true to the broader series while still having its own identity.
As you give and receive damage, you’ll also build up a party-wide Voltage Meter, and once filled, any character can spend it to trigger a powerful one-time action such as planting a flag that heals characters within a wide radius at the end of a few turns. The Voltage Meter adds a welcome X factor to fights—it’s not something that you can exactly plan a strategy around, but you often get access to a Voltage action right around the time that things are starting to take a turn for the worse. In this sense, Voltage actions can act as the necessary rallying cry that turns the tide, and the fact that every character has their own unique way of spending the meter helps to keep everyone’s niche in the broader team well-defined.
All of this is to say that gameplay variety is a key highlight of Persona 5 Tactica—it feels like you’re encountering something new here every 15 minutes or so. Whether that be the introduction of a new enemy type that’ll demand a change in tactics, or a new kind of mission objective such as protecting a unit you have to escort across the field to a fixed extraction point, Persona 5 Tactica revels in finding ways to surprise or challenge you. You’ll of course always be engaging in the same old motions of directing units around a battlefield in turn-based combat, but we appreciated how Persona 5 Tactica isn’t afraid to play around with its conventions—this isn’t the kind of tactics game that’s content to throw you into uninspired map after map and task you with killing a set number of enemies.
Another important part of what makes Persona 5 Tactica so compelling is how effectively it incentivizes you to mix up your strategy and shy away from adhering to a rigid view of the most optimal approach. For example, it would be the most strategically sound idea in most cases to keep your three units in battle close together and slowly eliminate enemies one by one, but this doesn’t make for very interesting missions. So, to push you to spread out more, there’s a super attack called Triple Threat that can be triggered by a character who gets a One More. In a Triple Threat, each of your characters forms the point of a triangle, and any enemies contained within the triangle’s area are effectively deleted once you trigger the attack. So, to ensure that as many enemies as possible can be affected by it, you have to keep your characters relatively spread out from each other—exposing each of them to more risk and making individual skirmishes much more compelling.
In another example of this design approach, it would traditionally make the most sense to stick to a fixed team of three units that you use in every mission and invest in heavily to stay ahead of the difficulty, leaving the rest of your bench to languish and atrophy back at base. To spur you to regularly cycle through the full lineup and keep everyone sharp, characters who have spent a mission off the field will be powered up in the interim, granting them boosted stats compared to whomever you currently have active on your team. You’re thus incentivized to swap in these powered-up units each mission, which leads to much more interesting gameplay.
To foster this idea of using the whole team as much as you can, character progression is handled in an interesting fashion wherein completing missions leads to you leveling up the entire party at once, rather than just the individual units you used in the last battle. Alongside the base stat bumps that come with this, each character is then given a few more points that you can invest into their skill tree to further diversify their abilities or strengthen existing ones. In this sense, individual character growth certainly feels simpler when compared to other SRPGs, but we appreciated how it forces you to think about your entire team as one ‘character’ that you’re building from various angles.
Though demon negotiation isn’t part of Persona 5 Tactica—you’re simply given a few new Personas at the end of each mission—classic Persona fusion still features here, wherein you level up your arsenal by regularly mixing two Personas together to get a more powerful one that maintains some of their traits. The gimmick here is that Joker’s ‘Wild Card’ power works a little differently in this corner of the Metaverse—he can only equip one additional Persona aside from Arsene, but the tradeoff is that everyone else on the team can also do the same. You’re given a lot more leeway to build your team according to the niche that you want each member to fill, as they can each take on a sort of ‘subclass’ depending on which Persona you give them in addition to their primary.
The only drawback to Persona 5 Tactica’s approach is that individual Persona growth feels like it takes a backseat. Though equipped Personas will level up after you complete a mission with them, they won’t gain any new skills or abilities from doing so—each Persona only features the one skill it starts with and one inherited skill it got from its fusion fodder. This was likely done to cut back on the fusion feature overshadowing the tactics gameplay, but it feels like Personas are a little restricted here when compared to their appearance in the main series.
Though Persona 5 Tactica isn’t as long as Persona 5—the full story should run you about 40-50 hours—it still feels like there’s plenty of replayability here. Every mission has three sub-objectives, such as beating the stage in a certain number of turns or without team members getting hit too many times, and fulfilling these can sometimes require coming back later with a more powerful team or optimizing your Persona loadouts better. Also, there are various optional 'Quests' that you can engage in between story missions, each of which tasks you with clearing a shorter mission with a fixed team. Completionists have a lot of work cut out for them, then, but the game doesn’t feel unnecessarily bloated.
Visually, Persona 5 Tactica adopts a style that’s somewhat reminiscent of the graphics used in the Persona Q games on 3DS, characterized by more cartoonish Chibi designs. This feels like a slight step down from Shigenori Soejima’s excellent and detailed art featured in the main series, although we would also contend that it gives P5T a unique aesthetic within the broader context of the spinoffs so far. It feels like a fitting art style when you see the way that characters move here, while all the character and environment design feel at home in the Persona universe while still being distinct. And don't worry, the menus are still every bit as smoothly animated and stylish as you'd expect.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack feels like more of an extension of that featured in Persona 5, which is to say great. The distinct mixture of acid jazz and high-energy rock is present and correct, providing a bombastic and invigorating tone for the various fights you find yourself caught up in. Some tracks may feel a little ‘been there, done that,’ but the music nonetheless helps to set an effective tone that’s maintained for the entire run.
Persona 5 Tactica is a thrillingly varied tactical RPG that fans of the Phantom Thieves and the genre should take note of. It's a little on the easy side, but the varied gameplay, excellent soundtrack, striking visuals, and lovable characters all make for a very easy recommendation here. We’d especially suggest you pick this up if you really enjoyed the original Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, as we noticed a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the two. It remains to be seen if this is the last time we’ll be seeing the Phantom Thieves don their masks, but if this does turn out to be their finale, Persona 5 Tactica is a massively enjoyable sendoff for the beloved crew.