Persona 5 Strikers, otherwise known as Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers in Japan, finally blasts its way onto Switch consoles in the west and, if you were expecting this Atlus/Koei Tecmo crossover to be a straight-up Musou style spin-off, a Dynasty Warriors-esque effort with a fancy Persona skin hastily slapped on top, you're in for a bit of surprise. What we've actually got here is a slick and exciting action RPG that manages to keep plenty of the Persona series' signature conversations, characters and camaraderie intact while fusing it successfully with hack-and-slash combat that's a little more strategic and varied than we expected it would be.
Persona 5 Strikers is a direct sequel to the events that transpired in Persona 5 – although not those that occur in Persona 5 Royal, which it rather annoyingly chooses to fully ignore – that opens with Joker and Morgana on a return trip to Tokyo where they aim to catch up with the rest of the Phantom Thieves on a summer camping trip which the whole gang are thoroughly looking forward to. Of course, just as they go about laying out their vacation plans, our heroes are dragged into yet another life or death battle in the Metaverse, this time involving a popular new phone app, EMMA, that's somehow being used by a bunch of high-profile public figures in order to steal the desires of hapless citizens, imprisoning them in enemy-infested jails – this game's version of P5's palaces – which the thieves must now battle their way through in order to save the day.
Fans of the Persona series will likely feel much more at home here than they may have initially expected as, after the game's action-packed opening engagement in a shadow jail presided over by a power-mad fashion idol, the gang immediately get together at good old Café Leblanc where they mull over their options, formulate plans and indulge in the rather long-winded back-and-forths for which the series is well known. There really is far more in the way of character development and story squeezed in here than we imagined there would be, with the entire crew getting plenty of opportunities to shine in a well-written campaign that makes this spin-off feel not too far removed from a proper, fully-fledged entry in the franchise.
Of course, with developer Omega Force involved, once our heroes hit the Metaverse in order to take on the bosses of each of the jails they need to shut down as they campervan their way across Japan, Persona 5 Strikers reveals a combat style that feels radically different to the methodical turn-based action of its predecessors. However, as it turns out, the action on offer here isn't quite the mindless hack-and-slash affair you may have been expecting. Although there's certainly still plenty of Musou-style carnage on display in how you deal with the larger groups of cannon-fodder enemies you'll encounter, it's all given a nice little strategic lift by how it chooses to incorporate the series' sneaky thief tactics and Personas into the fray.
Whilst delving into the game's dungeons, your four chosen party members will engage in combat by coming into contact with foes in a number of ways. Being spotted by an enemy as you make your way through a jail here will see them engage your group first, giving them the upper-hand at the outset of a skirmish and enabling them to dish out some unavoidable damage to kickstart proceedings. However, by carefully approaching an enemy from behind – or by making use of special hiding spots such as lampposts or corners – you gain the opportunity to perform an ambush attack, getting the drop on foes and even taking out entire mobs without them having an opening to retaliate as a result.
Once actually engaged in combat proper, you'll employ the expected quick combos of light and heavy attacks as well as a dodge manoeuvre in order to dash through and around huge throngs of rank and file enemies, dishing out punishment that sees you slowly charge up a screen-shaking Showtime attack in return for your efforts. Holding in L allows you to use ranged gun attacks to give yourself space and X sees your currently selected character (you can switch between all four of your chosen party members as and when you please) pull off their own unique special skill. Of course, Personas also play a huge part in battles here, and by holding in the R button you'll freeze time and open up a menu highlighting your selected character's currently active Persona and the moves it has at its disposal. This opens up lots of tactical choices, giving you the ability to impair mobs with area-of-effect damage, heal teammates and cause all manner of elemental pain to the shadow fiends that surround you.
As expected, Joker is the only character in the game who can cycle between multiple Personas at any point in combat and, when combined with the Personas of the rest of your party members, this gives you a wealth of attacks to employ at any given time. These Persona powers really come into their own when you face off against any one of the stronger named enemies, mini-bosses or final boss encounters in a jail as every one of these larger foes is susceptible to a certain elemental attack type, as indicated on-screen as you battle them. This means you need to think about which character in your squad you choose to attack with first, hitting bosses with the right elemental damage to weaken them and leaving them exposed to follow-up attacks from the rest of your team. It's all suitably slick, flashy and fast-paced stuff that's further enhanced by the Phantom Thieves' ability to zip around the screen to specially marked points, such as lampposts or the tops of cars, in order to perform special spinning drop attacks or even flip off a vehicle before detonating it to take out all nearby mobs.
Of course, Persona attacks can't be used endlessly as they are tied to an SP meter that drains pretty quickly as you perform moves and, as a result, some early boss encounters – even on normal difficulty – can prove to be quite frustrating affairs as your team quickly runs out of SP. This is a problem that's knocked on the head in short order, however, as a few jails in, you'll learn how to cook and make items that restore SP and health, mitigating the need to save up yen to buy them in shops and enabling you to wail on enemies safe in the knowledge you've got a good supply of SP items tucked away in your inventory. Indeed, where early boss face-offs can be quite tense affairs that often require some trial and error to conquer, we found that later in the game our team were capable of cutting through most big battles without nearly as many problems.
With regards to the creation and upgrading of your various Personas, you'll nip off to the Velvet Room from the menu in the downtime between battles or through portals located in dungeons in order to spend Persona points (PP) on levelling-up and unlocking new types by combining those you already own. It's a much more streamlined and simplified take on proceedings than that found in main entries in the franchise but it also, unfortunately, raises the spectre of grinding, something you'll definitely have to do in this game in order to raise both PP and yen in order to afford fancy new weapons, protective gear, elemental rings and, of course, powerful and expensive late-game Persona types. We actually found ourselves grinding quite early on in Persona 5 Strikers – farming areas of jails which you can easily jump in and out of at checkpoints – in order to buy some new sword or gain enough PP to rank up our most useful Persona, and it's a shame that the game's various currencies weren't balanced in such a way that this re-treading of old ground could have been avoided entirely.
Further to the monotony of grinding here and there, we also felt as though the game's campaign could really have come to a close a little earlier than it did. There are perhaps a few too many jails here and, with each new one taking a good few hours to get through; the last couple did start to make the experience feel as though it was beginning to drag somewhat. We also took issue with the game's camera at points during battles, as it often became quite difficult to get a good handle on the situation when the screen really filled up with hordes of enemies. You can lock on to your main target with a quick press of the R3 button but still, when things really heat up, it can be a bit of a mess to find your bearings amidst all of the special effects and elemental explosions going off.
However, these relatively small problems really do feel less significant when held up against everything that this game manages to get right. This is a tricky balance of a thing to pull off, satisfying fans of the RPG series proper whilst giving those who are expecting an action-packed hack and slash Musou affair something to sink their teeth into at the same time but, for the most part, Persona 5 Strikers succeeds. There's a properly meaty story at the heart of proceedings here full of entertainingly screwball bosses to face off against, lots of well-written conversations between the Phantom Thieves that will delight fans of the franchise and even a couple of excellent new characters – most notably kick-ass AI Sophie and confused cop Hasegawa Zenkichi – to get to know as the narrative unfolds.
The action too, although it can be repetitive and we did find ourselves annoyed at the camera here and there when things got hectic, is slick and highly polished. Pulling off explosive special moves, zipping around the battlefield to launch into spins from perch points and blasting bosses with the combined powers of your Personas really does feel great here. There's a nice balance between cutting through huge swathes of mindless enemies in that almost therapeutic Musou style and employing clever tactics to get the upper hand against more troublesome foes, and this is all bolstered by unlockable master skills, team bonding buffs and characters who each have their own unique moves and skillsets to employ.
All of the action and drama here is also presented on Switch in a port that performs spectacularly well overall. This is a very good-looking game and, besides a pretty obvious lack of anti-aliasing, it's one that never stuttered or bugged out once during the fifty or so hours it took us to complete its main campaign. In both docked and handheld modes – when the camera is behaving itself – the action is clear and easy to read, cutscenes look excellent and the series' signature stylish menus swish on and off the screen satisfyingly as you flick around through your items, Personas and equipment.
Persona 5 Strikers isn't without its problems, then. You'll find yourself grinding here and there for yen and PP, the ability to make your own SP items can trivialise some later boss battles, the camera can be a pain at times during ferocious battles and the campaign puts you through a few too many dungeons in the end but, overall, this is a highly ambitious and successful spin-off entry in the series. With a strong story, some slick and flashy action, a handful of great new characters to get to know and all of your favourite thieves present, correct and sharing plenty of screen time together, Persona 5 Strikers is an easy recommendation for fans of the franchise, and action RPGs in general, that arrives on Switch in fine form. Can we have a Persona 5 Royal port now, please?
Persona 5 Strikers is a slick and stylish spin-off that manages to successfully combine a surprisingly strong story with some satisfying Musou-inspired hack-and-slash action. There are a few issues here and there, with some necessary grinding at points, slight difficulty imbalances and a camera that can be a bit of a pain during busy battles but, overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining action RPG that comes highly recommended.