Persona 5 somehow ended up being in my most played PS4 games in both 2019 and 2020, even though I only played it once. That’s because of how ridiculously long it is, so when I started it in November 2019 or so, I racked up enough hours for it to creep into my top three of the year, then it took me so long to finish that it ended up in the list for 2020 as well. I actually kind of resent it being there, because I’m not even sure I like it. The game is decent enough, but it’s too long, too repetitive, and that damn cat keeps telling me to go to sleep instead of exploring the city. Despite all this though, I’ve just picked up Persona 5 Strikers, and I felt a huge wave of nostalgia when I first stepped in Cafe Leblanc again.
Part of that is due to Persona’s timing. The reason I mention when I played Persona 5 is because my feelings about it are shaped by the fact I completed it in February 2020: the last month before the pandemic really hit. That’s not something I appreciated at the time, as I moved onto Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Final Fantasy 7 Remake, with Persona 5 just another game cleared off the backlog. Especially given that I love Final Fantasy 7 Remake enough to declare it a perfect video game, Persona 5 suffered in my estimations even further. While everyone talked about Persona 5 Royal – which coincidentally released as I was making my way through Persona 5 itself – being so full of friendship and togetherness and teamwork, all I could think about was, “Yeah, but it’s no Final Fantasy 7 Remake, is it?” Joker and Ann? Bah! Give me Cloud and Aerith. A year later though, I think I get it.
It’s still not as good as Final Fantasy 7 Remake, obviously, and while I’ve just started Strikers, I don’t expect that to be either. But I finally understand what people mean when they talk about the connections in the game, the spirit of camaraderie, and like the confetti in Ryuji’s hands, that all hit me as soon as I walked back into Cafe Leblanc. Persona 5 is a game about friendship, and it feels like I’m finally in the gang.
Because the thing is, Persona 5 wasn’t just the last game I played before the pandemic. The Phantom Thieves were the last friends I saw before the pandemic. There was Christmas, but then in January and February, it’s cold and it’s dark and it’s miserable. We’re just getting back to work and shaking off the holiday hangover, and we mostly stick to cosy nights in. You know, back before we were all forced to have cosy nights in every night for a year. So while I didn’t appreciate it at the time, my last proper freedom of going outside, running to the shops, carrying on in the arcade, going to the cinema, eating in a restaurant… these all happened in Persona 5. And while yeah, I’ve still been playing games that have allowed you to do that, it all hits differently now. I’ve written about the importance of games with built-in friendships during lockdown before, but with those experiences, I was actively seeking escapism. We don’t consider our memories before the pandemic as being before the pandemic. They just were. We didn’t know how good we had it and we didn’t know what was about to happen. Like the song says, you’ll never see it comiiiiiiiin’.
Like most of us, I haven’t really seen my actual friends in over a year. There’s Zoom calls, and a handful of socially distanced days in the garden back in the summer bubbles, but it’s just not the same. So I often find myself thinking back to before any of this started, and it’s the simplicity of it all that I miss. That’s why returning to Persona hit me so hard. I didn’t know I missed it. Take going to a restaurant, for example. I’m not actually sure how much I really miss it. They can be quite expensive, most of the places that I like still do deliveries anyway, me and my partner enjoy cooking, and I prefer the comfort of my own home to getting dressed up and going out. It feels like it’s the idea of a restaurant that I miss, the option of one, the permission. But having jumped back into Persona 5, I think maybe I just don’t realise how much I miss it, and once all this is over, it’ll all come flooding back to me.
I’ve spent most of this time talking about Persona 5 as a whole, but that’s not really what this is all about. I wasn’t hit with these pre-pandemic melodramatic memories the instant I booted up the game, nor when the menu came up and asked me if I wanted the classic Persona 5 soundtrack. It was entering Cafe Leblanc specifically. Not just because the rest of the gang was there either; there was something about the building itself.
For all my feelings on Persona 5 were mixed, I can tell you with certainty that I hated Cafe Leblanc. I wanted to explore the world, and the cafe was a prison. I know you can read and play video games and make tools, but that’s all just a bit naff compared to the stuff you can do in the rest of the world, only you don’t have permission from your cat to go outside. I haven’t played Royal, but apparently Morgana no longer forces you to go to sleep, so that’s nice. On the flipside though, it’s an even longer slog, so there’s no chance of me going back to find out. Oh, and you can call you your actual high school teacher to come over and clean your room while dressed as a French maid if you’re a weird pervert, I guess. Sojiro was cool, but mostly, Cafe Leblanc was the setting I spent the whole time in Persona 5 trying to get away from. Now that my actual home seems like a bit of a prison, returning to the freedom of Cafe Leblanc feels like a relief.
I’ve barely started Strikers, and I doubt I’ll come away from it feeling as strongly about Persona 5 the way some of you do, but it’s so good to see my old friends again. Cheers to Cafe Leblanc, you remind me what life was like before.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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