Two years ago I took my first trip to Tokyo. The city exceeded my wildest expectations, an addictive blend of ramen, neon nightlife and tranquil parks. I spent a fortnight exploring the place, absorbing every street, shrine and video game store that wandered into my peripheral vision. It was a glorious adventure, and I would give anything to go back there.
Tokyo, however, is an expensive place to visit, especially if you live on the other side of the world. Lacking the funds to make a return trip, I've turned to video games as a substitute. The World Ends With You, Jet Set Radio and the Yakuza series all do an excellent job of imitating the city I fell in love with. None of them come close, however, to Persona 5, the latest in Atlus' long-running JRPG franchise. The game delivers a phenomenal representation of Tokyo, capturing its sights and sounds with pinpoint precision. For more than 50 hours I've strolled through its pixel-perfect neighborhoods, hanging out in karaoke bars, bombastic arcades and relaxing bathhouses. For me, it's virtual tourism at its best.
The Persona series has tackled Japan before. Persona 3 was set in a city called Iwatodai while Persona 4 unfolded in the rural town of Inaba. While both locales are fictional, they're clearly based on real-world places. It meant the team could portray Japan and its culture, from architecture to social norms, without worrying about geographical accuracy. With Persona 5, however, Atlus has embraced the challenge of recreating Tokyo in a way that is both authentic and enjoyable to play through.
Like so many anime TV shows, you play the game as a high school transfer student. The character, like you, is new to the area and doesn't have any friends. You live above a coffee shop in "Yongenjaya," a small neighborhood just west of Shibuya, and slowly discover new places through story missions and exploration. As soon as the school bell rings, you can head to Shibuya and walk up to the iconic Hachiko statue, or dive into a 7-Eleven store (the branding is ever so slightly different) and pick up some supplies. The choice is yours.
Persona 5's Tokyo is comprised of small, isolated hubs. Walk down a back alley and you'll soon find a dead-end or an on-screen prompt asking you to fast-travel someplace else. It's a brave design choice given the industry's trend towards large, seamless open worlds. In Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dogs 2 and Infamous Second Son, you can run around for hours and never encounter a loading screen. At first glance, Persona 5 seems primitive by comparison.
The game uses its smaller scale as a strength rather than a weakness, however. Each location is a vibrant postcard packed with color and detail. "Yongenjaya" is based on Sangenjaya, and if you head there in real life you'll find the same cafes, bathhouses and batting cages portrayed in the game. The fences, the awnings, the signage, it's all perfect. Persona 5 does take some creative liberties, condensing and eradicating huge parts of the city to keep the game world compact. But what it does decide to show is packed with style and cultural insight. It's like walking into a cell of your favorite anime.
I couldn't help but grin because I had stood in that exact spot two years earlier.
At one point, the game's heroes gather in a walkway inside Shibuya station. As they lean against a railing and plot their next heist as the 'Phantom Thieves,' you can see the iconic 'Scramble' crossing through a window behind them. I couldn't help but grin because I had stood in that exact spot two years earlier. I remember peering through the glass and shooting pictures with my camera, wondering if I could take a selfie at ground level as throngs of people crossed the road around me. Other famous Tokyo spots, like Inokashira Park, Odaiba and Akihabara all conjure up a similar sense of deja vu.