How “Persona 5 Royal”‘s music messed with the game’s charm.

Persona 5 is a turn-based JRPG by Atlus. It is witty, fun, explosive, smooth, and addictive. Once I picked up Persona 5, every other game I had didn’t get a look in until I finished it. I was still playing it when Final Fantasy VII Remake released. I thought I liked Devil May Cry 5‘s sound? No no, Persona 5 is God of Sound. It ticks all the boxes.

Let me preface this by saying: I am a massive Persona 5 fan. I have played both versions of the game, dabbled in Dancing in Starlight, and eagerly await Phantom Strikers. But. And there is a major but.

Persona 5 Royal is an expanded re-release of Persona 5. It’s the extra content, the DLC that couldn’t be DLC. The fandom often refers to Royal content as “the third semester”. But if Royal is just an expansion, how can it lack the charm of the original? Royal doesn’t break anything. It adds some needed quality-of-life improvements to the combat system and to its palaces. It adds new music (good and “bad”). It adds two new characters and gives you optional time to spend with Akechi. In fact, you can only access much of the new Royal content if you complete the pre-requisites by a certain in-game date.

Persona 5 had some quirks players could consider minor obstacles — I’ve completed both games, started New Game+s, and am focusing on the original. The camera placement can sometimes be an obstacle, the limited ammo capacity each time I venture into a palace or Mementos can be a hassle, and ranking up confidants can be frustrating if you don’t already know what you’re doing (especially since this directly affects your combat system). But despite these niggling things, the game has this toned down, compact and stealthy attitude.

(Side note: I never noticed Crow in the background until now.)

The main menu’s theme sets the tone for the original release, reflecting the Phantom Thieves on a platform (Mementos?), waiting together. They do nothing flashy. The musical theme “Phantom” is a mid-range groove one might associate with the coming-together of a plan. Take a listen to “Phantom” — I will refer back to its melody later.

Then there’s Royal:

Spotlights! Cameras! Action! Style! You see us, we’re here to take your heart!

That soft-jam groove is replaced with the immediately airy “Royal Days“, arguably flashier than its “Phantom” counterpart. Being highlighted out in the crowd… doesn’t that detract from being the stylish, stealthy thieves encouraged by the original’s main menu?

I feel like I can attribute the biggest loss of Persona 5 Royal‘s charm to its re-vamped soundtrack. Not much has changed, really: while there are many new additions, most of the music is the same and almost all the tracks from the original are where they should be… except for an important change to the new music’s themes:

The importance of unison

Unison: When different instruments or vocalists play the same notes or melody together.

Fifteen full seconds of unison. The only instruments doing their own thing during “Last Surprise”‘s introduction are the bass guitar (playing on one note then hitting the chord’s fifth at the end of the bar) and the drums (which isn’t actually maintaining 4/4 time in the first four bars of the song, but instead hitting every major syncopated beat of the unison melody).

Speaking as someone who has sung in a thirty-person choir, played in a band, performed with an orchestra, and was a vocalist for half her waking life, playing the opening to “Last Surprise” in a full orchestra could just be my definition of hell; because if one instrument was even a little out of tune or time, everyone would hear it. Which coincidentally is a great analogy for Akechi Goro: the one instrument out of tune in the otherwise unison Phantom Thieves.

Note: the lights behind the Phantom Thieves.

The Phantom Thieves don’t work when they aren’t in unison. Every decision they make is unanimous, every fight they take on, they take on together (except for when the story demands otherwise, but that’s a different conversation). When “Last Surprise” drops the massive unison opening, it strips its orchestra away for the vocalist (and her harmony line) and the basic band set-up, and gradually builds up from the verse, builds up from the pre-chorus, then grooves through the chorus at its full). Every instrument is doing something for the basic melody their entire bar, whether it be marking the chord changes or trailing and harmonising with the vocalist — and if you listen closely, the violin players are getting the workout of their fucking lives throughout most, if not all the song.

“Phantom”, Persona 5‘s main menu theme, also has an important unison section 30 seconds into the song. It serves to highlight the bop of the rhythm, but not detract away from the mood. Instruments come in and out of the melody, yes, but the melody itself never changes. There’s something to be said about musical theme and context, especially so in the original Persona 5. “Phantom” (always being on the main menu) and “Last Surprise” (the main battle theme) are always heard by the player, and both promote unison as their core components.

When “flashy” detracts from “style”.

I dislike “Take Over”. Not because I dislike the song itself — it’s a fantastic song, and I’ve heard some amazing covers of it — but when you’re grinding for EXP, you often only hear the first eight bars of it: which are a grating high-range electric guitar with what I think may be a syncopated violin walk (??) underneath it, paired with a basic drum kit hitting a closed hi-hat. Remember how I noted how “Last Surprise”‘s intro could be my definition of hell? Well, the only complex thing of note in “Take Over” may be those violin parts hidden under the over-bearing electric guitar. The introduction is a huge affair, it strips the verse back, and then suddenly the chorus launches into another huge affair with no build-up. The violins are overpowered by a brass section. Unlike “Last Surprise”, where everything worked in tandem with the vocal melody line, only vocalist harmonies compliment the vocalist — otherwise, all instrumental lines are doing their own flashy thing (except for the brief lyrics in the chorus “nothing’s gonna be the way you might like“, where brass and violin coincidentally meet with Lyn in one bar).

Lyn, with a backing track, with some questionable sound mixing that may leave people cringing half-way through. Again proof that audio technicians are blessed by the heavens.

Listening to the musical components of “Take Over” only leaves me with questions rather than feelings of satisfaction. I can’t imagine this being played live. I can see every person recording their part separately (as is the case for many recordings) but it isn’t a song I can see being performed for an audience. And if it ever is performed live, with everyone on stage, I imagine it would have to be heavily edited to account for the massive disconnect between Lyn and the brass line. The only version of “Take Over” that may hit the Persona Live standard might just be Sapphire and The Consouls stripped back cover — which also wins the “only instance Deanna has liked a cover version over the original Persona track” award.

Compare this to the last time the franchise brought out an “expanded edition”. Persona 4‘s “Reach Out To The Truth” and Persona 4: Golden‘s “Time to Make History“, while obviously different songs, reflect similar musical context that matches Persona 4 overall. I feel the difference between the two tracks comes down to how messy (speaking technically) the vocal lines are in “Reach Out To The Truth”, versus the crisp melody in “Time to Make History” (note, however, both use rhythmic speech in their verses, and only gain a melody for the chorus).

Note: the lights on the Phantom Thieves.

The only thing I can associate “Take Over” with is “big, bold, flashy show”. Yes, Persona 5 likes to have the main cast show off their moves and look good, and the game likes to focus on the style in which they do things… but that doesn’t quite equate to the bold and flashy composition of the new main battle theme. Somewhere along the way of its re-release, Persona 5‘s musical emphasis on thievery got replaced with showmanship, and while it makes for a flawless game, it loses the thing that made it special to begin with.

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