I love Persona 5, but over the years, Atlus’ stylish, supposedly socially-conscious RPG hasn’t loved me. Queer Persona fans know the series to be fraught, and even the most passionate among us treat it like the fun uncle who claims to love everyone and still says something extremely out of pocket each holiday. I figured Persona 5 Tactica, the tactical spin-off launching on November 17, would follow all the previous games and find some way to throw a jab at queer people for no reason. But after years of feeling like one of my favorite series has been trying to push me out, Tactica opened the door for me, if only for a moment.
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We aren’t going to get into any big, overarching story spoilers as I explain how, but a brief scene in Tactica’s first chapter does require a little table-setting. If you want absolutely no context, maybe minimize this tab and come back when you’ve finished the first chapter.
Persona 5 Tactica opens with the Phantom Thieves, the teenage superhero vigilantes heading back into the supernatural world called the Metaverse. This time they’re facing Marie, a tyrant bride who has repurposed an entire town to hold her dream wedding. There’s no need to get into the why and who here, as it’s a spoiler, but this serves to set up the scene we’re here to talk about. It’s called “The Ideal Marriage,” and you can find it in the Talk menu in Café Leblanc after you find out Marie’s plot.
The Phantom Thieves discuss Marie’s plan in their home base, and the conversation moves on to the team’s own ideas of “dream weddings.” Ann excitedly talks about how she can’t wait to wear a white wedding dress, and it’s all very cute. Eventually, Ryuji turns to our mostly silent protagonist, Joker, and playfully asks which of the Phantom Thieves he would marry.
I went through a few stages of subverted expectations here, so hold my hand, Phantom Thief, and let me walk you through. When Ryuji asked the question, I fully expected my options to be limited exclusively to the women in the room, as that would reflect the original Persona 5’s extremely limited view of romance. These spin-off games don’t import your P5 save, so games like Persona 5 Strikers find ways to ask you who your paramour in the first game was so you can experience a little continuity.
But much to my surprise, Tactica allowed for everyone in the room to be an option, including Ryuji, who I have headcanoned as my Joker’s unrequited crush since first playing Persona 5 in 2017. Even still, my trepidation wasn’t gone, as any time a dialogue option gave me a chance to suggest how my Joker felt a door was instantly slammed in my face. Persona games haven’t just denied characters’ possible queerness at every chance, they’re often eager to turn any gesture toward it into a mean-spirited joke.
I braced myself as I chose Ryuji, ready for Tactica to hit me with the metaphorical backhand in the form of my would-be boyfriend jolting away in the opposite direction…but it never came.
Screenshot: Atlus / Kotaku
Instead, what I got was a really sweet scene of Ryuji in a stylish white tux, saying he couldn’t believe the person of his dreams had been right by his side the whole time. It was a reference to one of the best interactions between Ryuji and Joker in OG Persona 5, one often pointed to by fans as a moment that implies some level of romantic trust between the two. But here in Tactica he also acknowledged sparks had been flying between the two since they met at the beginning of Persona 5, and I thought to myself it was about damn time he wisened up to this.
As Joker stops pondering his dream wedding it’s back to reality, where he and Ryuji aren’t dating, despite those sparks. The scene then ended, and before a wave of excitement hit me, my first feeling was a sense of relief.
Persona 5’s homophobia problem
Persona 5 has always positioned itself as a story about standing up against oppressive forces in the name of standing up for the little guy crushed under their boots. The Phantom Thieves use their supernatural powers to fight crooks as small-time as an abusive high school coach and climb up until they reach a major politician. The game tackles power imbalances, class issues, and corrupt law enforcement, but queer identity has always been its blind spot. Even as it stumbles in advocating for victims of abuse by putting those same people through the same violence after the fact, at least Persona 5 does, at some point in its 100+ hours, take a stance.
But when it comes to how identity is a marginalizing factor, Persona 5 has always been willing to shun, or even point and laugh at queer people. Men, especially. Playing the original Persona 5 as a gay man was an incredibly disheartening experience as it both refused to let me go down a romantic path with any of my male friends, and also bombarded me with assumptions of who Joker, and by extension, myself, was in its dialogue.
Image: Atlus / CloverWorks
On top of this, Persona 5’s treatment of its sole canonical gay men, two harassers assaulting Ryuji in the middle of a crowded street, remains one of the lowest points in the series. The English localization team stepped in for the definitive Persona 5 Royal version by making these characters enthusiastic drag queens eager to show Ryuji the ropes rather than predators, but even that can’t make Persona 5 an inclusive game when it’s entirely uninterested in telling a story about queer characters, even if the player is trying to push it in that direction. Sure, you can tell a random shadow in a buried battle menu that you like men, but in terms of living as a gay teen in supernatural Tokyo? Persona 5 won’t let you.
It’s frustrating because I’d argue the social link arcs between Joker and Ryuji or Joker and his rival Goro Akechi still enjoy the most romantic tension in the game, far more than most of the women the player can pursue. But really, it didn’t come as a surprise that Persona 5 was dismissive of queer identity, because Persona almost always is.
Persona 3 has weird transphobic jokes that I’m curious to see handled in Persona 3 Reload. Persona 4 nearly has interesting conversations about queer identity with party members Kanji Tatsumi and Naoto Shirogane initially being presented as possibly working through male attraction and gender fluidity respectively, only for the game to handwave those conversations, fall back on the status quo, and engage in some casual queerphobia along the way. Shoutout to Persona 2, which had a gay romantic interest in 1999. I wish your successors followed suit, but maybe they can moving forward?
Screenshot: Atlus / Kotaku
Persona 5 Tactica doesn’t make good on the series excluding queer people, and it definitely doesn’t fix that it made us the *** of the joke for almost 20 years. But it does hint that maybe the future’s looking brighter for queer Persona fans in the future. Now, even if the love stories that should’ve been there aren’t, those of us who spent years playing as Joker pining for Ryuji or Yusuke (apologies to the Akechi lovers but he isn’t here, R.I.P. to you) have something in hand to beat the headcanon allegations.
I didn’t flirt with any of the women in any of these games because I was truly committed to the self-insert bit. Now I finally have at least one scene in this whole series that acknowledges that my Joker wants to smooch his golden retriever best friend. This leaves me a little more hopeful that whoever I play as in Persona 6 might get a boyfriend of his own.P