Heavy spoilers for Persona 5 Royal.
It’s been a couple of months since Persona 5 Royal made its western debut, which is enough time to grind your way through the 80 to 100 hours of explaining the concept of the Metaverse to every single person in the game, putting together a nice harem of age-inappropriate love interests, killing a false god, and finally getting to the BRAND NEW third semester. There’s been some (rightfully) mixed reception for the new true ending’s epilogue cutscene, which lessens the Phantom Thieves’ involvement in favor of highlighting Royal’s new characters; despite this, the new ending choices are phenomenal and definitely make Royal worth playing, even for those who’ve played the original Persona 5.
The third semester brings two new endings—the “true” ending and the “bad” ending. This itself isn’t new to Persona, and there were a few different endings to the original P5. The wrong endings are easily avoided and getting the original true ending is a pretty clear-cut experience; it was easy to feel like you were making the right choice when deciding to fight against Yaldabaoth, the false god of control, because you don’t know he’s the game’s antagonist until about 80 hours in. Of course you’re going to fight him to save humanity.
The game doesn’t end in that moment of triumph. After saving the world from imminent destruction, Joker must confess to being the leader of the Phantom Thieves to put away the corrupt politician Masayoshi Shido, and be placed in a juvenile detention facility as a result. He gets out around mid-February after the companions and the confidants you’ve befriended petition and protest for your release—the moral here being you don’t have to be a phantom thief to change the world, you can change hearts just by being you. When it’s time for him to leave Tokyo, his friends pile into a van together one more time to take him back home. A fairly bittersweet ending, but an appropriate one for a game that lets you know in the first five minutes that it is a “truly unjust” experience.
If you make it to the third semester (which can be missed if you don’t make the right confidant choices), the game shifts dramatically on December 24. Previously, this was the day Sae Niijima asks Joker to turn himself in. This time, if you’ve made all the right choices, Goro Akechi—Joker’s fated rival, the other wildcard Persona user—will offer himself up in Joker’s place, agreeing to reveal himself as the perpetrator of the mental shutdowns and to testify against his father, Masayoshi Shido, who ordered the shutdowns. Seeing Akechi this late in the game is a surprise—a one-time Phantom Thief who betrays you and then, in an attempt at redemption, sacrifices himself to let the rest of the team escape, Akechi is presumed dead until this very moment.
Here’s the catch: it’s not actually Akechi.
Or, not the “real” Akechi. Early in the new year, things start to get very strange. Morgana has gained a human form. All the dead parents your confidants have cried about are alive and well. Every grievance and character trauma has been resolved in ways that simply don’t make sense in the context of the game. So, what happened?
As soon as Yaldabaoth died, a new god of control stepped up to take his place: Dr. Takuto Maruki, local heartthrob, klutzy counselor, and wielder of a Persona powerful enough to distort reality. Scattered throughout the first two semesters are counseling sessions where you watch your companions confess their problems to Dr. Maruki, and, while the real world is still melded with the cognitive world, Maruki takes the opportunity to replace everyone’s trauma: Ryuji never broke his leg and is still running track, Madarame genuinely nourishes Yusuke’s artistic skills, and Haru’s dad isn’t trying to sell her off to better his company. For Joker, this chance at happiness meant bringing Akechi back to life for the opportunity to give the two of them the resolution and friendship they didn’t get the first time around. Now he’s offering Joker a choice: fight him and restore the real world—a world in which Akechi is probably dead, and all Joker’s friends still struggle with their traumas—or to keep Maruki’s false world.
Joker and Akechi are the only two who know the false reality when they see it. The new ending choices come down to Akechi, even after he comes to the realization that he’s only alive as a result of Maruki’s manipulations, who remains steadfastly against the idea of giving in to the new reality. He tells Joker that he’d rather be dead by his own choice than alive under someone else’s control. But he doesn’t get to make that choice; you do. You can choose to fight Maruki and steal his Treasure, or you can let him give you happiness.
It’s an easy choice in the base game to deny Yaldabaoth. He views people as spineless creatures who don’t want to change and don’t want to think for themselves, and the very existence of the Phantom Thieves disproves that notion—there are still those fighting for change and working to create a better world. No matter how “morally gray” the original Persona 5 wanted to be, it wasn’t. But it’s a lot harder to deny Maruki, a character you’ve bonded with, who’s shown many times that he just wants to help in any way he can (which, up until the point where he’s the antagonist, is mainly in the form of getting cats out of trees and giving snacks to troubled high schoolers). Although there are friendly adults in the game, and occasionally helpful ones, Maruki is the only one to really acknowledge that the Phantom Thieves deserve happiness as normal teenagers.
I knew the real ending when I saw it; I knew I was supposed to fight Maruki, steal his Treasure, and return to the real world. And I did it and it felt like I’d made the right choice—the bittersweet one, where Akechi doesn’t show up at the last minute to save the day, where Joker is sent to juvie, where everyone goes their separate ways. Newly added to this ending is everyone’s post-Phantom Thieves plans: Ryuji wants to move closer to a physical therapy center so he can get rehabilitation for his leg. Makoto and Haru move away for college, Futaba plans to attend high school, Yusuke continues to do his art uninhibited by his master’s greed, and Ann goes to study abroad. These plans show something important that wasn’t present in the base game: they’re all making strides toward recovery.
I reloaded and did the other ending; I took Maruki’s cognitive world. Akechi is upset when you tell him your decision, but by the next day, his cognition has been changed and he doesn’t remember that he was mad or that he’s in a false reality; Joker is the only one who remembers the truth. Sojiro offers to let Joker stay with him until he finishes school and the team reaffirms that they’re going to stay together “forever.” No one plans to move away or move on. The final in-game scene shows the whole group getting their photo taken by Maruki at Haru and Makoto’s graduation. As the credits roll, images of your companions flash across the screen: Ryuji on the track team, Akechi and Joker playing chess.
So, here’s what it comes down to: did I make the “right” choice by going with the true ending? Like many of us who are overly invested in fictional characters, I want a happy ending for the characters I’ve come to love. I want to see them triumph. Persona 5, at its core, is about a group of young people fucked over by their circumstances who get together to push back against a world that’s wronged them. And there’s never a point in the game where you aren’t reminded that a lot of their tragedy comes from their youth; Ann Takamaki is blackmailed by an abusive volleyball coach whose misdeeds are allowed to slide because of the fame and prestige he brings the school. The same coach is also responsible for breaking Ryuji’s leg, ending his chance at the track scholarship he was hoping for to ease the financial burden of college for his single mother. Akechi was passed from foster home to foster home, only finding a modicum of love and acceptance after proving himself worthy of it as a celebrity detective. Yusuke’s adoptive father Madarame was claiming Yusuke’s art as his own and leeching off Yusuke, but Yusuke didn’t know any better than to let him because that’s his dad. Makoto Niijima was coerced by the principal to investigate other students under threat of having a college recommendation letter withheld. Futaba becomes a guilt-ridden shut-in after being told she was the cause of her mother’s suicide.
I want Ryuji to be back on the track team and to get his scholarship. I want Yusuke’s adoptive father to love him and genuinely nurture his talents. I want Akechi to be alive and redeemed and ready to earnestly join the Phantom Thieves. When I first played Persona 5, I lamented that Joker didn’t just stay with Futaba and Sojiro and be a happy, curry-and-coffee-loving family together. Joker’s parents never even get mentioned! Fuck them! Who sends their kid off to live in a stranger’s attic for a year? Irresponsible. Sojiro should just keep him.
Okay. Well. All the things I thought I wanted from the original Persona 5 can come to be in the “bad” ending. Maruki knows what will make everyone happy. He has the power to make it reality. So why not let him?
It was a genuinely excruciating choice, the first one in a game that usually presents a pretty binary right and wrong morality. Ultimately, even if Maruki’s goals are more benevolent than Yaldabaoth’s, siding with him means giving into someone else’s control, and that’s not what Phantom Thieves do. The new endings present a distinctly uncomfortable choice, but, somehow, it feels wrong to deny the Phantom Thieves their chance to reclaim their own lives. It goes against everything they’ve worked toward up until this moment, and in a game that looks heavily at the agency of young people, forcing the Phantom Thieves to keep their false happiness is a choice that rings hollow.
But damn, was it hard to make the right choice.
December Cuccaro (she/her) is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. When not rambling about video games, she writes about sapphic werewolves and sad necromancers searching for friendship.