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Turns out, Persona 5 and XCOM make a promising match

Atlus goes tactical in the upcoming spinoff

Erina lines up a shot against an enemy in cover in Persona 5 Tactica Image: Atlus/Sega
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

At this point, XCOM is more of a genre than a game. What began as a reboot of the ’90s tactical series with 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown has spawned imitators in the worlds of Warhammer 40,000, Gears of War, and even Mario (plus Rabbids). Firaxis Games’ potent blend of squad customization, turn-based skirmishes, and party recruitment works in just about any universe, it would seem. So is it surprising that it meshes well with the Jungian world of Persona 5? Not really. Is it exciting to see it in action nonetheless? Absolutely.

During a recent demo, I played the tutorial and an early-game mission from Persona 5 Tactica, Atlus’ upcoming spinoff that replaces the RPG’s static turn-based battles with grid-based tactical fights. Both missions were fast-paced as I moved returning characters Joker, Ryuji, and Morgana from cover to cover in order to flank enemies. (Said enemies are new to the world of Persona 5, taking the form of ghostly 18th-century foot soldiers.) Much like in Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, movement happens in real time, but the character’s destination doesn’t get locked in until I end my turn or use an action. This freeform positioning lets me test out different sightlines before committing to an attack.

Joker, Morgana, and Erina line up for a Triple Threat attack in Persona 5 Tactica Image: Atlus/Sega

Once each Phantom Thief was in position, I could command them to fire their gun, do a melee attack, or cast an ability using their Persona companion. Little by little, the tutorial and early mission brought new wrinkles into the fold: Hitting an enemy in close quarters knocks them out of cover; shooting an enemy that doesn’t have cover stuns them; surrounding a stunned enemy gives the whole squad the opportunity to do a combined “Triple Threat” attack. Similar to the corresponding abilities in Persona 5, these flurries do massive area-of-effect damage to any enemies caught between my characters. If Tactica is bringing one major consideration to Persona 5’s combat, it’s positioning.

Neither encounter was all that complicated — the tutorial mission took place in a town square with a fountain at the center, and the other scenario unfolded as the Phantom Thieves infiltrated a palace through its crate-strewn cellar — but both had me wanting to play more.

Morgana and Joker observe a mysterious door that has appeared in Cafe Leblanc in Persona 5 Tactica Image: Atlus/Sega

Many of my favorite XCOM 2 and Gears Tactics moments happen during the planning phases between skirmishes, but Persona 5 Tactica’s demo didn’t give me the opportunity to experience that. I’m excited by the prospect of outfitting my characters with different weapons or sifting through potential Persona upgrades between missions, though. The demo also didn’t allow me to swap characters between missions to experiment with different team compositions. But based on what I played, I’m optimistic that Persona 5 Tactica will strike a sweet spot between compelling (if straightforward) tactical battles and Persona 5 fan service. Hell, the opening cutscene takes place at Cafe Leblanc, complete with every member of the Phantom Thieves in attendance. If Atlus can match those strengths with rewarding long-tail progression throughout the game’s run time, I might have a reason to delay my next War of the Chosen campaign.

Persona 5 Tactica will be released on Nov. 17 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.