Most of the women available for romance in Persona 5 are your fellow high school students. But not all of them.
Taking the role of a kid in his second year of high school — which in Japan would put the player at roughly 16-17 years old — Persona 5 surrounds you with single girls who might befriend you, may become attracted to you and also potentially follow you inside people's hearts on daring heists to save the world.
This is all normal and expected for a Persona game. Romance isn't just an option in this series, it is — like Mass Effect — for many fans an endgame in itself, a statement on how you approached your playthrough and the decisions you made. "Oh, you dated her? Well, I kissed her", etc etc.
Persona 5 is different though. It's a darker, more mature game, both in its tone — it opens with player being beaten and drugged before leading into some sexual assault allegations — and the company it keeps, with less of an emphasis on your fellow kids and more opportunity to forge relationships with adults.
This includes dating them. And the way you do it is kinda messed up? But also hot. Hot and messed up. It's complicated, like love often is.
Know that romancing grown women in Persona games is not entirely new. Anyone who has finished Persona 4, for example, will know that it's implied wink wink nudge nudge say no more that you can fool around with Sayoko Uehara, a local nurse.
But in Persona 5, it is straight up. You can date older women, kiss them, and even (in the game's own sweet little off-camera way) sleep with them. And when I say "older" I don't mean older high school students, or college girls, I mean grown-arse professional women.
Let's meet them.
Easily the worst-dressed character in the entire game, Ohya is a hard-working reporter with a nose for the truth. She's also an alcoholic, and the majority of your confidant meetings will take place at night, in Tokyo's red light district, in a bar.
The bulk of your relationship revolves around you exchanging inside information on your supernatural exploits in exchange for positive press in the local paper.
Kawakami is your homeroom teacher at school, and is mostly responsible for your care while you're at school. She is also, by night, a maid, who offers house-cleaning services up-front, and implies...other services are available as well.
Call her around to your house enough times — in a maid uniform, after hours and alone in your room — and you can develop a relationship with her. Your teacher. Who is also a maid.
The local general practitioner, Takemi is living and working in exile, disgraced by a falling-out with her former employer. She is punk as hell and spends half the game feeding you experimental medicine that has drastic side-effects, sometimes knocking you out for hours at a time and leaving you with no memory of what took place.
These are your adult romance options in Persona 5. Three women at various crisis points in their careers and lows in their personal lives, desperate and lonely and vulnerable. And along come you, the player, a kid with a dangerous rep and a pretty haircut, ready to sit, listen to their problems and offer all the help they need, up to and including stealing the hearts of the men and women who have led to their downfall.
It's a messy situation for a number of reasons, one that gets you thinking a lot while you're playing through it — I personally found it a bit uncomfortable, especially when it comes to your teacher — and Persona doesn't back away from the complexity of the issue. On the one hand, it's wrong! On the other hand, the doctor is hot.
Kawakami's development through the game is actually one of the feel-good stories of Persona 5. Well, unless you do this...
Functionally, your relationships with these characters are no different than any other in the game. You spend time with them, you listen, you say the right things, you go some places with them, and over time your bonds of friendship will grow. Grow them enough and you'll be given the opportunity to take things further.
If you head down this path, all three women know what they're doing with you is not on the level, and all three are reluctant as heck to get sexually involved with a minor. Indeed, they will only do so after some extensive soul-searching and conversational probing, during which one "wrong" answer can banish you to the teenage friendzone.
And if they do submit to your charms, it's hard not to immediately think: what is going on here? This is a high school kid. With a grown-up. And we're dating, in front of other people. And doin' it. And while the age difference is significant, there's a sincere relationship that has developed here, over the course of dozens of hours of playing the game, in which our characters genuinely mean something to each other beyond just a physical rendezvous. There are lot of things to unpack.
Aside from the obvious moral considerations present, especially when it comes to dating your teacher, there are also legal issues! While Japan's national age of consent laws may seem generous on paper — it's a common internet myth that anyone 13 or over can have sex — in practice, the country has a myriad of local and prefectural laws that mean in Japan, like any other developed nation, it is against the law for an adult to have sex with a minor.
So technically speaking, and running with the idea that you're playing as a kid from Japan (a real country) attending a school in Tokyo (a real place), sleeping with these ladies isn't just an offbeat story direction, it's a criminal offence.
Handy reminder, since in our world this is some wrong shit.
And yet it's not, because Persona 5 is not a documentary. You ever wonder why games have those "this is a work of fiction" disclaimers? Here's a reason: because this game, by not being real, let you have sex with not one, but three women in circumstances which would normally be frowned upon (at best), but which within the confines of this game are considered entirely possible.
Which is why the doctor you can date happens to be a smokin' hot punk. And why the teacher you can date happens to also moonlight as a maid, that most well-worn of otaku tropes, and who is scruffy by day but cute as a button by night. These aren't meant to be real, believable characters. They're avatars, gate-keepers to more powerful abilities and perks, with their roles and personalities designed with one thing in mind: you might be playing as a kid, but not many kids play Persona.
Like I've said before, virtual time travel is half the appeal of this series. The vast majority of people playing this game are adults, who aren't living through Persona 5's calendar year, but looking back on it through the lens of their own high school experience. Only this isn't a simulation or biography, so instead of dwelling on bad lunches and bullying, we spend a year hanging out with cool and interesting friends.
Some of whom are around your age and spend time with you eating ramen and working out and studying. Others, like the ones we're talking about here, are adults there to exploit dormant teenage fantasies. You can say on the surface that a boy sleeping with his homeroom tutor is wrong, but Hot for Teacher wasn't written in a cultural vacuum.
Umm...sure thing, Doc.
Now, all this is coming from my perspective, as a heterosexual male who played the game as such. Would I see this differently were the protagonist a girl and the doctor, journalist and teacher all grown men? Or if the player had the option to pursue a gay relationship? Or if you were playing this as a woman and thinking, OK, Takemi is too pefect, but I wish I could be there for Ryuji?
So I asked Persona 5 fansite Kotaku.com's Gita Jackson whether she'd happened to have dated any of the older women in the game. She had. "The social link with Takemi sent me into this wild flashback of being a teenager and figuring out that I was queer", she says. "The first indicators to me that I wasn't straight was my fascination with Winona Ryder. She's a weird, confident, slightly butch woman — an adult woman who had more of a chance to figure out who she was than I had. I didn't know if I wanted to be her or wanted to be with her. The answer was a little bit of both.
"When I play Persona 5, the game so badly wants to transport me back into that high school mindset of experimentation and exploration, it's just very difficult for me not to want to date Takemi. I know I am actually playing a teenage boy having an inappropriate relationship with an adult, but it also feels like I am playing a version of myself that actually did ask out that cute, punk-y senior girl that I longed for as a freshman in high school. It's self indulgent — my taste in women really hasn't changed at all — but what is fiction for, but a bit of self indulgence?"
I also asked Deputy Editor Patricia Hernandez who she'd dated in the game, and it turns out that she'd also decided to pursue a relationship with Takemi. "It felt wrong, sure, but I also have a problem with Persona games where I feel compelled to romance everyone, even if it's a bad idea lmao".
Life comes at you fast.
There's a definite double standard at play here regarding Atlus' representation of these relationships, where teenage boys sleeping with older women can be accepted as a cougar fantasy, while girls get shamed for having any sort of sex life at all. The game itself (perhaps inadvertently) draws attention to this early on with the scandals involving Kamoshida, Ann and Shiho.
The underlying circumstances surrounding the relationships are wildly different, of course, but it's worth noting the way the game rightly tells us there's something hugely wrong when Kamoshida wants to sleep with Ann, but tones down that ethical issue when it involves you, a teen boy.
Meet the game's worst romance option.
Sex with a minor is taboo — and a serious crime — in the real world because it's implied that the relationship is predatory in nature, the result of an adult preying upon the vulnerabilities of a child. This is a big reason why, for example, Kamoshida comes across as being one of the game's most evil characters for the way he takes advantage of his students.
But when it comes to the male protagonist's relationships, Atlus takes a different approach, partly down to his gender, and partly down to who is responsible for his actions. You, the player, are (probably) an adult. You're behind the wheel of your character, this high school kid. The game lets you pick your name and constantly choose your conversation options, all with enough agency that you feel like you're making these calls, not the protagonist.
When you take that into account, your character's preternatural cool makes more sense. He isn't some naive high schooler, he has the decision-making abilities of a grown adult. In a sense, he's the one pursuing these reluctant women, taking advantage of their weaknesses. Depending on how you think of it, the power dynamic can shift completely.
Which brings us to the reminder that you don't have to have sex with these people. I know the design of the game and the lure of Persona fandom leads many to think like this, that sleeping with characters constitutes a checklist of sorts, but there is absolutely no change to the way the game plays if you sit back and think, you know what, this might be a bit much and I'll pass, thanks.
Like any other confidant relationship with a member of the opposite sex, there's the option to pursue a romance, but never a mandate. You can max the rank whether as lovers or friends, and get the same rewards and items for doing so.
Sure, the narrative outcomes will be different, but that's the same for every character you have the option to romance and decline. Some characters you'll be drawn to! Others you'll just want to hang out with as friends, regardless of their age.
As it happens, that's how I played the game. I actually got weirded out advancing down the confidant rankings with these women, especially once it became clear that the relationship had the potential to be more than a physical one, and ended up "dating" none of them. Indeed I'm glad I never went anywhere serious with Kawakami, because her story resolution seemed to work much better without me around.
Persona 5 is a really long game. It tackles so many real-world issues — high school, love, politics, art, workplace exploitation, sex, social anxiety — that it was bound to get some more right than others. Much of Persona 5 is nestled in a grey area, inviting you to talk it over with other people playing the game. So here we are, staring at a social-sexual Rorschach test, where the ink blots take the form of a punk doctor in fashionably distressed tights...