Persona Q is such an unlikely game, that when you are playing it, there’s a moment when the surreality of it all suddenly hits you- here you are, playing a Persona game (a series that, as far as the role playing games go, has been exclusive to PlayStation for nearly two decades now) on a Nintendo platform; a game that addresses the biggest complaint of Persona games (banal and tedious dungeon crawling).
A game that celebrates Atlus’ biggest successes in Persona 3 and Persona 4 by bringing their two casts together in an interdimensional game that has the casts collide and clash, and come together in a story that truly serves as a fitting farewell to them before we move on to Persona 5 next year; and a game that, in celebrating modern Persona, inadvertently also ends up paying homage to classic Persona by reverting to the first person view that was a mainstay of the very first Persona game.
It’s an unlikely game, and for a long time, as you play it, you find yourself questioning if you are playing it because of all of this, which makes it appeal to you uniquely as a Persona fan, or because the underlying game design is actually fun and compelling on its own.
I’ve been playing the game for over a month now, and I still don’t know. All I know is that I want to keep playing it, and then go back again to play it more.
"It's an unlikely game, and for a long time, as you play it, you find yourself questioning if you are playing it because of all of this, which makes it appeal to you uniquely as a Persona fan, or because the underlying game design is actually fun and compelling on its own."
Before we go any further, let’s tell you what Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is. It is basically a Persona re-skinning of Atlus’ hardcore, cult popular dungeon crawling franchise, Etrian Odyssey. As such, this is a Persona game that features a lot of elements that you probably have never seen in the series before- you have to maintain your own maps in dungeons, for example, and your party makeup and formation is now crucial to your success.
Knowing when to cut your losses and run is equally important, as many foes you will run into are simply way out of your league, and mana and resource conservation is extremely important as well. With this Etrian Odyssey-fication of Persona, a lot of Persona elements that you are used to are also gone- there is no time management, no social links, no extra curricular activities. It’s a game squarely focused on the dungeon crawling.
But on the other hand, this is still every bit a Persona game, and the personality of Persona permeates it on every level. It is often said one plays Persona not for the gameplay, which can be described as average at best (though I disagree with that assessment, but let’s not digress), but for the characters, the story, and the excellent soundtrack. And Persona Q heavily benefits from all three of those- by bringing together the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4, it has over a dozen incredible characters to draw from, two very compelling protagonists, a story that starts out as throaway and gradually evolves into something that really ties Persona 3 and Persona 4 together excellently, and along the way, also benefits from some of the best music a dungeon crawler has seen yet.
Indeed, Persona Q succeeds the most as a tribute to all things Persona 3 and 4, in spite of all of its Etrian Odyssey trappings. All the characters you know and love are back, except now all of a sudden, there are new permutations and combinations of character interactions to account for, as the two casts make their way through the story together.
All the goofiness that you loved from Persona 3 and 4 is back, and the game is liberally peppered and sprinkled with references to those two games. The music stands as a stirring revisiting of those two excellent soundtracks, and nets us what might just be our best 3DS soundtrack yet (considering this is a system with Fire Emblem: Awakening, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Super Smash Bros., and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, that really is saying something). The dialog is sharp and witty, and will often have you in splits, the voice acting is exemplary. And the first time the Persona 3 and 4 protagonists show up in the same frame, it’s positively chilling.
"This is still every bit a Persona game, and the personality of Persona permeates it on every level."
And even though the social links are gone, the game still makes concessions to character interactions and characterization, that it knows and understands are Persona’s greatest strength- sometimes (although not very often), you will be able to go and take a ‘stroll’ with certain characters in the game, and in the interactions that ensue, you will not only learn more about them (especially in this new context), but get to see more of Persona’s exemplary characterization, that enhances the story in so many ways.
So much for the Persona parts, but Etrian Odyssey fans might be wondering if they’ve been given the short end of the stick. Happily enough, that is not the case. Where Persona’s strengths are its music, its characters, and its storytelling, Etrian Odyssey benefits from hardcore dungeon crawling, mapping, resource management, and battle strategies, and all of that has been showcased here, without it compromising on Persona’s strengths or vice versa.
You still pick parties of five and go into dungeons, and how effective your party is depends not just on who you pick, but how you arrange them in a battle formation, what equipment they have, and what ‘sub’-Persona they have equipped (since each character can now equip up to two Personae). You still have to map out your dungeon on the touch screen (though if you would rather not, Atlus gives you a simplified mode where the map fills itself out, and you just have to put markers any time you run into something of interest).
You still have to harvest resources, you still have to make sure you don’t bite on more than you can chew, you still have to make your way through befuddling and cunningly contrived dungeons that are far beyond anything Persona has ever attempted (seriously, just the first floor of the first dungeon in the game is probably far more complex than any dungeon period in a Persona game). You still need to learn to cut your losses, run and heal. You need to know how to conserve you mana and resources. You need to take advantage of character classes.
The Etrian Odyssey side even benefits from the Persona side- Persona fusion adds another, entirely new layer of complexity to the mix. A ‘Leader’ skill lets you re-configure your attack order mid battle without losing a turn. Elemental weakness exploitation, which has always been a hallmark of Shin Megami Tensei and Persona, returns here, and is synthesized into something altogether new- instead of getting one more turn when you attack an enemy’s weakness, you enter a ‘super enhanced’ state, where you get to go first the next turn, and your attacks don’t cost any mana or HP (potentially leading to long, chained combos). If enough people are in this state, you even get to launch Persona 3 and 4’s trademark All Out Attacks.
"What I am trying to say here is, somehow it all works. I'm not sure how, but Persona and Etrian Odyssey come together in a beautiful blend, a symbiotic relationship where each actually benefits from the other and comes together to create something that is wholly unique and more than the sum of its parts."
What I am trying to say here is, somehow it all works. I’m not sure how, but Persona and Etrian Odyssey come together in a beautiful blend, a symbiotic relationship where each actually benefits from the other and comes together to create something that is wholly unique and more than the sum of its parts. The fact that the game just represents such great value- it can take upwards of 50 hours (and closer to 80 or 90) to complete the game, and you’re still not done, because the game makes you pick which protagonist you want to play as at the beginning, and you can always go back and have a second playthrough on the other path- means that this game more than pays for itself.
Oh yes, there are some problems for sure- the game is terrifyingly difficult and punishing, and newcomers might be scared off, in spite of the fact that there is a difficulty mode that is very literally titled ‘Picnic.’ Sometimes the dungeons tend to get too long, and you may be forced to go for hours without getting to save (which, on a handheld especially, is a cardinal sin).
The fact that movement is mapped to the D-pad, while the analog stick basically goes to waste (and with no option to re-map either) is baffling. In some instances, Persona Q can come off as too pandering or trying too hard. The game’s focus on the two new characters that it introduces, Rei and Zen, often hurts it. And the chibi style graphics may not necessarily be to your taste.
But it works in spite of all of that. It comes together as a love letter to Persona fans, while also giving them something wholly unique, and, hopefully, forward looking. In a lot of ways, I look at Persona Q, and I hope that Persona 5 takes some cues from it, notably in terms of dungeon design, and the combat innovations Q brings to the series. In many ways, Persona Q is the perfect game for fans- it pays tribute to them and to what they love, while also keeping one eye squarely trained on the future.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS.
The battle system, the soundtrack, the characterization, the story and storytelling which, amazingly enough, actually works, the dungeon design, the symbiosis of Persona and Etrian Odyssey.
Dungeons can often get too long, leading to long stretches without save points; the game often comes off as trying too hard; the controls are obtuse and cannot be re-mapped; the chibi graphics are hit or miss; it can be extremely punishing for newcomers.