When I began playing Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, I expected it to be a time-biding knockoff of the Persona franchise, meant to placate rabid fans until Persona 5 finally emerges and provides fresh meaning in our lives. (We Persona fans are a little intense, ok?) I admired the super-cute art style and was naturally pleased to see the familiar characters, but a crossover with Atlus' other long-running RPG series, Etrian Odyssey, didn't seem like a good fit, except perhaps as a marketing ploy.
I was completely, totally, utterly wrong. Persona Q is a brilliant game in its own right, more than able to take its place in the Persona lineage, taking the best elements of each franchise and combining them into an addictive, hour-devouring experience.
When you begin, you're asked to choose between the cast of Persona 3 or Persona 4, though it's a fairly superficial selection, as you'll meet the other team eventually, as well as a new duo, Zen and Rei. You're all trapped in an alternate version of your high school and won't be able to escape until you clear the various dungeons that seem to be keeping the doors to the real world locked. The story isn't overly robust, but you are given plenty of chances to "stroll" through the halls and chat with your classmates. It's not quite as satisfying as Persona's social links – bonuses earned by strengthening relationships – because you can't choose who you'd like to speak with and your socializing doesn't have much of an impact on the gameplay, but it's fun to watch the different casts interact and make references to their individual games. They're also fairly respectful about spoilers - neither team has completed their own game's investigation when the events of Persona Q happen, so no big secrets are given away.
The simplest way of explaining how Persona Q hybridizes its two parents is to say that it grabs the cast and combat of Persona and puts them in the first-person dungeons and difficulty of Etrian Odyssey. Though the characters of Persona will be immediately familiar to fans, the way they engage in turn-based combat has a new twist. In their own games, supporting characters like Chie and Koromaru each have a lone persona – a powerful deity of sorts that aids in combat – while the protagonist gets to go nuts with a whole bevy of personas at his disposal. In Persona Q, however, everyone, with the exception of Zen and Rei (who can't use personas at all), gets their main persona and one sub persona, opening up brand new skill opportunities for characters. Previously, the supporting cast was pretty stuck with what they could accomplish, but now the entire roster of skills is open to them, allowing for enormous flexibility when it comes to combat. Now Akihiko can do more than just develop his electric skills, he can be a healer, or Chie can deal devastating slash damage just by equipping the right sub-persona.
If the enemies of one dungeon (or even one area of one dungeon) are proving problematic, shuffle around combatants or personas until you have just the right mix of offensive and defensive options. Persona players tend to find a team and stick to them no matter what, but the mechanics of Persona Q encourage experimentation. Every Persona player has their favorite party that they tend to stick with no matter what, so having such incentive to break that mold and play around with different lineups adds new excitement to the otherwise pleasantly familiar combat.
A more dramatic change for Persona players comes in the dungeons themselves, which are no longer randomly generated, but instead carefully laid out in the Etrian Odyssey style and filled with secret passages, conveyer belts, traps, and FOEs - unusually strong enemies that are usually best circumvented, rather than confronted. Also like Etrian Odyssey, the only map to guide you on your first-person quest is the one you draw yourself. You'll have to carefully map out each dungeon using the stylus and touch screen, marking down each turn, door, staircase and treasure box. All that cartography isn't just to help you get around, though, as each dungeon has a deluxe-item holding treasure chest that will only open when you've explored 100% of the layout. Okay, that's not quite true - you can cheat and use Play Coins to pop it open, but the more you've explored, the less money you'll have to shell out.
The dungeons aren't just hallways and rooms where you fight monsters, they're environmental puzzles that must be solved in order for you to progress. While you can fall into a rhythm with the combat, the dungeons themselves require your constant attention as you wend your way through their obstacles, and solving a thorny navigation conundrum produces as much a feeling of victory as toppling a difficult enemy. Navigating the dungeons is actually fun, instead of just being how you get from fight to fight. Constantly encountering random battles when you're just trying to suss the pattern of a FOE's movement can be mildly aggravating and make the game feel overly repetitious, but battles can usually be escaped if you can't be bothered just then.
Another holdover from Etrian Odyssey is the series' trademark difficulty. Persona Q is more difficult than its Persona brethren, if only because healing costs and arm, a leg, and maybe some teeth, too. You also won't have a way to replenish your Skill Points without costly items until fairly far into the game, either. Each trip to the Nurse's office for healing costs you, with each successive trip costing more, no matter how injured you are. FOEs are also very challenging, even once you've leveled up a great deal, but the rewards for defeating them are handsome. Navigating through one of Persona Q's immense dungeons is a slow, labor-intensive process that will steadily wear down your party, forcing you to head to the Nurse's office, pay for healing, and return to retrace your steps.
This cycle of explore, heal, retrace can be frustrating when all you want to do is make progress, and sometimes the dungeons seem to stretch on forever. The game seems to recognize that its dungeons are a bit exhausting, though, and peppers little respites in throughout, letting the gang take a break to chat or even go on a group date. These small moments of personality and charm are what will differ, depending on which cast you chose at the beginning of the game. If you choose to start with the gang from Persona 4, for example, you can expect to hear a lot about Teddie's failed attempts at romance and Chie's bizarre passion for meat. These little moments are a nice touch, and help take the edge off of the grind.
Not all of your time will be spent in the dungeon, however, as the otherworldly Velvet Room returns, allowing for persona fusion. In fusion, two or more personas are combined to make a new, more powerful creature, opening up loads of opportunities to mix and match skill sets. The options at your fingertips once you've collected even a handful of personas are immense, allowing for pretty much any playstyle you'd like to pursue. The learning curve is a wee bit steep if you don't know the ins and outs of persona-slinging, but they're lessons well worth learning. Understanding the ebb and flow of combat, and which kinds of personas you'll want to try and fuse, takes time, and Persona Q doesn't go out of its way to help you figure things out, but once you do begin to grasp how it all works, fusion is incredibly gratifying.
"But Susan," I hear you asking, "what if I don't care about enjoyable, flexible gameplay and am only interested in superficial qualities?" First, I'm glad you're so honest about yourself, it's very healthy. Secondly, Persona Q not only has fantastic music and first-rate voice work from the previous casts, but it's also looks great. The characters have been converted into super-cutesy chibi versions of themselves, and the personas and enemies are still as bizarre and imaginative as ever. Even the tools to draw your maps are well-thought out, allowing you to easily translate the landscape into the symbols and colors that make sense to you.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is an enormous dungeon crawl that will devour huge swaths of your time (80 hours, easy, and more if you want to try starting with both casts) - and you'll be happy to let it. Though it occasionally feels grindy, each new area is a refreshing challenge, and the ease with which you can mix up your party prevents your trips through the dungeons from ever getting stale. It's a brilliant combination of elements that I never would've thought suited each other, but fit so well that I'm having trouble ever picturing them apart. I picked it up because hey, it's Persona, but I couldn't put it down because it's excellent.
This review is based on an eShop download of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, provided by Atlus. Images: Atlus.
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