Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

"Persona Q is still a great game, but there were just a couple of things that held me back from double loving it."

You don't need to know me for very long before you learn that I adore the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, and in particular, I love the Persona series within it. Of the current Persona titles, Persona 3 and Persona 4 are more certainly the fan favorites. I also love the Etrian Odyssey series, but to a lesser extent. You can guess I was pretty thrilled when I heard that Atlus were making a Persona and Etrian Odyssey crossover game featuring the casts of Persona 3 and 4. So what do I think now that I have it in my hands? Is it 14203 Nintendo blocks of perfection or does it just fall short of the amazing standard set by previous Persona games?

Depending on which protagonist you choose at the start of the game (the choice being between the Persona 3 or Persona 4 protagonists), events will transpire slightly differently. If you choose the Persona 4 protagonist like me, you will begin the game during the school culture festival where our pals the Investigation Team hear a mysterious bell toll. This bell isn't dismissing them from school, though — they instead find themselves trapped. Choosing the Persona 3 protagonist will let you follow the SEES gang, who find themselves in the Velvet Room (Elevator) on a journey to a now-accessible labyrinth within the various Culture Festival attractions at Yasogami High.

Don't worry too much about which team you decide to follow in the beginning, though, as both groups meet up and decide to work together to unravel the mysteries surrounding the labyrinth after the first dungeon. With the help of the two brand new amnesiac characters unique to Persona Q, Zen and Rei, that is. Both Zen and Rei are found in the labyrinth with no memories of who they are and seem to have been there for as long as they can remember. A particularly interesting note is that neither Zen or Rei are Persona users, and Zen can even battle shadows without one while Rei gives support. The plot revolves around exploring the labyrinths and seeking a way out of extra-curricular purgatory and, by extension, unearthing the locked memories within Zen and Rei. As for actual plot, there isn't a whole lot of it, as the game clearly focuses on character fan service rather than telling a complex and compelling story.

Zen and Rei to me each represent the two different casts. Where Zen is dark and brooding, serious and objective focused, Rei is bright and bubbly, more content with having a good time with friends and enjoying lots (I mean lots) of good food. They fit right in with the gangs and don't seem out of place, which can often be a problem when new characters are established in sequels are crossovers. But while they are enjoyable to an extent, each essentially boils down to a single characteristic that gets very annoying over time. Zen doesn't understand these things us humans call "emotions," and Rei is obsessed with food.

This leads me to perhaps my biggest complaint about the game. These one-note characters aren't just specific to Zen and Rei, it applies to the entire cast. Every character has their personality distilled into one quirk, and every time they speak, they are displaying said quirk. This is a symptom of having a such huge roster of characters in a single game, but it doesn't change the fact that as you play, it begins to dawn on you that these aren't the characters you know and love after all — they are more like dolls with pull-strings on the back, and when you pull them they parrot out something that sounds like something they would say.

Some characters suffered more than others with this problem, but I might even say that one or two benefited from it. For example, Margaret (who is something of an enigma personality-wise in the original Persona 4) is portrayed more like a bored teenage older sister with a touch of frost in Persona Q. I felt like I could actually attribute Margaret a personality, where I don't feel like I could have before I had played this game. As a negative, beloved characters such as Mitsuru, Akihiko, Teddie and Chie all suffer greatly from this dumbing down. Mitsuru doesn't seem like herself much at all, constantly talking about "executing" people for minor infractions, and while Teddie was always an attempted womanizer, he only opens his mouth to flirt with the girls this time around. Chie and Akihiko both only talk about meat and protein respectively and never say anything of particular import.

Gripes aside, character interactions are really fun and often pretty hilarious, and there is lots of opportunity to have the characters interact. Not only is there a Stroll option in the menu when you are outside of dungeons, which lets you hang around Yasogami and witness various skits, there are lots of interactions in the dungeon themselves. At a dead-end in the maze, there is always something, and if it's not treasure or some specific event to progress in that labryinth, it's almost certainly an extra skit between the characters. Best of all, these skits can even unlock hidden sidequests you can undertake in the Nurses Office. In my opinion, the game deserves to exist just for the friendship that grows between Kanji and Ken.

Exploring these labyrinths is completely Etrian Odyssey, and they are perhaps the most interesting and dynamic labyrinths in Etrian Odyssey history. On the surface, it is much the same: you are exploring a grid-based dungeon, drawing your map on the bottom screen as you go, discovering secret shortcuts and treasure and avoiding the dangerous boss-strength enemies called FOEs. What makes Persona Q so interesting is the level of complexity of the dungeons, with every floor essentially being one giant puzzle you have to solve to continue.

I'm not the greatest with puzzle solving, but I've managed to complete every Etrian Odyssey to date without getting any help. Persona Q, on the other hand, really made me wish I wasn't playing a review copy, so I could look on the Internet for help. The dungeon layout themselves weren't an issue, but there is a particular labyrinth in the game which gives you a bunch of cryptic clues to unlock the doors of each floor, and to be honest I would probably still be stuck on them if the game hadn't seen that I was completely baffled by it and gave me the answer. The problem is that when I was given the answer, I felt like it was unfair to expect me to have come to that conclusion given the meager and vague clues provided. Apart from that single dungeon though, most labyrinths were a joy to explore.

The battle system is probably the thing that mixes the most of the two franchises. While the art style and music is all Persona and the exploration is all Etrian Odyssey, I feel like battle system is a nice blend of the two. In battle, you have a choice of any five characters from both casts, and each plays a little differently; Chie has high physical attack and critical hit skills but isn't very good with magic attacks and is weak to fire skills, while Mitsuru is great with Ice Magic but has pretty poor defenses. Like Etrian Odyssey, there is a row system where short range characters can't perform attacks very well from the back row. This means that characters with short range weapons (such as both of the main characters, who wield swords) aren't going to hit very hard with their attacks from the back row, while ranged characters like Yukari (who uses a bow) will hit just as hard. What I found interesting was that just because a character's weapon makes them more suited for the front row, it doesn't mean they should be there. For example, the Persona 3 protagonist is actually very apt with magic and doesn't have much attack power, so his regular attacks wouldn't be worth using most of the time anyway, and thus I put him on the back row for greater effect.

The thing everyone wants to know about is how Personas work in this game, right? Well, it's certainly a bit different this time around. Instead of just the Protagonists being able to switch personas, everyone is able to do that in addition to using their usual fixed persona. This includes the Protagonists, who are locked into Orpheus and Izanagi respectively. The characters' Main Persona is the one which decides their stats, elemental affinity, and the skills they learn, while the Sub Persona grants additional HP and SP as well as skills. The additional HP and SP is a really clever mechanic, as it more like an HP and SP "shield" rather than just a flat boost. Every battle, this "shield" gets renewed, allowing you to use it up again for skills and such. It makes long dungeon exploration less stressful, as you aren't necessarily on a timer before you run out of SP and have to retreat. That said, battles do offer a degree of difficulty that will often send you back to the Nurses Office headed up by Elizabeth for healing.

New personas are obtained either from battles or by fusing them together in the Velvet Room, of which Margaret is now the temporary master, and should be very familiar to Persona veterans. It's an interesting system, but perhaps a bit restrictive, as personas cannot be changed mid-battle and do not offer anything substantial other than different skills. I often held onto personas that were 10 levels below my current level without hindrance just because their skills were better than anything I could make at the time. I also found the characters' main personas a bit lacking in their variety of skills.

Our two supporting ladies, Rise and Fuuka, are also able to equip personas, but they are able to use only specific skills designed for their special support personas. Some skills aid exploration, recovering HP as you walk and upping the rate of rare material drops, while some are battle-specific, letting you use skills that heal or increase stats. The resource used for these skills is a bar that can be stacked up to five times by dealing damage to enemies. I recommend creating a dedicated exploration persona and a dedicated battle persona and letting either Fuuka or Rise do their respective job, as this gives you the maximum amount of usable skills.

Persona Q's music is just as high quality as you would expect from a Persona title. Not only do we get throwbacks to tracks from Persona 3 and 4, but we get excellent new tracks interspersed throughout. It always puts a smile on my face when the game uses not only certain characters to inspire nostalgia but the soundtrack is put to work perfectly to achieve this goal as well.

I love Persona. I love Etrian Odyssey. So, does this mean I double love Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth? Not quite. If I spent only 10 hours playing Persona Q, I would have been prepared to slap on an Editors Choice award, give it 100% and be ready to move on. In reality, I played closer to 60 hours of this title and that amount of time is enough to shatter even my rose-tinted fanboy glasses and let me see some of the flaws. Persona Q is still a great game, but there were just a couple of things that held me back from double loving it.


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