Don’t let the cute chibi characters fool you; this is one heck of a challenging game.
Atlus knows its fan base so well it’s become an art form. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is an insane mash-up of the casts from Persona 3 and Persona 4 placed in the dungeon-crawling world of Etrian Odyssey and chibi-fied. Right from the start, the game is a high-energy blast that really feels at home on the 3DS. While some things feel a little truncated for the portable console, it’s still a solid title that fans of both Persona and Etrian Odyssey fans can get lost in.
Players get to choose from five difficulties and two perspectives of the story to play from: Persona 3 or 4. The main points are pretty much the same once the two teams inevitably meet up, but the intro and first dungeon will focus solely on the chosen team’s unique circumstances. Persona 3’s cast are mysteriously transported to the infamous Velvet Room and wind up in a twisted version of Persona 4’s Yasogami High. The latter version actually takes place mid-way through their original story, during the cultural festival, but the school turns into the same shadow version the Persona 3 team is trapped in. Both teams soon run into the serious Zen and the food-obsessed Rei, two students also trapped but without their memories.
The first dungeon/labyrinth takes over the cultural festival’s Alice in Wonderland-themed maze. This is where Etrian Odyssey really shines through: players move through the dungeon one space at a time. The touch screen displays a grid that can be filled out by the player using icons and drawing tools. Steps taken in the dungeon can be automatically shaded in on the map, but secret passages, doors, special power spots, etc, all need to be marked so the map makes sense. Enemy encounters are mostly random; a colored meter at the bottom of the screen lets you know how likely an encounter is but there is no way to really avoid them. Unfortunately, whether the player or enemy has the advantage in a battle also seems to be random and can really wipe out a team quickly if they are already low on health.
F.O.E.’s are the only enemy that can be seen and avoided when exploring. In Wonderland, they take the form of giant card soldiers and their movement is always predictable and can be marked on your map. These enemies are seriously tough and can take a well-leveled team over 10 minutes to defeat. Luckily they can be easily avoided or distracted by turning red roses white (staying true to their literary roots of course). After facing a boss and joining up with the alternate Persona crew, one of the Velvet Room’s four locks will break, sending the incredibly large 19-student team on a hunt to find three other labyrinths, one for each lock.
These labyrinths are no laughing matter. Compared to the original Persona series, enemies are stronger and appear more often, and since your team is larger, it takes time to build up everyone as you can only explore with teams of five. Careful grinding is necessary no matter what, as every defeat means the game restarts back to the last save point with only the map’s progress protected, all new experience points and collected treasure gone. Fuka and Rise do return as support characters though and each can be customized with unique skills to help the player such as by revealing treasure, guaranteeing escape from difficult battles and increased attack and defense.
A welcome addition to the game is the introduction of sub-personas. All characters, including both protagonists this time, are locked into a singular main persona, but the power of the wild card in this shadow realm has given the team the ability to call upon a second, sub-persona. Before a battle, players can choose from a list of personas they won through battle to assign to each member. This helps fills in any weaknesses a character may have, or can add an elemental ability an arranged team may be missing. At the end of each battle, both personas receive experience points and can learn new abilities when they level up.
Battling works mostly the same as in past Persona games: players choose the entire team’s attacks one character at a time and then watch the result as they play out in a turn-based manner based on the speed of each character and enemy. There are three types of physical attacks and six elemental skill attacks that use up skill points (SP). However, enemies won’t stun as easily as before, which keeps them from attacking back, and stunning won’t guarantee the advantage for an all-out attack anymore. On the bright side, targeting a weakness will result in a boosted character. This boost enables the character to use skill attacks without having to pay any HP or SP and can be repeatedly triggered. This is so important to utilize in battle as there is no easy way to replenish SP throughout a labyrinth.
Battling requires a lot of strategy. Different levels in labyrinths favor certain enemies with weaknesses that must be prepared for with a strong team. If you only focus on leveling a single group of characters, they may become useless on the next floor when new types of enemies attack that another group is better suited for. Each player has their own weakness and can be better placed in the front or back with careful consideration for their health or physical attack’s reach. Careful use of sub-personas can even add SP or HP to a player that may be lacking.
There isn’t much to explore outside of the labyrinths and this is where Persona Q falls short. The main school setting only offers a menu that take players to single rooms used for a distinct purpose, usually involving a member of the Velvet Room. Players can sell treasure to be made into new equipment by Theo, Elizabeth will heal a team for a price, but also offer rewards for completing various requests of hers, and personas can be fused together into new, stronger entities with Margaret. Unfortunately, the main element that really shaped the Persona series, the school life and adherence to a calendar system, are sadly missing from this game. There is an option to take a stroll, and while these result in funny and informative scenes between characters, there are no choices to be made. Previously players had to wander the school and city, carefully deciding who to hang out with and bond between as each session caused time to pass, restricting the amount of social interactions that could be done in a day and throughout the whole game. It was impossible to bond with everyone fully, and as these friendships strengthened certain persona types, tough choices had to be made. However, strolls in Persona Q have no benefit whatsoever except to try and bring in the social touches of the past games.
For the most part, this is a pure dungeon-crawling adventure merged with only certain elements of the Persona series and some limited romantic and friendship dialogue can be chosen as characters chat during dungeon exploration. However, everything that is included in this game is done extremely well. All personas are redrawn to stylistically fit together better, the overall aesthetic of the game is fun and detailed, and the music changes to fit the events of the game. Different levels in a labyrinth get their own look and feel with mood music to match, keeping the mazes fresh and interesting to explore. Downloadable bonus add-ons and StreetPass have also been added. StreetPass allows players to obtain customized personas from other systems.
While deviating from the main series, Atlus definitely took their first Nintendo Persona title seriously. The main story easily can take over 40 hours to complete, not to mention the replay value from using the three different save slots to play from the perspective of the other team. The visual look is fun and thoughtfully designed, the gameplay is challenging and calls for a fair amount of planning and thought and the return of two Persona casts brings humor and interest to the overall plot and exploration. If key elements from the Persona series had been included, this very well may have been a perfect game, but for old and new fans alike, Persona Q is still guaranteed to stand out as a unique and exciting game.