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Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Platform(s): Nintendo 3DS
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: Nov. 25, 2014


3DS Review - 'Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 22, 2014 @ 2:15 a.m. PST

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a cross-over for the 3DS that brings Persona 3 and 4 characters to the gameplay style of Etrian Odyssey.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a fusion of Etrian Odyssey and Persona, bringing the characters and mechanics from the Persona franchise into the dungeon-crawling adventure of Etrian Odyssey. It's mostly a good mix, but it's not consistent throughout the game.

Persona Q is set roughly around the mid-point of both Persona 3 and Persona 4. A space-time distortion brings the cast of both titles to a school that resembles Yasogami High. It's the middle of a cultural festival, and the school is dominated by a giant clock tower that isn't really there. The combined casts meet a pair of lost students named Rei and Zen, who are trying to find a way to leave the distorted Yasogami High. The only way out is to venture into labyrinths that have themes involving the various cultural festival events. The labyrinths are deadly and filled with Shadows. If the two groups of heroes can't find their way to the bottom, they'll never return home again.

The plot is cute but pretty simplistic. It serves as an excuse to have the cast members from Persona 3 and Persona 4 in the same title. The writing is better than Persona 4: Arena, and there are some fun character interactions.  However, with the full cast of two games to contend with, Persona Q tends to paint characters in the broadest strokes. For some, like the Persona 3 cast, this works in their favor and injects them with a little more life. Others suffer heavily from it. Teddie, who is pretty cute and charming in Persona 4, devolves into being a one-note horndog, and Aigis is permanently stuck in Robot mode. The new characters, Zen and Rei, are fun, but Rei spends 90% of her dialogue making food jokes. The main story gets rather dark, though it's in a fitting manner. The ending is a slight letdown in comparison, but the journey is worth it.

Combat in Persona Q is very clearly based off the Etrian Odyssey engine. You have a front line and a back line, with various attacks targeting only one or both. Your goal is to take down your enemy's HP before they take down yours. The combat system will feel very familiar to Persona fans. It's, aside from the addition of a row system, almost unchanged from the mainline games. There's still a heavy focus on targeting enemy elemental weaknesses, but there are some minor changes. Etrian Odyssey fans may notice the combat is simpler. There's less emphasis on setting up attack synergies and more on straight-up attacking. Certain mechanics, such as Binds and Circles, have been ported to the combat system.

Persona Q adds an unusual wrinkle to the Persona system. In Persona 3 and Persona 4, every character had a distinct and unchanging Persona except the main character, who could swap at will. In Persona Q, every character, including both protagonists, has a default Persona and can also equip a Sub-Persona, which do not have any impact on stats or elemental strengths or weaknesses. Instead, Sub-Personas have two uses: providing an additional skill slots for your characters (skills are transferred between Persona during fusions) and providing an HP and SP boost (it refreshes instantly outside of combat).

This adds an interesting twist to combat. SP and HP costs are significantly higher in Persona Q than they are in the main games. Early on, casting a handful of simple fire and ice spells completely drains your character. This is balanced by the new Boost mechanic, which replaces the Once More mechanic from the main Persona games. Hitting an enemy's elemental weakness or getting a critical strike, puts a character into Boost state. During this time, their next ability costs 0 SP or HP, and that character always acts first. Boosts can be chained together, so as long as your next attack hits the weakness, you'll continue to have no SP or HP cost for the attacks. If you get hit or use an attack that doesn't hit a weakness, you'll lose the state and its benefits. This turns combat into a game of focusing on weaknesses and avoiding the use of SP. HP is easier to refill and provides a comfortable buffer zone for attacks. There are even elemental-based physical attacks that you can chain together.

The dungeon design is taken straight out of the Etrian Odyssey series. Players are placed in pre-generated mazes to explore. It even borrows the mapping system from Etrian Odyssey, although it has received some upgrades to be more user-friendly. The dungeons are pretty large and riddled with shortcuts, puzzles and side-quests. While this may bring to mind images of the punishing dungeons of Strange Journey, it shouldn't. The dungeons in Persona Q are light and friendly: Damage tiles are incredibly rare, traps and teleport mazes are almost unseen, and shortcuts are plentiful.

The bulk of the challenge comes from the FOEs, which are sub-bosses who roam dungeons. Some charge you if they spot you, some hop around in odd patterns, some are terrified or enraged by fire, and so on. The bulk of the game involves avoiding these enemies until you're strong enough to take them on. Each of the dungeons has a set of FOEs, and the core dungeon design is focused on avoiding them in various ways. It's an engaging way to handle dungeon-crawling, as any Etrian Odyssey fan can tell you. Manipulating and exploiting the FOEs to get where you need to go is quite thrilling.

Persona Q has one major problem: It's absurdly easy. A big part of this is in the unusual mesh of Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey mechanics. If you've played either game, there are certain powers that are incredibly strong in both: buffs, debuffs, multihit physical attacks, and status effects. Having the two combined only amplified the power of these abilities. The status effect Panic trivializes a tremendous amount of the game. As soon as it hits, it renders the enemy confused and removes their ability to dodge attacks. Stick this on anything, from the weakest foe to the terrifying Reaper, and then you'll be able to stack some buffs and debuffs on top. There are some cool move sets that take time to build up, but they end up being weaker in the end.

From a gameplay perspective, the biggest issue is the Hama and Mudo line of spells. Hama and Mudo have always been very powerful spells. If they hit, they instantly kill their enemy. Their highest-level abilities were the key to some powerleveling strategies in Persona 3 and Persona 4. Here, they're even more excessive. The majority of enemies is vulnerable to Hama and Mudo, which means you can hit them with it. In Persona 3 or Persona 4, Hama and Mudo spells cost a lot of SP, and more things were resistant to them. Here, the Sub-Persona system means you can cast spells in every fight without running low on SP. It makes the random encounters pretty dull, so after the second dungeon or so, I didn't bother checking my enemy defenses because Hama and Mudo goes through almost anything in a flash.

Unfortunately, the easy of the game also devalues the cool dungeon design. Every dungeon is designed with the assumption that you're going to avoid the FOEs until later in the game. They're threats you have to puzzle around, but thanks to Panic, you can brute-force your way through the majority of the puzzles. It's nice to have the option, but in many cases, it was simpler to kill my way through rather than take the longer puzzling route. After the first dungeon, there was not a single FOE I couldn't effortlessly kill upon my first encounter. Even the Reaper, who the game treats as a tremendous threat, went down. That led to some awkward cut scenes where my character described the terror they felt of an enemy I had already killed five times in a row. Not even the higher difficulty modes helped, since the problem involves either insta-killing or permanently locking down enemies.

To the game's credit, it is easy in a lot of user-friendly ways. Characters call out shortcuts if they spot them, NPCs remind you if you head into a dungeon without an escape item, and requests are carefully tailored to make sure you understand what you need. One thing that is both a plus and a minus is that certain puzzles will be auto-solved if you go too long without the correct solution. It's nice since some puzzles are ridiculous, but it's frustrating to have Naoto pop up and tell you the answer if you don't want it. The game may feel a little hand-holdy for Etrian Odyssey veterans, but it does a great job of streamlining the mechanics for Persona fans.

Persona Q's graphical style uses cute super-deformed versions of the characters with 3-D models. It's actually a step up from Etrian Odyssey's static sprites, but it's a step down from Persona 4 Golden's full-sized models. Still, it's a cute-looking game, if one with a somewhat unwieldy user interface. Of course, the standout is the music. Both the dungeon songs and the battle themes are excellent and capture the pop aesthetic of Persona quite well. The voice acting is a mixed bag. Most of it isn't bad, but some of the recasted voices stand out like a sore thumb.

Persona Q is an interesting fusion of two of Atlus' larger franchises. The dungeons are fun to explore, the battles are fun to fight, and it certainly feels like it carries the strengths of both games. Yet It is just awkward enough that it won't be a true replacement for Etrian Odyssey V or Persona V. It's a great introduction to both franchises for fans who've tried one and not the other, and on its own merits, it's a reasonably fun dungeon-crawler. A remarkably low difficulty level and some awkward design choices really hold back the game.

Score: 8.0/10

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