Persona Q: Shadow Of The Labyrinth is sensational.
In the interests of full disclosure, it was probably always going to be one of my favourite games of 2014. As an unabashed lover of the Etrian Odyssey series and everything Shin Megami Tensei-related, I'm right in the middle of Persona Q's target audience venn diagram, but this sensational crossover goes far beyond fan service. By blending Persona's great stories and characters with the peerless dungeon crawling of Etrian Odyssey, it stands proud as an utterly stupendous game in its own right and a highlight of the genre.
Persona Q brings the casts of Persona 3 and 4 into a single intricate narrative, allowing you to create your Dream Persona team out of 18 playable legendary characters from Yukari and Rise to Teddie and Junpei and everyone in between. At the outset you'll choose to assume the role of the protagonist of either game, which grants you a totally different perspective on the early story as the Investigation Team and Extermination Squad are brought together into a mysterious replica of a Yasogami High School. The only way out, it seems, is to embark into a series of mysterious dungeons known only as the Labyrinth, and to work together to discover the reasons behind their predicament.
The story works remarkably well considering its crazy crossover remit, and succeeds primarily by keeping things simple. Though there are some twisted themes and big concepts to explore, Persona Q hinges on a single powerful hook: solving the mystery of the labyrinth and why you've been summoned to it. This perfectly mirrors the primary gameplay goal of reaching the lowest level. The deeper you delve, the more you'll discover, a self-perpetuating cycle of exploration and discovery that keeps you glued to your handheld. Straightforward and devastatingly effective, though like any Persona game, the real meat of the narrative comes from the characters, who come complete with exceptional voice acting and assume some adorable new chibi stylings here.
Which leads me to my only real gripe with Persona Q, in that the cast are defined by their surface-level personality quirks as opposed to their underlying internal torment. For example, Kanji is a hardass with a heart of gold, but lacks the struggle over his sexuality that makes him such an interesting character. Chie kicks butt and loves meat, but her insecurity rarely shows through. Teddie is just a colossal pervert who hits on everything that moves. And while it's been years since I last played Persona 3, so I forget the fine detail, the same seems to be true for the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad too.
But by the same token, the cast worked through their issues in Persona 3 and 4. As a crossover Persona Q has neither the time nor luxury of being able to further develop the characters, and instead focuses on fun relationships between the two sets of party members, and still feels authentic as it does so. A few pieces of combat dialogue also reference each character's internal torment, such as Kanji's "I'll show you what a man I am" line when he's asleep. Either way, you'll still have a blast battling and hanging out with your
waifu old favourites.
Bringing us nicely onto the core gameplay, an adapted version of Etrian Odyssey's classic formula. Yasogami High acts as a hub of sorts with a shop that sells weapons, armour and items based on spoils you bring back, a healer, some useful facilities, quests to undertake and fun story asides from time to time. You'll use it as a base from which to sortie into the labyrinth, which consists of floors upon floors of intricately-constructed mazes, dead ends, treasure and traps. As always you'll explore these dungeon depths from a first person perspective, moving in cardinal directions, venturing into random battles and creating your own map of each floor as you go.
Persona Q showcases a meticulous and impressive attention to detail when it comes to its floor layouts. Not only are the gorgeous backgrounds and sprite art beautifully realised, tying into the underlying theme of each group of levels, but there are some fantastic puzzles and intricate hidden secrets to root out on every stage. Dangerous roaming FOE monsters challenge you to avoid them in increasingly tricky ways, using pattern recognition, tactics and even some lateral thinking to evade their unwinnable fights, but eventually allow you to return and satisfyingly put them down when you're strong enough.
Map creation is still a highlight, since you'll use the 3DS' lower screen to literally sketch out the grid-based dungeons as you go, annotating it with notes and marking secret shortcuts. The streamlined interface is the best we've seen in the series, and as always, you'll experience a satisfying thrill of making totally unknown territory your own that's unique to Etrian Odyssey. As a tip, though, don't shade in floor tiles manually, because stepping on every square in the dungeon rewards you with extra bonus chests. Working out where you haven't walked is a pain if you've already coloured it in!
Incredibly tough turn-based combat naturally makes a return. Once you've engaged in a random battle or boss fight, you'll be assaulted by dangerous foes with a host of powerful abilities and useful weaknesses, which you'll need to defend against and exploit with your own skills in order to pull through. An evolving arsenal of attacks, buffs, debuffs and spells are at your disposal, and you'll need to use them all strategically in order to survive, rationing your limited mana and health as you do so. Knowing when to push on and when to retreat back to base to lick your wounds is always a tough decision, and you'll have to make plenty of them. Once again, Etrian Odyssey proves itself as one of the most enjoyable and ruthlessly punishing dungeon crawlers on the market.
However, Persona Q goes beyond the traditional Etrian Odyssey formula with trademark features of its own. Chief amongst them, of course, being the characters.
Your 18-strong roster grants you a veritable smorgasbord of potential skills, builds and party formations to choose from. Though initially overwhelming, you can create some unique and impressive parties after accruing some hands-on experience, whether balanced or loaded to target specific weaknesses for boss fights. Like the original Persona games, Rise and Fuuka act as navigators with skills of their own, identifying enemy threats and accessing a range of useful support abilities.
The Persona cast also bring more life and energy to the proceedings too thanks to loads of great voice acting in and out of battle, story scenes, door opening cutscenes and dialogue, making the exploration feel personal and alive even compared to the cruelly under-rated Etrian Odyssey Untold.
Then the Personas improve things further. Each character can now freely equip a sub-Persona, which you'll accrue by collecting and fusing cards together while exploring the dungeons. Sub-Personas automatically adds extra HP and SP onto their summoner that replenishes after each fight, granting everyone a buffer zone of extra survivability that can take the sting out of long crawls, and allows you to train benched level-1 characters in the mid-game rather than leaving them in levelling limbo forever. Not only that, but each Persona also brings unique skills to the table, allowing you to round out a party in an area where they're weaker, or specialise a boss-hunting party even further.
It's a perfect example of meaningful depth, and a fascinating gameplay hook that remains relevant throughout the campaign. Unlike so many crossovers that pander to fans while putting in the least possible effort, Persona Q strives to excel in every facet of its gameplay and presentation, and to appeal equally to fans of dungeon crawling... or Persona... or Etrian Odyssey... or all of the above! Naturally, though, you'll need to accept that stern difficulty and a certain amount of grind is hard-coded into the genre itself.
Presentation-wise, though naturally not a patch on the crisp clarity of Persona 4: The Golden, Atlus have made the most of the 3DS hardware with a vibrant colour palatte and an eye for detail, while the chibi character designs are packed with personality and are a great fit or the platform. Excellent use of stereoscopic 3D rounds things out on the visual front, while the aforementioned exceptional voice acting and addictive battle music seal the deal on the whole package.
- Superb dungeon crawling, addictive exploration and tactical turn-based battles
- Magnificent cast of characters from P3 and P4, all of whom are playable
- Deep and versatile gameplay enhancements, from sub-Personas to map creation
- Enjoyable dialogue, compelling story and great voice acting
- Impressive 3DS visuals, catchy soundtrack and irrepressible personality
- Choosing and levelling a party can be overwhelming
- Grinding and strict difficulty is a key part of the genre - be prepared
- Characters primarily defined by surface-level quirks
The Short Version: Persona Q is the best of all possible worlds. Etrian Odyssey's masterful dungeon crawling goes hand-in-hand with the superb characters and great storytelling of the Persona series, resulting in a magnificent RPG that stands out on its own impressive merits.
One of the best crossover titles in years is handily one of the best games of 2014. The Q might as well stand for 'Quality.'
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS