Welcome to this wild maze!
Some concoctions will leave you feeling sick to your stomach. You need look no further than Yukiko Amagi’s culinary misadventures for proof of that. Other pairings seem to work far better than they probably should, like Atlus RPG fusion Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.
The title blends two of the studio’s prized franchises, Persona and Etrian Odyssey, unifying disparate types of role-playing games into a cohesive and complementary experience.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth (Nintendo 3DS)
Released: November 25, 2014
Persona Q begins with a choice, giving players the option to begin the journey as either Persona 3‘s Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad or the Persona 4 Investigation Team. The crews will eventually link up and cross paths with a pair of mysterious new faces, Zen and Rei, rendering the decision of slight importance beyond the title’s primary dungeon.
Regardless of which fork you wander down, the title sees a band of familiar persona-users trapped in an alternate version of P4‘s Yasogami High School. The story takes place in media res for both parties, carefully allowing Atlus to walk a line where devout fans get plenty of nods without spoiling anything major for series newcomers.
Upon discovering they’re trapped within the school’s walls, the students begin to explore the campus and discover a series of dungeons housed within the classrooms. Each area has a unique motif, taking thematic cues from the school’s ongoing culture festival, with one based on Alice in Wonderland and another firmly rooted in Japanese horror. It quickly becomes clear you’ll need to explore these labyrinths and defeat the Shadows within to have any hope of escaping this strange prison.
That’s where the Etrian Odyssey elements come into play. Persona Q is an old-school first-person dungeon crawler, eschewing randomly generated dungeons in favor of elaborate mazes teeming with puzzles. In some ways, this proved to be my largest obstacle to falling in love with the experience, as wasting hours backtracking in search of an elusive key or solution to a particularly tricky puzzle just isn’t what I look for in a Persona game.
That grievance aside, other facets of the Etrian-style experience really grabbed me. The mapping, for example, is such an alluring mechanic. Sketching out a dungeon’s winding paths and jotting down notes is such a joy, and can be incredibly rewarding when all goes to plan.
The battle system is perhaps the most impressive part of the experience, blending influences so wonderfully that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. You’ll field up to five combatants at a time split between two rows, allowing close combat bruisers to shield ranged support from the brunt of the attack. And, of course, Etrian‘s cut, stab, and bash rock–paper–scissor mechanic features prominently.
Otherwise, combat feels very much like a Persona game, albeit with some slight changes. With the exception of Zen and Rei, who fight sans-persona, the rest of characters have the power of the Wild Card this time around, allowing them to equip a sub-persona in addition to their main. What does this mean? Well, each character has the potential to wield a far more diverse skill set than ever before.
Sub-personas also pass on moves when fused back at the Velvet Room, meaning a single character could possess the ability to deal out a smattering of fire, wind, electrical, ice, and healing moves. Given how tough some of the enemies are, you’ll want to take advantage of their elemental weaknesses at every available opportunity.
Oh right, this game is tough. While Persona Q has five difficulty settings, even “easy” mode is no cakewalk. Poorly tooled or ill-equipped parties can be taken down fairly quickly, especially if you try to go toe to toe with FOEs, hulking minibosses pinched from Etrian Odyssey that are so imposing they are best avoided altogether. If you’re struggling, chances are going back to the Velvet Room or Workshop for new personas and better equipment is your best bet. Or just grinding. Grinding never hurts.
Two of the game’s difficulty settings are particularly noteworthy. The “safety” setting eliminates the death penalty, giving you the ability to continue a battle without losing progress even if your entire party falls. There’s also “risky,” which seems near impossible, and, unlike other settings, prevents you from switching freely between difficulties.
Between dungeon crawls you can always head back to school and “stroll,” Persona Q‘s stand-in for social links. It’s here where much of the characterization occurs, and you get to see the casts of P3 and P4 interact in all sorts of bizarre and lighthearted situations. Witnessing personalities like the robotic Aigis and perpetually horny Teddie bounce off one another is a large part of what makes Persona Q great. That, and watching Rei pull hot dogs and donuts out of thin air.
Yes, in contrast with the arduous challenge, this is a more playful and humorous take on Persona. It’s overflowing with personality and in-jokes, juxtaposing the casts and presenting them in a new light. Sometimes the whole thing seems like one big excuse for Atlus to poke fun at itself and blatantly wink at the fans. Which is fantastic.
How could I draw this to a close without at least one mention of Shogi Meguro, whose indescribable mix of rock, electronica, jazz, and hip hop permeates the whole affair. The soundtrack is stellar, encompassing familiar tunes from P3 and P4 along with some new songs that are now among my favorites in the series. I’m still not tired of the battle theme, even after hours upon hours of repeated listening.
Persona Q can be grind. It can be frustrating, and, at times, it made me want to fling my 3DS across the room. It’s also a heartwarming love letter to Persona fans, and an engrossing role-playing game, among the best the 3DS has to offer. Let go and enjoy the ride.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]