Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth review: High school reunion
|Developer P Studio|
|Release Date Nov 25, 2014|
If fan service were a genre, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth could be considered its pinnacle.
Not content to be just a spin-off — or even "just" Persona's first entry on the Nintendo 3DS — Persona Q is a mashup of Atlus' much-loved role-playing series and the teeth-gnashing complexity of the dungeon crawling Etrian Odyssey franchise. It doesn't end there: The game also alters time itself to throw together the characters of Persona 3 and Persona 4 in the middle of their respective stories.
This is the stuff fan fiction is made of.
Where Atlus could have very easily stumbled, it's instead broken into a full-bodied sprint. Persona Q successfully uses every part of its DNA — a layered combat system, intricate mapmaking and character relationships — to create a tailored experience that wildly exceeds expectations of a superficial nature.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth finds Persona 3's Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (SEES) and Persona 4's Investigation Team summoned to an alternate version of the latter's Yasogami High. Trapped in a strange culture festival with two new companions, Zen and Rei, the teams join up to venture into a series of complex first-person labyrinths.
Persona Q is keen to let you play your way
Each dungeon holds a new clue to the mystery surrounding Yasogami, but exploring them is a difficult task. With a squad of five, players must physically map out their path with the 3DS touchscreen and defeat powerful foes within the depths. That journey varies depending on whether you choose the protagonist from Persona 3 or Persona 4 as your lead.
Persona Q is keen to let you play your way, and this initial separation is the first of many successful examples. I opted to put SEES first and foremost by selecting Persona 3's main character — a decision that I was pleased to see reflected throughout my entire game. Although dialogue within and without dungeons would commonly feature cast members from both games, my experience was skewed more heavily toward what the Persona 3 characters were thinking and doing.
Persona Q doesn't include the bond-building social link mechanics of the Persona games. Instead, characters and their relationships are expanded through cutscenes that appear as you progress through a system called "Stroll." These scenes range from fluffy bites of the P3 and P4 cast coming together to talk and tease with one another, to more interesting moments that reflect on the responsibilities of being a Persona user and relationships with their companions.
Although these aren't as personally satisfying as spending copious amounts of one-on-one time with each character, they're effective at forging the bonds between the group as a whole and establishing a feeling of camaraderie.
The Stroll scenes gave me a retroactive appreciation of how differently these two groups acted in their individual games. Persona 3's cast always gave off more of a task force vibe — a group of people working together to defeat Shadows — while Persona 4's characters relied heavily on each other as friends to accept themselves and awaken to their power. In Persona Q, the casts learn and grow based on their differences; for example, Persona 3's Yukari seeks out a closer friendship with her team after seeing how the Persona 4 crew interacts.
Coupled with in-dungeon banter as you explore, these moments do wonders establishing the personalities of each character for those who haven't played either game. It's clear that P4's Chie is a tomboy who loves meat and martial arts, for example, or that P3's icy Mitsuru has trouble letting people in.
Getting to know each character I was reunited with paved the way for one of the game's "problems": deciding who to take into battle. You can choose from every party member from both Persona games, as well as Zen and Rei as a single unit. Each character has specific elemental strengths and weaknesses; some characters are better used in the back row as long-range fighters, while others are powerful up front. Despite these differences, Persona Q makes it easy to mix and match heroes from both games while still forming a powerful team.
It's simple to mix and match heroes from both games
Even on easy mode, enemies are vicious and puzzles can be mentally draining
Adding another layer to this level of customization is Persona Q's sub-persona system. As in previous Persona games, I was able to gather and combine personas — summonable creatures that represent the physical manifestations of each character's inner personality. There's one big, game-changing addition to the system, though: Now you can equip every party member with a second persona.
When a party member wasn't suitably prepared with skills, whether from their personal persona or a sub-persona, I could easily swap out the sub to expand my options. This means that any character can be a healer, attack with specific elements and so on. Learning which elements or attacks to use on specific enemies was crucial to my success in battle. Walloping an enemy with an attack it was weak to, like fire or ice, granted my character extra damage and a boost. In this boosted state, special attacks cost nothing; with enough of my party boosted, I could also perform devastating group attacks.
The ability to customize your team and your characters so completely is essential to mastering — or more often, struggling to master — Persona Q's high level of difficulty. Even on easy mode, enemies are vicious and puzzles can be mentally draining.
In addition to its random battles, Persona Q borrows the concept of FOEs — high-level opponents that often force you to find a way around them or flee — from Etrian Odyssey. FOEs typically play a key component in puzzles: They patrol important paths or chase you as you explore. However difficult they may be, these super-powered enemies feel like fair pressure. With persistence and a lot of swearing, I was always able to find a way to circumvent their presence.
Less escapable is the game's mapmaking system, another token from Etrian Odyssey. Although your steps will automatically be recorded as you progress, it's at your discretion to draw in walls, drop icons for doors and chart your journey. It's a process that rewards you for putting in effort — and trust me, you'll want to. Mapmaking was a fun, personal way to mark my time through each dungeon and, in a more functional sense, keep tabs on the game's head-scratching puzzles. I'd drop notes to mark important clues, or use empty space to chart out decoded directions. One of my favorite puzzles required me to first decipher steps through a series of directional clues, mark out the path and then match the area to one already available on my map.
Puzzles like this get at the heart of why Persona Q is so great. Everything about the game feels planned out and executed with care and thought. It would have been easy for Atlus to phone it in on Persona Q — to prey on the attachments of players who spent days of playtime with these characters and still crave more. Its plot isn't as in-depth as the ones Persona players have grown used to, but consider it a detour on the road rather than the entire trip itself.
Persona Q is a fan-pleaser that doesn't sacrifice quality
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth defies the idea that a game can be either indulgent or intelligent. It's tailored for lovers of Persona and even Etrian Odyssey, without a doubt. But to call Persona Q nothing more than an appeasement of fans' wants is to diminish one of the richest, most robust dungeon crawlers either franchise has seen in years.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was reviewed using a download code provided by Atlus. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews
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