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Best of the rest of 2014: Persona Q is an absolute gem ... for the right people

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Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was never going to make Polygon's game of the year list.

That's not to say that it doesn't deserve to, or even that it's not a good game. Persona Q is one of the slickest Japanese role-playing games to arrive this year on handhelds and off. It's a stellar mashup by any metric, one that makes dungeon-crawling — so often a time-sucking slog — into an exciting adventure. What makes Persona Q so great, however, is exactly what drags it down.

Persona Q is like a reunion of pals — a party for you and all your virtual high school friends. It's good on its own, but if you're not already in on the joke, the punchline is going to fall flat.

Better together

Calling Persona Q's inspiration obscure is only about half-right. For JRPG fans, the Persona series has achieved a certain kind of prestige in recent years, rocketing to new success with Persona 4 Golden — a PlayStation Vita remake of PlayStation 2's Persona 4. The acclaim it received is rightly due; the Persona series mixes together turn-based battles and dungeon crawling with an addictive social element. It's not just about saving this or that anymore. It's about spending time with your friends.

What happens when you smash them together? Magic.

Less well-known is Etrian Odyssey, a teeth-gnashingly tough franchise that exists only on Nintendo's handheld systems. The Etrian games aren't known for their kindness or cutesy characters, but rather their punishing enemies and long dungeons. There's typically little story to be found in these games. Players assemble a crew of customizable characters and sink their time into sprawling, complex dungeons.The greatest tool a player has is their own cartography skills, because as you progress, you physically chart your movements using touch controls. That map isn't just your guide; it's your lifeline.

These are strong franchises with a lot of personality on their own. But Persona, for all its points, has weak dungeons with little variety or challenge. And Etrian Odyssey lacks the emotional tug of lovable characters or a good story.

What happens when you smash them together? Magic. Persona Q fixed the biggest problems of both games.

There are so many things to praise, but its greatest achievement is how personal it feels. You select your protagonist — whether it's Persona 3's Makoto or Persona 4's Yu — and compile your party accordingly. You get to decide whose voice will guide you through both mazes and battles, which Personas to fuse and equip, and if you want to spend your time completing sidequests, hanging with other characters or just plowing ahead.

persona q

But nowhere is this level of intimacy felt more than in its characters. This is a game meant for Persona fans, specifically those who've spent a lot of time with Persona 3 and Persona 4. It achieves near fan-fiction levels of fan appeasement in how it tosses those two casts together, but the result is so good that not even my most cynical self could muster up a grumble.

It's a chance to spend more time with these characters that felt gone too soon — more silly jokes, more affectionate nitpicking, more touching moments.

Persona Q isn't for everyone. But, then again, it was never meant to be.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.