Persona Q owns
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a 2014 dungeon crawler for the 3DS that combines the best aspects of the Persona and the Etrian Odyssey series. It’s a good game.
Despite the title of the game, Persona Q (Thank you, Japan, for once not having an indecipherably long title for a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff) is more Etrian Odyssey than Persona. Yes, you do create a party of characters taken from Persona 3 and Persona 4, but they function more like standard character class archetypes that the player customizes with new personas as opposed to fully unique characters. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as there are 17 playable characters to choose from and several hundred personas (including a few DLC ones that I’ll never buy and will be unavailable in the future anyway) to strengthen their strengths and cover their weaknesses.
Gameplay (Yes, despite the trends, I still talk about the part of video games that you actually play)
I said this game is a dungeon crawler, and in the game, dungeons abound. I’d even say it plays more like Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey than any Persona game, though it is far less difficult than either that or the Etrian Odyssey series. There are a total of five dungeons, each with multiple floors, and each floor is packed with so many puzzles, traps, hidden doors, and FOEs that it’ll take you several hours to get through just one. It’s a long game, but one with enough content to keep a player entertained throughout its length.
Most Megami Tensei games and their spinoffs have a system of elemental strengths and weaknesses that the player needs to exploit to get anywhere in the game, and Persona Q: Shadow of the Dungeon is no exception. Here, striking a critical hit or attacking an enemy’s weakness gives that character the use of an ability with no cost on the next turn. The obvious use for this is to do something like use a Bufu type spell on an enemy that’s weak to ice, then keep spamming ice spells for the rest of the fight at no SP or HP cost unless you have to do something else or have your own weakness exploited. It’s not always that simple, but that’s the basis of this game, and it’s a mechanic that makes it more complex and involved than the typical JRPG.
Each character has an unchangeable main persona that grants them specific skills and has unique elemental strengths and weaknesses. They also have the choice of hundreds of sub-personas that you need to find or fuse on your own. All the classic Shin Megami Tensei monsters are here, including Atlus mascot Jack Frost and that one penis monster, plus a few I don’t recall seeing before.
Persona Q has an odd leveling system where sub-personas have high stats when you first acquire them, gain a skill per level for awhile, then quickly drop off in usefulness, forcing the player to gain new personas to adapt to their circumstances. Otherwise you could be stuck with a persona that has useful skills but too-low stats and an exponential increase in EXP requirements for level ups. I don’t mind this; it keeps the player from steamrolling through the game as soon as they get one overpowered persona.
Combat is nowhere near as hard as other Persona games, but you still need to keep your guard up. Mashing the “attack” command is hugely inefficient and will get you killed against most enemies; it’s almost always better to use a skill or item, and there are heaps of those. You can acquire new skills by leveling up your main persona, equipping a new sub-persona, or using a skill card to permanently learn one. The huge variety of personas and the ability to combine them into new ones, sacrifice them to level up other personas, or convert them into skill cards ensures that the player never gets stuck. There are always more options. Need to get everyone in your party a wind-elemental attack for one particular boss? It’s not cripplingly hard to do so, especially compared to some other Megami Tensei and associated spinoffs where it could be prohibitively time-consuming or expensive to build the right party. It’s much less tedious here to build your ideal party for the current dungeon.
Another thing I enjoyed was that equipping a persona not only gives that character new skills and an increase to HP and SP, but that the added HP and SP act as a buffer during each round. This means that you can take a small hit that’s less damaging than your bonus HP and it’ll be “healed” after the battle, but even more important is the ability to use a spell that costs less than your bonus SP and not have it count against you if that’s the only spell you use that round. This buffer makes random encounters much less of a chore (especially if you use Naoto, who naturally learns both flavors of instant kill spells that can win some random encounters within seconds) and in fact makes experimenting with elements to find enemy weaknesses significantly easier, not to mention eliminating the need to carry piles of expensive SP-restoring items most of the time if you can use your resources conservatively. The game helpfully indicates the buffer during combat in the form of differently-colored sections of bars beneath your numerated HP and SP totals. I wish more games would do something like this as an anti-frustration measure that still has a cost for relentless spell spamming.
The huge majority of Persona Q consists of walking through dungeons, and the game annoyingly forces you to use the 3DS’s bottom screen to draw a map. Mercifully, there’s an option to have it fill in most of the map for you as you move over tiles, but there’s no way of getting around the fact that you as the player need to pull out the 3DS’s stylus and drag-and-drop doorways, chests, conveyor belts, and events onto the map unless you have a flawless memory. Doing so is not only important to be able to move around the map without wasting time, but absolutely essential to some puzzles that require specific movements. (There’s also one puzzle that’s a math problem and is apparently so annoying that the game gives you the option to have one of the characters solve it for you.) There’s no good reason why the map couldn’t save the player’s time and fill in all of this information for the player as they explore. This is one of two complaints I have with Persona Q.
For those unfamiliar with FOEs from the Etrian Odyssey series, they are deliberately overpowered enemies that litter every dungeon, but they always move in a fashion that allows the player to bypass them without combat. This can be as simple as FOEs that block your path unless you lure them away with an object, or as complex as a room in the fourth dungeon that has two FOEs, one that’s attracted to the fire you’re carrying and one that flees from it. You can also fight an FOE head on if you want to, but you need a team fully prepared to combat one of them or you’re in for a quick game over screen. Some of them are even harder than the dungeon bosses.
I remember the FOEs more than any other enemy in this game, including the bosses. They are different for each dungeon and floor you trudge through and add a lot to the game’s character. For example, there was one that looked like a Japanese wine bottle with arms and legs. It was blocking a chest and I couldn’t figure out how to get past it, so I tried fighting it normally. It hit viciously hard, had an enormous defense, and used an unfair power when low on health. But I was determined. I made a party where all five members could use its weakness, fire, made sure to equip personas that could buff my party and debuff the FOE, and plenty of SP-restoring items to cast all of these spells. After around fifteen minutes I got it near death and it used a full heal spell on itself. So I ran away and looked for a way to hit it with Magic Bind. But it’s hard to get status effects to land, so I tried to find a passive skill that increased that chance. Even with all of this preparation, I couldn’t beat this one optional fight; instead I figured out the way I was supposed to get around it to the chest in the first place. But I still had more fun trying to circumvent and defeat this one enemy than I did playing Persona 3.
Persona Q has periodic missions for the player to complete to get extra EXP and loot. Some of these missions can be fun, like one that has you hunt for a specific enemy and kill it while it’s inflicted with a specific status ailment (the game mercifully tells you which dungeon and which floor to scout out for missions like these). But the multiple choice missions are a real pain. I have no shame in admitting I GameFAQs-ed my way through those. (And yes, at least one of them requires knowledge of obscure aspects of Japanese culture that even giant weebs would never know about.) I couldn’t stand the dating sim nonsense in the main Persona games and I wasn’t going to put up with a watered-down version of it here. This is the second and last of my complaints about this game.
Most of the music is light jazz mixed with light rap that doesn’t fit the game very well but isn’t boring or distractingly bad. A disappointment compared to games like Devil Survivor, but I can live with it. The dubbing is pretty good; I’ve played lots of anime games where the voices are just grating, but this isn’t one of them.
The plot, like most crossovers, necessarily involves some dimension-traveling nonsense and you know the characters are going to forget or ignore all of it by the end of the game because Persona Q‘s story takes place somewhere near the midpoint of their respective games. Such is the way with retcons.
There are a pair of new characters who fight as one unit (and, interestingly, can’t equip new personas but learn new skills with gained levels like many JRPG characters) and they get an extra portion of this game’s ridiculous anime plot. I know some people adore the Persona series and have an emotional attachment to the characters, but the only kick I got out of these super-deformed Weebl doll versions was seeing them do Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure poses in one of this game’s cutscenes.
As annoyed as I might sound in the previous paragraph, it’s still trivial to skip past the dumb story that exists mostly as fanservice to existing Persona fans. The only way I’d hold it against the game is if the cutscenes were unskippable or otherwise cumbersome. Since they are skippable, the characters yammering about teenage angst and their favorite foods never gets in the way of dungeon crawling.
This is a good game. Combat is challenging but intuitive, and there are loads of measures taken to make the game more accessible. It’s significantly easier and more user-friendly than most dungeon crawlers (including the main Persona series), but at no time is Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth less than a suitable challenge. Some fights are hard, yes, but only the optional super-bosses are brutally unfair. The game always gives you the tools you need, but you the player have to figure out how to use them. Buy it. Support Atlus.