Not the Persona you were looking for...

Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth was a bit of a headscratcher for fans of the series when it was first announced. Toted as a cross between the gameplay styles of Persona and the Etrian Odyssey series, your objective is to make your way through several enormous labyrinths from a first-person perspective, while making sure your party of five is watertight by weaving synergies between their strengths and weaknesses. The game works just fine and to the casual observer it’s a remarkably competent turn-based dungeon crawler. But I am no casual observer.

Today I speak as a huge fan of both Persona and Etrian Odyssey, and Persona Q is a game that does a lot of things right, albeit at the cost of some staple series features. Thus, I believe Persona Q is a brilliant game, but in some areas, pretty damn awful.

Light The Fire Up In The Night

Let’s rather obviously start with the things Persona Q gets right. First on the agenda? The soundtrack. It’s arguably the best score for the series yet. Lovely remixes of classic Persona anthems, as well as what is perhaps the catchiest battle theme ever composed. I mean just listen to this; it’s untouchable:

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Getting Japanese rapper Lotus Juice involved in the series again paid dividends for this game’s soundtrack; his injection of fast-talking, toe-tapping hip hop is wonderfully unique even within the confines of his genre. Vocalists Yumi Kawamura and Shihoko Hirata also return to lend their heavenly voices, offering a veritable mashup of Persona 3 and 4’s musical styles. The result is nothing short of godlike and further solidifies how masterful Atlus’s sound team truly is. In addition to the mesmerising soundtrack, Persona Q is an objectively high quality 3DS title that’s polished to a mirror sheen. The game looks great, the 3D is used effectively and the design of the labyrinths is both twisted and elegant; as you’d expect from the Persona series.

Battles are addictive, stylish, and have one hell of a soundtrack backing them up.

Battles are addictive, stylish, and have one hell of a soundtrack backing them up.

The intensely catchy battle themes are paired with a hugely satisfying battle system. Each party member can now hold up to two Persona; their main and a substitute that increases their HP and SP as well as adding to their ability pool. While this system significantly nerfs the main protagonist whom was previously able to switch between a small army of Persona, it considerably buffs your other party members who now reside in the same playing field.

So the music is wonderful, and the battle system equally so. In most cases this would be enough to form the basis of a pretty solid game. Now don’t get me wrong; Persona Q is certainly that. But in so many other areas, areas that would count in their respective series upon which Persona Q is based upon, there’s a definite feeling of emptiness that carries through the entire length of the game…

Burning Your Dread

Let’s begin with the story and in turn, the writing. To say neither hold up to the standards of Persona and Etrian Odyssey would be a marvelous understatement. Persona 3 and both had great stories. The former told of a mysterious “Dark Hour” that could only be lived through by a select few individuals, in which a colossal tower, Tartarus, rose up into the sky with its labyrinthine structure and high density of monsters known as Shadows. The latter focused on a peculiar murder mystery in which a ragtag group of friends were drawn into their televisions when the “Midnight Channel” aired on rainy nights.

The real reward came in the form of getting to know these characters better over time, and coming to treat them like real life friends.

Both games were equipped with a colourful cast of characters with which you spent your days with, and spending enough time with them unlocked special scenes that would increase your Social Link with them. While these increased the powers of their Persona, in my opinion, the real reward came in the form of getting to know these characters better over time, and coming to treat them like real life friends. Persona Q, however, suddenly expects you to know every character’s ins and outs, their quirks, strengths and flaws, and rolls them up into a condensed ball and throws it at your face. The writing of the characters is now based upon cheap throwback jokes and is littered with needless exposition and references to its predecessors. It’s no longer focused on the buildup of getting to know each character individually and learning more about them as the game progresses. And the much loved Social Link system that was a huge part of those games? Completely absent in Persona Q.

Newcomers Zen and Rei practically have nothing going for them. They are stereotypes that act as one another’s foil. Zen is the cold stoic type that insists he must protect Rei at all costs. And Rei? Well, she’s just obsessed with food. That’s her character. A far cry from the complexity of the other characters represented here.

Rei likes food. That's her character.

Rei likes food. That’s her character.

On the topic of Etrian Odyssey, Persona Q still fails to deliver on that front. Yes, the dungeon crawling is largely identical and the battle system is structured around that game’s, but yet again, Persona Q misses the mark in some extremely important areas. For one, you must have your chosen protagonist in the party at all times. This was the case in Persona games prior to this one, but in the EO series, you’re able to fully customise your party of five. Taking away even one of those spots neuters your potential strategies more than you’d think. And, as both protagonists work best on the front line, they’re assigned to one simple role: get up front and tank damage. There’s no alternative there.

Also missing is the ability to distribute skill points to your party. This was a huge part of Etrian Odyssey, and given the huge skill trees of those games, I found it a huge shame that I couldn’t base my characters around particular builds. Instead, your party members’ Persona gain set skills as they level up, as do the Persona you fuse in the Velvet Room. It still works well, sure enough, but missing such a key part of one half of the crossover was a bit of a letdown for me personally.

It’s A War Out There, Every Day…

I realise I sound like a bit of an old curmudgeon with Persona Q. The fact is, I still really enjoyed it. It’s still a great dungeon crawler that has an utterly mindblowing soundtrack, and I definitely felt the hours just slip away as I carefully mapped my way through each of the sprawling labyrinths. However, I can’t shake the feeling that the game could have been so much more. The dialogue simply doesn’t hold up to the series standard, removing that key dimension from most of the characters and making each a one trick pony in the process. Graphically the game is fine and the chibi style applied to the characters works well, and the interfaces have that slick Persona style we’ve come to love.

In other areas, however, Persona Q feels like a missed opportunity. No social links, no meaningful character interaction, and a rather stripped down ability to customise your party’s individual builds. Sure you can alter the moves they receive through different Persona, but the ability to really get hands-on and fine tune your party is sorely missing.

Persona Q, you’re a great game, but you could have been so much better…