Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth - Review  

The Land that Time Forgot
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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60-80 Hours
+ Intricate dungeons to explore
+ Entertaining cast
+ Plentiful side material
+ Constrictive inventory space
- Random battles during puzzles
- A little longer than necessary
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   What happens when an offshoot of the massive Shin Megami Tensei series is mixed with the mechanics of Etrian Odyssey? This blend could have been an easy fit, since numerous Megami Tensei titles have also been first-person dungeon crawlers, but Persona 3 and Persona 4 do not play like that. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth plays like a more plot-intensive Etrian Odyssey, even moreso than The Millennium Girl, and delivers exactly what fans of that series have come to expect. The cast ensures that fans of Persona 3 and 4 will also be interested, and enough is done right with the characters to ensure they'll have some fun too.

   The player gets the choice of whether Persona 3 or Persona 4's cast takes center stage. The selected leads find themselves in a ghostly place that resembles Yasogami High during a culture festival, but no one acknowledges their presence save for two. One is the ebullient and constantly-eating girl Rei, the other is a big, quiet fellow named Zen. These two are suffering from amnesia, but together make a suitable team to accompany the Persona-users into a labyrinth found among the school's exhibits. Delving deep into this labyrinth and challenging its boss is the signal for the other Persona game's characters to appear, and going through the other three available dungeons proves the only way to unlock the path back to the original worlds of the protagonists. Assisted by three residents of the Velvet Room, the now-sizable group accepts this mission.

   Until late in the proceedings, there isn't a lot to Persona Q's core plot after all the protagonists are assembled. That turns out not to be a huge issue when this combined cast is so good at breaking in with entertaining asides, often related to the scenic locales through which they wander. During breaks from dungeon crawling, the cast gets opportunities to chat over a good number of subjects ranging from food preparation to the meaning of their lives, and very few of these occasions leave the player bored or indifferent. They're necessary since the overall narrative trajectory is stuck in slow motion until a twist occurs that is difficult to fully accept. The entertaining character interaction keeps such things from being grievously offensive. Events also transpire in somewhat different ways according to the cast that was selected, giving some reason to play through again.

Some questions are, perhaps, never meant to be answered. Some questions are, perhaps, never meant to be answered.

   When a group of five characters enters one of the labyrinths, the proceedings will immediately look familiar to Etrian Odyssey veterans. First-person motion is accompanied by the use of the touch screen for mapping out the landmarks and hazards, with many icons available to let players pick and choose to suit personal aesthetics. Navigating these labyrinths gets more complex as the game progresses, with multiple obstacles such as conveyor belts and timed doors that must be surmounted. Plenty of shortcuts exist to cut down on time spent revisiting the same locations, and Persona Q sports the option to immediately jump to the last-reached floor of a dungeon instead of marching through all the preceding levels. All of this is helped by doing good cartographic work, and the mechanics for doing so are just as addictive as Etrian Odyssey's. Auto-mapping is an option too, imported from Etrian Odyssey Untold. Each level of a dungeon now comes with a treasure chest that can only be opened by completely filling in the map, though it irritatingly requires the cast to actually step on each square instead of being content with marking it down.

   Also straight out of Etrian Odyssey are visible opponents in the dungeons called FOEs, but engaging them in battle is even more dangerous here. Outmaneuvering them is a wiser choice, and Persona Q makes sure that doing so requires considerable thought on the player's part. Even early FOEs have to be distracted by altering parts of the environment, but later opponents demand ever-more precise movements to escape their reach. The developers gave each area unique FOEs with distinct protocols, and finding just the right way to avoid these brutal adversaries never gets dull.

   The many enemies randomly encountered during dungeon treks adhere to the SMT system of elemental affinities, and hitting an opponent with something to which it is weak can stun it for the turn. Hitting a weakness also allows the character who did it to strike first in the next turn for no cost, which is an excellent way of conserving resources. The opposition is wont to do the same, and dealing with random encounters is rarely as simple as letting the party attack until everything is dead. Fighting intelligently is the only way to survive, and the developers even found an insidious way to use palette swaps in battle to allow enemies with different affinities to unsettle the player.

   Just like in Etrian Odyssey titles, enemies cough up various body parts when killed, and the party gets to sell these to the Velvet Room's Theo. He will then craft a variety of equipment from whatever is brought, which the party can then purchase as upgrades. This process is efficient and effective, with the benefits of new equipment clearly displayed so that choices can be swiftly made. The only problem is that Theo has no storage method should the player wish to keep something around, as the sixty item limit of Etrian Odyssey is infuriatingly present in this game too. When enemies can drop seven items after an encounter, and spots for harvesting additional resources are plentiful, that restriction can be reached with great speed, prompting a premature departure from the labyrinth for inventory lightening.

Good thing a stiff breeze is about all it takes to blow them down! Good thing a stiff breeze is about all it takes to blow them down!

   Also imported from Etrian Odyssey is the ability to take on requests not directly related to exploring the labyrinths. These are administered by the Velvet Room's Elizabeth, who can provide anything from searching for a rare enemy drop to refereeing a cooking contest between the characters. The variety of additional tasks offered can easily push the game past seventy-five hours to complete, and speeding through it will already demand around sixty. A little editing might have been a good idea, because even with the variety of scenarios each dungeon presents, they're still long enough to ensure that players will be quite ready to move on from each.

   Instead of the option to have a second class that Etrian Odyssey employs, the Velvet Room's third resident, Margaret, allows characters to equip themselves with an additional Persona. Each of these can only learn six abilities, but there is a process for fusing them to create new creatures that are allowed to retain some of what their evolutionary predecessors could do. This greatly expands the range of techniques available to the cast, along with the possibility of extracting select skills from a Persona for a monetary price that can then be given to any character the player chooses. While leveling up will not provide enough muscle to simply overpower the enemy, it does determine the Personas that can be fused, and thus is quite helpful since building a team that can triumph against the forces in its way depends on this customization. New Personas are received sometimes after a battle, making the decision to fight as much as possible an easy one.

   While the difficulty is adjustable when the game is started, even the Safety level will prove taxing. This allows a completely defeated team to come back from the dead once per battle with no penalty, but fighting smart is still mandatory to get anywhere, and dealing with these massive dungeons is not for the faint of heart. Higher difficulties get progressively more dangerous, and anyone seeking a challenge will get it at the Risky level.

Junpei Junpei's response to this assertion is liable to bring a physical retort from Chie - thus proving the point?

   While the random encounter rate goes down when an FOE or puzzling environment is in the area, a batch of killer creatures can still pop up at just the wrong time. Considering the frequent focus this game has on figuring out the correct way forward using hints that reward note-taking, being interrupted by random adversaries is a major hindrance. It's definitely in keeping with Etrian Odyssey games, but that series' dungeons are not so oriented around precise movements that can be hamstrung by a single misstep.

   The expansive dungeons in Persona Q are made more engaging by the high-quality tunes heard within, and each location gets an appropriate aural complement. Rapping battle music is also strangely compelling, although a new regular encounter tune later in the game would have been welcome — though the excellent compositions for the last bosses make up for it a little bit. Quite a bit of voice acting is present, mostly from veterans of the original Persona 3 and Persona 4 casts employed by Atlus. The performances are uniformly strong, and help bring the characters to life. Meanwhile, the visuals are very reminiscent of Etrian Odyssey Untold, especially in the detail level of dungeons. They're hardly an embarrassment, but do not seem to push the 3DS hardware very much.

   I was pleasantly surprised to be afforded the chance to review this game, since I had no direct experience with either Persona 3 or Persona 4 beforehand. After going through a lengthy journey with these enjoyable characters, I begin to see why their adventures are so cherished by many. Putting them together in a game that plays by Etrian Odyssey rules was a good way to entertain me, although I was ready for the thing to end before it actually did so. While not the best title in the 3DS RPG library, it's nevertheless quite good.

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