Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Megami Tensei is one of those roleplaying game franchises where spinoffs actually vastly outnumber main entries, one of its subseries being Persona, which began on the Sony PlayStation and would find its way to the PlayStation 2. The announcement of a spinoff title of the subfranchise for a Nintendo system, thus, came as something of a surprise to series enthusiasts, with the announced title, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, naturally borrowing elements from its parent subseries, although it borrows element from the Etrian Odyssey franchise, providing a nice fusion of both franchises’ gameplay.

In the game’s hub area, the player can assemble a party of five characters in six battle positions, three allies in front and three in the back, with each character having melee attack capability or ranged attacking. Like the Yggdrasil Labyrinth titles, Persona Q’s chief gameplay occurs in first-person dungeons, with random encounters indicated by a color-changing indicator. When an encounter occurs, battle either begins with the enemy taking the player by surprise, vice versa, or with neither side having the advantage. Normal battles, moreover, seem to have a maximum cap of three adversaries.

Persona Q’s battle system follows a traditional turn-based structure where the player inputs commands for their five characters and lets them and the enemy fight each other for a round, turn order likely depending upon agility. Commands include attacking with an equipped weapon, defending, executing the HP/SP-consuming abilities of a character’s main Persona or their secondary sub-Persona, using a consumable (or rarely, non-consumable) item, attempting to escape, or changing the party’s formation, which mercifully doesn’t waste the player’s turns. As is expectant of a traditional turn-based battle system, the escape option doesn’t always work, and enemies can sometimes beat the player to healing an ally low on HP.

The third and fourth Persona titles featured an element of strategy whereby exploiting an enemy’s weakness granted characters extra turns, although in Persona Q’s case, exploiting a foe’s flaw (with the game fortunately recording enemy weaknesses in status windows accessible any time during command input) will allow a character the following turn to execute a command free of HP or SP, and sometimes, but not always, knock an enemy out and deny them their command for that turn. Characters too may have elemental weaknesses (in a few cases compounded by their sub-Personas) that foes can exploit, sometimes knocking out allies before they execute their commands, though in most cases both sides get back on their feet at the end of the combat round.

The randomization of attacks and skills knocking out a character or enemy is a strike against the battle system, and sometimes, akin to the third and fourth Personas, the player may gain the opportunity to execute an all-out attack on all antagonists, even if they haven’t knocked out all foes; in some cases, though, the player may not be able to use an all-out attack even if they knock out all foes. This element of chance is somewhat irritating, though fortunately, battles end to end quickly, especially given the small scale of combat, and winning a fight nets all characters still alive experience for both their main and sub-Personas, along with money and occasional monster parts they can sell at the hub area’s shop to expand its inventory.

Like the Etrian Odyssey titles, dungeons feature large visible enemies known as FOEs with varying patterns of movement, and the game encourages players to avoid them if possible, since they tend to be incredibly daunting, especially if the player’s levels aren’t high enough to the point where mission control says fighting them is okay. FOEs, bosses (especially the last few), and occasionally regular enemies can sometimes be difficult to the point where the game would be absolute torture to play on difficulties higher than Safety, with this lowest setting allowing the player to revive their party for free if everyone dies against an adversary while retaining progress made in the battle.

In the game’s hub, moreover, players can fuse Personas to create more powerful incarnations, with a few anti-frustration features during fusion such as “Fusion Search,” which brings up a list of different end results of Persona fusion, not to mention the ability to manually select skills for the fused Persona to inherit. The player is also able to select one of two mission controllers, Fuuka from Persona 3 or Rise from Persona 4, each with their own unique party-affecting abilities, and each able to equip Personas as well. In the end, aside from the mentioned potential for torture when playing on difficulties higher than Safety, the battle system works.

The bulk of Persona Q’s difficulty, at least on the Safety difficulty, comes not from its battles, but rather a few of the various dungeon puzzles, some of which may drive players to reference a guide, and which the chosen challenge setting unfortunately doesn’t affect. The spinoff further features a system bequeathed from the Etrian Odyssey titles where they must manually detail the maps on the lower screen, the game only recording visited squares and walls, an okay feature. Interaction isn’t a complete writeoff, though, with things going for it such as the game’s linear structure, although this area could have certainly been much better.

The game’s narrative combines the casts of the third and four Persona titles, with some occasional enjoyable banter, although most of the dialogue during dungeon navigation consists of characters constantly saying things that are painfully obvious. The translation, furthermore, feels somewhat rushed, with occasional Engrish such as the messages “Player Advanced” and “Enemy Advanced” during preemptive strikes by either side at the start of combat, not to mention dungeon names such as “You in Wonderland,” the game also sporting a somewhat careless attention to detail at times, where the dungeon’s name is in English when viewed close-up, and still in Japanese during a cutscene.

Perhaps the biggest mistake the localization team made was to have characters address the chosen protagonist of either the third or fourth Persona as “leader,” which accounts for some horribly-unnatural dialogue, especially in combat. Virtually any other title for the chosen protagonist from either the third or fourth game would have sounded better, such as master, commander, or even sensei, and there are plenty cases where adding “our” before “leader” would have sounded much better. The spinoff further retains Japanese honorifics, which too sound unnatural especially when preceded by a character’s full forename. Another game that occurred in Japan, The World Ends With You, did just fine without honorifics, and Persona Q as well could have done the same.

The unnatural dialogue adversely affects the voice acting, which is simply abysmal, especially in battle, with the chosen mission control female constantly insulting the player’s intelligence by saying painfully obvious things such as how many enemies remain, and going absolutely ballistic if a character is dead or has a status affliction. While turning the voices off in the menus doesn’t completely silence the horrid voices in combat, it is possible to turn the volume of the acting all the way down to relieve the ears of potential aural torture. Granted, the audio isn’t a complete writeoff, since Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack pretty much saves the game’s aural aspect, and has plenty of upbeat variety.

Persona Q utilizes a visual style more cartoony than those in the third and fourth games, where characters are less anatomically correct and lack noses, although their models show plenty emotion during cutscenes. Dungeon environments are absolutely gorgeous and have plentiful diversity, although battles have a first-person view similar to the Etrian Odyssey titles, where the player’s characters aren’t visible. There are some nice three-dimensional effects where character models do show, but the spinoff sports the franchise’s trademark lazy dodge animation where foes move to the side and back into place without lifting an appendage, which looks incredibly dorky. Even so, the game’s graphical style is far from abhorrent.

Finally, a first-time playthrough of the game can take somewhere over sixty hours, with the ability to focus on the casts of either the third or fourth Personas enhancing replay value, especially with the New Game+ option, with subsequent playthroughs, especially if the player chooses to retain elements from their initial round, taking less time.

In conclusion, Persona Q is for the most part a solid spinoff title than hits many of the right notes with regards to its strategic battle system, enjoyable soundtrack, and nice artistic style, although there are some areas that do leave room for improvement such as the potential torture of playing on high difficulty levels, the dungeon puzzles that may require a guide to reduce frustration, issues with the story and localization, and especially the abysmal English voice acting. One needs not have played the third or fourth game to appreciate this spinoff, with the fusion of elements from two different Atlus franchises for the most part succeeding.

The Good:
+Solid strategic battle system.
+Great soundtrack.
+Colorful visuals.

The Bad:
-Some dungeon puzzles necessitate a guide.
-Issues with the storyline and dialogue.
-Awful English voice acting.

The Bottom Line:
A great fusion of Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey elements.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 5/10
Story: 7/10
Localization: 6/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 9/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 60-90+ Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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