Game Reviewby Dave Riley,
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
Atlus's Etrian Odyssey and Persona crossover that brings together the casts of Persona 3 and 4 on a school festival adventure.
Thrown together across time, the casts of Persona 3 and 4 navigate a very Etrian Odyssey labyrinth with a very Persona set of abilities. Though the series seem at odds with each other--Etrian Odyssey's barely-there story clashes with Persona's sappy melodrama and proclamations of friendship--both focus their gameplay on crunchy stat management and resource conservation. Some things have been lost in synthesis, there isn't a social link in sight and the world explorations and micro-dungeons of later Etrian Odyssey games are nowhere to be found, but Persona Q does a good job representing and combining the basic draws of both.
The tone belongs to Persona; little of Etrian Odyssey's peaceful, meditative aura pierces through the peppy Shoji Meguro soundtrack and the goofy labyrinths based haunted houses and dating cafes. In lieu of Etrian's mute cast, this game boils down and amplifies everything Persona. Junpei and Yosuke vie over who's more generic, Teddie is a horndog, Koromaru is just "a dog." The Velvet Room attendees dole out helpful RPG services: capriciously absurd Elizabeth acts as the school nurse/innkeeper, long-suffering Theodore dons a fetching heart apron and becomes the weapon smith. It's a frivolous romp that has fun with its setting, but there are few moments of high school melodrama, soul searching, and self-actualization that fans who cut their teeth on Personas 3 and 4 might expect.
If you've shied away from Etrian Odyssey because of its retro qualities, they've done a lot to ease your transition. There's a super easy mode that lets you continue after a wipe (there's also a super hard mode that Game Overs if the main character dies). Those who don't care for cartography can set the map to draw itself for them as they walk, leaving just the details like doors and stairs to fill in. For those who don't care to be hyper-observant, party members ceaselessly points out any treasure chest, harvesting spot, or secret door they pass. Persona fans might see the cartography as busywork, but it's of a satisfying kind. Like painting a room or staining a deck, drawing maps requires patience and precision. When each level is cleared, you can step back and appreciate a job well done--and mapping out 100% of a level rewards you with a unique item, so there's always impetus to explore to the fullest.
The character customization is an oyster for min-maxers. You can fill out your party with anyone from P3 and 4--with exception of P3P's Female Protagonist, whose absence from every spin off remains a constant disappointment. Though party members learn only a fraction of their iconic skills, Chie never picks up any ice spells, each can equip a secondary persona customized to your liking. If you're a perfectionist, you'll find ways to whittle away hours in the Velvet Room, combining outdated personas to build new ones, filling out your compendium and discovering which personas can be transmuted into which skill cards, items that permanently teach party members specific abilities.
Skill cards are an easy way to get a party-wide healing spell on someone other than your main caster. You'll also use them to keep powerful skills and passive abilities with a character instead of painstakingly transferring them from persona to persona as you upgrade. Stick Bloody Vanguard on the speedy Koromaru so his attacks buff the entire party's, put Impure Reach on Chie to improve her chance of putting enemies to sleep. Even Fuuka and Rise can get in on it, learning support skills that heal during battle and reveal the locations of treasure chests on the map. You can spend a lot of money and have a lot of fun summoning, combining, and resummoning personas just to see what they'll turn into, and what skill cards could result for it.
It'd be nice if all that work felt more necessary. In the beginning, the combination of Etrian's tight HP margins and Persona's elemental vulnerabilities will have enemies KOing a character faster than you can respond. And, like any good dungeon crawler, fighting more than a few random battles will send you rushing back to town to recuperate and restock. However, it's not long before you unlock sub-personas, which restore a small buffer of HP and SP after every battle. Quickly, you'll find ways to abuse this indulgence. Naoto's high agility stat and area of effect instant-kill spells make her one of the strongest party members, almost to the point of being broken. A Mahamon or Mamudoon from her will consistently clear away one or two enemies, since most are weak to one or the other. Targeting a weakness makes your next action free, leading to another round of Mahamon or Mamudoon that will probably end the battle outright. This strategy will last until the end of the game, barring an inconvenient enemy combination here and there.
Having so many overpowered skills in the default progression divests random battles of their fearsomeness. Steamrolling every enemy you encounter can be satisfying in its own way. Obviously, part of the joy of both Etrian Odyssey and Persona is building a perfect team, but not if the game hands you your killer party on a silver platter. Chie's sleep attack can lock down almost anything. Fuuka's initial healing skill provides such an enormous regeneration boost it almost makes having a healer on your team redundant, even during bosses. Persona Q binds you. You're too powerful if you overuse these basic tools, you're wasteful if you don't.
Field on Enemies (FOEs) are any Etrian game's hardest challenge, often more difficult than the dungeon bosses themselves. They're optional, their main purpose is to be mobile puzzle pieces that restrict your movement around the map, but you can fight them when you're ready. When you have the guts to dig into one, they're grueling fights than can turn on a dime. Here's where you have to put effort into building your team. FOEs start using more skills as the fight wears on, becoming more dangerous while your depleted resources sap your ability to counterattack. Your first FOE is a stressful, inch-by-inch battle whose victory pays off not only in money and experience, but also a much higher level persona than you can currently fuse and a weapon or armor substantially stronger than what you have equipped. Power creep has always been Etrian Odyssey's major issue. The rewards from your first FOE slaughter makes the next FOE easier, whose rewards make the next FOE easier, and so on. Every obstacle you topple disproportionately reduces the size of the next obstacle in your path.
Persona Q can be cute and charming, scary and stressful. Great dungeon crawlers are thin on the ground, so maybe that's enough to round this one up from good. If you've got a need for more spelunking, this will sate it. It does a good job of marrying the characteristics of its parents into a natural whole. It's fun watching Marie act like a fussbudget over her bad poetry. It's satisfying to come out of a harrowing battle against an optional boss just barely on top, and with some ultra-powerful new abilities to show for it. Persona Q doesn't feel like Etrian Odyssey with a Persona skin or vice versa, but a comfortable fusion of the two. Whichever game you come from, this is what you recognize, this is what you like.
Mostly, anyway. What's missing are the core elements that elevate each series to the pinnacle of their genre. Persona fans will love the fan-service and the cute-as-a button character designs, but they'll be disappointed by the lack of social links and in-depth plot. Etrian players will find the exploration intact, but the brain-teasing labyrinth design almost completely absent. It's a dozen of hours before a FOE bothers to chase you across the map or a navigational challenge more complicated than a room full of conveyor belts. This is a silly game, it's omake, a thing you're meant to enjoy after the real attraction's over. It's not everything Etrian or Persona can be, but if you're craving cartography or chibi-cute dialogue, there's fifty hours of it on tap here.
Overall : B
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B
Presentation : B
+ High personality, adorably rendered Persona characters spliced with Etrian Odyssey's throwback dungeon crawling
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