Sunday, March 1, 2015
3DS review: Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
The first game from the Persona series to be released on Nintendo’s 3DS is an odd summation of Atlus’ works, to say the very least. All of the useable party members from Persona 3 and Persona 4 are drawn together in a school that seemingly exists outside of normal time and space – the Persona 3 heroes and heroines hailing from the year 2009, while the Persona 4 cast arriving from some point in 2011, which is as simple and convenient an explanation as is need for why the characters look exactly the same as they did during their respective major adventures as any. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth adopts a chibi art style that translates surprisingly well to the slightly altered gameplay of this spinoff title, while the dungeon crawling elements are ripped directly from the Etrian Odyssey series of RPGs.
It’s a curious amalgam, no doubt, but one that works wonders for this surprisingly fully-realized sidestory. Regardless of whether you play the story from the perspective of the Persona 3 cast or the Persona 4 cast, the premise and major story points play out in effectively the same manner, albeit with greater input from the respective cast members on one side or the other. All of the party members find themselves pulled into the Velvet Room, face-to-face with either Elizabeth or Margaret, who explains that the threads of fate are working in ways they cannot explain, yet they know what lies ahead is important to the protagonists’ personal journeys. Upon arriving in an alternate version of Yasogami High School, the P3 and P4 cast members are introduced to Zen and Rei, two amnesiacs who are apparently the only individuals they can interact with outside of their Velvet Room associates. When the party realizes they cannot leave the school due to two doors leading to their respective eras within the Velvet Room being locked, they begin to investigate the first of the school’s festival exhibits, which turns out to be a winding and multi-level labyrinth. Zen and Rei seem quite familiar with the behavior of the Shadows that lie in wait within the labyrinth, despite not having any Personas to call their own, and thus accompany the party on their first exploration of this new realm.
Combat carries over some key elements from the core Persona games, but swaps out others. Instead of earning an immediate second strike on an enemy after exposing which magical element it is weak to, party members are instead treated to a boosted state, wherein they will be allowed to move faster the following turn as well as utilize magic and specialized physical attacks at no cost from their SP or HP meters. The same goes for landing critical strikes. Many of the enemy types will prove familiar to Persona veterans, so those who have previously experienced Persona 3 or Persona 4 may find the variety of run-of-the-mill enemies less trifling early in the game. Capitalizing on this strategy can lead to a higher chance of being offered the Persona series’ signature cartoonish ‘pile-on’ all-out-attacks, and chaining these in successive turns can result in significantly faster victories, as well as experience point reward bonuses and new Personas.
With sixteen playable characters to choose from, there is a lot of freedom offered to how you organize your party. While you are required to keep at least one of the protagonists in the mix at all times, the other four spots can be split between the front and back rows, with three open spaces per row. Should you prefer to place your heavy hitters on the frontline, this can lead to enemies taking greater damage from bash and cut attacks, but will simultaneously place those heroes more directly in harm’s way, as they will generally be the first to take the brunt of an attack. The back row, meanwhile, is ideal for support members, as well as ranged attackers. Some players may prefer three in the back and two in the front, while others prefer the opposite – it’s all a matter of personal preference, though careful strategy and management are just as important as ever, as Persona Q’s difficulty factor increases a bit more frequently than that of Persona 4.
Each labyrinth plays host to a strikingly different thematic, including the fantasy realm of Alice in Wonderland and a haunted school exhibit based off classic Japanese horror tropes. Each is introduced as being exhibits put on as part of the school fair, yet behind their innocent exterior lies a complicated series of hallways and multiple floors, each ending with boss fights that appropriately match the tone of each labyrinth. Entertaining as their brief moments in the spotlight are, the bosses do not play nearly as an integral role in the development of the story and characters – quite unlike the bosses encountered in Persona 4’s Midnight Channel, which served as the darkest parts of the P4 party members’ psyches and self-images, allowing them in turn to grow as individuals once they had learned to accept these imperfections.
Navigating the labyrinths can take a brief while to grow accustomed to, as filling in shortcuts, points of interest, and locations of stairwells is up to the player. This is where the touch screen and stylus come to play an integral role, as any errors in the labyrinth’s layout displayed on the mini-map or missteps in navigation are the player’s responsibility. Knowing where shortcuts are located is key for solving some of the game’s more involved puzzles, and can also provide a quick escape from a pursuing FOE, which effectively serve as the closest thing Person Q has to offer for miniboss battles. Treasure chests can reward players with new armor, weapons, and accessories, while larger chests often house rare and more powerful items, but can only be opened once a floor’s map has been filled in to one-hundred percent completion. Power spots offer up rare materials, typically with one or two being located on any given floor on a labyrinth.
FOEs are incredibly powerful, and though some of the game’s ‘request’ sidequests ask that your party take them on to reap tempting rewards, it is typically best to wait until your party is decently leveled up from their exploration of the following labyrinth before returning to face these beasts in familiar territory. Each FOE sports a unique visual style and behavioral pattern that, much like the game’s bosses, match their respective environments – The card soldiers in the Alice in Wonderland labyrinth patrol set paths, while sometimes directing their attention to tending to bouquets of flowers. Other FOEs will attempt to draw you in from a distance, while others still will adjust their speed and behavior based on whether or not you are in possession of a particular item specific to that labyrinth.
While social links have been entirely removed from the experience, the aforementioned requests can still be accepted the school’s Nurse’s Office. Some of these have a time limit, and these ones typically yield greater payoff, both in terms of physical items and experience points. Some requests can only be activated by visiting specific areas of the game’s labyrinths, while others require use of specific party members. Thankfully, these never result in tying your hands too much with regards to how you can or cannot carry tasks out, and the requests are divided quite evenly between combat-focused treks back into familiar labyrinths and dialogue selection options among your friends and allies related to the school’s fair activities.
Visiting the Velvet Room is, once again, the means through which you can fuse Personas to gain more desirable abilities. Whereas in previous Persona titles the protagonist was privy to use of as many Personas as he/she could carry at a time, Persona Q restricts the P3 and P4 protagonists to use of their iconic main Personas and one other interchangeable Persona. However, the tradeoff to this restrictive measure is that every one of your party members – with the exception of Zen and Rei – can also utilize a secondary Persona alongside their primary canon Persona. This rule also applies to Rise and Fukka, the game’s labyrinth navigation specialists – while they do not join combat directly, their Personas can make use of abilities specific to their roles, offering up offense and accuracy buffs based on the fullness of the P3 or P4 protagonist’s ‘leader skill’ meter, as well as passive ones, like a wider range for detective shortcuts within a labyrinth or a higher rate of cancelling out preemptive strikes from enemies.
There is a limit of sixty individual items to you party’s inventory, which may seem like plenty of storage space early on, but can lead to many trips back and forth from labyrinths later in the game. Any materials recovered that are not specific to a certain sidequest can be sold to Theodore, the youngest sibling of Margaret and Elizabeth, who can craft new weapons, armor, and equipable items from them. Theodore also offers up occasional tidbits of information on particular enemies and sections of the labyrinths as they relate to specific sidequests, making his role in the game a bit more than simple shopkeeper.
The tone of Persona Q is not unlike its predecessor Persona 4 - dark and tense at times, with an overall sense of free-spirited adventure that is a successful match to the teenage heroes and heroines it revolves around. With the social links and larger world absent, Persona Q does not boast as fully-realized or complex a narrative as the core numbered entries, but it is a surprisingly meaty experience for a spinoff. While interacting with your friends in the halls of this phantom Yasogami High does not actually play into the endgame result, the dialogue flows very naturally and shows that a great deal of care went into preserving these characters and their mannerisms. While greater depth to character interactions during these periods of downtime would have been appreciated, the illusions Persona Q relies on to cover this gap are moderately successful, and - if nothing else - maintain the game’s atmosphere well enough.
The soundtrack is jazzy and upbeat, incorporating some hip-hop flair and hard rock vibes into vocal tracks. Other tunes are remixes of tracks that debuted in previous games, but they mesh quite nicely with Persona Q’s new audio offerings. On the whole, the sound design of Persona Q is among the best the 3DS has seen yet, with endearing performances from series veterans and the couple of newcomers alike. Persona Q could have easily been a quick, one-and-done, bare-bones spinoff, but instead it offers up an energetic and intriguing story. The main story will likely last players sixty hours or more, and the bonus ‘new game plus’ allows both money and the compendium completion to be carried over into higher difficulty settings and the opportunity to try out new party configurations. While it may not have all the makings of a proper numbered entry in the Persona series, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is nonetheless a labor of love, filled with references to previous games and fluid gameplay that offers an incredibly rewarding experience for fans of either Persona 3, Persona 4, or both.
My rating: 9 (out of 10)