Wonderful, annoying, funny, infuriating, brilliant and, well, as always, really rather bonkers. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, a game that while unquestionably very good, is home to its fair share of extremely frustrating moments.
It’s a lazy description, but the easiest way to describe this latest Persona release for the 3DS is…..Persona + Etrian Odyssey x fan service = Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.……like I said, lazy. As lazy as it is though, it’s unquestionably apt as this really does feel like a Persona game played via the mechanics and structure of Etrian Odyssey. The dungeons, the systems, it’s all very Etrian, but the characters, the story, the plot, yep, it’s 100% Persona. Sure, the story isn’t as effecting or as engrossing as that found in the mainline releases, but what it lacks in nuance, it more than makes up for via its copious amounts of fan service.
Like the recent and extremely successful, Persona 4 Arena releases, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth allows players to choose cast member from either Persona 3 or Persona 4 with cross over between characters happening throughout the games’ huge 60+ hour running time. Many of the quips and cool pieces of dialogue will inevitably go unnoticed by those new to the series, but fans will be treated to an array of cool little nods to previous games and loads of nice collaborations between characters from the different games. Persona has always done dialogue well, and here, it’s as good as it has ever been.
While there is certainly an emphasis on battles, the characters and story remain a huge selling point for the game with players, despite the supernatural and often ludicrous setting, given the opportunity to experience everyday life in a Japanese high school. That might sound ludicrous given the inclusion of magic and monsters and the such, but as always, Persona does a great job of marrying the fantastical with the relatively mundane to create a decidedly unique and often compelling experience.
Despite being able to choose characters from either Persona 3 or 4 at the start of the game (with your choice leading to different story and dialogue options), the story itself actually revolves primarily around newcomers, Rei and Zen. They aren’t exactly the most beguiling of Persona characters to start off with and it does take a heck of a long time for them to really come in to their own, but while they do eventually get there, in the meantime, we are at least treated to the fantastic supporting cast while we wait for them to buck up their ideas. From Teddy and Kanji to Margaret and Ken, there are plenty of returning characters, and thankfully, they are as fantastic and memorable as always.
Set at Yasogami High School in Inaba during the cultural festival, the game revolves around an escape from said school via a collection of labyrinthine dungeons. With battles taking place in the dungeons and healing, upgrades and the majority of conversations etc taking place at the high school, the experience could have felt a little disparate, but again, thanks to some very decent writing, Persona Q manages to side-step those issues to create a game that feels surprisingly fluent despite its somewhat segregated styles of gameplay.
While the story is very solid and the returning characters and sense of place as fantastic as always, it is nonetheless the dungeons themselves that really steal the show. While graphically solid rather than spectacular, the sense of progression and fantastic turn-based battle system combine to create an experience that, while frustrating at times, overcomes its issues to deliver a challenging but highly rewarding experience.
Rather than just the traditional single Persona as per the mainline releases, in Persona Q, each character also has the option to use additional sub-Persona to take advantage of specific enemy weaknesses. With each team made up of five member that can be placed in to rows on the battlefield, the options for attack and defence are greatly expanded with weaker, magic –based characters able to hide behind the stronger, more physical characters placed on the front row.
These tactical options aren’t just for show either as Persona Q will kick your ass given half the chance. Basic random battles can be very challenging while boss battles are often hard as nails. There are also FOEs scattered around the battlefield that, while visible on your map, are extremely unforgiving if taken on (yes, the rewards for victory are great, but make no mistake, FOEs are not to be taken lightly). All of the challenges can be overcome with careful planning, but be warned, you can often find your whole team wiped out in a matter of seconds and, at times, the spikes in difficulty can feel more than a little unfair. It will obviously depend on the type of gamer you are, but there were more than a few occasions in which I could have happily slung my 3DS out of a window.
Difficulty spikes aside though, the dungeons themselves are highly addictive and with the ability to mark treasure chests, hidden paths and puzzles etc, simply traversing a dungeon often felt like an adventure unto itself.
It can frustrate at times, and for those who don’t click with the characters or story, the conversations will often appear to go on forever. For fans of the series though, the fan service is likely to trump any of the more trivial issues that the game might have, and if you’ve played Persona 3 or 4, you’re likely to adore all of the cool little nods hidden within Persona Q’s ample running time. Saying that though, while clearly made with fans in mind, just about anyone with an interest in JRPGs or Japanese culture should find plenty to enjoy here. The characters are great (even if the leads take a long time to really get going), the music is awesome and the dungeons are both addictive and highly challenging. The world is as interesting as you might expect, but Persona Q’s fantastic battle system really steals the show and does a fine job of carrying this lengthy but highly rewarding experience.
Fans of the series will not leave disappointed while newcomers will certainly find plenty to like – it might not be a fully-fledged Persona release, but Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth certainly does the series proud and should keep fans ticking over nicely until Persona 5 finally gets here.
Score: 8/10 – Very Good
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