A few years ago Atlus released "Persona 3", taking their obscure hardcore occult RPG series Shin Megami Tensei out of the realm of the super nerds and into the mainstream realm of the regular nerds. Then they released "Persona 4"*, an even more popular game that launched this series into super stardom. The obvious thing to do at this point was pull out all the stops, double down, and sell out like a madman. We had "Persona 4" fighting games, we had "Persona 4" animes, before this year is out we will have a crossdressing rhythm dance game on the Vita, and there was whatever the heck "Catherine" was supposed to be. But can you do both? Can we not have a shameless cash-in that is also a fairly decent JRPG in its own right?
Onto the subject for today. "Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth" for the Nintendo 3DS is a shameless cash-in on the 3DS that is also a fairly decent JRPG on it's own right. The plot here is that a magical time dimension opens up in a Japanese high school summoning two groups of teenaged Shadow-fighting heroes with the power to control Personas. Now if you do not know what a 'Persona' or a 'Shadow' is, then "Persona Q" is not the game for you. As a matter of fact, even if you have only played "Persona 3", this is not the game for you. "Persona Q" is exclusively a fanservice romp for fans of both games. And not just casual fans. I am talking about the kind of fans that have subscribed to the subreddit, listen to a live album of the "Persona 4" battle themes every day, and are currently creating really creepy Deviant Art drawings of themselves and their selected underage video game waifus.
Story-wise, "Persona Q" is actually rather light until the final dungeon when events actually get real. There is no grand save the world narrative, just characters you have met before chilling in one location. There is no obvious villain, so the heroes take their sweet time defeating the four labyrinths that hold the four keys that are imprisoning them. And really, what is the rush? Everybody here are friends of each other or friends of the player, so why not have a party? Basically this game is just a cast of some of the best characters in JRPGs letting their bubbly personalities bounce off each other. I don't recall enjoying "Persona 3" altogether (my review is rather bitter upon my re-read) but I was pleasantly surprised at how happy I was to see Aigis, the cute doggie, and even Fuuka again. If you are not getting those warm and fuzzies at the sight of your old Senpai in colorful chibi make-over, I really cannot sell this game to you.
"Persona Q" is clearly built as fanservice, yet most of it's main mechanics seem custom built to annoy conservative veterans of the series. If you came here to play a Persona game, you will be disappointed. Since the location is restricted only to this one dimensional high school there are no other NPCs to interact with and thus none of the high school life simulation that Personas "3" and "4" were built around. You can't date other members of your party so my fantasy of grabbing my protagonists from P3 and P4 and making a Chie sandwich is foiled. The Press Turn mechanic in battles no longer gives you a second attack when you exploit a weakness or land a critical hit, but rather removes the HP or MP cost from your next turn's move. The main characters no longer play any special role in combat, they're just regular units, equal in battle skill as any of the other twenty-odd party members.
|Cute anime girls do not need to worry about calories.|
Since the entire game is built entirely around the dungeons, it is good thing that "Persona Q" has some of the very best dungeon design of any RPG you will find, east or west. In other JRPGs dungeons are built as nothing more than long stamina sappers which force you to grind until your party is strong enough to blast through them in a single run. They have basic layouts and have no real interaction other than the random encounters. In "Persona Q" the dungeon design seems more built around inspiration from Zelda games. Many of the floors are not just mazes they are elaborate puzzles requiring critical thinking - or critical searches on GameFAQs forums - for the solution. The dungeons feel alive, like very silly manic places where ridiculous tasks will be asked of you in order to proceed.
The primary method that "Persona Q" forces you into puzzle solving mode is by introducing ludicrously hard enemies known as 'FOEs'. These creatures will appear on the dungeon floors walking in irregular patterns to catch you into combat. FOEs are typically too strong for the party to actually defeat outright, forcing you to either learn their movement patterns to dodge them, or carry around an object to scare them away, or manipulate two of them into position to trap them from chasing you. If you're unlucky enough to stumble into combat you can easily run away. In a clever move though, if you cannot actually solve the FOEs puzzles you can just brute force your way through them and kill them the old fashioned way - with your fist. They are quite difficult but a well-leveled and well-prepared party should be able to have a fighting chance at them.
|Monster beetle king demon things check in, monster beetle king demon things don't check out.|
Now there are undeniably flaws. "Persona Q" takes a very liberal approach to the casts, often reducing characters down to a single joke and repeating it endlessly. Akihiko from "Persona 3" is reduced to an insane roided-up body builder who can do nothing but talk about exercise. Teddie from "Persona 4", already a character hard to live with, is a repulsive womanizer who with more than a few shades of Quagmire. It can be a lot less funny than it thinks it is at times too: the first time you've heard a joke about how your female teammates are bad at cooking is just as not funny as the next hundred times. "Persona Q" is also at the long-side, even a casual run will take over forty hours, and if you're looking to complete the side missions you'll get an extra ten or twenty.
"Persona Q" is not going to convince the world. There are several very good reasons to ignore this game entirely: you want something with more drama, you're looking for a more sprawling epic game, or you still don't really know what this "Shin Megamy Tensay" business is all about. In which case, go play "Shin Megami Tensei IV", a game that is undeniably better than this in probably every way. However, there is still something to like out of this title. It isn't just the adorable cartoony art style or the rocking battle theme, it's the entire air of joyful gaming. I like that there is not brutal melodrama at every turn, I like that this genre is broad enough to include nonsense like this.
|Let that be proof now, Space Monkeys: Aigis is MY WAIFU. Not yours.|
* There will come a day when I will beat that game. That game is not today. Sorry.