Review: Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

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Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is all about the perspective.

For starters, it’s about physical perspective: The run-the-hallways, dodge the shadows third-person view we knew and loved from the insta-classic Persona 4: Golden has been swapped for an Etrian Odyssey-style first-person exploration view. It’s also about narrative perspective, given that you’re given the fun and entertaining choice when the game starts to play through the story in the company of the casts of Persona 3 (Mitsuru and Yukari!) or Persona 4 (Yukiko and Chie!). It’s like having two games in one.

Since we’re all trapped in the carnival-laden halls of Yasogami trying to figure out why a gigantic and ominous bell tower has sprung up in the courtyard, we’ll look at the game from a bunch of different perspectives, too.

Class Reunion
A huge, huge part of the fun here is getting another chance to hang out with the kids from Yasogami and Gekkoukan High and watch them bond and interact with each other. When Chie asks why a Laughing Table shadow can’t contain a plate of meat, it’s as funny as watching Teddie’s clumsy overtures to Yukiko and Rise get shot down for the bazillionth time or Ken and Kanji share fashion tips. These are such well-drawn, likable characters that getting to spend another 60+ hours with them in a setting that showcases their foibles and goofball banter better than the uber-serious Persona 4: Arena could is a total treat.

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But Um, What’s Up With the Goofy New Kids?
Even with a huge cast of familiar and hilarious characters to draw from, Persona Q makes the odd decision to center its story on a pair of new characters: Rei, a waifish girl who devours corn dogs like they were freaking M&Ms, and Zen, a Vincent Valentine knockoff who wields a crossbow and a personality as dry as the Sahara. Both of them have had their memories “stolen” — seriously, can we just kill the amnesia trope already? — and take far too long to reveal their secrets.

Welcome to Cartography 101
Like the early Wizardry games and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the Nintendo DS, Persona Q includes an entertaining mapping component that finds you sketching out the layouts of the labyrinths on the touchscreen as you traverse them, marking the locations of secret passages, treasure boxes and P-spots. (It stands for power spots, you pervert, and it’s a cool risk-reward way to get key items to sell; it’s not the impetus for the game’s M rating.) This isn’t just a matter of the game inventing annoying busywork for those who’d rather just rush headlong into the next shadow battle. Remembering where key event triggers are located and which secret passages only flow one way adds to the ambience, particularly since you’ll be ducking in and out of each dungeon for healing.

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Business in the Front, Party in the Back
It’s not the deepest strategic element you’ll ever encounter, but Persona Q does let you shift your five party members around in two rows to better manage their abilities and health status. Obviously, a heat-packing character like Naoto belongs in the back, while Chie and her roundhouse kicks are more effective up front. Still when one of your party’s on the verge of death, it’s nice to be able to move them out of harm’s way. Well, at least until the shadow you’re facing unleashes an unexpected Maziodyne on your party’s head.

F to the O to the E
As engaging as Persona Q’s psychedelic dungeons are, they can also be as cheap as the current price of a gallon of gasoline. Uber-powerful boss creatures known as FOEs (hello, Etrian Odyssey) stalk the platforms and corridors—sometimes in packs–and bumping into them ends about as well as using the Treasure Spotter persona ability to try to knock out an Emperor Beetle. While you can typically run away if you mistime your moves and bump into one, there’s no escape from random battles with unexpectedly powerful shadows or the copious “should you?” encounters that turn into deathtraps. At the same time, winning these challenging battles yields some seriously worthwhile rewards.

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Super Sub
In the Persona games, you managed your roster of personas by identifying the threat you’d be facing and swapping in the appropriate type for the job. Persona Q doubles the fun by letting each character keep their central persona plus a sub-persona that adds its moves and additional health and skill points to the mix. Given the strength of some of the shadows your party will encounter, this isn’t just about strategy—it’s about survival.

You again?
The world of Persona Q is significantly smaller than the worlds of Personas 3 and 4, where multiple locations and copious side trips made it seem like you were inhabiting an actual world. Here, you’re trapped inside the school, with only a few options like the workshop and the nurse’s office to visit. In a move that echoes the Patton Oswalt’s Koenig Boys on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., everything’s staffed by either Margaret or Elizabeth, who are apparently branching out from their Velvet Room duties. (And, in a humorous touch, are not exactly happy about it, either.)

Developer Atlus has really hit all the synergy buttons here, taking two beloved franchises and coating them with a funky sheen of fan service. What they’ve created is something far greater than the fun of its parts.

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Pros:
+ An additional 60+ hours spent with a huge cast of characters you know and love
+ Persona + Etrian Odyssey = surprisingly entertaining gameplay
+ Labyrinth mapping!
+ Strategic elements like formations and sub-personas provide additional depth

Cons:
– New characters Rei and Zen are boring and superfluous
– A few too many cheap, unwinnable encounters with FOEs and overpowered shadows
– It’s a small world after all

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: 11/25/2014
Genre: Dungeon Crawl RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.