It’s kind of inexplicable just how popular Persona has gotten in mainstream gaming culture. The series draws on some deeply morbid themes, though that part of its success isn’t all that surprising in itself. But the difference between Persona and your typical edgy Hot Topic pap is that Persona is actually smart. Drawing influence from world religions and dozens of philosophers, most prominently psychiatrist Carl Jung, the Persona games all make a concerted effort to say something meaningful about the human condition. The series’ game mechanics also demand a lot of attention and thought from players. Though not quite as brutal as its parent franchise Shin Megami Tensei, Persona games are among the most punishing dungeon crawlers on the market.
Of course, it’s not actually much of a mystery at all why the series has caught on like it has: it all comes down to the exceptional characters. When the series was reimagined for Persona 3, a heavy emphasis was placed on social interaction, which resulted in an odd hybrid between dungeon crawler and dating sim. That sort of gameplay really necessitates good character writing, so whereas SMT and earlier Personas uses archetypal characters to explore heady philosophical plotlines, P3 does so with a cast of complex individuals who play off each other in entertaining ways. The series really took off with Persona 4, which follows suit in terms of character development but adopts a slightly lighter tone.
With such an endearing cast, it was only a matter of time before we saw a crossover of some kind. The pseudo-sequel fighting game Persona 4 Arena covered that a little, but as the title suggests it was ultimately more focused on the cast and setting of P4. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth finally brings SEES and the Inaba Investigation Team together on (mostly) neutral ground, and it does so in a full-fledged JRPG. Brought together by a strange phenomenon in the Velvet Room, the teams have to delve into a twisted, shadow-infested version of Yasogami high school in order to get back home. This could have been the game to tide us over as we await Persona 5, but despite containing two different stories focusing on the characters from each game, it just doesn’t have enough substance to sustain hardcore fans.
From the point it achieved wide appeal there was a pervasive danger that the series would be dumbed down for the masses, but to this point that hasn’t happened. Though P4 touches on broader themes (the pervasive nature of media, the impact of progress on small-town life, and LOTS of sex), it still handles them in very intelligent ways. The portable versions of each title add quite a bit of story content (P3P’s optional female protagonist nearly doubles the size of the game), but it’s all hewn with the same sharp intelligence. Even though P4A gets a little batty (as Arc System Works games are wont to do), it explores some interesting concepts and avoids diluting the series’ lore.
Persona Q is the first game in the series that’s content with just being plain-old dumb fun, and while it is a lot of fun, the operative word there is dumb. Gone are the nuanced discussions on the nature of death and the interesting tidbits about history and science, replaced instead with 30 plus hours of chibi fan service. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Persona Q is extremely funny and answers burning fan questions like “what does the rest of the team do when the protagonist is in the Velvet room?” (Fuuka thinks he’s making it up) – but Persona can be (and to this point has been) so much better. The problem isn’t that the game wallows in anime goofiness (if you’ve seen my Nendoroid collection you know I’m into that), but that it does so at the expense of the things that make the series great.
This comes across in the gameplay too, which adapts a first-person viewpoint more in-line with your traditional dungeon crawler. On a surface level this might still appear to be the same Persona you know and love from a different perspective, but a cursory examination reveals that it’s just Etrian Odyssey with a Persona paint job. With a party of five characters (chosen from the casts of both games) you wander around vast labyrinths tile-by-tile, drawing your own map as you go. Shadows will attack randomly as you explore, the odds of an encounter going up with each step you take. In the turn-based battles your team is split into two rows, with ranged attackers and fragile healers in the back and heavy-hitters up front. On top of the unavoidable standard enemies, there are bigger monsters called FOEs that wander the map, either mindlessly patrolling set territory or attacking when they notice you.
Of course, this isn’t a total clone of Etrian Odyssey, and some parts of Persona have been translated over. The “Press Turn” system is a hallmark of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. It makes turn-based battles more intense by attaching significant rewards and penalties to elemental weaknesses. In Persona 3 and 4 not only does hitting a weakness do extra damage, it also knocks the damaged character out of commission for a turn and gives the attacker an extra action. Persona Q’s bonuses aren’t quite as powerful, but they’re still very handy – when you land a critical hit or elemental weakness your character will enter a boosted state that lets them attack first next turn and cast a single spell with no cost. Enemies can also be knocked down by their weaknesses or by critical hits, but it happens randomly and thus can’t be counted on as part of your strategy. All-out attacks (where your whole party strikes at once) also seem to happen randomly, and don’t carry any cost.
Rise and Fuuka return in their roles as navigators, keeping track of enemy weaknesses that you discover and commenting when there’s a secret nearby in the labyrinth. For some inexplicable reason neither of them can use the innate “full analyze” ability that basically defines their characters in their respective games, which reduces encounters with new enemies to a series of random guesses at their weaknesses. As a tradeoff they have special support skills that let them do things like heal the entire party at the end of each turn or move one character to the front of the action queue. These skills are activated by spending your “party” meter, which builds automatically as you land hits in battle.
Then there are the Personas themselves, which are invoked to cast magic at the cost of each character’s health or stamina. In your standard Persona game each party member has their own set Persona except for the protagonist, who can switch between several at will through the “power of the wild card”. In Persona Q the presence of two protagonists changes this power so that every character has a fixed Persona and a “Sub-Persona” that augments their abilities. In addition to giving your party members extra spells to use, sub-personas add to their HP and SP. Sub-Persona stats are represented as lighter sections on the end HP and SP gauges, and those points are refilled at the start of every battle.
Astute readers might be starting to notice something wrong with those systems – namely that in conjunction they could totally break the game. Typically in dungeon crawlers your health goes up and down with regularity, but your magic constantly dwindles, forcing you to exit the maze periodically to recharge. In Persona Q your sub-personas give you a constantly-refilling stock of SP to work with, and the boost system means that you basically never have to dip into your permanent SP as long as you’re able to exploit enemy weaknesses. The net result of this is that the only battles that pose any real danger on normal are fights with unknown enemies and bosses – and even then you should be able to make it through on your first try.
The only reason you’ll ever have to leave the labyrinth is when your pitiful inventory gets full, at which point you can sell off the resources you’ve collected for a massive windfall. You’ll spend most of your money on items and equipment, but you’ll also want to invest in persona fusion. The fusion mechanic is a staple of the SMT franchise, allowing you to combine old or fully-leveled personas into new ones while retaining some of their abilities. In the main-series games it’s a delightfully exploitable system that allows you to create powerhouse characters with no weaknesses if you’re clever, but here it just feels like a necessary and tedious part of progression that gives you access to gradually increased stats and more varied move lists. This lack of depth is exacerbated by the absence of social links.
One of the big draws of the Persona games is their dating sim component, but with the characters trapped in a pocket dimension there isn’t really any room to run around school making friends. Instead you take “strolls” with various party members – optional comedic asides that give characters room to bounce off each other. These interactions are frequently hysterical (especially anything involving Elizabeth or Theodore) and sometimes even involve light puzzle solving (such as running around with Naoto and uncovering the mystery of Chie’s missing meat jelly) for the sake of quests.
Elizabeth’s requests are of course simplified by the fact that there’s no overworld to explore, but there’s still a surprising amount of variety to what she asks of you. You might have to plumb the depths of a dungeon searching for a specific item, or go on a stroll and answer a series of questions correctly. Because there’s no calendar system these quests can typically be completed as soon as they’re assigned, and it’s a good idea to do so as they yield substantial rewards in terms of EXP and items. Because the EXP gains are applied universally, these quests prevent your lower-leveled characters from falling behind entirely. This means you can swap between them without too much grinding, which is useful on higher difficulty levels where individual weaknesses might prove a problem, but mostly irrelevant on normal thanks to sub-personas.
In addition to breaking the game, the idea of sub-personas is – if I may be a little bold here – really goddamn stupid. Based on concepts of Jungian psychology, the Persona is a spiritual manifestation of the part of the psyche that a person shows to the world (whereas the shadow is all the thoughts they wish to hide). It is the behavioral “mask” that protects their true self literally and figuratively. The protagonist of each persona game is able to shift personas because their outward personality is malleable (represented by dialogue choices in the game). This is reflected by the fact that social links build faster when the protagonist has a persona of the same arcana as their friend. Given this framework, it doesn’t make any sense for characters to be able to equip a second persona simultaneously – especially without it having any effects on their personalities. Persona Q takes this wonderfully complex psychological concept and reduces it to nothing more than Pokemon, and I kind of hate it for that.’
Also it’s REALLY stupid that Ken is being nice to Shinji when he’s literally planning to kill him at the point in Persona 3 when this game supposedly takes place. Just saying.
The one thing that makes this feel like an authentic persona game is the excellent music courtesy of Shoji Meguro, whose modern compositions give the games so much of their personality. The new battle theme is a fantastic hip hop anthem that easily lives up to Mass Destruction and Reach Out to the Truth (both of which are played during key battles in the game). What’s more the song actually changes depending on whether you’re playing the P3 or P4 story, so on your second playthrough you’ll get to hear an awesome remix. Songs from Persona 3 and 4 are used throughout the game as backing tracks for certain scenes, and they work to both affect a sense of nostalgia and set the mood as they did in their original sources.
Persona Q should be a hardcore Persona fan’s dream game, and if you only come to the series for its character writing then it kind of is. It made me laugh out loud more than once, and I played it with a nostalgic smile on my face. But in evoking that nostalgia it reminds us of other, better games, which only serves to highlight its own failings. Weak continuity and weaker dungeon crawling gameplay make this hard to recommend to anyone who enjoys the series for its depth. If you’re not bothered by a bit of stupidity, give it a play.