Saturday, December 5, 2015

GOT 'IM - Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

Moving through these reviews!  My self-imposed paragraph limitations help, but my current addictions certainly don't.  Here's a review for Persona: Shadow of the Labyrinth for 3DS! 


I've talked about my personal history with the Persona franchise several times on this blog, so I'll spare you that.  If you're curious, check the "Persona" tag on the blog's sidebar and read the first few paragraphs of my other Persona reviews.  Short version: I used to dislike Persona (in the early 2000s), and now I'm obsessed with Persona (since the early 2010s).  This review is for a "gaiden" chapter of the Persona series, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.  Persona Q... shares more similarities with Atlus's Etrian Odyssey games than it does with Persona 3 or 4 proper.  So let's start there. 

Persona Q borrows the dungeon navigation and map-making mechanics of Atlus's Etrian Odyssey series, and populates those dungeons with characters, shadows, and personae from Persona 3 and Persona 4.  I really disliked the first Etrian Odyssey (bought it in college, played it in briefly, sold it to a friend without regret), and have ignored the series for 7 or 8 years.  Persona Q's promise of more Persona goodness to hold me over until Persona 5 landed (along with Persona Q's overall positive reception and excellent soundtrack) got me too curious not to buy it.  I bought it at launch in fall 2014 and played it sporadically over several months, finishing in February of this year. 

Spoiler alert: I really liked Persona Q.  I enjoyed just about every aspect of it, from the map-making elements to the character-building stuff to the (often quite challenging) turn-based combat.  Persona Q has more visual polish than the Etrian Odyssey series and I'm under the impression that it's a little less hardcore than an Etrian Odyssey game.  Word of mouth and online research tells me that Etrian Odyssey IV is the much-beloved, most-modern, probably-best game in the EO series and both Persona Q and the 3DS remakes of the first two EO games are built on the foundation of EO IV.  Well damn.  I might need to revisit that series, starting with EO IV or the remake of EO I.  Persona Q was so much fun that it has me curious about its predecessor.  But that's enough about Etrian Odyssey, let's talk about Persona Q a bit. 

Story and Characters

Persona Q is practically the definition of a "gaiden chapter" while also being a parody of the concept.  The game takes place during the typhoon lockdown of Persona 3 (September of 2007) AND during the school festival of Persona 4 (October of 2009).  Yup.  A mysterious force draws the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 into a land where time stands still, in what appears to be a school festival at Yasogami High School (the setting of most of Persona 4).  The characters even acknowledge this in-game ("what do you mean it's 2007?  It's 2009!") and the exact nature of why and how these two teams came together is a mystery that persists until the final chapter.  Each chapter is represented by a "display" from the cultural festival - the first one is an Alice in Wonderland-styled hedge maze, and a later chapter is a haunted house.  The game has five of these dungeons, with plenty of plot exposition and dialog between each dungeon, for a total game runtime of at least 60 hours.  I think it took me closer to 70. 

The story's pacing is a bit slow, with layers of plot peeling away only in expository segments after major boss battles and before the next chapter is revealed.  When the final story payoffs do happen, they are pretty dope; I got a little emotional during the credits scene, because for some reason Persona endings always get me verklempt.  The journey to that beautiful ending, though, is a bit rough.  There's a lot of dialog, including from sidequests and optional scenes within the dungeon, not just the main game's central plot.  This dialog, though... is not great.  Expect a lot of awkward jokes and one-note personality traits coming to the forefront.  Chie is obsessed with meat, Akihiko is obsessed with protein, Junpei is a slightly-perverted lunkhead, Naoto is a serious, somber detective, and Koromaru is a dog.  These aren't quite the same layered, rounded characters from Persona 3 and Persona 4.  Because Persona Q is about developing its main story (which is about the school itself and the two new characters you meet) and not this cast of 20+ characters, each of the returning characters is boiled down to one or two prominent personality traits.  And that's a bummer. 

But hey, even though the character portrayals feel inferior to the main-series Persona games, that doesn't mean I don't like seeing these characters again!  Okay, sorry for the double negative.  Let me rephrase: it's still hella fun to hang out with the casts of Persona 3 and 4, and also fun to see the two groups interact.  Everyone encouraging each other, Teddie and Koromaru competing for Best Mascot, and Mitsuru and Naoto discussing the weaponization of Mystery Food X.  Sometimes these conversations get pretty hilarious.  The wealth of sidequests in the game usually yield pretty good rewards in addition to more amusing dialog.  There is a TON of in-fight banter and side commentary available, in a shocking amount for a 3DS game.  And again, the portrayals of these characters bother me a little and the dialog is occasionally cringe-worthy; it's also occasionally pretty good and a net positive overall. 

Playing the Game

In Persona Q you don't have all of the characters immediately available.  You choose one character (either P3's protagonist or P4's protagonist) to be the "main" character, then you begin the game in the main character's time and place.  After you're sucked into the time-locked Yasogami High, you meet Zen and Rei, a pair of students similarly trapped in the Yasogami festival.  Zen is a fighter that uses crossbows and Rei is a magic user that can heal; they fight together as one unit.  After completing the game's first chapter with Zen and Rei in your crew, you meet the rest of the cast (including the other potential main character) and you have a full compliment of 19 playable characters plus Rise and Fuuka providing support.  In addition to these 21, the cast is joined by Elizabeth, Margaret, Theodore, and Marie from the Velvet Room.  They act as shop-keepers and Velvet Room denizens for our heroes, selling items and working with Personas. 

The basic gameplay loop is building a party of up to five characters (plus one support) and exploring the dungeons.  Your characters can be set in the front line or back line, with the front line taking more damage, dealing more melee damage, and being more likely to be targeted.  Each character has four spell slots with skills learned and upgraded via normal leveling up.  Then equipping Personas enters the equation; each character has their base Persona providing their four main skill slots, and a secondary Persona that you obtain from battles, fusion, and your Compendium (Margaret handles Velvet Room duties in Persona Q).  Each secondary Persona provides up to four more skills for its character, plus a pool of bonus HP and bonus SP.  Managing your secondary Personas and giving your characters bonus HP and SP to work with is key to success in Persona Q. 

Look, this is an Etrian Odyssey game with a few Persona gameplay elements and a LOT of Persona fanservice.  After you set your team, you brave the dungeons.  Each of the game's five dungeons is an ordeal of twisting corridors, one- and two-way hidden passages, and puzzles that usually depend on manipulating and avoiding powerful enemies called FOEs (which are usually too strong to beat when you first meet them, but yield nice rewards when you are strong enough to kill them).  You map out each dungeon floor on the touchscreen as you navigate it.  Persona Q provides a wealth of options for mapping out the dungeon, and it's just like playing an Etrian Odyssey game, except easier to use.  The mapping in Persona Q was way more robust and easier to figure out than the first Etrian Odyssey.  I mean, it fucking better be since the games are 7 or 8 years apart, but whatever.  The map stuff in Persona Q is pretty cool. 

So you have characters, Personas, dungeons, FOEs, and maps.  Let's talk about combat next. Combat is turn-based, with attacks in nine types (three physical, six magical) like Persona 3, but also affecting front row vs. back row on occasion.  Landing knockdowns by hitting an enemy's weakness is around, but is a % chance in Persona Q instead of a guarantee like Persona 3 or 4.  That makes getting round-one wipes via All-Out Attacks almost impossible, and random encounters much more risky and challenging.  And against FOEs and bosses, forget it.  The game stacks boss encounters against the player, and you'll have to sniff out gimmicky offenses and tricks to defeat a few of them.  Late in the game I got strong enough that killing FOEs was more appealing than solving puzzles, and I still died in a few of them.  This turn-based combat (especially when you take Persona customization into account) is pretty deep and challenging.  I got into it, but I did get wiped and lost hours of gameplay once or twice.  The Dragon Quest-esque save system is harsh indeed.  

Visuals and Audio

Normally I talk about graphics and artwork before music, but not this time.  Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth has an excellent soundtrack, one of my favorites of 2014.  Three composers from the Atlus stable of musicians (Shoji Meguro, Atsushi Kitajoh, and Toshiki Konishi) plus the industry veteran Yuzo Koshiro (!) contributed to Persona Q's soundtrack.  Wow.  Hell of a list.  Koshiro and Meguro are bonafide legends, and Kitajoh was on Persona 4, Persona 4 Golden, and the Persona 4 Arena games (seriously, the more I hear Kitajoh's work, the more I like him).  Great team of composers.

Several Persona 3 and Persona 4 tunes are remixed for Persona Q, and the original stuff varies between pleasant, suspenseful, and intense.  The opening song, "Maze of Life," is a blast.  The main battle theme "Light the Fire Up in the Night" has two variations, one for the Persona 3 path and one for the Persona 4 path, that borrow motifs and vocalists from each of those respective games.  The main menu music is a floaty remix of "Maze of Life" that I could listen to on repeat for hours.  This was one of my favorite soundtracks of 2014, and I've had it on iTunes rotation for several months now.  Even if you never play Persona Q, I implore you to look up the musical score.  It's pretty great.

Visually, I'm a little less excited by what Persona Q has to offer.  The first-person dungeons are creepy, colorful, and distinct, which is pretty cool.  Fights are also in first-person, with a variety of Persona shadow villains being displayed in 3D.  The character models and artwork, however, are in a rounded chibi-style that I didn't love.  It makes Persona Q feel more distinct than Persona 3 or Persona 4, but I definitely would have preferred a style more consistent with the PS2 games.  The graphics are serviceable and look good on the 3DS, but I'm not totally into the art style.  Persona Q has almost all of the voice actors return from the most recent versions and spinoffs of Persona 3 and Persona 4, and it all sounds great.  Matthew Mercer is voicing Kanji instead of Troy Baker, but Mercer does such a good job that I'm not even a bit upset.  The bad dialog isn't the voice actors' fault. 

The Final Word

Persona Q is more Etrian Odyssey than Persona, but that isn't necessary a bad thing.  Fans of the Persona 3 and 4 cast might be a little disappointed by the portrayals of these beloved characters, but the really good RPG combat and fun map-making segments drew me in and the story exceeded my expectations.  This is a solid game coated in uneven Persona fanservice, and that's just fine.  I'm glad that I made Persona Q one of my first 3DS investments and I'd play a Persona Q-2 in a heartbeat. 

Games Beaten: 2015 Edition

1. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies
2. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim
3. Fire Emblem: Awakening
4. Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth
5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (NG+)
6. Persona 4 Golden
7. Ys: Memories of Celceta
8. Her Story
9. Final Fantasy X HD Remaster
10. Persona 4 Golden (Platinum)
11. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
12. Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
13. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
14. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
15. Mega Man V
16. Far Cry 3
17. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair
18. Kirby Triple Deluxe
19. Undertale

Targets: 5/15


I still have one more boss fight to complete in The Last Story, which stymied me for an entire day until I rage-quit.  I'll spend another full day (probably in mid-December) wrapping that up just to cross it off my list.  Waiting in the wings I have Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (which I have more than half-done) and Paper Mario (which is maybe 80% done).  One of those should be my next completed target.  I might fit another target game into the last month of the year, but it's not a guarantee.  Lots of video games to play.  I live such a hard life. 

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