Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth had all the elements needed to grab my attention. A new adventure starring my favorite Persona 4 characters, a Jetsons Meet The Flintstones conceit involving the cast from Persona 3, and a chibi character art style that makes the heroes and heroines from look face punchingly cute. I couldn’t have been more excited to play! Take my money, Atlus! Sadly, that excitement transformed into disappointment. Not only does Persona Q has very little to do with the Shin Megami Tensei foundation, it’s frustrating as all hell.
Up until now, Persona’s famous brand of combat relied heavily on exploiting an enemy’s weaknesses to knock them down and gain extra turns. The system was a two way streak as enemy’s could exploit your party’s own weak spots and also earn extra turns. Striking enemies with a myriad of spells and physical attacks would knock them down, opening them up for the famous All Out Attack. It’s a great system that survived the test of time and does a great job with keeping every battle fresh and engaging.
Persona Q changes that system in a particularly uncomfortable fashion. You’re free to go after a monster’s weaknesses but the perks of doing so are gone. Instead of getting an extra turn, attacking characters earn a Boost. In this mode, the character can use spend it with a free spell cast or a stronger physical attack. If the character is hit by a monster, however, they are taken out of Boost. Enemies can still be knocked down but their doing so is not dependent on attacking against a weakness. Instead, the act feel randomized with no clear indication of what is needed to achieve this result. Knocking an entire group of enemies doesn’t guarantee an All Out Attack, either. Again, it is difficult to discern what I need to do. My best guess is that you need two people to successfully attack during a Boost phase. I’m still not completely sure.
There’s one change to the design that I don’t mind at all. Persona Q is the first game to allow party members to equip different Personas. Characters are no longer limited by their primary elemental abilities. Now, they are supplemented by skills offered by the familiar menagerie of mythical and religious creatures. You can even assign Personas to your support character (Rise or Fuuka) and they’ll level alongside the party after every battle. Adding Personas to your party members will also give them a nice well of extra HP and MP to burn through. In the Velvet Room, Personas are managed through the Compendium and used to create new creatures through Fusion.
Dungeons are the most interesting part of Persona Q. At the start of the game, you can choose which Persona cast to experience the story with. I chose Persona 4, naturally, and the gang find themselves transported seemingly to a past version of their high school. With the students in a flurry over the school’s cultural festival, the cast stumbles upon an Alice In Wonderland-themed dungeon in one of the classrooms. As a call back to earlier Persona games, moving through a maze is presented in a first person point of view on the 3DS’ top screen. The touch screen provides a graph paper-like canvas and a small collection of art tools to draw the dungeon map. Unlike Tartarus or the Midnight Channel, these dungeons feature all kinds of unique twists and turns, secret passageways, noteworthy events, and puzzles. Treasure chests provide helpful resources in the field alongside with power spots, special tiles that offer higher quality crafting materials or a unique enemy encounter. Beyond the random assortment of low level monsters, extremely tough monsters called FOEs prowl the dungeons in strict patrol patterns. You are constantly encouraged to avoid these creatures because they are far more dangerous than anything else on the map. I tried fighting one for a laugh and got the entire party wiped in the first round. Yikes!
The FOEs are indicative of the Persona Q experience in that I am constantly frustrated with its difficulty. Granted, Shin Megami Tensei games are no picnic, but Persona 3 and 4 had a fairly steady difficulty curve that was easy to live with. Persona Q stacks a lot against the player. This is the part of the review where I reveal that despite playing for several weeks, I still haven’t completed the first dungeon. I don’t consider myself to be a terrible player, I just find Persona Q to be rather unfair. For one, the game is one hell of a grind. Money is scarce, monsters pop up almost too frequently, and losing an hours worth of progress because a friggin’ monster got really lucky is absolutely no fun.
I have never felt so much anxiety over random encounters since Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne. Right now, I am stuck in the third level of the introductory Alice In Wonderland dungeon because of a particular scenario that happens every time I try to play. With my main party characters at level 9, I am capable of holding my own against the floor’s stronger enemy types. Around the time when things are going really well for me - I’ve garnered a great deal of experience points, sellable loot, and useful Personas - that the next enemy encounter is with a single, giant beetle creature that always seems to get first strike and gets two attacks that wipes out almost every person in my party. Escaping these battles is really difficult, too, and because he gets to attack before my party can act of my commands, they’re usually killed off and have to start again with all my progress down the toilet (there is no way to save the game in dungeons). This seems unnecessarily excessive for the early parts of the game.
Adding insult to injury, I haven’t unlocked revival items from the shop just yet so whenever I need to revive a fallen character, I’m forced to quit out of a dungeon and seek out healing services from Elizabeth of the Velvet Room. What really sucks is that the cost of healing increases with each use. There isn’t much money to go around in the first place and chances are, you’re likely to spend the meager funds on purchasing healing items, weapons, and gear just to keep them alive during regular battles. I really don’t mind an increasing cost for healing, but to do it so early in the game is more trouble than it is worth. I hate having to leave dungeons early to heal up, especially because dungeon mazes are long and its not uncommon to have your progress halted because of a grueling fight along the way.
I really wanted to love Persona Q but the game really gets in the way. The map design system (apparently borrowed from Etrian Odyssey) is cool and so is the prospect of a Persona crossover. I just wish the game let up for a few moments. I’ve come to expect a high difficulty when it comes to Persona titles but the older games were always manageable in the end. Persona Q’s initial hurdle is a forty foot high concrete wall I’ve been banging my head against for far too long. The best advice I can give is to not come into Persona Q looking for another handheld version of the previous two games. The changes made to the formula may seem minor but they have a huge impact on the experience.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.