The Q stands for Awesome
HIGH A perfect blend of two outstanding franchises.
LOW A game this good deserves better hardware than the current 3DS.
WTF Meat jelly?!?
As a reviewer, I place much value on innovation. After all, I've been playing for over 30 years, and after being in it that long, I've seen the same themes, ideas, and mechanics repeated time and time again. However, there's also something to be said for genuine, focused iteration—taking an established formula and honing it to the point of shining brilliance is also an end worth pursuing.
Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth from Atlus isn't a new thing. It takes characters, concepts, and themes from two well-established franchises, Persona and Etrian Odyssey, and synthesizes them together. However, this fusion is done with such skill and care that it's impossible not to recognize it as the masterwork that it is. No corners are cut, every aspect is thought-out, and anything that a player could want has been delivered. It may not be revolutionary, but it's a near-perfect experience from developers at the height of their powers.
Although it's a bit confusing exactly where Persona Q lands in the overall timeline, it is a canon entry which further joins the Persona 3 and Persona 4 storylines into one overarching narrative. Essentially, something goes a little strange in the world, and the familiar faces from both games end up in a mysterious labyrinth. The player must then choose between the SEES team or the kids from Yaso High before setting out into the maze to figure out what's going on and how to put things right. There's more to it than that of course, but hey, no spoilers.
Players who've tried the Etrian Odyssey games will be extremely familiar with the core gameplay here, although it also bears strong resemblance to old-school Persona action as well. Exploration is in first-person mode and each step moves the party one tile on a grid-based map. While searching the dungeons, it's up to the player to draw their own map as they go, using the 3DS stylus on the lower screen to keep detailed notes while indulging in cartography. It may sound like a drag, but there's something incredibly satisfying in the tactile sense of drawing floor layouts, and it adds a nice semi-meta layer that few others can offer.
However, while the dungeon-crawl/mapmaking isn't new, combining the Persona formula with Etrian's labyrinth action creates a synergistic combat that's better than I could have imagined. For example, rather than the player's character being the only one able to change personas (the alter-ego spirits which bestow magic abilities upon normal people) it's explained that now everyone can do it. This freedom allows for new tactics to suit each situation. That in itself is a great change-up, but what's especially brilliant is that each persona bestows extra HP and MP to their user after each battle. It seems like a simple little thing, but it's huge.
The Persona series proper is famous for the press-turn combat system—players who take advantage of the elemental weaknesses of enemies can get extra turns or trigger a large group attack to mow down the opposition. That system has been reinterpreted in Persona Q. Now when a player takes advantage of a weakness (hitting a fire enemy with ice, and so on) their next magic spell costs 0 MP. If the player hits that weakness again without taking a hit themselves, their next attack still costs nothing, and quickly leads to enemies being blown out of the water.
With very careful management of these zero-cost opportunities in combination with the HP/MP granted after each battle, it's possible to coast for long stretches without needing to go back to home base to rest and refuel. It's a genius move that rewards smart play and makes these dungeon dives less about resource management and more about systems management. The elegance of this design is staggering.
However, the combat isn't the only thing that shines in Persona Q. As one would rightfully expect from a game with this pedigree, there's plenty of character interaction and story to chew on as the teams get deeper into the depths. In addition to getting to know a pair of brand-new characters that I'm quite fond of, players will also come across frequent dialogue scenes, discover sidequests loaded with personality, and get plenty of opportunities to spend time with their favorite Persona people. Teddie's still a hornball, Chie continues on in her endless quest for meat, and Akihiko's always up for any challenge. The writing is strong, true to the characters, and has no problems establishing itself as a legitimate part of the series.
Smaller aspects of the Persona Q experience get just as much attention as the broader strokes, and I was continually impressed by how much care was put into every part of the game. When a player's inventory is close to full, someone mentions it before it's a problem. When on a side mission, the developers drop useful hints along the way instead of leaving players to flounder on a blind search. The unexplored parts of the map light up if pointers are needed where to go. There are loads of positive tweaks like these at every turn, and it's clear that the developers have listened to feedback on past Etrian games and implemented all of it. Ironically, there were a number of times when I thought "I wish the developers had included XYZ" and then immediately discovered that thing before I could finish the thought.
In fact, Persona Q is such a masterpiece of intelligent design that the only criticism I can direct towards it (and it's an unavoidable one) is that players already familiar with Persona 3 and 4 will get much more out of the experience than those coming into it cold. It's very clearly meant as a rare treat for fans, so while it would still be enjoyable mechanically, there's just so much more to be gleaned by those already familiar with the characters and general premise.
Otherwise, I'm not overstating the case when I say this is very nearly a perfect game. I love the story, I love the gameplay, I love the level of polish and I love the ingenious combination of two franchises that were already great on their own. Videogames simply do not come better than this, and I give Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth my highest possible recommendation.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the 3DS XL. Approximately 28 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time of review, but hey, I'm still playing. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: ESRB information was not available at the time of review. However, I would say it strikes me as a T or E10+. There's a wee bit of suggestive talk, but nothing explicit is discussed and there's no salty language. The violence is all very abstract (vague weapon swings against goofy monsters) and no sexual content. I'd let my kids play this with no hesitation.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Some incidental sound bites and the animated cutscenes both lack subtitles. It's disappointing that this hasn't been taken into consideration yet, but thankfully, the sound bites aren't relevant to play and the cutscenes are few and far between. Other than those two things, the game does an excellent job of including text during gameplay, and I had no barriers to success at all.