“Why is someone in a bear suit hitting on teenage girls?” is a perfectly reasonable question you might have after a few hours of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. Other questions may include “Why are there so many characters?”, “What’s a Velvet Room?” and “How does that robot girl understand the dog?”
As the first installment of Atlus’ Persona franchise to appear on a Nintendo Console, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a bit of an oddball. Described as “first and foremost, for fans of the Persona series” by its producer, Katsura Hashino, this is a stripped-back traditional dungeon crawl featuring all your favourite characters from Personas 3 and 4.
Let’s set the scene. The members of SEES (P3) and the Investigation Team (P4) hear a bell tolling in the distance, and are then sucked into a mysterious alternate reality where they are all trapped in Yasogami High’s culture festival. A strange clock tower has sprung up outside the school, the other students seem oblivious to anything outside of the festival, and Zen and Rei – Persona Q’s two new characters – are found milling around with no idea why they are there.
It’s down to the two teams to work together, explore the labyrinth and discover the reason they have been transported there – helping Zen and Rei recover their memories along the way.
That plot could quite easily pass as fan-fiction, and it’s also worth noting that if you’ve never played a Persona game before, much of it will make little sense. Without previous knowledge of the series, you would be forgiven for thinking that Persona Q was a game based around crawling dungeons, and teenagers arguing about beef.
The meat (argh) of the game takes place in the various labyrinthine dungeons scattered around the school. You’re tasked with exploring each floor and defeating the monster at the deepest point of each labyrinth. Battles are dished out at random, there’s treasure to find and giant monsters, called FOEs, to avoid. Each floor is packed full of puzzles and goodies to discover, and once you’ve solved a puzzle, a shortcut will become available enabling it to be skipped on subsequent visits. It’s largely standard dungeon crawling fare packed full of daft vignettes of the two teams getting to know one another. These will either serve as a reminder of the superb characterisation from Persona 3 and 4, or for those whom Persona Q is their first foray into the series, come over a mixture of amusing and completely baffling. Why IS the guy in the bear suit hitting on all the girls?
The snappy but throwaway sketches make it feel like the cast are taking part in a sitcom rather than an adventure. Each character is almost a caricature of themselves – Akihiko speaks only of protein, Junpei is forever trying to attract the girls, and if Yukari were any more coy she might excuse herself from the game entirely. Herein lies the biggest issue with Persona Q – it is difficult to fathom and almost impossible to describe without constantly referencing back to previous entries in the series.
Zen and Rei are fun additions to the cast. Zen is quiet and moody, at odds with the rest of the happy-go-lucky cast. His no-nonsense attitude inadvertently makes him come across like Team Dad much of the time. Rei, on the other hand, is a one-hit wonder – tiny, brimming with enthusiasm and obsessed with food. It is a miracle how she ended up not only being tolerable, but very amusing at times. Even her voice acting is good – though the same can’t be said for the game’s stubborn insistence on referring to the protagonists (whom you have to name yourself) as “Leader”, which sounds clumsy and forced.
The combat system will feel a little uncanny valley-ish to players of previous Persona games. It’s had a slight overhaul from the puzzly nature of previous games, and is now a more traditional JRPG turn-based combat fare, with a twist. Each enemy has a series of weaknesses – a specific type of magic or melee attack. Landing a hit against an enemy’s weakness will put the attacking character into a boosted state – if they take damage they’ll lose that state, but if they survive until the start of your next turn without taking a hit then their skill/magic use for the following turn is free.
It’s a great incentive to attack smartly, and to formulate a battle plan against each group of enemies encountered. It prolongs the amount of time you can spend in the labyrinth as Skill Points (SP), the currency you exchange for magic use, are pretty scarce. Each character can also equip an additional Persona, which will grant them a set of additional skills to complement the ones they naturally learn, and crucially, a buffer of HP and SP that refills at the end of every battle. This deals with the issue of paying for your first, pre-boost, magic use in a very elegant manner.
Making the most of the tools available to you is important, as Persona Q can be harsh on mistakes. Enemies are powerful and will be quite happy to wipe team members out given half a chance – and while they can be revived in battle with items, once your team start dropping it can be a mad rush to get out of the battle before the whole squad are wiped out. You even have to fill in your own map! Points of interest like shortcuts, doors and, er, walls have to be put in manually, and forgetting will lead to frustrating hours of wandering a seemingly-complete labyrinth until the door you forgot to mark is located.
Persona Q is a curious game, especially as a debut entry on a Nintendo platform. It’s a giant in-joke with a really competent dungeon crawler stapled to it, and while you can definitely still have a great time crawling dungeons and laughing at daft antics, it’s just so much better with that extra knowledge. If you’re looking for an entry point into the franchise, this isn’t the best place to start; even so, I really enjoyed myself with Q, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the absurd standards I’ve come to expect from this series.