Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth Review (Nintendo 3DS)

In a year chock full of star-studded crossovers like Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney and Super Smash Bros., Atlus has stepped up to the plate with Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. A splendid mish-mash of two wildly popular franchises, Persona Q is neither a true Persona or Etrian Odyssey game per se, but rather something in between. This colorful dungeon crawler takes the best bits from these seminal series and offers a familiar experience for fans, but not at all an exhausted one. Oh, and did I mention the whole gang from Persona 3 and Persona 4 are here too? Let the true best girl debates ensue…

When an ominous bell rings during Yasogami High’s annual culture festival, the casts of P3 and P4 find themselves trapped in an alternate reality of the high school, only this one sports a cryptic labyrinth plagued by spooky enemies known as “shadows.” Depending on which route they pick, players will explore this endless maze as either game’s protagonist and investigate this paranormal occurrence with the help of some beloved faces both new and old. Together, the two teams must work as one to unravel the mystery of the labyrinth before it gets the better of them. All that, plus the gang eats a lot of junk food because donuts are the bo diggity bomb.

PQ‘s narrative is definitely less compelling than previous Persona games, which have dabbled in everything from the haunting nature of rumors to facing one’s existential demise, but that’s okay. I, for one, enjoy the silly Scooby-Dooesque vibe (seriously, look at that wavy title text) because it allows characters to act a little sillier than usual. For example, there’s a great scene early on in the P4 route where Teddie discovers a weird box that he maintains can duplicate any item that’s placed inside. A few corndogs and precious inventory items later, it turns out that–well, on second thought, I don’t want to spoil the punchline, but the point is that there are LOADS of goofy moments here. Long story short, this is a pretty good approach for a Persona spin-off if you’re a fan, but the bearrage of in-jokes, winks and nods, and fan-service can tire quickly and might even alienate newcomers to the series.

Perhaps equally polarizing is PQ‘s gameplay, which draws less upon the mainline games and more from Atlus’ other popular series Etrian Odyssey. The EO titles are known far and wide for being the notoriously difficult grandchildren of ye olde dungeon crawling classics such as Wizardry among many others, but this doesn’t have to be the case with PQ. Yeah, you could annihilate any and all semblance of morale you may possess by attempting the game’s remorseless Risky difficulty, or you could select one of PQ‘s more palatable difficulties which can be adjusted at any time, a gesture that will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who isn’t a masochist.

Other EO staples like cartography, dangerous FOE encounters, and multi-row combat are also borrowed and implemented to great effect in PQ. These aspects have been carefully catered in such a way that not only compliments many long-standing Persona conventions, but actually improves upon them. This is especially true in terms of dungeon exploration. Looking back at P3 and P4, dungeons were more often a tedious day-to-day chore than an exciting opportunity to explore uncharted locales, and thankfully PQ doesn’t continue this tired trend. Say goodbye to all those hopelessly bare corridors of Tartarus and the woefully condensed halls of Inaba–their drab legacies shan’t live on any longer. Instead, say hello to the incredibly inspired vistas of PQ, boasting eye-catching themes as well as treacherous brain-teasing obstacles. Man, it sure does feel good to have dungeons that are as fun to navigate as they are to look at for once.

Speaking of navigation, when players aren’t beating down enemies they’ll be expected to sketch out maps on the 3DS’ bottom screen akin to past EO set-ups. Maps in other JRPGs rarely ever transcend their function of pinpointing your current location or next destination, but in PQ maps can be as intricate or bare bones as the player desires. It’s generally a good rule of thumb to jot down important things like roaming mini-bosses, points of interest, and stairs since it’ll make revisiting areas a more streamlined process when accomplishing optional tasks later on, but the game doesn’t force you to abide in this at all.

Sure, cartography won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but never fear! PQ has a nifty auto-mapping option that keeps track of where you’ve already trekked. It won’t highlight important things like treasures or hazards, but it’s certainly a handy feature if you don’t feel like outlining every nook and cranny of an area. If anything, though, this cartography system functions as a pleasant reminder that exploration doesn’t have to be a stagnate procedure, it can be involved and even stimulating when done right.

In terms of combat, this dungeon crawler plays out more like EO than Persona, but there are some key principles lifted from latter that seperates PQ from the rest of the pack. Notably, the traditional weakness exploiting mechanic from P3 and P4 has been altered in such a way that places a greater emphasis on acting economically. Instead of granting players with an extra turn to attack once an enemy’s weakness has been revealed, any character that deals a super effective blow can use skills without consuming any health or magic points during their next turn. In a game where purchasing recovery items can be costly, this system creates a neat dynamic where players must make quick, calculated decisions in every battle in order to journey deeper as careless tactics will sending them packing in no time. It’s clever, it’s satisfying, and above all it takes a pre-existing formula and makes it feel fresh again.

Another interesting tweak to the formula are how personas are handled. Unlike previous installments, every character can equip a sub-persona to enhance their stats as well as innate skills. This sort of works like the sub-classes introduced in EOIII where characters can further supplement their roles by incorporating the skill set of another class or perhaps improve their overall versatility. While there’s a lot of overlapping roles between PQ‘s two rosters (*spoilers* there’s way too many Agi and Zio users), sub-personas give these competing characters a fighting chance to differentiate themselves from one another. In other words, yes, it can be pragmatic to have both Junpei and Koromaru on the same squad provided you’ve attached some decent sub-personas to help diversify them. Pssh, like you really need to justify using an aspiring baseball player and knife-wielding dog in tandem with one another.

Despite all this praise, PQ isn’t a total home run. A stand-up triple maybe, but not a moonshot out of the park. See, PQ does such an excellent job of incorporating EO elements that it sometimes forgets what it really is: a Persona game. Part of what makes this series unique from other JRPGs is the significance it places on social interactions, encouraging players to converse with certain characters in order to learn more about their interests, struggles, and backstory. Not only are these pathos-laden characters actually interesting to listen to, but pursuing these “Social Links” also acts as means of obtaining higher-rank persona fusions for battle. Sadly, PQ ditches this system entirely in favor of the new “Stroll” feature where the player can choose to view conversations between characters once certain requirements have been met. While it tries to encapsulate the social aspect behind Social Links, this mechanic is clearly more oriented towards accommodating group exchanges as opposed to more intimate one-on-ones with specific characters akin to P3 or P4.

While I applaud PQ for trying something different than its predecessors, I’m not a fan of how obtuse these social interactions have become. If I want to shoot the breeze with Junpei and the Stupei alone, I can’t do so; I have to wait around and hope the next stroll event will contain da man in some capacity. When a specific character does show up in one of these cutscenes, however, it’s oftentimes nothing more than a quick witticism or cheap remark–a very, very far cry from what I’ve come to expect from a Persona game. Kanji in particular, a character’s whose story arc in P4 was among the more thought-provoking in the entire series, feels more like a bumbling caricature of himself than the conflicted youth he actually is. As a long-time fan, these strolls left me wanting more in terms of legitimate characterization, not to mention a larger purpose outside of spurring fan-fiction material. I won’t pretend like it’s not fun to see folks from P3 and P4 chat it up because it totally is, just not 24/7. And it’s not like a little bit of earnestness here and there would hurt the game either. If anything, it would probably make PQ a more well-rounded product–something it deserves to be.

So what are you getting with PQ? Persona or EO? Which is it? Well, the answer isn’t exactly cut-and-dry, but what you are getting is a wonderful 70+ hour dungeon crawler that’s all that and a bag of potato chips. Everything from the vivid aesthetics to the roaring soundtrack is absolutely top-notch, and of course the overall gameplay mostly excels in delivering the immersive experience fans have come to expect from this celebrated series. Even still, it’s hard to find the right words to describe PQ because it does so many things well, yet doesn’t necessarily honor the legacy established by prior Persona titles, which is problematic only in that this game touts itself as the purveyor of all things Persona.

Simply put, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is an ice cream cake, and a darn good one at that. Much like the tasty dessert, its decadence derives from a delicious synthesis of sweetness that brings a smile to any and all who sample its devilishly rich contents. But then again, ice cream cake is just that—of ice cream AND cake—and not only do those calories hit your waistline harder than a wet sack of bricks, an ice cream cake must borrow its identity from two entities rather than truly forging one all its own, and therein lies the bittersweet truth of Persona Q. Regardless, this is one seriously scrumptious concoction even if it is a little half-baked in places, one that’s certainly worth digging into.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth releases November 25th in the US and November 28th in Europe.

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Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth Review (Nintendo 3DS)
By all means a crowd-pleaser provided you hang with some niche crowds. This bubbly adventure is a refreshing experience that dares to rethink several sacred Persona trademarks. While it had the potential to be a Jack Frost of all trades, PQ instead plays up its Etrian Odyssey roots rather than fully reaching out to the truth despite its namesake, but that's not such a bad thing either. At the end of the day, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth will have you dungeon crawling back for more one way or another.
Gameplay8.4
Presentation8.8
Replay Value8.2
Corn Dog Replicators10
Pros
  • Excellent exploration elements
  • Polished turn-based combat
  • Fun atmosphere and music
Cons
  • Stroll is not the new Social Link
  • Feels fan-fictiony at times
8.5Overall Score
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About The Author

Former Co-Editor

Trace Wysaske lives somewhere in Washington, and when he isn't compulsively hunting Green Stars or felling the Lagiacrus, he's writing about everything from forlorn Japanese teachers to well-mannered crows. He still needs to play Ghost Trick.