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Don’t think of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth as a cute, little spinoff.
Sure, it’s plenty cute (those character designs! Awwwwwww), but this is a long, complex role-playing game very much in the same vein as the classics that inspired it, Persona 3 and Persona 4.
But it’s not exactly like those games. Persona Q, which comes out for the Nintendo 3DS on Nov. 25, doesn’t feature the day-to-day life sim qualities of the main series. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on dungeon-crawling. It actually takes a lot of cues from another RPG series from publisher from Atlus, Etrian Odyssey. Honestly, I’ve never played those games, but Persona Q was still a satisfying experience without that reference.
What you’ll like
Persona Q uses that glorious writing cop-out, the time paradox, to unite the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 during the middle of their year-long adventures. We’ve actually seen these casts mix before in the Persona 4 Arena fighting games, but the crossover works better here. Everyone gets more time to interact with each other (often referencing events from the main series), and the Persona 3 protagonist also joins in.
You can keep five characters in your party (one more than in the main games), and you can choose a mix from both rosters. So, if you’ve dreamed about creating party with Aegis and Teddy fighting side-by-side, here you go.
An interesting battle system
Persona Q’s battle system works a bit differently than series fans might expect. You still take turns with a group of monsters (called shadows) that have weaknesses to certain attacks. However, while before exploiting a weakness meant that the attacking character could immediately take another turn, now it gives you a bonus that applies to you next turn. Namely, you’ll get to act first and you can use all of your moves without spending the usual Skill Points or Hit Points.
So, exploiting weaknesses is still the key to winning, but you won’t win as many fights in a single turn as you’re used to. Even the monsters seem to have a bit more health than I remember them having in the originals. The battle system is a bit harder, but the added challenge is mostly satisfying. Sure, you’ll get beat up a bit more than you did in Persona 3 or Persona 4, but the result is that even the smallest victories feel meaningful.
Personas give characters their abilities, including offensive spells and healing magic. Your skills depend on whichever Personas the characters have equipped. Just like in the main games, each person has a specific Persona that they always have on, but while only the protagonist could use equip different ones in the main games, every roster member can now equip a sub-Persona.
This means that you have to take even greater care to level up and combine Personas (which unlocks new ones). When you create a new Persona, you can transfer certain skills over. A large part of the strategy involves creating versatile, powerful Personas for your entire party. It’s a deep system, but it’s not as complicated as it seems thanks to a simple interface (a search function shows which Personas you can make with those in your inventory).
Exploring the dungeons
You’ll spend most of your time in Persona Q exploring a series of dungeons. Each one teems with shadows, treasures, and secrets. You actually use the 3DS’s bottom touchscreen to create a map as you explore. This is pretty important, since you’ll constantly need to leave and re-enter a dungeon to heal your party, sell items, and fuse Personas. You’ll want to keep a tidy map if you don’t want to get lost, which is apparently a mechanic from Etrian Odyssey.
While most battles happen randomly (kind of, an image on the bottom right of the screen begins to turn red when you’re close to getting into a fight), some powerful enemies, called F.O.E.’s, wander around the mazes. Each have different movement patterns. Some will always chase you, some will draw you toward them if you step into their line of sight, and some will stay completely still unless you scare them away with a torch. They’re strong, so you usually need to avoid fighting them. Working your away around each F.O.E. becomes a significant part of navigating each dungeon.
What you won’t like
While the F.O.E.’s are fun to avoid, other puzzles seem too complicated. For one, I had to write down a series of numbers and symbols that I discovered from three different places on one floor of a dungeon. I then had to try to figure out how to use these clues to open a door. I really had no idea. One of the characters even solved the puzzle for me, which I guess was nice of her, but it kind of made me feel like a dunce .
OK, maybe I deserved it, but I wish that some of the puzzles didn’t require so much note-taking. The F.O.E.’s are interesting because you need to plan ahead to avoid them. It’s almost like chess. Other puzzles feel like I’m just wandering around until I stumble on a solution.
Since it combines two games’ casts, Persona Q has a lot of characters. Although they all act like they did in originals, they’ve also all turned flatter. Just like their designs have become caricatured, so have their personalities.
In Persona 4, Teddy was a mysterious character on a mission to find meaning in his existence, and he also liked to flirt with the female cast. In Persona Q, I feel like all he does is harass the girls. The once likable character has become annoying.
Persona Q seems to pick up on one personality trait for each character and run with it. Chie likes meat. Kanji likes girly things. Naoto is a genius. Junpei likes to tell ghost stories. I miss the depth that these characters had in the main Persona games.
Not nearly as much social interaction
Part of the reason why each character feels less complex is because Persona Q doesn’t devote nearly as much time to story as the originals do. While Persona 3 and Persona 4 were practically virtual novels with RPG elements like dungeons, Persona Q is a straight-up, hardcore dungeon-crawler. You don’t build Social Links, you don’t take tests at school, and you certainly don’t woe a girlfriend.
I’m not trying to dock points off of Persona Q for not being exactly like the other games, but it does throw the pacing off. You spend so much time inching your way through the labyrinths that it becomes tiring. You can sometimes go on a stroll with friends, which will instigate conversations and sometimes minigames (like one where you have to remember everyone’s food court order), but these are pretty small diversions.
Persona Q is and isn’t a Persona game. It features a complex battle system, and fusing Personas certainly feels familiar, but it’s not nearly as text-heavy or character-driven as Persona 3 or Persona 4.
It’s such good role-playing game that I don’t mind this too much. You’ll easily spend dozens of hours exploring its labyrinths, and even more if you decide to play again from the other team’s perspective (you can choose to start as either the Persona 3 or Persona 4 cast, although they shortly meet up with each other).
It’s not quite Persona 5, but it’s still a meaty (down, Chie) role-playing experience.
Persona Q comes out for the Nintendo 3DS on Nov. 25. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a code for the purposes of this review.
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