Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is anything but persona non grata; it’s a welcome hybrid that places the beloved characters of both Persona 3 and 4 within the framework of Etrian Odyssey’s classic first-person dungeon-mapping/crawling. The story’s a bit undercooked, though that’s to be expected, as this side story takes place in the middle of both games (as opposed to the Persona 4 Arena series) and can’t do much that’s non-canonical. The writing, on the other hand, is fully developed, and between that and a few new twists on the turn-based, enemy-weakness-exploiting combat of Persona, is clearly all the excuse needed to while away 60 (or more) hours with the cast.
Don’t be fooled: There’s a meaty game within Persona Q as well. Each dungeon has its own unique theme, and tricky puzzles ensure that you never get overly confident (and thereby bored) with the exploration. The mapping functions are painless, too, and often used in conjunction with puzzles, whether that’s simply a matter of jotting down key locations for future sub-quests, or in the way clues might conceal themselves in the very shape of the map. FOE monsters—giant, visible enemies that you’ll have to run from until revisiting these dungeons down the road—also keep you on your toes, and tie into the puzzles, as you’ll often need to figure out how to use the environment to distract and sneak by them, whether that’s a matter of trapping them between beams of light (in a haunted house) or forcing them to repaint a bouquet of roses (in an Alice in Wonderland-themed area).
That said, the real reason to explore every inch of these dungeons and to play Persona Q at all (besides looking for a substantial challenge), is that dialogue is triggered at just about every dead-end, and often reveals additional conversations back at your home base. These scenes, called Strolls, are very much like the skits found in the Tales franchise, but with a cast of over 16 characters, they’re able to cover far more territory. Sure, there are also some stray logic puzzles that involve carefully listening to what your friends are talking about, and you can gain powerful items by mapping out an entire floor (or through the use of Nintendo Play Coins), but that’s all head-stuff, and Persona Q tends to go more for the heart.
Of course, for those who prefer to engage their brains, there’s plenty of stat-crunching to do. Every character, with the exception of newcomers Zen and Rei, who work as a unit and whose lack of a Persona is part of the mysterious plot, has a main Persona. But each can also equip a secondary Persona that serves to balance out elemental weaknesses, as well as to increase the number of skills available in combat and buffer a character’s maximum hit and skill points. As always, these persona can also be fused together in various combinations to produce ever-stronger options or, in a new twist, sacrificed for experience, to imbue characters with permanent new skills, or to gain hidden materials. Best of all, while you’ll definitely see an improvement for doing so, Persona Q remains balanced enough such that it always retains a challenge, no matter how much of a game-breaking character you attempt to develop. (Those interested in doing so, however, should always have Naoto in their party.)
If there’s a single downside, it’s that with a cast of over 16 characters, only five of whom can physically be in your party (Rise and Fuuka learn special skills that allow them to assist in combat and exploration), there’s very little reason to play around with your party’s composition. The limited number of requests (which grant EXP to the entire party) and accessories (like the Growth Ring, which grants EXP to out-of-party characters) result in a large disparity between your core companions. That said, there’s no penalty for focusing on a few favorites—even when you need to bring a certain set of characters in a dungeon, as when Teddie challenges Koromaru to a mascot-off (with Aigis officiating), they won’t have to engage in any combat.
From Wizardry to Shining in the Darkness, and even the recent Legend of Grimrock, Persona Q finds by far the best use of the first-person mechanic, and, thanks to its lively and familiar cast of characters, ensures that there’s never a dull moment in these dungeons. This is yet another horizons-broadening opportunity to knock skeptical fans for a loop—and it’s safe to say that its Q score is off the charts.