Etrian Odyssey never really intrigued me. I have heard of it, but everything I would see of the games never appealed to me. Strict dungeon crawlers, especially first-person is not usually my thing. I like a healthy dose of story in my games, especially RPG’s. Plus I always heard that those games were pretty hard, with a large portion of the game’s playtime being taken up by grinding. However, Atlus as of late seems to want to bring people around to their entire catalog, breaking them out from the tons of niche games their brand makes up. So in the middle of the milking of the sublime Persona 4 and Persona 3 stories, why not make an Etrian Odyssey game that has a Persona coat of paint slapped all over it? Enter Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, the game that made me understand why people like Etrian Odyssey so much.
Featuring the cast of both Persona 3 and Persona 4, Persona Q has you starting the game as one has so often before in this series, naming your main character. However this time around, you will name both the protagonists of Persona 3 and 4, you then choose which cast the story focuses on. While I have only gone through the game focusing on the Persona 4 side of things, I cannot imagine the game changes too dramatically as the two groups meet each other early on.
While this game does have more story than the Etrian games typically do (from what I have read), the story is definitely pretty shallow from a Persona perspective. This is a fan-game, where the narrative assumes you have played, and remember both Persona 3 and Persona 4. While that seems easy enough for longtime fans, each of those games had more than one release, both with heavy differences. Persona 3 is a bit lighter on this issue, with Theodore from Persona 3 Portable manning your item shop. However, unless you played through the Female Protagonist version of Persona 3 Portable, you will have never seen Theodore as a character, with Elizabeth being the baseline character everyone should be familiar with. More problematic than this appearance however, is the inclusion of Marie, a Velvet Room dweller that was seen only in Persona 4 Golden on the Playstation Vita. While Theodore only is different from Elizabeth on a very surface level, fulfilling the same needs in Persona 3 Portable, Marie is included in Golden as well as Margaret. She replaces no one, she is simply an addition to the story, and a complicated one at that. Further complicating the matter is that the Vita is at best a poorly-selling handheld, which probably led to a bunch of people beating Persona 4 on the PS2, never getting a Vita and never really getting to experience Marie as a result. She is a more divisive character, with many people saying she has no place in the canon at all, let alone in a fan-game like this. It’s a side story, with this element that has a few longer parts that people may not know or may not like.
Marie aside, the story to Persona Q has some issues. Mainly due to the lack of development we see from the characters through the game. While this is a side story involving some light time-travel elements, the game suffers from placing each team at a very specific point from their original timelines. The end result being you cannot go too deep into the characters, lest you risk repeating a lot of personal development beats from their original games, or even worse, contradicting those changes in character. Also by having both rosters in their entirety present in this one game bloats the character number significantly, resulting in each each character having to share what is already a truncated amount of time spent of development (at least from a Persona standpoint). The end result of this issue is a story that feels more like a Persona fanfiction than a real story. Each character is boiled down to one or two “key” elements and then then that element becomes almost their sole defining characteristic. I get it, Teddie is a pervert, who shamelessly hits on the women in the game. While this was present in Persona 4, it wasn’t so prevalent that it pushed out other things from making up the character. It was simply an element, part of a whole. In Persona Q, it is THE element, which makes Teddie seem like a sex offender in a creepy costume.
Unlike the established characters people came to the title for though, the new characters of Zen and Rei are generally done very well. Almost never separated, these two characters are both enigmatic and likeable from the get-go. Their arc is the only real point of real, Persona-level character development we see. However, while they are fun and even fun to use, a lot of their story can devolve into anime-like tropes of friendship and overcoming the odds with help. However, that is something visited often in the Persona series of games, making it not offensive to see play out here. This version is simply not as dark and nuanced as we’re used to seeing.
While the writing has its ups and downs, I do have to say I may be a fan now of the gameplay flow of Etrian Odyssey. I didn’t think I would like having to draw a map out on the bottom screen of the 3DS while doing the dungeons, but it makes every trip down into the labyrinths pretty immersive. By having to make your own map, which is not an easy process, the game forces you to take in everything around you, notice it. That is a lot more than RPG’s often do, with unfortunately so much of the backgrounds being lost or forgotten in your mad dash to hit the next story beat.
Also slowing you down in the dungeons, forcing you to go in and out of them multiple times is the item collection aspect. New restorative items and pieces of equipment only become available in Theodore’s item shop by delivering him raw materials found in the dungeons and dropped in battle. This leads to a steady stream of new and useful upgrades for your party, however you need to go back out of the dungeon very often in order to keep this flow going. Your inventory in Persona Q is very limited, only allowing you to hold 60 items, which is a shared pool between curing items, extra equipment and raw materials. This leads to a lot of you going on grinding/gathering runs in the dungeon, slowing your forward progress in the story. However, this isn’t bad, as the dungeons don’t let you get complacent, and in turn, bored.
Not content to just make you go slow with dungeon crawling by having to draw your map, every aspect of exploration and combat in Persona Q is made to go at a very deliberate pace. Random battles, even ones that you have done a bunch and out-level by a good margin can put you on your ass if some things don’t go your way. Almost nothing is a breeze in this, keeping you engaged in the battles, and making them actually fun. While RPG’s may allow you to typically outlevel content and breeze through it, Persona Q takes the opposite approach of making sure things stay threatening, but in a way you don’t mind. While you can knock down enemies like in Persona 3 and 4 by hitting them with their weaknesses, it’s not guaranteed, nor does it give you an extra turn. You are put into a “Boost” state instead, making your next turn free in terms of resource use when using abilities, and makes sure those characters act first in the next turn. However, this boon can be countered by enemies, simply by doing damage to a character before their boosted action gets to happen. So while there is a way offered to speed up the battles and not use your precious SP, the game often slows this down by making it never a guaranteed thing. If anything, the game almost punishes speed, with fast characters acting before the enemies, getting Boost, then getting hit by those same enemies later that turn.
On top of the random battles, the game’s dungeons feature puzzles, genuine puzzles that required a decent amount of thinking on my part to get through. Mostly movement and timing based puzzles found on the map, Persona Q gives a great amount of variation to the puzzles, making each dungeon feel unique, and making your individual movements in those dungeons feel important. While many of the puzzles are simply tile-based, forcing you to contend with special conditions in the labyrinth, some of the hardest puzzles come with one of the hallmarks of the Etrian Odyssey games, F.O.E.’s. These incredibly hard monsters serve as both obstacle and bragging right. To a party that is the right level for the normal battles in the dungeon, these monsters will be impossible fights that need to be avoided at all costs. This forces the player to memorize movement patterns and come up with creative ways to beat the puzzle at hand. On the flip side, if you are a dedicated grinder, and outclass the dungeon’s monsters by a large margin, you can instead brute-force some puzzles by simply fighting the F.O.E.’s, which always provide great rewards to honor your accomplishment.
It’s a rewarding battle system, favoring those who know their characters, and customize them properly with sub-Personas that everyone can equip now, not just the main characters. Having a team well versed in attack, support, disabling and healing is key to not just victory in Persona Q, but good victories that don’t force you to over-extend your party, forcing you to leave a dungeon before you’re ready due to your need to heal. To make sure you’re able to handle the stuff thrown at you, Persona Q features the Persona fusion system seen in other games in the series. It works mostly in the same fashion; by collecting more Personas after battles, you can fuse them together to make more powerful monsters, often with abilities they would not be able to learn otherwise. Filling the compendium of fusions allows you access to specific versions of the monsters for later use as usual, and is often the key to forming the party that can handle any issue thrown your way.
Despite the deep and rewarding battle system, the methodical and thoughtful dungeon traversal, and the often shallow, but approachable story, it is somewhat hard to recommend Persona Q to anyone but a Persona fan, or an Etrian Odyssey fan. Nothing about the game is really a deal-breaker for someone outside those two niche spheres, it is perfectly competent on its own. But as a mash-up of two titles’ characters and plots, and the mechanics of another series layered on top of it, it is really made special for a very certain subset of game buyer. However for that subset, it is extremely enjoyable. While there is room for improvement on this, and I hope to see a second entry in the series, the package we got this time around was really a success for what had to be a mission statement. It showed me (A Persona fan) how much fun the methodical gameplay of an Etrian Odyssey can be. If you’re in this level of niche RPG play, this is definitely a title worth checking out.
Final Score: 3/5