Hey, this game released, er, several months ago! What can I say, I can be a slow gamer.
The review is provided in video form here, but for those that prefer the written medium, the entire thing is transcribed directly below.
People love to discuss hypothetical "what-if" scenarios. What if Batman fought Darth Vader? What if Mario met Master Chief? What if… What if the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 teamed up? Not as they were in Persona 4 Arena, with the characters of Persona 3 being two years older, but when both groups were in their prime, knee-deep in their respective adventures?
Well, it just so happens that Atlus decided to answer this question, and gave us Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth for the 3DS. With a premise that sounds like it was pulled straight out of the player forums, how well can they deliver?
In 2012, SEES of Persona 3 braves the tower of Tartarus to destroy the Dark Hour, a secret time after midnight that normal people cannot perceive. In 2014, the Investigation Team of Persona 4 is hot on the trail of the serial killer that has been stalking their town.
Out of nowhere, the two squads are pulled out of their adventures and plopped into a new dimension, ignoring space and time to bring the groups together. In this strange new place, they meet Zen and Rei, two amnesiacs with a propensity for food and crossbows. Together, the crew explores the enemy-infested labyrinths to figure out where they really are, and why.
Anyone who's played Persona will tell you that the characters are a major part of the series' identity. Playing off the common themes of trust and friendship, both games feature a memorably robust cast. So, combining them together is a surefire way to create a great character lineup, if nothing else.
You've already got the pre-existing character interactions and relationships in the individual games, and Q springboards off of that to open up a whole new spectrum of fun, both across squads and between members of the same squad. In fact, the character moments (as expected from a Persona title) are some of the highlights of the game, and really help break up the monotonous dungeon crawl.
The Battle System
Speaking of the dungeon crawl, in terms of gameplay, Persona Q makes heavy use of elements from another of Atlus' RPG series, Etrian Odyssey (with a Persona twist). The battle squad is organized into two rows, with the front row taking and dealing more physical damage. As always, you have a whole heap of Personas to choose and fuse, with various elemental and stat-changing movesets.
This time around, each character is restricted to their main Persona (including the main characters), but everyone can also be equipped with a sub-Persona, which supplies more moves as well as boosting HP and SP. Persona's native One-More system, which gifted another attack for playing on your enemies' weaknesses, is replaced by Boost (which is also activated by attacking enemy weaknesses). Upon activation, Boost lets you act first next turn at no HP or SP cost. Persona fans should be able to slip into the quirks of this battle system without much difficulty, and I might go so far as to say that I enjoyed it more than the traditional Persona battle system.
Shoji Meguro (or, Not)
Persona soundtracks have always been a highlight, sporting catchy tunes that could be stuck in your head for days, if only due to the sheer number of times you've listened to them. Persona Q dutifully follows in these footsteps, adorned with a collection of new tracks and remixes of old ones. Personally, I didn't think it completely lived up to the heights of the earlier Persona games, but Q's music was more than functional. Another good job by Meguro - or so I thought at the time. As it turns out, the majority of Q's soundtrack was not composed by series mainstay Shoji Meguro, and in fact was handled by Atsushi Kitajoh and Toshiki Konishi. Regardless, Q had a good soundtrack, and I certainly have no qualms about adding Light the Fire Up in the Night to my playlist.
For the Fans
Persona Q knows what it is: a fan service package to the Persona 3 and 4 diehards, and it makes no bones about it. The entire game is layered with references and character moments that you'll really only get if you're already intimately familiar with these games. Q doesn't try to expand itself for a wider audience because it didn't need to; it really feels like it was a labor of love and a thank-you to the fans. There's no harm in cashing in on an already sizable and dedicated fanbase, and that's exactly what Persona Q does.
Only for the Fans
As a counter-point, Q is completely inaccessible, from a character perspective, to any non-fan. It's a fun game, but to truly enjoy it the price of admission is two other lengthy JRPGs, of course being Persona 3 and 4. Understandably, that's a pretty steep barrier to entry for quite a few people. Maybe it's too nitpicky to fault a game simply for being what it is, but it needs to be made crystal clear that this is not the point to jump into the Persona series, by any means.
The casts of both Persona 3 and 4 are well-rounded, unique, and likable. One thing I noticed while playing Q, however, was that a few of these characters felt off. I was eventually able to pinpoint the reason for my discomfort: the characters felt less like themselves and more like caricatures, reduced to their most basic and obvious traits. The extent of this simplification differs on an individual basis, but much of the cast feels, well, somewhat two-dimensional compared to their original incarnations.
By far the biggest offender is Akihiko, who's become a competitive and protein-crazed health nut. I'm positive he said "protein" many more times in Q than the entirety of Persona 3 itself. Akihiko's certainly not the only character affected, but his transformation was the most drastic. Teddie's attempts to lure the ladies felt more frequent than usual, Elizabeth had evidently graduated from "eccentric" to "oblivious", and Ken has to constantly remind us that he's not a kid and really is super mature.
By and large, the voice actors of Persona 3 and Persona 4 Golden return in Q. However, for various reasons, this isn't the case with everyone. Kanji, Naoto, Ken, Theodore and Margaret all sport different voices than their base games. I don't want to be that guy - but I'm gonna be that guy. I was perfectly happy with every recast in Q, save one: Margaret.
Margaret's original voice actress, Michelle Ann Dunphy, was able to convey a sense of depth while keeping up airs of reservation and sophistication. This new lady, Marisha Ray, lacks the same technique. I can't say whether the direction or talent is to blame, but her Margaret, rather than being merely calm, sounds fairly monotone. For many, this may be a non-issue, but it's something I picked up on and couldn't help noticing.
Lack of Consequence
From the beginning, it was clear that the end of Persona Q would involve some kind of reset, effectively deleting the events of the game. No character from either cast mentions Q at any other point, even when they eventually reunite in the Arena duology. That realization adds a somber undertone to most of the character interactions, because you know that, no matter how much fun they're having or how much stronger their bonds have grown, none of it will even be remembered in the long run. In terms of plot relevancy and structure, Persona Q would probably fit comfortably alongside a piece of fan-fiction. It may have been gifted legitimacy by Atlus, but (aside from some vague discoveries about the nature of the Persona universe) it simply does not matter.
Up to a certain point in Persona Q, nothing had gone wrong. I was having a blast on practically every level. And then, the game kept going. And going. And going. And going. Q feels like it never ends, and sheer, ugly, brutal repetition inevitably sets in. My final game time was over 70 hours. Let's generously subtract time for conversation and cutscenes, and that'll bring us to, say, 60 hours of straight dungeon crawl. That's 60 hours of mapping shortcuts, 60 hours of dodging FOEs, 60 hours of listening to to the same songs over and over, and it got very boring.
Main Persona titles offer social links to break up the monotony of the grind, but no such option exists in Q. They try to create a similar effect by interspersing squad interactions throughout the labyrinths, but the frequency of these scenes doesn't increase with proportion to the size of the dungeons.This means that, in the latter half of the game, when a single floor can take hours to traverse, it takes a similarly long time to make the necessary progress to unlock character scenes. Essentially, this complaint can be boiled down to the game being too long for its own good. It's not a good sign if your audience is getting bored of the core gameplay, which I certainly was by the end.
Persona Q is a fun game. It has great characters, a very solid battle system, and a soundtrack that generally lives up to the usual Persona heights. That said, Q is by no means perfect. Personal voice acting quirks aside, its lack of relevance in the broader Persona universe is disappointing, the depiction of the characters feels exaggerated at times and the tedium of the dungeon crawl unavoidably dampens the experience. I have yet to mention the visuals in any fashion, because they were neither offensively bad nor particularly outstanding.
So, after taking everything into account, as well as my own subjective enjoyment, on a scale from F to S, I give Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth a B rating. Regardless of my rating, if you're a fan of Persona, it's definitely worth a try, but be prepared for a game that does have fundamental differences from the main series. If you're not, start with Persona 3 and come back later.