Had I not included it in my Japanese culture curriculum, I might have never finished Persona Q. It’s a long game, especially for a handheld system, and my final hour count came out to around 65 played. The majority of that has progressed over the last month, and before that in several chunks throughout the year. I bought the game right when it came out, enjoyed it, but after ten or so hours became frustrated and a little bored. I’m thankful that I dove back in for this curriculum because it’s become one of my favorite games on the 3DS, even if recommending it is difficult (more on that at the end).
The Persona series is one I’ve held in high regard since Persona 3 broke the larger gaming consciousness open to the Shin Megami Tensei series of which Persona is a side branch. I’ve been playing Japanese role-playing games for most of my life, but Persona 3 introduced mechanics I’d never seen in one of these anime-style adventures, most markedly the ability to form relationships with your party members that add story and strengthen your combat capabilities. I loved the game, poured lots of hours into it, and when Persona 4 game out not long after, I fell in love even all over again because it capitalized on everything that made Persona 3 good, while improving the combat and arguably the characters. Persona 4, like God of War 2, came out at the very end of the PlayStation 2’s life cycle and gave that beautiful system the send-off it deserved. The history of the series after that gets complicated, with Persona Q as maybe the height of that tangle.
The story of Persona Q involves characters from both the third and fourth installments in the Persona series, along with two new personalities in Zen and Rei who prove integral to its narrative. These adventuring teams eventually meet in a mystery labyrinth into which they’ve both been summoned. Players can choose to start the game as either the protagonist of Persona 3 or Persona 4, and this choice leads players down differing paths of the same story. Canonically, the events of Persona Q happen inside of the story arcs of each of those games. Persona 4 Arena, a fighting game released and re-released a couple years ago, had the series’ characters meet in a combat arena similar to a modern Street Fighter game and duke it out in another strange cross-over story. Unlike Q, Arena takes place after the stories of 3 and 4. There’s also a new game about characters from Persona 4 dancing that I’ve yet to experience.
That’s where Persona Q stands. It’s not a sequel to either game, nor a prequel, but somehow manages to exist within the narratives of two different games. It’s a mind-jag that only could come from Japan.
The style of Persona Q is different than either of its predecessors, though does hearken back to some of the original Persona games released on the PlayStation. It also bears shades of some of the Shin Megami Games that have come out on both the PlayStation 2 and 3DS. But what it most resembles are those rogue-like 3DS games in the Etrian Odyssey series, which has found a small but powerful niche among JRPG enthusiasts. These games are noted for their cartography and dungeon crawling aspects, have traditionally been light on story, and are exceedingly difficult by contemporary game standards. Persona Q takes the cartography, dungeon crawling, and difficulty, but adds in a robust story that will delight any Persona lover. The story itself lacks punch and is mostly fan service, but it’s the best kind of geekery for devotees of both games.
Unfortunately, Persona Q lacks the social aspects that are arguably the core of the prior Persona games. Yes, characters interact and there’s plenty of story to mull through, but the out-of-battle features are window dressing at best. They don’t offer much depth, and the real meat of the game comes within the dungeon itself.
For a good chunk of the game, I found the dungeon-crawling to be tedious. I enjoyed the very first dungeon, less-so the second, and basically despised the third to the point that it was solely responsible for me quitting the game on several occasions. I died more in that dungeon than I have in any Dark Souls game. When your party dies, it’s game over.
But I kept at it, and keeping at it is what saved me in the end. Like many rogue-likes (a genre of games known for their high difficulty), Persona Q’s battle system seems simple at the outset but is more complicated than than meets the eye. True to the genre, very little is explained. Though it took twenty to thirty hours to reach a point where I felt that I knew the ins and outs, once I reached that point, dungeon-crawling became less about dying over and over and more about actually exploring and enjoying the dungeon puzzles. Eventually, I would reach a point, popular in many RPGs, where I’d broken the game and made combat trivial. Some would argue that games shouldn’t have such a point, but I love it. It feels like a reward for the many hours I spent having my head slammed into the wall.
The dungeons themselves, as I earlier described, are a mixed bag. Aesthetically, they’re all interesting and very individual. The very first level showcases the game well, dropping players in an Alice in Wonderland style maze. Other levels, while not as tribute-themed, are entertaining in their design, and the game has a clever way of scaling the difficulty as you progress both in combat and in puzzle acuity. My personal favorite was the Inaba Festival dungeon, which was decidedly Japanese, humorous, and fun to figure out.
Combat differs from prior Persona games in both design and strategy. Visually, players don’t see their characters, much like old-school RPGs in the vein of Wizardry. Combat is turn-based, with faster characters acting before slower ones, and while the weakness-based systems popular in Persona games makes a return, it no longer has the same consequences as it did in Persona 3 and 4. In those games, if an enemy weak to ice was hit with an ice spell, they would be knocked down and unable to attack for that round. Occasionally, you’ll stun an enemy in Q, but more often the benefits of attacking a weakness are player-based. Players who exploit weaknesses gain an upper-hand for the next round of combat, allowing them to act first and lowering the cost of all spells to zero. It’s definitely beneficial to exploit weaknesses, and if three or more of your party members manage it, you’ll still get the patented “All Out Attack” that continues to delight me every time it happens in any of these games. It gives combat a different dynamic, and one that takes time to master.
Other aspects of the game are reminiscent of prior Persona titles. Enemies will be almost universally familiar, with the exception of FOEs (tougher enemies who factor into dungeon designs as more of a puzzle than anything: you avoid them) and bosses. Spell names and effects are not far removed either, though Persona Q features a new system called circles that caters to the Q-style of combat. Unlike in previous games, characters are all allowed two Personas each, which I quite enjoyed. One of those Personas is always that character’s
specific persona, while the second one is chosen from among the compendium. This made forming a team less a matter of strengths and weaknesses and more a matter of personality choice (my personal team is both protagonists, Yukiko (always!), Naoto (overpowered), and Rei/Zen). Thepersona system itself, like past games, is entirely too expansive, but still gives that constant itch of needing to collect-them-all even if most of the personas you see last about an hour before being replaced. The exception here lies in the powerful end-game personas, which serve as the reward for all the fusion-work done previously.
As much praise as I can offer this game, I’m not sure how well I can recommend it. It’s a great game. Technically, it’s as solid as games come. Everything is well designed, it’s challenging but fair, and it builds on itself beautifully. It has the style and color schemes of Persona 4, with a 3DS flair, and it is satisfying once you understand the combat mechanics fully. As a fan of this series and the Etrian Odyssey style of dungeon crawling, it was a perfect meld of things for me. Even saying that, I did find it difficult to penetrate, and it took me really disciplining myself in order to fully engage. That’s not necessarily something you want in a video game created to be fun. Eventually, it was fun, a damn lot of fun, but getting there took effort. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we should demand effort for fun. Maybe that deepens our love of a thing, when it’s not so easily given to us. My advice for anyone on the fence about this game, which I realize is a year old and renders my recommendations a little flat, is to decide whether you’re interested in committing to something that doesn’t offer you constant and immediate rewards, but that will become a memorable, rich experience if you’re willing to give it the time. If you’re a Persona fan and enjoy a good dungeon crawl, you might find that special something in this game. I certainly did.