The Persona series has become something of a juggernaut for Atlus. Though it wasn’t until Persona 3 was released in 2007 that the series truly took off, it has blossomed since then into a fully-fledged cross-media sensation. With animes, movies, re-releases and remakes galore, it only makes sense that – in the fine tradition of crossovers before them – the casts of Persona 3 and 4 would eventually join forces. Though Persona 4 Arena has had the teams meet, ‘Persona Q’ is the first proper RPG, blending their usual system into the equally long-standing series of famously difficult dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey. It’s a lot of cooks for one pot, but does it all mix into something palatable?
Straight away, the plot plunges into mystery. After choosing whether to play as the Persona 3 or Persona 4 protagonist, you’re started off with that team in their respective dungeon (the tower Tartarus for 3 or the TV World for 4), where a strange conflation of reality sends them tumbling into a mysterious school festival. The only other two people around are Zen and Rei, a pair of fellow high-school students afflicted with amnesia. With no other option, they must delve into You in Wonderland, a classroom displayed based on the classic Alice in Wonderland book, actually a dungeon full of dangerous enemy Shadows. At the end of this labyrinth, whichever team you didn’t pick charges in to help, and from here the stories merge. The only real difference before that is who meets Zen and Rei first and who tackles the boss; after this, all 16 characters are available to mix and match at your leisure.
As far as actually exploring the dungeon goes, Persona Q is very much a fusion of two styles. Dungeons are explored in Etrian’s first-person, grid-based format with enemies appearing depending on how far you travel. Rather than only the respective protagonists being able to summon and switch multiple Personas, now everyone has their main Persona and a switchable sub-Persona, allowing easy coverage of weaknesses and bolstering of strengths. Exploring too takes on a novel twist in that, like Etrian games before it, the bottom screen is used as a ‘draw your own map’ feature. Each floor also boasts a number of FOEs, massively powerful enemies which act more as obstacles than fights, forcing your party to flee until they’re much more powerful.
So there’s a lot going on before we even get to fight. Within battle, things are again both Persona and not. Ordinary turn-based combat is spiced up with the Boost system: hit an enemy with an element it’s weak to and your character will be Boosted, allowing them to act again next turn with no cost to any action. A clever player can cast an entire battle’s worth of magic for the cost of only one spell if they wished. If any Boosted character is struck by an enemy, though, they immediately become un-Boosted, going right back to where they were. As with the Etrian games before it, battles can be very gruelling: though it may chafe the ego to do it, any player not used to difficult RPGs would be better off taking the Easy difficulty. On the other end of the scale, the game also offers the brutally difficult Risky difficulty where any KO of your protagonist leads to an immediate game over. There’s a setting for every player, welcoming all into the fold at their own pace.
When it comes to actually playing the game, oddly, Persona Q becomes the kind of beast where every benefit is also a flaw. Creating your own map as you go is a neat feature, but the necessity of constantly drawing lines and adding icons can become a real bother. Similarly, even on Normal, the game feels a little too hard for its own good. Persona Q’s enemies just have a little too much health and hit a little too hard, forcing the player to constantly hop in and out for healing and resupply, breaking all-important gameplay flow. Outside of the labyrinth, Persona Fusion makes its comeback in a strangely clunky way, requiring players to fuse, manage and upgrade a minimum of seven sub-Personas at all times. None of these things on their own are really that bad, but together they create an experience which crosses the line from a Dark Souls-esque triumph over adversity into something which is just plain frustrating at anything above Easy.
All that aside, the big question remains: is this game accessible to those who haven’t played Persona? At first blush, it certainly seems to be taking steps to ease in new fans. Each route smoothly introduces the characters and their basic relationships as you go, then gives the opposite team the same treatment. Rather than long-winded cutscenes breaking up the action, the game opts for bite-sized interactions scattered throughout the dungeons and in the school festival hub to keep you amused. Many of the funniest scenes happen when you’re just taking a Stroll through the school, your protagonist watching everyone interact. Even newcomers Zen and Rei get plenty of time on-screen, quickly becoming endearing and worthwhile as a motivation. Clearly, a lot of work has been done to make things accessible, but there are still a whopping 22 characters all jostling for screentime. Nobody could blame a newcomer for getting lost in the crowd.
- Interesting blend of Etrian and Persona systems
- Tons of Persona goodness for the fans
- A challenging, varied RPG
- Map-making can be extremely fiddly
- Difficulty can border on punishing
- Persona fusion and management not well-implemented
- Could be hard to get into for newcomers
For a Persona fan, Persona Q is a great joy. Huge fanboy that I am, I found myself constantly smiling and laughing at the fantastic interactions between everyone and remained very intrigued at what twist the plot was about to take next, making all the hard work well worth the effort. For a non-fan, it’d be extremely easy to get lost in the sea of faces, become stymied by the hard-hitting enemies, or back yourself into a corner with a poorly-levelled team or bad fusions. Persona Q demands time, effort, attention and expertise, but as with any good Hard Game, the reward at the end is all the sweeter for it.