As bizarre as it might sound, I consider Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth to be the first game to give me the “Dark Souls experience.” Initially, the game just seemed like a long series of challenges that sometimes seemed completely arbitrary and complicated, that also happened to throw together two of my favorite video game casts together. But then, after an hour of trying to figure out a puzzle in one of the game’s sprawling labyrinths, I realized that my meticulous markings of enemies and events on the game’s map actually represented the answer to a problem that I’d been scratching my head at. Persona Q was a game that just seemed to be pointing and laughing at me before until its rules finally clicked in my head. I realized that the bulk of the game’s dungeons aren’t randomly thrown together; everything about them is carefully constructed with a singular solution, one that often requires repeated failures to uncover.
Shadow of the Labyrinth is the first game I’ve played in a while that felt difficult in a completely unapologetic but not-at-all contrived way. I may have loved seeing the casts of Persona 3 and 4 together in an actual RPG setting, but that was secondary to my realization at how exemplary the game’s diligently-crafted dungeons were when I’d just been trying to navigate them in the wrong way the entire time.
Persona Q brings together the casts of Persona 3 and 4, as Yasogami High is holding its annual culture festival. Both Persona 3’s S.E.E.S. and Persona 4’s Investigation Team find themselves in an alternate version of Inaba’s High School where all the other festival attendees are gone, a mysterious clock tower has appeared on the school grounds, and the only people still there are new characters Zen and Rei, who claim to be students at this strange version of the Investigation Team’s school.
Q appears to have a pretty simple, maybe even forced setup, but the game’s blatant and unapologetic fan service is excusable because it never pretends to be much else. However, it’s for this reason that Persona Q is difficult to recommend to newcomers, and the decision to have this game be the series Nintendo-exclusive debut all the more puzzling. Q exists entirely in tribute to its source material rather than being able to stand on its own legs. The game constantly alludes to key moments and inside jokes in Persona 3 and 4, but there’s not a whole lot of meaningful interactions between the two casts. No individual party member from S.E.E.S. or the Investigation Team undergoes an arc, rather the groups collectively reach new heights that will be completely lost on those unfamiliar with the characters that make up the cast.
It all culminates in both parties essentially acting as background decoration for the real stars: Zen and Rei. While the majority of the cast is made up of familiar faces, Persona Q is undoubtedly Zen and Rei’s story, and when it all comes together it’s a pretty powerful and affective one.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll want to skip through S.E.E.S and the Investigation Team’s conversations, though. Persona Q just feels like a more laid-back setting for them, while the Persona 4 Arena series holds the more substantial crossover material. Q feels light-hearted and casual, where 3 and 4’s casts meeting in Arena carried a much greater sense of purpose.
Even so, all these characters are just as lovable as they’ve ever been, and you do get some great moments when some characters interact, even if it often feels like there are too many of them around at once for everyone to get their fair amount of screen time. Q does manage to help allocate time to its huge 20-character cast by allowing you to play the game through the perspective of either the Persona 3 or 4 protagonist. Doing so does give more spotlight to your player character’s respective cast and their collective arc, making the other cast come off as the secondary group. This approach gives Persona Q quite a bit of content to play through, as either campaign can take you up to 50 hours to complete just the main story.
Much of that length comes from the elaborate and pretty ingenious level design. Persona Q is made up of four labyrinths that you have to navigate, and while hitting a wall can lead to long stretches of tedious backtracking, how the game manages to bring together exploration, mapmaking and puzzle-solving makes up something incredibly satisfying and genuinely challenging.
As you travel through a labyrinth, you’ll have to manually fill in your map with markers for things like doors, enemies and secret passageways. A well-kept map is the difference between successfully getting through a dungeon and getting completely lost, with some puzzles requiring you to be actively marking things in order to figure out how you should approach a puzzle or an oncoming battle.
High-powered enemies called F.O.E.’s also occupy labyrinths, but the game is designed in a way that you’ll never be required to fight one of them. F.O.E.’s all move in distinct patterns, patterns that you’ll have to memorize and navigate around in order to progress.
Getting through a labyrinth requires you to put all of these skills together in order to solve puzzles and avoid getting slaughtered by F.O.E.’s. You can wander around a labyrinth for quite sometime without making any progress, but when you finally find the right path to take to avoid an F.O.E., or see markings you made on your map actually illustrate a solution, it makes every circle you walked around and every battle you had to struggle through become secondary to how fulfilling it feels to make progress.
While still keeping much of the mechanics the original Persona games intact, Q forgoes the series turn-based combat for a more strategic round-based system where you give commands to your party in bulk. This requires you to be more cautious of a situation where certain enemies or party members can be defeated before some actions are carried out, forcing you to think ahead and prepare for different outcomes within a set of commands that you have to issue in tandem with a group of enemies.
New additions to the combat include party formation and secondary Personas. Your party of five is made up of your chosen protagonist and four other characters from both groups that you’ll arrange between two rows, front and back. Certain characters excel in the front row, while the nature of their weapons make them less than ideal for the back. Positioning of your party pretty much sets them up to carry out one function or another depending on their skillset, but you can alter some character’s fighting styles through giving them a secondary Persona with different abilities.
Changing Personas was previously only a skill available to the protagonists of the original games, but Q shakes things up a bit by allowing each party member to use two different Personas at any given time. This doubles their skill count and gives characters an opportunity to take on different combat roles while also maintaining their strength in their speciality. This way, short range characters can have ranged options and long range characters won’t always have to be stuck in the back row.