What is it that made Persona 3 and Persona 4 so good? Was it the social links that tied characterization to role-playing stats? Was it the way the games incorporated the passage of time and schedule management to invest the player in the virtual worlds? Was it that the games largely focused on normal people dealing with relatable problems? Was it the seductive illusion of returning to high school to be the coolest person in the class that everybody likes?
The reason I found myself asking this question is that Persona Q may have the Persona brand and characters attached to it, but it does absolutely none of those things listed above. There are a lot of reasons to like Persona 3 and Persona 4, and there are a lot of reasons to like Persona Q, but they aren’t the same reasons at all.
Not that Persona Q should necessarily be beholden to slavishly imitating the games it draws from, but at some point I feel like if you call a game Persona and put Persona 3 and 4 characters on the box then maybe the game inside ought to appeal to people who loved those games? I worry that a lot of Persona fans might be in for a shock if they just pick this up off the shelf. Persona Q is a first-person dungeon crawler that can be punishingly difficult both in combat and in terms of the trap laden dungeon layouts.
The gameplay loop basically looks like this: Go to a dungeon to map it and fight enemies and if you’re lucky find the stairs to the next floor down. Once your inventory is full of loot or your SP runs dry you teleport back to base. At base you sell your loot, buy any new weapons/armor that become available, pay to heal up, fuse some new persona if your protagonist leveled up, and then go back into the dungeon. It’s a formula as old as the genre itself.
There are optional conversations between characters that unlock at regular intervals through the game, but the key word there is optional. Persona 3 and 4 were remarkable for taking those sorts of moments and tying them back into the rest of the game. In Persona 4, when you go talk Kung-Fu movies with Chie, you might level up your Chariot social link and get access to an awe inspiringly powerful new Persona. In Persona Q, if you talk with Chie about Kung Fu movies… that’s it. Then it’s dungeon time again.
Changing the focus away from the narrative to a more mechanics-driven RPG might not be so alienating if the story that exists is good though. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. It’s the curse of the crossover that nothing much can happen since all the major character arcs are reserved for the original works that characters come from. In Persona Q, this means that Yukiko’s struggle with defining herself independently of her family’s expectations is out, being oblivious and having giggle fits is in. Teddie struggling with his humanity/identity is out, Teddie hitting on girls is in. Junpei’s dichotomy between disliking the bad guys but relishing the opportunity to be a hero is out, Junpei being a gigantic doofus is in.
It’s like that all around. The characters aren’t misrepresented exactly, the traits they have in this game are indeed drawn from the original works, but most of the interesting growth and nuance to them was lost in the transition to the crossover. The game is set in an alternate dimension where time is slowed to a crawl, and that unfortunately reflects the storytelling overall. The story didn’t even begin to grab my attention until almost 40 hours in.
Events do speed up some towards the end of the game so if you’re invested in the Persona extended universe Atlus has been developing with their radio dramas and fighting games and dancing games and whatever else, this does have some content for you. But it’s all locked behind hours and hours of simplified versions of beloved characters getting up to hijinks that don’t build towards any big ideas and treacherous labyrinths that push back far more than dungeons in Persona ever did.
I realize that this reads pretty negatively, and I want to reinforce that I do like Persona Q quite a bit. But would I recommend it to a Persona fan just because they’re a Persona fan? Ultimately no. The character interactions are tertiary to the core experience and mostly insubstantial. The social link and time management systems that set the original games apart are gone. The dungeon and combat mechanics are so unlike the original games as to almost put this game in a separate genre entirely.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a quality dungeon-crawler, this game is absolutely what you should be playing. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve played Persona, it’s so good I think the substance stands on its own without the crossover window dressing. I wrote about the game from that perspective here.
Food for thought:
1. The conversation 37 hours into the game that finally began to pique my interest in the narrative. It was between Yukari and Fuuka. Talk about two characters I didn’t expect to be elevating any stories ever.
2. Technically if you wanted to you could crank the difficulty down to minimum and turn on auto mapping if you really just wanted to catch up with the Persona 3 and 4 characters without dealing with the Etrian Odyssey game underneath. But I’m not sure that “and if you really don’t like the game you can make it so meaninglessly easy that you basically don’t need to worry about the mechanics at all” is sound grounds for a recommendation.
3. Despite the promise that you can roll with a party of your favorite characters from Persona 3 and 4, that isn’t really how it works. A team of my 5 favorites would probably be Chie, Kanji, Shinjiro, Akihiko, and Junpei. But those are all front line fighters and you need to have your protagonist (another front line fighter) in the party at all times. So effectively my party was a silent protagonist, two of my favorites, and then two back line fighters who filled in my elemental and healing needs.
4. It’s a nice touch that whichever protagonist you choose at the beginning of the game remains a silent protagonist and voiced dialogue is only given to the other one. This made it really easy to step back into playing as the blue haired Persona 3 protagonist and feel like I was playing as me from my old file all those years ago.