Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth


Two Rights Make a Wrong

For me, crossovers of different franchises in the entertainment world are usually a mixed bag, especially when they expect audiences to take them seriously, akin to the Kingdom Hearts series, which still has its share of positive aspects. When Atlus announced a crossover between the Etrian Odyssey and Persona subseries of the greater Megami Tensei franchise, I naturally leaped on the chance to experience a fusion of both franchises, having especially enjoyed many contemporary titles in both Atlus brands. Combining the strategic turn-based combat of the Persona games with the exploration of the Etrian series, what could possibly go wrong?

Upon starting a new game, the player can choose to focus on the casts of the third and fourth games of the Persona subseries, with different introductions for each but generally the same narrative for both teams, who ultimately join to explore various labyrinths during a festival at an alternate version of Yasogami High School in Inaba. Aside from some slight narrative different between the two teams and some solid interactions, the story isn’t much to write home about and doesn’t add much to the general mythos of the Persona subfranchise, with several recycled RPG tropes including the power of friendship, amnesia, an ancient god, and so forth.

The localization is easily Atlus’s weakest effort since the original Persona on the Sony PlayStation, given obvious Engrish such as the dungeon named “You in Wonderland,” the messages “Player/Enemy Advanced” when encountering preemptive or surprise enemy encounters, and some occasional inconsistences such as the mentioned dungeon’s sign being in English in some perspectives, but in the original Japanese in other views. As in the third and fourth games, moreover, the translation team left in the Japanese honorifics for the characters, which makes the dialogue sound horribly unnatural. There is a deficit of spelling and grammar errors, and the plot makes sense, but there’s absolutely no excuse for the abominable nature of the writing, given Atlus’s other superior efforts within and without the series.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, but unfortunately, the crossover doesn’t fare any better in this regard. The player ultimately gets a chance to assemble a five-character team, with three front-row slots and three back-row slots, from the third and fourth Persona games’ casts, each character effective in the front or back. Given the total inability to fill the sixth slot with any special abilities, being able to use six characters total would have been nice, what with the massive cast of playable heroes, and throughout my playthrough, I experienced an odd case of almost entirely having three front-row allies and two back-row, with the latter queerly seeming to level faster.

As players travel through the first-person dungeons, a colored indicator gradually changes hue to indicate how close they are to encountering enemies, an encounter naturally coming when it reaches the red zone. In battle, the player can input commands for the five chosen characters, including attacking with their equipped weapon, defending to reduce damage, using a consumable item, changing battle formation (with this luckily not wasting the player’s turn), attempting to escape (which naturally doesn’t work all the time), or executing an SP-consuming ability. The player also has a gauge that fills up to five levels that allows them to execute leader skills, such as gradual HP recovery.

As with most traditional turn-based RPGs, Q requires a bit of foresight in regards to the execution of the player’s commands, whereas they and the enemy exchange actions based likely on speed, and some typical negative tropes of the combat style playing part such as the occasional waste of a healing spell or item on an ally that ultimately dies in a round before the heal occurs. Some bosses and enemies also cheaply gain secondary turns, sometimes occurring at different stages throughout a combat round. Fortunately, the player can easily view the strengths and weaknesses of enemies while inputting commands, with the two becoming known once they’ve attempted a skill of a certain element or attack type including cut, bash, or pierce.

When a character exploits an enemy’s weakness, they “boost,” with their SP-consuming abilities becoming free, and they can possibly exploit another weak point to continue the cycle, but it stops whenever a character takes (which will happen frequently) or doesn’t exploit a foe’s negative affinity. When exploiting a foe’s weakness, there is a rare chance that the skill will stun them for the round, although this seems incredibly rare, and enemies more often than not stun the player’s characters when taking advantage of their own weaknesses. The random number gods are also oftentimes cruel when it comes to letting the player execute all-out attacks similar to the third and fourth Persona games, with no apparent fixed formula to this.

Defeating all enemies nets all characters who are still alive experience for occasional level-ups, in which case their native Persona might obtain a new ability, although these may overwrite lower-level skills and increase SP consumption in combat. Characters can also equip secondary Personas whose skills the player can luckily customize once they level alongside the protagonists themselves, and fuse these at the Velvet Room to obtain higher-level Personas whose skills are also customizable. Later on, the player can sacrifice Personas to extract skills and customize one of four of the characters’ native Personas’ available ability slots, but this can be fairly expensive.

Money is perpetually a problem throughout the game, with the main means of acquiring cash being the selling of parts that enemies drop from battle to make no consumables and equipment available at the shop, akin to the Etrian Odyssey games. Unless the player plays favorites in terms of which characters to use, outfitting all of them throughout the game can easily be a great financial burden, and the nurse’s office outside the labyrinths is early on an additional, sometimes unaffordable expense that increases with levels. Grinding and regularly upgrading equipment are constantly necessary to keep up with the endless difficulty spikes throughout the game.

Adding another layer of difficulty are visible, powerful adversaries in dungeons bequeathed from the Etrian Odyssey series known as FOEs, which are virtually impossible to vanquish when first encountered without executing a continue to fully restore the player’s party available only on the lowest “Safety” difficulty. While the game high recommends avoiding them at all costs when first encountered, Q lamentably leaves almost no room for error whatsoever without doing so, and I frequently found myself having to struggle through FOE battles just to get through the various labyrinths. Admittedly, they do oftentimes give decent rewards such as materials and more powerful Personas than average.

Even on the Safety difficulty, one could very easily describe Q’s difficulty as lopsided, given the spikes in challenge between regular enemies and FOEs, not to mention the drawn-out endgame, which would be an absolute nightmare to experience, alongside the FOE engagements, above the Safety setting. Generally, the game mechanics do contain some decent ideas such as the ability to use skills for free after exploiting enemy weaknesses, although there’s just too much random chance with regards to things such as when powerful all-out attacks will execute, not to mention an astronomical miss rate for physical attacks and HP-consuming skills, and things just don’t work out.

As in the Etrian games, Q tasks the player with detailing features of the in-game maps such as secret passageways and treasure chests, with an option luckily mapping walls automatically to spare the task of drawing them oneself. The game menus are generally easy to get a handle of, although there are some issues such as the ability to view total playing time only in the save menu, accessible only at the end of labyrinths and in the main school hallways. Other questionable design choices include the need to exit to the facility menu when traversing to the shops and nurse’s office, and the constant removal and equipment of secondary Personas from characters to equip them on others can be tedious as well. All in all, Q doesn’t interact with players as well as it could have.

The crossover, however, actually has some decent music, although much is forgettable and there are some recycled tracks from the third and fourth Persona games. What really hurts the aural experience, however, is the absolutely abominable voice acting, with the fact that actors without a drop of ethnic blood voice the Japanese cast cause enough for alarm. The voicework is at its absolute worst in combat, where like in P3 and P4 either Fuuka or Rise narrates everything that transpires, and the localization team made some questionable decisions such as having characters address and refer to the chosen protagonist as “leader.” This was actually a rare case where I played an RPG with the voice volume muted (which one has to do to mostly silence the voices, since the on/off option for voices doesn’t work universally), since the voices were absolutely painful to hear.

The only remotely-passable aspect of the game is its visual presentation, with a nice color scheme serving the experience well, and while Q showcases dungeon navigation and combat mostly in the first person, there are occasional breaks in this such as visible characters traveling through doors the player opens, not to mention a visible party when they take the enemy off guard. Granted, there are some areas where the graphics designers didn’t seem to care, in particular the completely-asinine dodge animation of enemies reused from other MegaTen titles, and not all will appreciate the chibi characters.

Finally, the game is fairly lengthy, taking from two to three days’ total playtime for a playthrough of one of the casts, and while a New Game+ can allow players to carry features to subsequent games, Q quite frankly isn’t fun enough to want to go through again.

Overall, Persona Q is a disappointing crossover title that has some good ideas, particularly in its battle system, and the visuals are passable, but the game mechanics are incredibly lopsided, with a playthrough above Safety difficulty having the potential to be borderline impossible, and there are plenty of other issues with regards to its control, narrative that puts quantity above quality, rushed translation, and the absolutely horrible, whitewashed voice acting. While the ability to focus on the casts of either the third or fourth Persona games theoretically adds lasting appeal, I couldn’t stand a singular experience, and am glad I sold my copy of the game’s sequel without opening it.

This review is based on a playthrough of a copy digitally downloaded by the reviewer, played with a focus on the cast of Persona 3.

The Good:
+Some good ideas.
+Graphics passable.
+A little replay value.

The Bad:
-Lopsided mechanics.
-Irritating control.
-Excruciating story.
-Rushed localization.
-Horrible voicework.
-Way too long.

The Bottom Line:
A disappointing fusion of the Etrian Odyssey and Persona series.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 2.0/10
Controls: 4.0/10
Story: 0.5/10
Localization: 2.0/10
Music/Sound: 2.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 4.0/10
Difficulty: Very Hard or Impossible
Playing Time: 2-3 Days

Overall: 2.5/10

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