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2014 in Preview: Owning the Journey in Persona Q

How could Atlus' marriage of Shin Megami Tensei to Etrian Odyssey possibly be anything short of brilliant?

In physics, the Grand Unified Theory attempts to bring together three similar but distinct areas of science by speculating that under certain circumstances, the forces that bind the universe all amount to the same thing. For role-playing games, Atlus' upcoming Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth may serve the same task, demonstrating that under certain circumstances, Atlus' two major RPG franchises amount to being the same thing as well.

In uniting Shin Megami Tensei and Etrian Odyssey, Persona Q marries the two best RPGs of 2013. (Yes, I know, some of you swear by Fire Emblem: Awakening. That's fine; just pretend this article is about Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, another promising Atlus crossover in the works.)

I'm afraid I didn't have the opportunity, in the rush to the new year, to revisit my two absolute favorite games of the year in USgamer's "2013 in Review" series: namely, Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei IV and Etrian Odyssey IV. SMT4 scored the only five-star rating of the many games I reviewed in 2013; and though Etrian Odyssey IV didn't (in part because it predates USgamer and I reviewed it elsewhere), I enjoyed it nearly as much. Crucially to my enjoyment: Both games offered a wealth of choice and freedom, and the investment they demanded of me is precisely what kept me involved in them from start to finish.

Looking back over the pieces I wrote for "2013 in Review," I've spotted a trend in my take on video games: A profound desire for control. Of course, I don't mean "control" in a domineering, power-hungry sense. Rather, I gravitate toward games that offer me, the player, a large amount of agency -- of free will. When I sit down to watch a movie or read a book, I'm content to enjoy the journey the creators of that work have constructed. Games are different. They're participatory, and I want to be able to participate in something more than simply playing Simon Says through something that feels like a failed Hollywood auteur slumming it in a lesser medium.

So when Grand Theft Auto V gave me a gorgeous miniature world full of moving parts yet expected me to experience it only through a venal, alienating lens, I told the core game to shove off and took it on my own terms. When BioShock Infinite offered me the illusion of choice only to tell me my input actually didn't matter, I suffered a terrible sense of disappointment. On the other hand, I loved Pikmin 3 for letting me go about my mission as I chose and creating a true sensation of consequence when I failed, and I appreciated Saints Row IV's tongue-in-cheek way of saying, "Relax, it's just a game."

SMT4 and EO4 approached the concept of player agency from completely different directions. SMT4, being heavily story-driven, took a largely linear approach to its story, especially at the beginning. Several hours into the story, the setting and plot changed radically, at which point the world opened up and left players to find their own way through a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Some lamented the openness and lack of direct guidance in the Tokyo portions of the game; I relished them. It was nice to find an RPG that reminded me so much of the 16- and 32-bit greats: Not totally open-ended, but willing enough to give the player enough rope with which to hang himself.

As usual for the series, SMT4's real allowance for player choice came in the form of an alignment system that determined the course of the end game, the player's moral standing, and which characters would ally themselves with the protagonist. Despite being much more limited than the wide-open alignment mechanics of the game's direct predecessor (2003's Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne), SMT4's moral selections manifested in unexpected ways, and the traditional "true" story path (the neutral path) was much more difficult to home in on than usual.

At the other end of the spectrum, Etrian Odyssey IV featured only a single storyline with no room for ambivalence. But story has never been the focus of Etrian Odyssey; that series has always been about player freedom in the more traditional computer RPG sense of the word. You build a party from a spreadsheet of blank potential, map your way through the dungeon however you like, and build tactics and strategies at your discretion. There's no "right" way to play EO4, though there are plenty of wrong ways (it's pretty tough). While every EO4 player ultimately ends up at the same place, how they get there (and what their team looks like once they arrive) varies radically from person to person.

And now, these two styles are coming together in the form of Persona Q. How could it not be great?

This isn't the first time Etrian Odyssey and MegaTen have collided, of course. 2009's Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey combined core MegaTen mechanics with Etrian Odyssey's first-person dungeon-diving (in fact, it allegedly began life as SMT4 only to undergo a name change when the powers-that-be decided a "true" MegaTen entry has to take place in Tokyo). And really, while Strange Journey smacked of Etrian Odyssey -- including the fact that it was co-developed by Lancarse, the studio Atlus collaborated on with the EO games -- in many ways it hearkened back to the early days of the MegaTen franchise. Before Persona 2, Shin Megami Tensei games were first-person dungeon crawlers... and not just the numbered sequels, but also spin-offs like Soul Hackers and the original Persona. In some ways, Etrian Odyssey seemed like an attempt by Atlus to reclaim an RPG format that MegaTen had left behind.

So in that sense, Persona Q feels right. Merging the worlds of Persona 3 and 4 with the vibes of Etrian Odyssey essentially takes P3/4 back to the PlayStation roots of the original Persona. And it makes sense; after all, much of P3/4 concerns dungeon crawling, albeit in a different style. But is Tartarus really so different, fundamentally, from the Labyrinth of the World Tree? In both cases, you venture into a hostile place over and over, making incremental progress as you gain power and skill, retreating to rest and replenish your resources before slogging into the dungeon yet again.

Of course, Persona isn't "true" MegaTen -- it's a spin-off, intrinsically tied to the franchise's concepts yet offering its own unique quirks. In place of the core games' moral paths, Persona 3 and 4 instead give you a different kind of choice: Social links. Who you befriend in the games' down time determines the course you take through combat, as well as the kind of boosts and abilities you can take advantage of.

Atlus hasn't shown off much of how Persona Q will play; at best, the trailers have shown just enough to see that exploration happens in a first-person perspective (which you'd expect given the Etrian Odyssey connection) and that combat is turn-based and possesses the manic energy of the latter Personas. Characters launch multi-hit attacks, and multiple party members leap into the fray at once for combo actions. The protagonists can evoke their Personas for combat assistance.

For a teaser of what we can probably expect from Persona Q, you might do well to look to 2013's other Etrian Odyssey, Etrian Odyssey Untold. Ostensibly a remake of the DS dungeon crawler that launched the series in 2007, Untold featured a heavily developed (and heavily story-driven) original mode that recast the content of the original Etrian Odyssey to fit the sort of character-focused format to which Persona has gravitated. In other words, it looks in hindsight like a dry run for Persona Q.

There's a lot we don't know yet about Persona Q. Will it feature manual map-creation? Will there be significant downtime between dungeon outings? Will you be able to define the protagonists' capabilities with skill trees, or will social links between predetermined heroes define the limitations and potential of your party? Those details remain to be revealed (as does the possibility of a U.S. release for the game), but I don't see much cause for concern over Persona Q's viability as a game. Atlus has been on a roll, and at the very least this fusion adventure should tide fans over until the long-awaited Persona 5 finally makes it ways into the world.

But given that it combines two of the best games I've played in recent years, I feel Persona Q has far more potential than that. Just as long as it maintains its parent franchises' commitment to empowering players, this cute little portable RPG could be a grand unification indeed.

Tags: Preview 2014

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