I've always held that the term "role-playing game" has far too broad a meaning to properly apply to a single genre. Even before arena-based first-person twitch shooters were blithely being called "RPG-like" because look, numbers!, the term RPG was used to describe anything from straight Dungeons & Dragons to Final Fantasy with its cinematic aspirations to the decidedly stats-free Legend of Zelda series.
The fundamental underpinnings of RPGs — by which I mean, essentially, statistics and story — possess remarkable nuance when expressed as video games. Admittedly, some developers try a little too hard to make their efforts stand out at times, as seen in the Tales series and the ever-more baroque names for its combo-driven real-time combat. Do you know the difference between a Dimension Stride Linear Motion Battle System and the Trust and Tactics Linear Motion Battle System? Does it matter?
Such over-the-top quirks aside, though, RPGs really do offer remarkable variety in their mechanics and style, and Tales (for all its overwrought naming conventions) has a hyperkinetic format that couldn't possibly be further from the measured pace of the original Dragon Warrior... and yet, somehow, they're all part of the same genre.
What I'm really saying here is that Atlus' Persona Q, launching later this month in the U.S. for Nintendo 3DS, had a trickier task before it than it might seem at first glance. The game takes the cast and combat rules of Persona 3 and Persona 4 into the first-person dungeon-crawler world view of Etrian Odyssey to create a hybrid RPG. It sounds straightforward, right? Both series come from Atlus, both are turn-based RPGs... heck, the Persona games got their start with 1996's dungeon-crawler Revelations: Persona.
In practice, it's not so simple. Much of the appeal of P3 & P4 rests in the games' youthful casts, their heavy emphasis on socialization among party members, their energetic visual style, and the key role that elemental weaknesses and resistances play in turning the tide of battle. Meanwhile, Etrian Odyssey plays as the very definition of old school, with a party consisting of blank ciphers and exploration designed around high-risk for sometimes meager rewards. While a Persona party can cover all its bases thanks to the role the eponymous Persona avatars play — enabling a spread of skills and powers — Etrian Odyssey's party system was deliberately designed around the idea of deficiency, of always venturing out with the sensation that your team is just one member short of optimal. The idea of endurance factors into both series, and Persona (like all Shin Megami Tensei adventures) isn't afraid to throw a harsh challenge in the player's way, yet the stakes are always much higher in Etrian Odyssey.
So how do you combine the two without losing their essence or, worse, creating a godawful wreck of a game? The obvious answer would be to stick Persona characters in Etrian Odyssey's shell, since the former is all about characters while the latter is all about disciplined exploration. On the surface, that's precisely what Atlus has done.
Dungeon navigation comprises the bulk of the game, and it plays out exactly the same as in the Etrian games. First-person labyrinths unfurl before the player, who has to map the boundaries, features, and hidden secrets of the maze on the bottom screen's virtual graph paper. A color-coded threat indicator in the lower right corner of the main screen indicates the likelihood of being pulled into a random battle; meanwhile, certain high-powered foes — literally called F.O.E.s in the game text, with the same kind of ostentatious backronym as in the Etrian games — roam the map, moving in time with the player and putting up a devastating, boss-level fight should you recklessly choose to enter into battle with them. And the dungeon itself is divided into different themed areas, further stratified into floors. Meanwhile, you earn cash and unlock new gear by selling the loot drops that you gather from defeated enemies.
Despite these fundamental similarities, though, Persona Q has a wildly different personality from the Etrian games. Yes, even last year's Etrian Odyssey Untold, which felt like the franchise's first steps into the overtly story- and character-driven style people expect from console RPGs. The adventure lets you take control of the entire casts of both P3 or P4, depending on which game's protagonist you select as your leader, and their distinct personalities spill over into the dungeon exploration session. There's a ton of character dialogue surrounding each new development within the dungeon — you're practically guaranteed to stumble across a new event every time you make a foray into the labyrinth, and after completing the first main zone of the game you can also chat with the team members during the group's downtime.
Besides breaking up the monotony of mapping the action, this also works out to a lot of pointers on dungeon navigation as you make your journey. Your navigator (Fuuka for me, as I started with the P3 cast) constantly offers advice on how to proceed. End a battle with a character in critical status? She'll recommend you return to safe ground. There's never a doubt about where to find hidden passages, since not only are they marked conspicuously, your party members will make a comment about their proximity once you come within a few spaces of them. It's useful advice to players new to the format, but the overall effect can feel a bit nagging for experienced explorers.
But the biggest change comes from the introductions of Personas into the mix. These are the trademark demons of the Shin Megami Tensei series: Companion characters who grant the player the ability to use magic spells, sacrifice their health for powerful special attacks, cast buffs and debuffs, and more. As always, each demon belongs to a different Tarot arcana, and you can combine the Personas you gather into more powerful forms, with the outcome determined by the arcana and level of the demons involved.
The presence of the Personas means that the traditional character classes of the Etrian games go right out the window; each party member has their own elemental strength and weakness, and a physical property to their melee attacks, but everyone is a generalist in practice. The protagonists lose their ability to summon multiple Personas at will, while everyone in the party now has the power to equip a secondary Persona. The closest thing any of the Etrian games offer would be subclassing, which is far more permanent, or maybe Untold's more flexible secondary classes (which, in practice, were more obtuse than helpful). Secondary personas, which you can swap at any time outside of battle, offer much greater versatility.
This addition has a massive impact on the basic nature of the game. Besides giving any party makeup a fighting chance, Personas also diminish the basic endurance and resource conservation aspect of the Etrian games. In that series, any given session of dungeon-diving is ultimately limited by your party's tech points (the equivalent of Persona's magic points); once your Medic can no longer heal and your Alchemist can no longer fling spells at foes, your survivability in the dungeon drops sharply and your only recourse is to scurry back to town to rest up for another go at the labyrinth.
Ostensibly, that holds true for Persona Q as well. However, once you gain the ability to equip different Personas — which happens very early in the adventure — you'll find your capacity for delving into the hostile underground increases considerably. Each Persona confers on its user a health and spirit bonus in combat. The additional HP and MP you gain don't factor into the action outside the dungeon, but as soon as you enter a battle your sub-Persona's bonuses are applied in full to your character's stats, depicted in your HP and MP bars as lighter-colored segments of health and magic. When you take damage or execute actions that draw on your HP or MP, those costs are debited from the Persona's bonus until it run down, at which point the character's base resources get hit.
The party's base health and mana carries over from one battle to the next, but a Persona's additions regenerate between fights. In practice, this means that if you manage to make it through a battle without exceeding the boosts your equipped Personas provide, you'll enter your next battle with full stats.
This mechanic combines with the traditional Shin Megami Tensei emphasis on hitting weaknesses and building resistances. The Press Turn system (and other similar mechanics) from recent MegaTen titles doesn't quite fit with the Etrian approach to turn-based combat, so you don't get bonus actions for managing to hit an enemy's elemental weakness. Instead, the attacker enters a state called Boost — not to be mistaken for the Boost meter in many of Etrian games, which do appear here but with a different name — that grants them two advantages: First, they get to attack first in the next round; and secondly, the cost of all actions drops to zero for that round.
The value of this system should be fairly self-evident. Spend a small amount of mana or health for a critical action, and in the next round that character gets to act first with no resource cost. So you can continue pelting foes with super-effective attacks for as long as you can maintain Boost status without eating your precious magic points. And there are other perks, too. For example, when you strike an enemy's weakness, it has a chance of becoming stunned, wiping out its actions for the remainder of the round (a particular boon against foes who get multiple turns per round). There's also a chance a staggered foe won't recover at the end of the round, and when you enter a new round with an enemy in that collapsed state, your party is allowed to take a free action in which everyone piles on to hit every opponent for huge damage.
It's a great way to carry over the essence of SMT without sacrificing the basic structure of Etrian Odyssey. It encourages precision attacks and resource management, but it makes the overall pacing of the adventure feel far less grueling. It also opens up interesting possibilities for creating new challenges; for instance, the F.O.E.s that roam the first region have no elemental weaknesses, so the hardest part about overcoming them in a fight isn't so much surviving their attacks but rather delivering significant damage over a long period of time without running out of mana.
Of course, Persona Q isn't the first time that MegaTen and Etrian Odyssey have crossed over. 2010's Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey took the franchise back to its first-person roots and was co-developed by Lancarse, the studio responsible for the heavy lifting on the first few Etrian Odysseys. But as a testament to the versatility of both the MegaTen concept and the RPG as a genre altogether, Strange Journey and Persona Q feel wildly dissimilar from one another... and not just because of Q's buoyant visual style and hyperactive teen drama.
We're still a few weeks out from being able to review Persona Q, which is just as well because I've only just now made my way through the first "stratum." I'm thoroughly enjoying the experience... though of course, I do have a weakness for both MegaTen and Etrian Odyssey in particular.