How You Helped Design Persona Q

Artist Shigenori Soejima talks about the role fans had in creating Atlus' upcoming dungeon crawler.

Interview by Jeremy Parish, .

Having been a designer and illustrator in a former life, I don't envy Shigenori Soejima the role he was assigned for Persona Q, Atlus' upcoming 3DS role-playing game. The game sits at the intersection of three fan-favorites: Persona 3, Persona 4, and Etrian Odyssey. And somehow, visually, it has to make them all work together.

Design for the Persona series must be difficult enough, given that its roots stretch back more than 25 years to the 8-bit Megami Tensei games. Through a couple dozen different sequels and spinoffs, the MegaTen franchise has evolved considerably, incorporating an ever-changing visual style while making use of a consistent set of creatures and mythological figures. Like Capcom's infamous Morrigan sprite that continued to appear in fighting games well past its sell-by date, elements of the MegaTen games sometimes seem ill-fitting and out of place. Add the aesthetics and world view of a completely different series to that already complicated mix and there's no reason Persona Q should have collapsed in on itself as a muddled mishmash of visual incoherence.

The newfound contrast between the chibi character designs and their more realistically proportioned Personas highlights the divide between the two.

And yet, it works, deftly taking the elements of Persona and shrinking them into a colorful and decidedly groovy take on the universe, all run through an Etrian Odyssey filter that renders the cast as squat, chubby little cartoon versions of themselves.

"This was my first time working in the super-deformed art style," Soejima admits. "It was a good experience, but very different. I'm not used to making characters look so cute! But because there's so many different characters, I had fun working on all of them, trying to make them look as adorable as possible."

It's an odd collision of styles. The series' iconic demons largely retain their original visual style even as the playable cast takes on a childish look, but the disparity in appearance only helps enhance the uncanniness of Persona's universe. Bizarre and outlandish demons fit right in with the fluid and colorful graphics — the game's earliest encounters involve otherworldly demons — while more "realistic" humanoids like Angel and Nekomata feel much further removed from the heroes, enhancing the impression that these adventurous high schoolers are playing with forces from another reality.

"There are two big reasons for the super-deformed art style" Soejima says. "One being that, because this is a crossover with Etrian, which has always had that style, we wanted to keep that iconic look so that when people saw it they'd know, 'Oh, this is similar to Etrian Odyssey.' If it were in the regular-looking Persona style, especially on 3DS, people might be confused and wonder, 'Is this a new Persona game, a new Etrian title?'

Despite the game's new, cutesy look, Angel remains the same leggy bondage queen as ever.

"Secondly, on the 3DS, the screen is much smaller. My usual type of character designs... trying to squeeze them onto a tiny screen just wouldn't look good. In order for my characters to shine, basically we had to scale them down."

The marriage of the Persona and Etrian Odyssey series goes far beyond mere visuals, though; Persona Q pulls the cast of P3 and P4, along with their standard repertoire of skills and summons, into a dungeon crawler that works very much like the Etrian games. You map your route through the labyrinth, traveling in a first-person grid-based viewpoint, while an indicator in the corner warns of you of impending random encounters. You even have to contend with powerful monsters that visibly patrol the dungeon, and just as in Etrian Odyssey, they're called F.O.E.s.

Despite the framework, though, it's all quite faithful to Persona. Not just in the characters and skills, but also in its presentation. The first dungeon you enter has a surreal Alice in Wonderland motif, with the doors that divide the dungeon consisting of piano keys that draw apart and clocks dotting the walls. It's far weirder than Etrian's staid high-fantasy-esque stylings, and frankly appears far more technically proficient as well. The amount of plot and exposition is far more in keeping with the talkative Persona standard than the terse Etrian style; even last year's anime-flavored Etrian Odyssey Untold felt far less chatty than Persona.

Soejima says Untold wasn't actually the trial run for Persona Q that it might seem to be, though. "Etrian Odyssey Untold was just a coincidence. The director of Persona Q is the same as the recent Etrian games. Everything he learned there he brought into this game. But otherwise, the staff that makes the Etrian series and the staff that makes the Persona series — including Persona Q — are very different. And the fans are very different as well. "

The combat system draws heavily on Etrian Odyssey, though the emphasis on characters and eye-searing colors should help Persona fans feel right at home.

Soejima's main task with Persona Q was to reconcile those two different styles of character design, rendering the cast of lanky teenagers he created for P3 and P4 in a format that fits Etrian's trademark cute-but-deadly approach.

"Obviously, these interpretations of the characters are very different, because making something from scratch... you go through a complicated process," he muses. "Trying out what works, seeing it as a silhouette — that's especially important for 'realistic' characters, because you have to be able to tell them apart at a glance.

"In this game, because they're smaller, I'd take my original character designs, the taller ones, and decide which details to keep and which to remove. When you make such small characters, there are a lot of things that get lost. I had to do a lot of back-and-forth comparisons... look at my original, look at the redesign, and make sure that the new appearance translates well to the new look. Hopefully, I was able to reduce the characters to their essence."

On the other hand, Persona Q has allowed him to rethink and revise some of his older creations — a chance to refine nagging flaws and shortcomings.

"It's been 10 years since I designed some of these characters for Persona 3, and when I look at those old illustrations, I think, 'Ah, I wish I had done this differently, or done that a little better.' That happens for any artist, I think."

And of course there's plenty of impressive, almost biblical dialogue in the classic SMT style as well.

But perhaps the biggest changes, Soejima says, have come about as a result of fan feedback. The Persona games' loyal following has largely revolved around the series' characters, and to a certain degree fans have taken control of the cast and affected how the creators see them as well.

"In the 10 years since P3 debuted, fans have responded to these characters," says Soejima. "There was the movie, there was Persona 3 FES, and Persona 3 Portable... during that time, there's been so much feedback, and so much has been done with those characters beyond the original game in all these different mediums. I took those things to heart as I was working on Persona Q. Things have evolved thanks to the fans who love the characters so much.

"Elizabeth is a great example of this. In the original P3, she was seen as the strongest character in the game, and that was pretty much it. You had a few events with her, but that was really all you saw of her. Over the years, though, fans have projected more personality on to her, and because of that many of the things fans saw in her were worked into Persona Q. So she matured because of the fans.

Apparently, this is all your fault.

"You may have seen images of Elizabeth in previews wearing a pink nurse outfit. That was not the type of character I had in mind when I first created her! She was supposed to be a very sophisticated, more otherworldly being from the Velvet Room, and there really wasn't much interaction with the protagonist. Whereas now she's become more familiar, and has a lot more facial expressions. The fact that she'd be willing to wear something like that shows how she's evolved from the beginning to now.

"I also think the two protagonists — the P3 protagonist and the P4 protagonist — may have evolved even more than she has. Originally in the games, they were meant to be in the background so the player could 'become' that character. After the game was released, and the movie, and the anime... these characters have personalities now. A lot of that comes from the way players saw the protagonists as they were playing."

Ultimately, though, Soejima was only involved in Persona Q at the visual level. He has much bigger fish to fry at the moment, though he remains coy about the details. "Persona 5, compared to the other titles that have been announced..," he muses, "I'm involved in it much more than just the character designs. But I can't really talk about that now."

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Comments 11

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  • Avatar for Damman #1 Damman 4 years ago
    I'm debating whether or not I should power through Persona 3 before picking this up. I loved and finished P4 and own P3 FES, but I never got into the meat of it. The time commitment is such a daunting thing when going into one of these games.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #2 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    I played Etrian IV but haven't played Untold. I'm guess that the character classes are going to be sort of locked in based on how the Persona characters are going to operate. Was Untold like this? Were there subclasses? How in the world is that going to work for PQ?
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #3 christopherhughes97 4 years ago
    @kidgorilla In the story mode of untold, the characters had predefined classes, and they always had the skills from those classes available. The party setup was: medic, alchemist, gunner, protector, and highlander (I think that might have been new? it was a spear dps class). There was a secondary system where you could find things called grimoire stones that had skills from other classes that you could use on your character. You could also make them in combat to give one character's skills to another character and also learn monster skills. Essentially, the grimoire stones added the versatility that you'd normally have if you built your own party.

    Maybe they'll do something similar with personas?
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  • Avatar for Exhuminator #4 Exhuminator 4 years ago
    One thing that's always been striking about EO is the dichotomy between the cutesy art style and brutal difficulty. It's like petting a cute puppy but it bites your freaking hand off. Also, as a fan of EO I am looking forward to this game. Although I feel I should play Persona 3 & 4 first. I own those, just haven't played them yet...
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #5 SigurdVolsung 4 years ago
    Untold was just a remake of EO 1 with prettier graphics and a, largely optional, more fleshed out story. For those that didn't remember or didn't see any reviews at the time. I own it and love it, but that's why it's not EO V.

    As far as Persona Q... the wait is being super long. I've had the LE on pre-order since the day it was announced. I'm so excited for this that I also started re-playing P3P this week and I'll be going through P4:G again after I'm done with that. I love EO games, a series that Jeremy personally evangelized and got on my radar, and Persona 3 and 4 are two of my favorite games of all time. I'm so in.
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  • Avatar for boxofficepoison #6 boxofficepoison 4 years ago
    @Damman Persona 3 starts off a tiny bit slow, and is not quite off the same quality of Persona 4 (of course Persona 4 is the best JRPG since Final Fantasy 6 in my opinion) but definitely worth a playthrough. Obviously impossible for me to say yet whether or not Persona Q would have Persona 3 spoilers, but if it does I'd recommend playing Persona 3 FES first.

    On the subject of interesting JRPG team ups has there been any further word on Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem? That is probably tops on my list of most anticipated Wii U games and there has been no word on it so far.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @boxofficepoison The official word on SMTXFE is "It's still happening, yes." Given that Devil Survivor 2: Break Record fell off the face of the earth forever before suddenly resurfacing, I think it's safe to assume Atlus will fulfill their commitments on their own time.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #8 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    "Elizabeth is a great example of this. In the original P3, she was seen as the strongest character in the game, and that was pretty much it. You had a few events with her, but that was really all you saw of her. Over the years, though, fans have projected more personality on to her, and because of that many of the things fans saw in her were worked into Persona Q. So she matured because of the fans."

    As long as it ain't the fans who honestly ENJOYED Golden and Arena's story bits...

    Then we refer them to the IOSYS video.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #9 hal9k 4 years ago
    @Damman I agree with@boxofficepoison - you should definitely play through Persona 3 if you can find the time. I personally prefer 3 over 4 (I think that's the less popular opinion) but really, anyone who likes one of them would almost certainly like the other.

    The disadvantage to P3 is that you can only control the main character directly in battle. That's not as bad as it sounds - the AI is pretty smart and I don't remember party members ever blatantly getting in my way. The advantage to P3 is that shuffle time is a lot easier to win (it felt nerfed in P4). That sounds like a little thing, but being able to typically choose which rewards to get from battle (cash, experience, weapons, or Personas) made a big difference for me. I was able to 100% the compendium in P3 due to the more manageable shuffle time, while I felt P4 was a bit too much trouble to do that in. The factors limiting the amount of time you can stay in the dungeon are also different between the two, but that's pretty much a wash. Either way, you won't have trouble staying as long as you need once you make some progress in the game.

    Don't bother with The Answer expansion, though. It's pretty much just hard for its own sake and I didn't feel like it added to the story. It's a bit of a slog, unless you're just looking to spend time on a pure challenge.
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  • Avatar for Damman #10 Damman 4 years ago
    @hal9k So I went ahead and started, just coming up on the second dungeon tier/story battle. Honestly, I thought I would miss direct control over the other characters quite a bit, but it's not so bad. While I do have to plan a little more when making my main character's turn, the easier battles go so much quicker.

    There are two things that I am finding rather aggravating though. One is that there is no save point after school! I suppose it makes sense that you'd be expected to save the night before, but coming from P4, I would always consider "after school" to be the start of that day. The other noticeable absence is the ability to pull Persona's from the compendium when doing fusion. Again, more of a convenience than a necessary feature, but it's something I really miss when planning out my Persona team.

    Otherwise, I'm liking the characters and writing of the game near as much as I did for P4's.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #11 hal9k 4 years ago
    @Damman Cool, I'm glad to hear you're liking it so far! It's been a while so I may not remember correctly, but I think those issues do get better as the game goes on. You should be able to use the compendium in the same way as P4 - just by doing a quick internet search, it looks like the compendium opens up after the 2nd full moon, so you're almost there. I'm not sure about saving, but I do vaguely remember that the game gets into a more regular schedule after the opening sections, so you can sort of find the pattern of when it's best to do things like save. I was also worried about the AI party members when I first started, but I agree, they worked out pretty well.
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