Sometimes, the little details make all the difference in the world.
Take Persona Q, for example. This is probably, what, the eighth Atlus-developed first-person dungeon-crawler I've played on a portable system since 2007? All of those games have come from either the Etrian Odyssey or Shin Megami Tensei series, which cross over in Persona Q. And that's not even counting all the other related games I've played through, like Shin Megami Tensei IV and Devil Survivor. And yet, despite drawing so heavily on these familiar tropes and mechanics, Persona Q stands apart from the games that constitute its DNA.
So yes, in practice it plays a great deal like the Etrian Odyssey games, which draw from the design of classic PC RPGs from the early '80s. Here, as there, you delve into a series of dozens of complex labyrinths, exploring them step-by-step from a first-person point of view. You map the dungeons by hand on the bottom screen of the 3DS, your virtual graph paper. You hunt for secret passages to create shortcuts, harvest materials for crafting and purchasing gear, and do your best to avoid the predations of powerful creatures called F.O.E.s that patrol the mazes and pose boss-caliber threats (and sometimes more) should you enter battle with them.
And yet, where Etrian Odyssey is designed (even at its easiest) for fairly hardcore players — those who approach the RPG genre for a challenge rather than to experience a story — Persona Q feels far more inviting. Even without the option to play in a highly forgiving "picnic" mode, this is a much more accessible and character-driven RPG than even last year's Etrian Odyssey Untold, which attempted to revisit the first game in the series amidst an ocean of anime clichés. The game's Persona connections permeate it at every level, from the visual themes of the dungeons to the role the massive cast of characters plays. The stodgy, traditional Etrian Odyssey games certainly never had a lurid pink dungeon dressed up in themes of dating and romance, and even at its chattiest Untold didn't feature conversation at every turn or dead end.
No, Persona Q is a game geared toward Persona fans, with all that entails. Though it drops the series' Social Links element and the bookend story that transpires over the course of an entire school year in favor of a more straightforward hub-and-dungeon structure, its personality remains Persona through and through. The casts of both Persona 3 and Persona 4 collide fairly early on, resulting in a huge number of fan-fictiony interactions and conversations — not to mention a wealth of self-aware meta-humor. Anyone who's played the Persona 4 Arena games knows the series has a tendency to add a tremendous amount of dialogue to traditionally terse genres, and that's definitely the case here. Persona Q features more dialogue by the end of the dungeon's first floor than existed in the entirety of the original Etrian Odyssey, and it never lets up.
I'd say the constant banter could grow wearying to those without an emotional investment in the casts of Persona 3 and 4, but I'm actually part of the tiny audience coming to this crossover as a fan of Etrian Odyssey first and foremost — I've only played a few hours of P3 and P4 — and I never became tired of the conversations. It helps that Persona Q represents a tour-de-force localization effort, with writing that manages to be by turns witty, warm, and quirky. The dialogue for the stranger, more inhuman characters (the Velvet Room siblings, Aigis, newcomers Zen and Rei) is always most interesting, but the script manages to make the alarmingly extensive cast feel like a motley group of individuals... despite the fact that there's a lot of overlap between personalities.
Persona Q knows what it is, and it runs with it. That is to say, it's a fairly grindy, hardcore RPG drowning in fan service, and it never pretends to be anything else. The characters lament the immense scale of the labyrinths, panic about the threat posed by the F.O.E.s, and banter uneasily the way any two tightly-knit groups of teenagers thrust together by circumstances would. The game, too, lampoons itself; the entire second labyrinth feels like it's building up toward something to do with the Social Links that define the Persona games' character romances only to take an amusing swerve at the last moment.
What really sells Persona Q, though, is how well each game makes use of the other. While the class and customization mechanics of Etrian Odyssey have no place here — there's no retiring high-level characters to re-roll a fresh replacement, and aside from their specific innate elemental affinities your choice of active party members really boils down to favoritism — the rules of Persona fit this dungeon crawler remarkably well.
Here, as there, the most important consideration in any battle boils down to knowing an enemy's weaknesses and resistances. Hit an enemy's weak point and the attacker gets a "boost," allowing them to act first and use any skill for no cost on the following turn. Given the relatively high cost of spells and techniques compared to most characters' mana pool, boosting effectively proves essential to dungeon endurance. Without the benefit of boosts, you'll run out of magic points within a couple of battles.
Some high-level abilities at times aren't even usable without boosts; I spent most of the game with Chie in my front line to deliver physical beatdowns. Her most valuable buff during the second labyrinth was a spell that tripled the power of her next action, which paired nicely with the skill that let her attack a row of enemies three times in one move — together, she could deliver nine times her normal damage output in the space of two turns. The problem? The buff spell cost more than her total mana pool, even augmented by the sub-Personas each character equips for added stat boosts and skill options. Boosting was the only way to make it work.
While the boost mechanic may sound downright game-breaking, you'll quickly discover its limitations. If a character in boost status takes damage before they can deliver their next action, they lose the perk. By the time you reach the third labyrinth, you'll be facing off regularly against enemies with low agility stats paired with skills that let them hit the entire party — meaning they tend to take the last action in a round and cancel out every boost bonus in the party, spoiling your advantage going into the next turn of combat. That's also around the same time you start facing off against enemies who make liberal use of instant-kill attacks, as well as F.O.E.s that actively pursue your party... and continue closing in on you if you get tangled up in a random battle during the chase. Persona Q takes a little longer to show its fangs than the Etrian Odyssey games do, but it draws blood all the same.
Of course, the counterbalance to these hazards comes in the form of the eponymous Personas, which work the same here as in other entries in the series: You earn them in the form of Tarot cards which can summon demons, and which you can fuse to create new forms that inherit skills from their source Personas. This leaves your characters in a state of constant upheaval, and forces you to make tough choices: Do you maintain the harmonious balance of a party whose skills and Personas are all exactly where you want them, or do you risk losing access to certain powers in exchange for access to newer, more powerful demons? Of course, you can register and re-summon a favorite Persona, but the cost is always painfully high... especially if you're trying to keep your entire party's gear up-to-date.
The kindest thing I can say about Persona Q is that it reminds me in a way of Chrono Trigger. Not that the two games play anything alike, of course. But just as that 16-bit classic brought together two very different RPG franchises (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) and played their strengths against one another to create something new and unique, Persona Q unites the best parts of Atlus' two primary RPG franchises into something that works wonderfully. It feels true to the spirit of the two series that inspired it, but in a refreshingly different way.
It's in these differences between Persona Q and Etrian Odyssey that the brilliance of this crossover truly shines. For example, despite being the sixth game to feature F.O.E.s, the ones present here are quite unlike those of any Etrian Odyssey game, forcing even veteran map-makers to figure out how to slip through the underworld safely. And the optional side quests tend to revolve less around venturing into the dungeon to defeat a certain creature or forage for a specific item than around the characters. Some "quests" amount to conversations, or (in one memorable case) helping a socially awkward companion do some dinner shopping.
Although Atlus has built Persona Q from well-worn components, the game nevertheless manages to stand out from its predecessors as an interesting and different take on two familiar series. Granted, these franchises have been visited and revisited enough over the past decade that there's ample room for fatigue, and I can understand where many fans would be tired of dungeon-mapping after playing through two Etrian Odyssey games last year, or why the prospect of seeing the cast of Persona 4 in action again so soon after Persona 4 Arena Ultimax could seem somewhat less than exciting. Nevertheless, it's worth a look, especially for anyone who finds the concept of Etrian Odyssey intriguing but are turned off by its dry atmosphere. All those little things that combine to make Persona Q add up to a great, and gratifying, role-playing adventure.
Garish, but deliberately so. Persona Q features some of the most detailed visuals on the system, vibrant and full of life.
Nearly every track is a masterpiece, as you'd expect. Not everyone will be a fan of the battle themes, which incorporate vocal rock and rap, but they fit the soundscape composer Shoji Meguro has created for the Persona franchise.
Stylish menus allow you to customize your team, but they're occasionally too cumbersome for their own. The refined mapping system needs to be incorporated back into Etrian Odyssey, though.
An absolutely massive game, expect to sink 60-80 hours into the main quest. Thankfully, the countless conversation and social events keep the dungeon crawling from feeling too repetitive.
Persona Q represents a bit of a risk, bringing together two RPG series that, despite their common parentage, focus on entirely different facets of the genre. But it works, with the Persona elements livening up the dungeon-crawling and the Etrian Odyssey components bringing some merciless old-school discipline to the unruly Persona sub-universe. Though admittedly fans of the two series will get the most from the crossover, this lively, complex adventure works as a great RPG by any standard.