For me, playing Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is like going home again.
It’s also a good litmus test for how long someone has been a fan of Atlus’ beloved RPG franchise. There are those who will tell you that this marriage of the series with another of its developer’s properties—Etrian Odyssey—has resulted in some core gameplay aspects that fans may not be ready for: hardcore first-person dungeon crawling, the requirement of mapping out those labyrinths, the ability for any party members to wield different Personas, or the lack of downtime activities, such as Social Links.
The thing is, when the original Persona was released almost 20 years ago, all of those ideas were at the heart of what the game was. Shadow of the Labyrinth doesn’t feel like Atlus taking the Persona series in a bold, new direction due to the influence of another series—it feels like Atlus taking the series back to where it came from after a long journey away from home.
That isn’t to say that this is just a retread of what came at the start all those years ago, or that Atlus hasn’t learned a thing or two along the way. While I’m far more a follower of Persona than I am of Etrian Odyssey—I own all of the mainline Etrian games except the first but have only put a smattering of hours into each—I can still appreciate the dungeon-crawling polish that series has brought to Shadow of the Labyrinth.
One of the biggest of those Etrian Odyssey influences is something more recent Persona fans may not initially appreciate: having a true reason to care about searching every nook and cranny of every floor a particular dungeon has to offer. Much as I love Persona 3 and 4, both feature labyrinths that are extremely disposable. When playing, I’d make a mad dash through each level until I reached the next escape point, and then I’d go back in to beef up my party, hunt down Shadows I needed to dispatch to complete a quest, or peck around for the random treasure chest that would show up before continuing my journey to the upcoming boss.
Because my colleague Andrew Fitch has been the go-to guy for the Etrian series here at EGM, it’s been a long while since I’ve seriously taken plastic pen to digital paper in order to graph out every twist and turn I came across in my adventures. If you’re not used to it, it can feel like a daunting task at first—and I can see why newer Persona fans may find that task more than a little tedious. There’s something just so satisfying about the process, though, as if you’re the first person to step into that world, and it’s your job to keep a record of what you find there. While that sense of exploring the unknown is so central to what Etrian Odyssey is about as a series—at least, what I feel it’s about—here in Shadow of the Labyrinth, it’s one of many elements that make up the true goal of the game (which is why I think its easier to embrace here). Still, it’s important, meaningful, and absolutely feels at home in a Persona game.
And yet, I don’t know that that makes Shadow of the Labyrinth a must-have for Etrian Odyssey fans. Somewhat contrary to what I expected to find here, this really doesn’t come across as the even blending of two different tastes; it’s more coffee with a dash of vanilla mixed in for accent, and less Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Had the Etrian series never existed, nothing would seem unusual or out of place here when looked upon as a Persona side project.
One of the things that may hold back fans of the 3DS dungeon-crawling staple is the amount of conversation woven throughout Shadow of the Labyrinth. Mid-dungeon, the large cast of characters will stop to discuss battle strategies, ponder the events they’ve found themselves in, or get to know one another as they take a momentary break from their adventuring. Outside of the game’s labyrinths, using the “Stroll” command leads to cutscenes and scenarios that add even more to the relationships of your teammates, and some of the available sidequests offered will be completed solely through similar interactions. Even though the trademark Social Link aspect of one-on-one relationship building isn’t featured, there’s still a huge amount of learning more about one another conveyed through text to read or spoken dialogue to listen to (an impressive amount, given the platform). This is, through and through, a Persona game—and the hardcore Etrian faithful may find themselves constantly wishing the cast would just shut up and get back to the dungeon-crawling.
All that is music to the ears of a Persona addict like myself, but even we had reason to be weary. Shadow of the Labyrinth is unashamed, unadulterated fanservice—and for a franchise that some worry has gotten a bit too mainstream in recent years, that set off alarm bells in many players’ heads. Right from the start, the concept seems iffy: The casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 are brought together from their respective cities and time periods through mysterious means, and the two groups must collaborate in order to figure out why they’re stuck there and how to return to their homes. (From the beginning, you’ll pick which side you want to focus on—the cast of Persona 3or that of Persona 4—and that choice will change how some of the game’s segments play out.) It’s a premise that you’ll no doubt find covered countless times on fanfiction.net, and it’s one that I was sure belonged there—not as the building blocks of an Atlus-produced game that’s considered canonical.
Though I’m still not completely happy that this is indeed now part of the official storyline, Shadow of the Labyrinth ended up far more interesting and entertaining than I’d expected it to be. Yes, on some level, it’s the satisfaction of fanservice—that guilty pleasure of indulging in something you know maybe you shouldn’t enjoy or encourage. Deeper than that for me, however, was the fascinating look at each of the casts of characters—both individually and as a whole—through a new set of eyes.
When compared to the friendship and camaraderie of the Persona 4 squad, Persona 3’s S.E.E.S. members seem cold and distant to one another, people who work together because they must, not because they want to. Flip the view around, and Chie, Yosuke, Yukiko, and the rest of the P4 crew seem almost childish and flippant about their place in the world, whereas Yukari, Junpei, Mitsuru, and the others are obviously teenagers weighed down by an almost unbearable amount of responsibility and obligation resting on their shoulders. Sure, this is often a fun, lighthearted “what if” tale that lets us see characters interacting together in situations that never would’ve been possible before, but it’s also a deeper look into a roster of heroes and heroines that perhaps we didn’t know quite as well as we thought we did. (And, to be clear, you won’t spoil major elements of either of their respective Persona games—Shadow of the Labyrinth takes place midway between both.)
Reintroductions will also need to be made to the game’s combat, no matter if you’re coming in from the Persona side or the Etrian Odyssey side. The groundwork for battles here comes straight from Etrian: Pick five team members (out of the full roster of P3 and P4 playable characters), put them into one of the three slots in either the front or back row of your formation (depending on what range their attacks are and if they should be taking the brunt of the hits or trying to avoid them), and then do your best to survive the various first-person, turn-based encounters you’ll face at random times while exploring. Etrian’s FOEs—challenging miniboss-like entities that can be seen wandering the mazes, and who should be avoided until your party is stronger and more skilled—also show up here, twisted and tweaked to feel more unique to Persona’s style and overall universe.
Of course, all of that is then given the required amount of Persona flair in a mixture that feels totally natural and completely at home with other titles in the Shin Megami Tensei line. All of the typical Personaskills are here—Agi, Bufu, Garu, Zio, and so on—and what skills you’ll have access to at any one time will depend on which Personas your party members have equipped at the moment. The one team choice that can’t make use of Personas is the two-for-one combination of newcomers Zen and Rei, original characters created for the game who have also ended up trapped in this strange world of labyrinths (without any memory of who they really are or how they got there). Working together in one character slot, Zen and Rei support the Persona cast through more traditional means—ones that don’t involve mythical beings exploding forth from people’s bodies. The game’s various monsters (known as Shadows) all have weaknesses of some sort, just like they do in the main Persona releases, and also like in those games, your navigator—either P3’s timid Fuuka or P4’s J-pop starlet Rise, depending on who you want—can help you keep track of enemy weaknesses after you hit a foe with a particular skill at least once.
What happens when you take advantage of a Shadow’s weakness is somewhat different here compared to recent Persona games, however. Hitting a foe that’s weak to the fire-based Agi, for example, will send that party member into Boost mode, which gives them two major advantages: the chance to act before any of the Shadows are able to on the next turn, and the ability to cast any skill in their repertoire for free. (How many of your characters enter Boost mode during an encounter, and how many are in that state when the fight is over, also plays a part in your chances of earning a new Persona card at the end of the round—the prime currency for the Velvet Room’s Persona–fusion services). It’s a powerful advantage—one that feels right at home alongside the main series’ similar Press Turn system—but it also has two weaknesses to help keep battles balanced. If a character gets hit while in Boost mode before their next turn, they’ll be knocked back down to normal status. And, unlike Press Turn, Shadows aren’t temporarily put out of action when they’re hit with a skill that exploits their weakness.
That second point means that larger groups of Shadows are harder to handle with just one Persona who specializes in a particular elemental or skill type, which is why Shadow of the Labyrinth allows you to give every character (including Fuuka and Rise) a sub-Persona in addition to their main trademark one. The game explains why this is possible, important because in P3 and P4, only the protagonist—and their connection to the tarot card The Fool and its “limitless potential”—allowed for such an ability. As I mentioned earlier, though, this really goes back to the way Persona used to be at the start, and it’s a change made to make sure that players can construct a team that’s built around who they want to use the most—not who the game dictates at any one moment. Characters can utilize the skills of the sub-Persona they have equipped in the same way they have access to those of their own personal Persona, but those subs also bring with them HP and SP stat boosts that are activated during battle.
At first, you’ll appreciate the extra points in each meter that those boosts bring, but they end up being one of the biggest (and potentially under appreciated) keys to success in Shadow of the Labyrinth. See, the added HP and SP points you get from these sub-Personas refill at the start of every combat encounter—meaning that whatever you use (and lose) from each will be refilled for free the next time you’re thrown into battle. Given how long your treks into the game’s dungeons can be at times, and given how stingy the Persona series is about letting you refill your Skill Points when out adventuring, making smart use of those refillable points and the Boost system will be what separates repeated retries and XP-grinding, and making real progress through the game.
That, of course, leads to the big question I’m sure both sides of the fence are wondering: How hard is Shadow of the Labyrinth? Going off of my experience with the Etrian series, Persona Q isn’t as hard as those games it borrows some of its personality and traditions from when played on equal difficulty levels. Persona-wise, I found it a little bit easier than I expected, at least in the early going—but I’ll also chalk some of that up to being the kind of player who finds things like crafting more powerful Personas through fusion, and being smart about balancing out the roles of each of my party members, to be second nature by this point. Even so, combat is still extremely satisfying here, offering up the depth in strategy and threat of “oh s***” situations that continually keeps Persona’s (and Etrian Odyssey’s) combat thrilling long after many other RPGs’ enemy encounters grow tedious or boring. And, if you do find things too easy or too hard at any point, five difficulty levels are available, with all but the hardest allowing you to switch out to a different selection at any time. Speaking of options, there’s also a handful of menu items that can tone down some of the Persona-ness, should your preferences skew heavier toward Etrian’s more utilitarian design—such as the ability to speed up battles by turning off attack animations.
There’s one last thing that I really want to mention, something that often gets overlooked in games by both players and critics: the little touches. Watch a movie by acclaimed anime director Hayao Miyazaki, and you’ll notice countless bits of personality put into each and every one of his featured films, even in moments where such care isn’t required. That attention to detail is one of the reasons I’ve long been a fan of Atlus’ work, and why I think they often care about the smaller things far more than so many other developers. While it might be easy for some to see the grid-based dungeons as looking similar or even a bit dull, there’s a level of finesse and artistry to them that really stands out if you stop to fully appreciate their design. More so than any Etrian Odyssey game I’ve seen, I think the dungeon art style just feels so polished and developed, with beautiful uses of colors, layering, and atmospheric touches. Even elements such as the screen for selecting which section of the game to head off to next come to life with personality and flair, as a variety of scenes play out between the two casts of characters as they get to know one another better. All of this is done through some of the best (and most stylish) use of 3D that I’ve ever seen in a 3DS release. Instead of bold, brash contrasts between foreground and background elements, cranking the 3D slider all the way up produces scenes that have numerous levels of perspective, yet are still easy on the eyes.
How Atlus handled the 3D effect in Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a great example of how it handled the entirety of the game’s depth: through small, controlled, thoughtful brush strokes over time, rather than larger, bolder, more chaotic swipes of paint across the canvas. What could so easily have turned into a cash-in on the runaway success of the Persona series instead feels like a reunion with old friends we didn’t realize we missed as much as we did; what could have been the duct-taping together of two franchises turned out to be an adventure worthy of the name Persona, just one that took some advice from a friend.
While Etrian Odyssey fans may not truly find what they’d be looking for here, Persona players both new and old absolutely shouldn’t miss this. And, if you’ve been trying to find a way to dip your toe into the hardcore world of crawling and mapping dungeons, this just might be the perfect first steps to take to lead you into that grandiose, life-consuming, cartography-crazed world.
While Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth takes numerous gameplay cues from Atlus’ Etrian Odyssey franchise, this is an engrossing, expansive, and entertaining adventure that truly feels like a proper new chapter of the Persona series—one that masterfully blends together elements from both its past and its present.
M - Mature
|Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is available on Nintendo 3DS. Primary version played was for Nintendo 3DS. Product was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.