What does it take to make a quality fanservice game? How does something obviously become “one for the fans?” We’ve been bombarded by horrible licensed products so much throughout video game history that it’s time to finally stop and take a decent look at how the quality games end up being separated from the cheap cash-in crap out there.
First and foremost, a quality fanservice game needs to have an established fanbase. It goes without saying that if you make a Catwoman video game, nobody is going to appreciate it because everybody hated that movie.
Secondly, a fanservice game needs to have a world that is worth revisiting or characters worth seeing again. Why do you think Nintendo and Square Enix have been able to slap Mario and Final Fantasy characters on every single product they sell? Because they are quality, established franchises with rules, lore, memorable faces, and timeless worlds.
Lastly, what really sets a quality fanservice apart is that you put an established team in charge of it. A group of intelligent individuals who are able to give the game an additional creative spark that sets it apart from its source material. BioWare and Capcom come to mind with their work on Knights of the Old Republic and the early Disney games
Following these three rules, we can easily proclaim that Atlus has a winner on its hands with Persona Q: Shadows of the Labyrinth. The JRPG franchise has a huge fanbase and is one of the most popular series out there right now. The interesting Japanese settings are known for their authenticity and colorful casts of Japanese high school weirdos. Atlus’ quality Etrian Odyssey studio is also pulling the strings for this spin-off too, and fans of that franchise know it can crank out a quality JRPG out like the best of them.
As if it wasn’t obvious enough that Persona Q was destined to be a winner, it has a final qualification that puts it over the top where most others can’t reach. There is no company out there more genuine towards its fans than Atlus. When it says it is making a game for the fans, you know that it is going to go all in and make something worthy of the high expectations.
And with that, this is how Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is easily one of the best RPGs, and possibly games, of the year.
Hangin’ with the High School Crowd
Atlus’ Persona series has already churned out quite a few quality fan-service titles. Persona 4 Arena comes to mind, from an excellent fighting studio at Arc System Works, and the upcoming rhythm game Persona 4: Dancin’ All Night is coming from Dingo of Hatsune Miku fame.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth has a bit of a harder task though because it does not break away from its home genre like these other two games. Just like Persona 3 and Persona 4, the games it is paying homage to, it is a full blown JRPG. It has the responsibility of not only living up to the original games’ story and cast, but also has gameplay ticks that need to mark off as well.
Let’s discuss the characters first though because that’s why everyone really wants to play this game. The allure of diving into a new JRPG with the cast of Persona 3 and Persona 4 is enough to stir up excitement from any fan.
People love the characters from this franchise. They love exploring their histories, and they love seeing them act beyond the comfort zone of their home game. Persona Q asks the question “Why not make a game where the two groups find themselves confronted by new rules and point out the oddities of the different universes they come from?”
Cutscenes are your true reward in this game. Sure, there is rewarding gameplay, leveling up, and story, but the main attraction here is seeing these strangers bounce off one another. For example, highlights come from the horror of the Persona 4 cast when they realize that the Persona 3 gang has to shoot themselves in the face with a pistol to summon their Persona powers.
We accept this as normal in Persona 3’s world, but it never really sticks out as to extreme except when we see similar characters react so negatively towards it.
Likewise, Persona 4 is home to Teddie, the playboy stuffed bear who only thinks about mackin’ it with ladies. The girls of Persona 4 are used to his shenanigans, and they have to explain to the Persona 3 girls how to block him out.
It’s hilarious to the point where they are self-referentially spelling out and questioning everything that is charming and weird about these games. Naturally, only fans of the series will really get this humor though. Persona Q comes loaded with inside jokes that it is impossible for an outside crowd to get truly invested in what’s going on here.
Granted, it doesn’t tell the most complicated stories, and many of the characters are boiled down to their most basic personality traits. Chie loses her temper a lot and loves meat. She talks about it a LOT more than she does in Persona 4. Kanji is still a rough looking dude who loves adorable things and has a huge question mark over his sexuality. Persona Q mentions this a lot.
Of course, Teddie is also a much more simplistic character, worried more about scoring with cute girls than the long, looming mystery of his own existence. He’s much less sympathetic for being an out of place weirdo without that anchor to bring him down to reality.
This expands to nearly every cast member. Ken doesn’t want to be treated like a kid, Akihiko wants to train a lot, Naoto just wants to solve mysteries, Aigis is a robot. There are a few nods towards the underlying drama of their characters from the main games, but by and large, these are more caricatures of the characters you like rather than the characters themselves.
Like their adorable chibi art suggests, they aren’t really supposed to be taken as seriously. Unless you hate fun and demand 100 percent serious authenticity with what amounts to a high school anime, they do a great job channeling the spirit of fun friendship from the main games.
The two original characters, Rei and Zen, add a lot of drama to the story as well. These two mysterious beings are at the center of the plot and blend in nicely with the original cast. Aside from the goofy cutscenes, the mystery of their origin is more than enough to push you through Persona Q’s LONG dungeons.
The Best of Both Worlds
I am about as “anti” as they come with games that sell themselves based totally on setting and story alone. Looking at you Order 1886! Not even Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth gets a free pass from this rule, but luckily, it doesn’t need one. Thanks to the experienced Etrian Odyssey team’s rich history of wonderful games, they have created what is easily the most balanced game of the year.
What do I mean by “balanced?” Well, Persona Q had the daunting task of cherry picking the elements from two very deep RPG franchises, Persona and Etrian Odyssey and somehow making them work together. The developers could have just bulldozed in everything like Persona’s social links and Etrian Odyssey’s extensive skill trees, but it wisely showed a little restraint in taking just some basic elements and blending them together from there.
Persona’s main addition to this winning formula, besides the cast and setting that is, is its demon fusion system. Granted, this is more of a trope from its parent series Shin Megami Tensei but Persona’s unique rules still apply here. These mystical beings give our heroes magic powers and affinities and weaknesses towards certain elements.
Persona Q’s fun twist is that every character can equip two Personas, a main one and a back-up with additional skills and stat boosts. Finding a winning combination of characters and skills is the main RPG attraction here.
Etrian Odyssey most noticeably donates its exploration methods.Persona Q’s dungeon crawling is done entirely through the first person, and you will be tasked with finding shortcuts, treasures, hidden quests, FOEs, and resource items.
Etrian Odyssey’s excellent gimmick has always been that you draw your own maps in these dungeons as well. No waypoints or anything. Blank sheet, and go! These dungeons are pre-rendered, meaning they are not random like Persona’s, and you will get totally lost without a proper map-making system.
In fact, Persona Q even improves on Etrian Odyssey 4’s system with a few convenient twists. I hope these are applied in future Etrian Odyssey games.
Exploration is rewarded with special treasures once 100 percent of a floor is uncovered, and overall, these long dungeons can last up to 10 or 15 hours each! Luckily, there are only five main ones in the story, so pacing is only a small issue here.
Each dungeon is modeled after weird choices too like a haunted house, a speed dating cafe, and even Alice in Wonderland! All take inspiration from a typical Japanese culture festival booth, providing far more interesting worlds than plain “fire” or “water” themed ones or even Etrian Odyssey’s leafy forests.
Goin’ Gorillas, Bananas!
Combat also borrows a bit from both franchises. You can have up to five characters in your party at a time like in Etrian Odyssey, meaning either two up front and three in the back for a defensive team or three up front and two in the back for an offensive team. Attacking though is totally Persona with a strong emphasis on elemental affinity, bash/cut/stab damage from weapons, status ailments, and stat buffs. Lots and lots of stat buffs.
There is a bit more luck involved when it comes to knocking down enemies and pulling off an “All Out Attack.” In the main Persona games, knocking down an enemy with an element it is weak against is a guarantee. Here, it is mostly luck. The same goes for the “All Out Attack,” which only becomes available through luck as well. These are instead replaced by Etrian Odyssey’s useful Boost ability, which allows some characters to go faster in battle and use skills without using health or energy points.
Again, balance. It all meshes together so perfectly. Combat is a little bit more simplistic than either of its parent series, but you still need to think a lot. Plus, it just works so well and is so addicting that you won’t even notice.
The only minor complaint I can make is that the game’s main purpose kind of works against combat. Assuming we are mostly borrowing from Etrian Odyssey here, those games work so well because you have five main characters to focus on and really grind into the powerhouses you want them to be.
Here, you have access to eighteen characters and two support characters. If you want them all to remain up to speed and ready to go in a fight, then you’re going to have to throw down a lot of cash on armor and weapons and grind a lot of enemies. It’s not as bad as it seems when you consider that sub-Personas can be shifted and shared on the fly, but it is a bit daunting at first if you want to see all of these characters in action, the main purpose of this fan game.
The Joy of Being a Fan
It’s hard to label something as a “perfect game,” but Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is just that. It accomplishes everything that its developers set out to do, which was deliver a satisfying RPG experience with two of the JRPG genre’s most popular casts of characters. In doing that, it succeeded with flying colors, and I am having a hard time finding… you know… anything wrong with it.
If I could point to anything, it’s that it can be a little slow. Remember though, there are five dungeons, and you are supposed to take your time and dig through every crack.
Everything in this excellent game just works. The exploration, combat, and artwork all blend together in a wonderful experience. I haven’t even mentioned the soundtrack yet, which is right up there with Bravely Default and Destiny as the year’s best. I might even say it trumps both of them!
If that is the case, then why the “Wait” status? It’s a little obvious I think, but if you are not a fan of Persona, then you should at least play either Persona 3 or Persona 4 first. It has been a good six years since I played Persona 3, and found it a little difficult to get involved with those characters. Intimate knowledge of the Persona lore is a must to understand everything this game has to offer.
A knowledge of Etrian Odyssey is not a must, but it also helps a lot, mostly to set a few standards as to how this is different from the main Persona games. Fans of Persona’s unique social elements might be a little disappointed they don’t make an appearance in this game. Understanding Etrian Odyssey’s contributions might dampen those expectations.
Don’t be totally fooled though. It is not a timeless classic like the Persona games, and it lacks the culty appeal of Etrian Odyssey. Instead, it is just a perfect “thank you” letter from gaming’s most generous developer/publisher to what is among the most loyal fanbases in the world.
Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is everything you asked for, it’s just that you actually have to have asked for it to understand what its developers were trying to do.
Disclaimer: We purchased a copy of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth with personal funds and played 30 hours of the campaign before writing this review.