There is an interesting thing about saying that I will not play anymore ATLUS games for a while. That is, “a while” is a relative term. In this case, it means “until another ATLUS game comes out that I want to play”. With the release of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, that time came much sooner than I anticipated. This game represents an interesting new take on the Persona franchise. While it is a crossover between Persona 3 and Persona 4, it is also a crossover in terms of mechanics. The makers of the Etrian Odyssey and the Persona franchises co-developed Persona Q. As a result, Persona Q represents a synthesis of the two franchises' mechanics and design ideologies. In many ways, this improves upon the gameplay. In other ways, there were a few setbacks. One of these setbacks is what I wish to talk about this week.
The problem I am referring to is one that JRPGs frequently get wrong: The pacing. Far too often, RPGs do not know how to properly pace themselves out. As a result, the game begins to grow stale too early, making the rest of the game more of a test of endurance than an enjoyable pastime. Persona Q suffers this as well. Around the time of the 4th of the game's 5 dungeons, the game began to drag on. I found this particularly peculiar because I had played through the entirety of Persona 3 and 4, approximately 70 hours each, and enjoyed my experiences even to the very end. With Persona Q, I was getting tired around 50 hours in. Though the game is certainly fun to play, there can very well be too much of a good thing.
In Persona Q, dungeon-crawling is basically the only thing that the player does. As foreshadowed by the title, players must explore the various labyrinths, all based around specific themes, and beat the boss at the end of each one. Each labyrinth is composed of a series of floors. In each floor, there is some form of gimmick that must be worked around in order make it to the next level. Each gimmick is usually pretty simple on its own. The difficulty comes from the fact that the floor is typically fairly large. If the player is not doing any of the side-quests in the game, a typical level will take approximately one hour to fully explore.
On top of that, since the play is largely inspired by Etrian Odyssey, the player is responsible for drawing, marking, and maintaining the map of the current floor as they progress. Assuming the player's map was drawn with sufficient detail, solving the gimmick of the current floor should take about 10 to 15 minutes. Combined, this means that at a minimum, it will take approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes per floor, assuming that the player is only aiming for completion. Since the typical labyrinth is 4 floors long, followed by one last floor for the boss, it will take almost 6 hours to explore. That is six hours of playtime with little in terms of variance in scenery, enemies, or gimmicks in the labyrinths.
To contrast this statistic, Persona 3 and Persona 4 operate differently. Though the two games present dungeon-crawling differently, they are similar in their approaches. Persona 3 has one single dungeon, the tower of Tartarus, that players ascend gradually throughout the entire game. The tower is composed of six different blocks, each with its own decor. Further, each block is subdivided into smaller chucks of about 10 to 15 floor, with its own assortment of enemies and a mini-boss at the end of each level. The floors are procedurally generated. On each floor is a randomized assortment of treasure chests and monsters. Furthermore, there is a staircase that advances to the next floor.
Persona 4 does not use the imagery of ascending a tower, but the style is quite similar. There are a series of dungeons that the player needs to explore. Dungeons are approximately 10 floors in length. At around the middle floor of each, there will be a mini-boss, with the actual boss awaiting at the final level. Despite this difference, the rest acts much like Persona 3's Tartarus, with procedurally generated layouts for each floor.
A given floor of a section of Persona 3's Tartarus, or a dungeon of Persona 4, will take approximately 10 to 15 minutes total, including exploration, combat, and finding the exit. With a worst-case scenario estimate of about 15 floors per section of Tartarus in Persona 3, or dungeon in Persona 4, this means that it will take about 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete any one section. This is less than half of the time required to complete a labyrinth in Persona Q.
Having said that, it is crucial to note that while it takes less time to complete one dungeon, there are many more total segments in Persona 3 and Persona 4. As a result, the total time spent exploring these areas is, at the very least, comparable. The difference is in the pacing of the player's progress. Since the player is completing these individual segments faster, they get the feeling that they are making steadier progress. In truth, there is no real difference in the amount of progress afforded by a single play-session. However, the impression is that players are clearing areas in Persona 3 and 4 faster than they are in Persona Q.
There is another way that Persona Q failed at pacing out the game. At the game's core, there is only one activity: Dungeon-crawling. The game is distinctly lacking in terms of variety. Aside from exploring the labyrinths, the player can take Strolls around the culture festival where the game takes place in order to talk with party members and watch them interact with each other. Further, they can partake in Persona Fusion, a franchise staple. Aside from buying and selling equipment, items, and materials, there are also a number of side-quests that can be taken. These quests involve doing small favors for other party members, or locating specific areas and/or defeating specific opponents in the labyrinths. Since these side-quests often lead to players reentering the labyrinths to do further exploration, they add to that poor pacing. After all, since players are already in those labyrinths for several hours at a time, letting them take a break from this by sending them back in, often to the very floor they just advanced from, sounds a little silly.
By comparison, Persona 3 and 4 allow players to spend about as much time outside of the dungeons as they do inside. When not exploring these locations, players can, as in Persona Q, manage equipment and fuse personae. However, they may also spend time with other characters in the game world to build relationships, which can be drawn on to power their personae in fusion. As many of you know, this Social Link system is a mainstay in later games of the Persona franchise. Alternatively, they can spend time improving their social stats, like Knowledge or Courage.
Both games also offer a diverse set of side-quests. Though some of them require players to delve back into the dungeons to find specific items, most of them involve exploring the town. Some involve looking for people wandering around on specific days. Others involve finding an item in the area. Overall, since most of these excursions do not involve dungeon-crawling, they improve the pacing by giving players a way to take a break from the usual exploration, while allowing them to better prepare for the next time they enter a dungeon.
Ultimately, though Persona Q, Persona 3, and Persona 4 take around 70 hours each to complete, the former is paced significantly worse than the later two. This is something that only makes itself apparent after investing large quantities of time into each game. Otherwise, these pacing issues are much harder to pin down. Persona Q, while still a very solid RPG, is a difficult beast to recommend. It is only really worth playing if you are a huge fan of either Persona 3 or Persona 4, preferably both. Further, it feels much different than a typical persona game. Though I have not played Etrian Odyssey, I have been told that the additions and changes to the series formula were mostly taken from that franchise. As a result, the game is best for those who enjoy Etrian Odyssey, or are interested in the series. I believe that may be where I failed to meet the prerequisites, as those elements did not appeal to me. If you are not that interested in Etrian Odyssey, I would honestly recommend passing on Persona Q, as you are not really missing much in. It is nice, but hardly necessary, to see the Persona 3 and 4 casts interact in their respective primes.