Worrying About Lengthy Labyrinths in Persona Q2
The last few years have brought a host of spin-offs to Persona fans around the world: three different dancing-inspired rhythm games, two fighting games, but the only RPG of the bunch is Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. This game melds the cast and some aspects of the press-turn battle system from Persona 3 and 4 with the Etrian Odyssey trappings of first-person dungeon crawling and mapping the dungeon on the bottom screen. While the Nintendo 3DS may be waning, Atlus has decided there is time eke out one more spin-off and bundle the characters from all three modern Persona games — including the oft-neglected female main character option from Persona 3 Portable — into a newly announced sequel: Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth. While there is considerable excitement surrounding the announcement, I’m personally conflicted as I both loved and loathed parts of Persona Q and I think it fell victim to a common problem in RPGs: not being able to justify its bloated length.
Originally, I was very excited for Persona Q. I’d always wanted to get into the Etrian Odyssey games as they seemed like a perfect utilization of the second touchscreen on the DS and as a kid I loved drawing maps, whether I was plotting out Sim City creations or mapping Zelda dungeons. Sadly, I always bounced off the Etrian games; partially due to choice paralysis on building a party and partially from the lack of a strong narrative. I’m the kind of player that usually gets pulled along by the story rather than mechanics and even the added narrative in the Untold remakes wasn’t enough to keep my attention.
Then Persona Q came along. Parachuting in a whole host of characters that I already cared about and matching them with some tweaks to the combat should have made the perfect Etrian-style experience. For the first half of the game it did. The chibi character models were incredibly cute, the combat was fun, and I was having a ball nurturing my inner cartographer with hours of mapping dungeons. But the biggest draw was getting to spend more time with the casts of Persona 3 and 4, especially since it had been so long since the release of the former.
However, the seeds of my eventual ill-feelings towards Persona Q were there from the start. Not only did the character models become chibified — simplifying yet accentuating notable characteristics — the same was done to their personalities. Chie became a character where nearly every line was about eating meat or kung fu. Teddie’s transformation was completely insufferable; every line out of that bear’s mouth involved hitting on the female cast and by the end of the game I wanted to throttle him. The fun interplay and thoughtful character development was gone and replaced by characters simplified down to a single identifiable character trait.
I don’t expect amazing writing with a crossover spin-off like Persona Q. It’s inevitable these sorts of games will involve a dimensional rift bringing the characters into the same world who then have to work together to defeat the bad guy so they can all go home. If the premise is going to be predictable, a game really needs to nail the characters and Persona Q failed in that regard. I’m sure the game designers’ goal is to avoid character development that could cause continuity issues with the main games, but the result just didn’t work well in Persona Q. It was an issue that I didn’t notice as much and was willing to forgive at the beginning, but when the game stretched out to nearly eighty hours the poor characterization stood out more and more.
The characters weren’t the only problem that grated on me the longer the game went on. I found it really annoying that there were puzzles to solve while also having random encounters that could interrupt them. I always hate when RPGs have commingled puzzles and battles. Trying to remember the order to hit a series of switches was unnecessarily complicated by lengthy random encounters. There was an item that limited the random encounter rate, but I didn’t unlock it until just before the final dungeon, long after I was frustrated by this constant occurrence.
However, the breaking point for me was the late-game FOEs. FOEs in Etrian games – as well as Persona Q – are nasty, visible enemies that are usually considerably more challenging than the bosses at the end of dungeons. They serve, at least on normal difficulty, as puzzle-like impediments to progress that forces players to figure out movement patterns or how to manipulate the FOEs to get past them. The FOEs were a big part of what I enjoyed about the first half of the game; carefully studying the map to figure out ways past them or using fire to influence their movement paths. However, in the end-game, the designers added FOEs that could move two spaces for each space the player moved. A simple change no doubt, but it proved to be incredibly frustrating. Admittedly, I’m pretty bad at visualizing a puzzle and working it out in my head, but earlier in Persona Q I could experiment and if a mistake was made, I could run out of the room, wait for the FOE to reset and try again. With the movement change, the late game FOEs would chase me down every time I made a mistake. Since the battles on normal difficulty were virtually impossible to win, I’d have to use items to warp out of the dungeon or back to the beginning of the floor. This would leave fifteen-plus-minute treks through dungeons filled with more random encounters just to try to get past the FOE again. I actually bailed on the game at this point, only coming back a few months later to finish it on the Safety difficulty level (where it was impossible to die). Unfortunately, sapping the difficulty also sapped any enjoyment I got from the battle system and it became a game that I slogged through so I could say I saw the ending. Since I can’t remember a single thing about the ending today, that proved to be a poor use of gaming time.
All of these issues were exacerbated by the game’s excessive length. According to HowLongToBeat.com, it took the average player eighty hours to beat Persona Q. The nostalgia of seeing these characters again was pretty powerful but eighty hours with one-note characters grated me down to a nub. Also, it felt like the developers ran out of good ideas for FOEs and it left some of the late-game ones being incredibly frustrating. I believe Persona Q would have benefited by being in the forty to fifty-hour ballpark; that would have allowed it to focus on its best gameplay ideas and while the one-note characterizations would have still be problematic, less exposure would have reduced my frustration with them.
There seems to be a lot of focus on getting the maximum gameplay time for the number of dollars spent. I can understand the impulse of wanting to choose carefully with sixty-dollar investments. But that pressure can lead developers to succumb to the idea that games need to be sixty or eighty hours long. It’s great if you have the narrative, characters, and gameplay ideas to support that sort of length, but most games don’t. I have a hard time thinking of a game that wouldn’t be improved by cutting the weakest twenty percent from it. Certainly, even if a developer is hell-bent on creating hundreds of hours of content, can’t most of that be optional? Couldn’t that be a compromise that could suit all gamers?
Ultimately, I probably sound more negative than I intend about Persona Q. I can’t remember a game where I was so smitten with the first half only to have the experience tail off so precipitously. I really hope Atlus steps up its game for the sequel. I want to like Persona Q2, but without the nostalgia factor for characters I haven’t seen in years to carry me along, I fear the flaws could be readily apparent from the get-go. It really needs to have better characterization and an improved story if it is going to be such a lengthy experience. Perhaps the developers will go in another direction and shorten the game to focus on their best ideas. Whatever design choices are made, I hope it’s not just a rehash of the first game and Atlus gets it right this time.