Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth – How to Make a Good Crossover

Crossover games are very difficult to make. You have two fanbases, from two usually very different games, and developers need to cater to both, while never forgetting the spirit of what made each game so successful. Most major crossovers seem to be fighting games nowadays. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3 work well because fighters have crap stories anyway, and you get to have the thrill of answering the question of “is x better than y.” Non-fighters have a way harder time. They’re often horrible messes like Project X Zone, where a mishmash of characters just fumble around in the worst premises imaginable. In games where stories matter, this is a cardinal sin. So, crossovers are hard. They’re usually nothing more than cheap attempts to sell bad games, as fanbases are stupid. Two crossovers were released recently. First, the titanic Super Smash Bros. Wii U, one of the biggest games this holiday season. It took the fighter approach, mixed in with a nice dash of Nintendo fun. Then there was Persona Q, a game that went under a lot of radars, but managed something quite extraordinary – it’s a good crossover with a story worth paying attention to.

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It’s a box!

 
Persona Q is a three-way crossover. It blends not only the casts and stories of Persona 3 and Persona 4, but also Etrian Odyssey to an extent. You see, like Hyrule Warriors is Zelda meets Dynasty Warriors, Persona Q is Etrian Odyssey meets Persona. The gameplay is entirely lifted from Etrian Odyssey with just enough Persona flair to make it work as a Persona game. Instead of being a combination 3rd person dungeon crawler and sim game like Persona 3 and 4, Persona Q is a first person dungeon crawler much more in line with SMT: Strange Journey, or the Etrian Odyssey games, obviously. The risks with this kind of gameplay crossover is that companies trick one fanbase into thinking their getting a certain game, when they’re actually delivering a reskinning of the other. Uninformed Zelda fans, expecting a Zelda game, weren’t thrilled with Hyrule Warriors. Whereas Dynasty Warriors fans got to enjoy the gameplay they loved with a new, fantastical setting. Fortunately, Persona Q gets both Persona and Etrian Odyssey right in a  way that will only disappoint those who really only liked Persona 3 and 4 for the dating sim portion.

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Well, this can happen

 

Persona 3 and Persona 4 crossing over works well because they are technically in the same universe anyway. This much was established in Persona 4 when you visit the school from Persona 3. In addition, Persona 4 Arena’s surprisingly good story mode specifically brought the two sets of characters together already. However, there’s still a lot of characters who need to be established in a very short amount of time. To its credit, Persona Q manages to eek out the essence of each character quickly and effectively. A few of the massive cast remain mere shadows (/pun) of themselves, but considering the huge amount of story that the game needed to cram in, it’s a technical marvel that they managed so seamlessly.

So many characters

So many characters

The game starts with you following one of the casts. The other joins your team later. This allows the game to ease players into the ideas behind the franchise, without getting bogged down by the sheer number of faces. By the time the cast expands, the player already knows the drill, and can acclimatize themselves accordingly. The characters themselves interact with each other frequently. More importantly, their interactions are all fairly realistic and true to the characters. The reason for this is rather simple. Persona Q is an internal crossover. Atlus helms both Etrian Odyssey and Persona. In other words, there is great knowledge and love of both series being pooled together along with the resources of the creators of both. This wasn’t a game lazily thrown at a secondary developer. Atlus created it in-house.

Inserted without comment

Inserted without comment

The most important thing is that Persona Q doesn’t just revisit the same ground as Persona 3 and Persona 4. Persona Q attempts to tell a totally unique story that fleshes out some of the background of the universe. Not much new is learned about individual characters other than the newcomers, as expected, but the story does shed some light on how the two games’ contrivances (i.e. the dark hour and the TV world) work in the same universe. It’s interesting, though not especially deep. What you get with Persona Q is less of an exploration of characters and themes, however, than a new adventure with known characters. As a surprisingly canon game, this is the best we could have hoped for, as too much characterization from a side story might result in radical waves in later games.

This guy gets new characterization, but, then again, he's really boring.

This guy gets new characterization, but, then again, he’s really boring.

Gameplay, perplexingly, feels more like a Persona game than an Etrian Odyseey game, despite being almost completely lifted from the latter. The SMT focus on hitting weak points, team attacks, unique skills, demon fusion and collection, along with Persona 3 and 4’s lighthearted j-pop style, totally overwhelm the base Etrian Odyssey elements. That’s not to say that you won’t be drawing maps, exploring strata, or hitting your head against the wall because of the difficulty, but the game truly feels like a Persona game. This was a feat that Hyrule Warriors was unable to accomplish, always feeling more like a frankenstein’s monster rather than a coherent game (albeit a fun monster with tons of charm). It is very difficult to create a crossover that feels like a singular game rather than one or more competing ones. That is Persona Q’s greatest triumph.

Did I ever mention how cute everyone is?

Did I ever mention how cute everyone is?

And all of that is ignoring the fact that Persona Q is actually a really fun game. It’s strange that the fact that Persona Q succeeds so much as a crossover is a far more interesting topic than whether the game itself is any good. But Persona Q succeeds in an utterly strange way. Crossovers are so rarely coherent, so rarely worth a dime when any semblance of story is required. It’s nice to see one of the pre-eminent RPG series succeed in a crossover. It gives me much more hope for JRPG companies, taking their properties seriously (I’m sorry Dissidia, but your story is so laughably bad, you should be ashamed).

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