Measuring life in a world of your death - Persona Q

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Death is imminent; a fact of life and Persona Q. You may find yourself eradicated within seconds of arrogantly challenging your first Fysis Oikein Eidolon, brazenly charging ahead with the belief that handling a difficult random encounter successfully is a rite of passage to take down a Card Soldier. More likely, however, you'll find your entire party wiped out by a random encounter not unlike several you've previously tackled with ease. And when you witness your death, you will know the only entity deserving of blame is your ego.

Death is one of the things Persona Q handles very well on a gameplay level. There is no enemy you can face who is impossible to overcome; there are only enemies whose sheer power and adaptability give the feeling of a fool's errand. But in contrast to some games who market themselves on their difficulty, none of these encounters are designed to be unfair.

Your party members (save for one or two) are inherently weak to specific elements, which enemies will take advantage of more often than not. You’re given the same advantage as the majority of FOEs and random encounters have at least one weakness to an element or ailment. In fact, any character who hits an enemy’s weakness will gain the Boost effect, making them the first to act on the next turn and giving a 20% increase to any damage done.

Some enemies may be able to inflict binds on you, status effects which lock you out of performing certain attack types or force you to move last without the ability to escape, starting early in the game. Frightening, until you find out every boss--even the final boss and all of the much harder side-quest bosses--is susceptible to at least one bind or status ailment.

All of this fairness means your enemies are never equipped with something unobtainable to your own party (save for a single ability held by the final boss). Fairness also means dying never feels cheap. One example concerns an enemy encountered in the third dungeon:

The first move whenever they're encountered is almost guaranteed to be an erosion spell, likely making every member of your party weak to the element of wind. These enemies are also commonly found in a pair. When one makes you weak to wind, the other casts a strong wind spell which is likely to kill at least one member of your party.

Frustration will certainly follow your first encounter with this enemy, but the game has provided items to reverse erosion spells since before you started this dungeon. You also shouldn't immediately lose a party member unless they were already weak to wind, a flaw you've had two dungeons and a couple floors to take care of by now. And if you lost a party member because you entered the battle without full health, well...that's solely on you. The first encounter with this enemy was lost because you didn't take care of your party; the second was lost because you wanted revenge for the first but didn't correct your errors.

Fairness means every enemy is survivable.

Survival does not mean you should protect your ego by dying to an enemy you clearly can't handle, though. Learning early to escape a battle when you're on the losing side is a trait that coincides with keeping your ego in check. The game itself tells you this is an acceptable, reasonable action! If you're on the verge of being wiped out, your party support will radio you in a worried voice begging you to run. When you engage an FOE clearly out of your league, your own party members will suggest bailing and reaching safety. Items like the smoke ball give you a 100% guarantee to leave all battles other than those with bosses. Even without a smoke ball, you're almost always going to be successful when escaping a battle unless you're playing on the hardest difficulty.

Escape does not just apply to individual battles. Items are available very early to warp back to safety, whether that means the entrance of the floor you're on or the central hub of the high school where the game takes place. Returning for healing means the subsequent return to your previous place in the dungeon will be far easier than having to re-navigate and go through the various events or actions necessary to complete a dungeon. Easier still when you get to the point where items to prevent random encounters become available.

Even with fairness, death remains imminent.

Why? Because preservation of the ego means a 1% chance of winning is a sure thing. With one party member left alive, I refused to escape from an FOE who had fully healed themselves after I'd spent twenty minutes whittling them down. I could revive a party member and watch them fall in the next turn without a chance to revive anyone else. Every bit of healing vanished with the next attack received. Yet admitting I was out of my league was unthinkable as I continued the suffering of my party members with the vain belief I'd stage a comeback of the ages.

Later in the game, I found myself retreading the same dungeon section for two days as my pride refused to admit repeated defeats weren't just a fluke. Making my way five steps farther than last time served as inspiration despite still being ten steps behind my advance four deaths ago. And every death was preventable, every level preservable, the exit attainable--if I would only swallow my pride by returning for healing and saving.

Returning to the high school is beneficial for more than healing and saving, of course. Spoils from your battles can be brought to the art room, turned into money and used as material for new equipment. Managing your equipment is a vital part of succeeding as countless pieces can cover weak spots you may not have a persona to cover at the moment. They’ll also provide great stat boosts, inflict effects and ailments on enemies, and a lot of ways to experiment with your approach to battle. Have a character with great magic attacks who’s lacking in physical stats? Give them a weapon that does little damage but almost guarantees to inflict a strength bind on the target. Physical character who can’t afford to use buffing spells? Here’s an accessory to boost their SP. New enemy with an affinity for panic ailments? There’s an armor for that!

Certain creations do require materials that lack the fairness otherwise found in the battle environment. The game shows you with an early side quest that some enemies may have materials only obtainable when beaten under specific conditions, then leaves you to experiment for the rest of the game. It can be a great feeling to kill an enemy and discover in the after-battle screen that you received a rare material! You’re just not likely to have that situation occur very often. These conditions can range from killing an enemy with a fire attack to killing them while they’re under the effects of a curse ailment. One particular material turns the battle into a war of attrition as you’re forced to kill an enemy who is strong to physical attacks by using your standard physical attacks. This means you could probably double your time spent with the game by testing every ailment and attack on enemies who haven’t given up all their materials. The only saving grace is that you can see what enemies have a rare material by looking at the info screen during battle.

Two other areas in the high school are the nurse’s office and the velvet room. The former contains your main source of healing, with a cost that rises the more you use it. Standard fare for Shin Megami Tensei games, of which the Persona series is a spin-off. You may feel like the cost increases necessitate rationing your visits early in the game, but money becomes very abundant before you finish the first dungeon. The nurse’s office is also where you’ll receive the majority of side quests. These can vary in style and difficulty, from simply investigating an area of a dungeon to undertaking a brief conversation with certain characters. An important thing to keep in mind is that some quests will come with a time limit; if you don’t accept them within a certain period, they’ll disappear entirely. The time limits aren’t laid out for you, and you’ll only be notified when a quest is close to disappearing.

Rewards for completing quests make them worth the effort. New weapons, materials, items, and ability cards can be obtained alongside money and experience points. Since the experience points apply to every character, regardless of whether or not they’re in your party, they’re a great way to level up characters you’ve otherwise neglected. You’ll also be treated to some interesting banter along the way.

The final area, the velvet room, performs the same function as the room of the same name in other Persona games. A lot of time will be spent here fusing personas together for new creations with better skills and stats. The UI is streamlined compared to other entries in the series, making navigation less cumbersome as you compare possible fusion results. You’re also given the ability to sacrifice two personas so a third may grow stronger. This can be helpful for two reasons: you’ll be able to reduce the amount of grinding required for unlocking new skills, and you’ll sometimes receive very rare materials that can be used to make unique items in the art room. Another feature is the option to extract skill cards from personas. Each character has 4 slots where a skill card may be used, consuming the card and granting them said skill. The persona used in extraction will be lost, but they’re always available to be summoned again from the compendium.

The high school is also full of some rather interesting conversations.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked much about the characters themselves. That’s because I wanted to get the straightforward game elements out of the way before we get into the wide spectrum of how Persona Q communicates. We’ll start with a resident of the velvet room, a teenage girl with a penchant for poetry. Several visits to the velvet room will see the main character coming across a dropped piece of paper. The poem on the page will be read aloud and, without fail, the main character will finish the poem just as the girl comes back to the velvet room. She’ll express outrage that you read something so personal, throw an endearing insult, and storm off.

What’s strange about these encounters is how they don’t seem to have any pay-off or revealing nature by the end. Another velvet room resident will comment on the exchange, and then you’re back to the main velvet room screen as though nothing happened. You have no choice in these encounters; they’ll happen automatically upon entering the velvet room, and your character immediately reads the poem without a second thought. The poems themselves are certainly representative of a teenager trying to discover their voice (for better or worse) but don’t contain much relevance to the events you’re experiencing.

In the nurse’s office, you’ll be subjected to conversations where you do have a chance to react. The woman running the place will make several requests for investigations and items throughout your stay. Upon completion, you’ll find that she often had no idea why she made the request or what to do with the results. As the world you’re in is foreign to you, so it appears existence is foreign to her.

Except for abuse. A recurring gag is how she’ll knowingly make unreasonable demands of her brother, then require he pay for his failure through money, food, or yet another unreasonable demand. At least once, she’ll resort to crying and pretending that she’s been gravely hurt emotionally, giving up the act seconds later. You’re given the option to comment on her actions but you can expect her to respond with a nonsensical justification or without a care at all. Her brother takes it all in great stride and expresses undeserved care for his sister, while she never faces any repercussions for subjecting often harmful abuse upon him.

Her personality is a far cry from how she was written in her original game, Persona 3. The only elements carried over are her inquisitive nature and making requests whose results she doesn’t know how to use. Your interactions with her showed she was a kind person, however; she may have relished in misinterpreting the wanted posters at a police station as calls for execution, but she never had the oeuvre of an abusive personality. The whole purpose of her side-story was teaching her about the world outside the velvet room as though she was a person in our world. Considering that Persona Q is supposed to take place during the timeline of Persona 3, there’s little reason for such a drastic change in character.

And that brings us to her brother. He’s written as obedient to a fault, always following the orders of his sister even if he questions their utility. The first time this is put on display happens when he’s assigned to the art room. His sister finds a pink, frilly apron with a large heart on it, demanding that he put it on. While he objects at first, he dons the apron and wears it with pride for the rest of the game.

This situation was clearly meant as a joke about a man wearing attire traditionally associated with women, yet none of the characters really react. It’s a weird case of the game attempting an over-played joke but either forgetting a punchline or writing a character who didn’t feel shameful wearing an apron. The latter seems most likely when considering that he politely accepts all the other ordeals his sister puts him through. You could almost say it’s refreshing if intended; a character handles a minor amount of crossdressing without the game making much out of it. It just depends on how much benefit of the doubt you’re willing to give the developers and localization team.

Gender and sexuality are slipped in all throughout the game. 

Their handling is generally positive in one of the strangest ways I've seen in a video game. A character who presents himself with an overload of machismo has traditionally feminine aspects of his personality come to light, such as a hobby and expertise with sewing; another male character tries to make fun of this but other characters rebuke the attempted shaming. The resident of the art room, forced to wear an apron? He is immensely excited to better his craft by learning from such an expert!

One character identifies opposite the gender they were assigned at birth and everyone is accepting. You're given a choice at one point to respond to this information, and not a single option is negative. The character shares their experience with everyone in the party through conversations in the dungeons and the food court, but isn't made into a side character solely serving to give anyone some moral victory. A piece of media that doesn't invoke the "black character solves white protagonist's racism" trope in any way is absolutely refreshing.

But where sexuality is approached, the progressive tone can waver wildly. You'll take part in a dungeon where each major step forward requires playing along with a matchmaking service. After answering each question, the party will have a conversation about your answer. This is where you get your first real taste of the game's views on sexuality. The questions sometimes contain rather raunchy innuendo, yet your party consists of teenagers and even preteens; one of those preteens will be romantically approached--several times, in fact--by a character who presents themselves as at least a high school junior. Some of the male characters continually hit on and make advances towards the female characters in a running gag of rejection that gets old only hours into the game. They'll have touching moments of character growth elsewhere, but the advances never stop until the game ends. This particular dungeon also leads to the worst, most awkwardly unnecessary joke of the game as the aforementioned preteen and several of the boys have a misunderstanding in which the latter believe she will be pulling up her skirt.

Such a joke is not unique to Persona Q, as a similar joke involving a young teenage girl was actually a major story event in Devil Survivor 2. The question is why games under the Shin Megami Tensei umbrella have utilized these jokes in recent entries. Persona 4 is somewhat infamous for the confusing mess that was the class camping trip, and Persona 3 contained an entire mini-game whose sole purpose was voyeurism.

But as I said, sexuality is approached in a varied way in Persona Q. And this dungeon does contain great moments. The choices you've made throughout the matchmaking service will pair the main character with one of his party members. Not only can you end up paired with a male character, but the pairing in my playthrough made no jokes of the matter. There was no shaming, no dwelling--it was just a thing that happened. However, I cannot help but presume certain other male pairings will result in distasteful jokes about being gay. Only subsequent plays will tell.

Now let's talk about life.

The defining reveal of the game is hard to talk about without spoiling the entire experience; a character may not be what you think, and the world of the high school is explained. It certainly has parallels to the first Persona game while keeping intact the supernatural meddling of the whole series. What's important here is the philosophical point of the game, and who invokes the it isn't really relevant.

At a point, you'll be propositioned with the value of a life. Your input doesn't really affect the conclusion even though you are given a choice. You can actually tell the game you disagree, which it acknowledges. But, as your choice is meaningless, the game will tell you it's determination of life regardless: the impact made upon others.

Not all that groundbreaking, and the philosophy has been a common theme throughout the Persona series. Persona 3 introduced social links which let you greatly improve the lives of others while building bonds that could survive an apocalypse. Persona 4 was built around the negative consequences of gossip. Persona 2's entire story came about through childhood friendships and one woman's death. So Persona Q's culminating philosophy follows the series' theme rather nicely.

Except for its application to a person with terminal illness. Yes, the game wants to tell you that dying in a hospital you've called home most of your life means your life still had worth because your suffering impacted others. You've learned this life was abandoned by its parents, it's only friend being a resident who stayed briefly in the next bed over. But the parental abandonment and interactions with a nurse should be enough to give this soul eternal rest because that counts as impact. Oh, and your party members grew emotionally during the game, which could somewhat be attributed to this life! That's enough to feel like the suffering and torment was worth it, right?


Not only does this philosophy degrade the terminally ill and perpetually suffering into tools for bettering the lives of the abled, which is just as bad as the "black person solves white protagonist's racism" trope mentioned earlier, it doesn't even make sense within the game's own world!

The party members who are said to have grown thanks to this ordeal are explicitly told they'll forget the entire experience when they return to their own world. And they very much do, with the only memory being a dinner party held later. Nobody knows why they're having the party. Nobody seems to have changed, as they're interacting the same way they did when you started the game. At most, they could be said to have a faint recollection of friendship being gained rather than a crew of misfits begrudgingly acting as comrades.

And the life said to be given value by its impact goes on to the sea of consciousness, likely watching as its indirect handiwork is mostly undone.

This is, again, a recurring trope in the Persona series, handled well and poorly at different times. In Persona 2, memories are reset but fully awakened later and the life that departs knows exactly its impact in everything. Persona 3 and its social links are given a happy send off but the reset means only a handful remember your character at all. Persona 4 lets everyone keep their memories but they still get their heroic sacrifice so necessary for these games (don't worry, they live).

But the first Persona is where this philosophy originates. Another life with terminal illness is hugely relevant, must learn the value of their life, and ultimately accepts that their ideal world may be destructive on a cosmic scale. It's a sad ending but really it's not because hey, the life gets cured and goes on to have a successful career! Everything mostly works out for everyone!

So why is it that Persona Q struggles to emulate the original it drew much of its story from? Previous stories have clearly handled this topic far better. The reverence held for some items drawn from the rest of the series isn't overshadowed by the disdain for other parts. The disdain merely makes me wonder why they felt those parts were worth a tribute if they were so poorly misunderstood. Several other themes and ideas could've fit Persona Q's story just as well without dampening the most emotional moment you experience. The first Persona involved a machine with unbelievable power to change reality, and the second's reality was changed by rumors. The writers pulled the cosmic meddling from both but forgot what made the machine in the first so important and why the meddling existed in the second.

As for the life of suffering, I certainly don't believe that the writers' intent was malice. Rather, it feels as though they wrote themselves into a corner. The player's choice of a meaningless response to this philosophy clearly shows they realized their handling may be shaky. This compounds with an ending that feels somewhat rushed and ultimately not fulfilling. While the reveal was certainly a wonderful, emotional experience, the payoff just wasn't there.

We also can't discount the possibility that the writing team didn't consult with or otherwise contain people who have experience in matters regarding chronic pain and terminal illness, considering their examples of an impactful life are abandoned parents and annoyed nurses. You can tell that, by invoking the collective consciousness which has been a staple in the series, they intended for the sendoff to be a life that would eternally remember impacting the party of the game. But that happiness feels hollow given the removal of the party's memories, and still doesn't address the idea that a person's suffering should be considered worthwhile as long as they've made someone else happy.

None of this is to say the game should be avoided. Even with its worst, most awkward failings, the rest of the story and character interactions complement an engaging gameplay experience. I was able to hit over 100 hours on a single playthrough as the Persona 3 protagonist, and rarely felt bored or subjected to tedium. The music continued the series' tradition of perfectly energizing the player while fitting the mood. And the voice acting was some of the best I've ever experienced in a game, let alone one produced for a handheld system.

More than anything, I want you to play and enjoy this game. 

Just keep in mind that a game which treats your own death so fairly doesn't subject its most important message to the same standard.

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