Atlus’ Megami Tensei series has been an RPG institution for over two decades, but to Western audiences it’s perhaps best known in connection with a numbered pair of revolutionary PlayStation 2 titles: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. Starring modern Japanese high school students and integrating elements of dungeon-crawling and dating sims, lore rooted in mythology, tarot, and Jungian psychology, and an absolutely irrepressible sense of style, Persona 3 and Persona 4 are some of the most important and beloved JRPGs in the gaming canon. While 3DS owners have been treated to series stablemates Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and Shin Megami Tensei IV, the Persona games proper have remained a purely PlayStation property — until now.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, the first in the series to land on Nintendo hardware, is a crossover title that combines the lovable characters and brilliant style of Persona 3 and 4 with the first-person dungeon-crawling and map-drawing gameplay of Etrian Odyssey. It’s a nearly perfect mashup and first-rate fan-service, but it’s more than just that — this is one of the very best RPGs on the 3DS.

After watching a stylish intro video and choosing to play as either Persona 3 or Persona 4’s protagonist, you’ll spiral head first into Persona Q’s story. It’s School Festival time at Yasogami High, but something’s not quite right — a mysterious clock tower’s appeared from out of nowhere, as have two mysterious amnesia-addled students named Zen and Rei. Shadows roam the halls, the festival stations have been turned into surreal, otherworldly labyrinths, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of the school. Naturally, the Investigation Team (or S.E.E.S., depending on your choice of protagonist) is on the case, and together with your team you’ll set out to explore the labyrinths and solve the mystery. It’s a wild, enjoyable ride, and while it’s not on the same level as Persona 3’s supernatural allegory or Persona 4’s small-town murder mystery, it’s definitely enough to keep you hooked.

A large part of that comes down to the wonderful characters; along with the stellar casts of Persona 3 and 4, newcomers Zen and Rei fit right in — Rei’s propensity for mishearing everything as a food reference is especially endearing — and the hero you choose not to play as initially will show up as another, newly vocal party member before too long. Watching the two Velvet Room guests and all their friends interact is a real pleasure, and the writing — while not quite up to the lofty standards of previous mainline Persona games — is very well done.

It’s worth noting that even though Persona Q briefly introduces each character, it’s really assuming you’ve met them all before; much of the fun in the dialogue comes from the ’reunion’ feel, and while it’s easy enough to catch up on the basics, you’ll get significantly more out of the script if you’ve already spent untold hours wandering Tatsumi Port Island and Inaba. Likewise, if you haven’t played Persona 3 or 4 but plan to, know that there are plenty of smaller spoilers for both games here.

While its focus on story and characters comes straight from the Persona mold, Persona Q takes its basic gameplay template (and engine) from Etrian Odyssey IV. After assembling and outfitting your teenage team — choosing four partners at a time from among the combined Persona 3 and Persona 4 cast — you’ll head into the multi-floor labyrinths for some first-person dungeon crawling, battling foes, gathering loot, and manually charting your way by making a map on the touchscreen as you go.

Exploration is methodical and incremental, but always exciting. It encourages an addictive gameplay loop where you’ll push your team to explore as much as you can, before retreating to the school to heal with Elizabeth, sell found materials and upgrade your gear with Theo, power up your Personas with Margaret, and then head back in again to forge further ahead. It feels like a natural fit, and the two halves complement each other perfectly; the strong narrative and charming characters add a ton of personality that make the exploration more fun, while the Etrian-intricate dungeon designs are far more interesting than the randomly-generated hallways of Persona 3 and 4.

The fact that you’re creating your own map as you go makes a huge difference, of course — even if you don’t consider yourself much of a geography buff, it’s an incredibly engaging element of the game. At the outset of each labyrinth, the touchscreen is outfitted with nothing but a blank sheet of virtual graph paper, and it’s up to you to chart the walls, doors paths, and perils of the maze as you go. The vast, open-sky labyrinths begin to take on a life of their own as you jot down their layout and secrets, and fully mapping a floor is immensely satisfying. There are plenty of colours and symbols available to personalize your floor plan too, and lots of room for creativity — you might even find yourself developing your own cartographic style as you play.

And while you can be as elaborate or simple as you like, the mapping isn’t just for show; these labyrinths are littered with shortcuts, traps, and secrets - not to mention enemies - and you’ll be relying on your homemade map to get you home safely. Of course, if that’s too much pressure, you can always turn on the accommodating Auto-Map option, which will take care of almost everything for you — a nice option for players who would rather spend more time with then sword than the pen.

As you make your way through the mazes, you’ll encounter plenty of Persona’s signature Shadows to fight, but these enemy encounters are only semi-random; a colour-coded gauge in the bottom right of the screen lets you know how close you are to being jumped by your Jungian foes. Thanks to the game’s Etrian Odyssey influence you’ll also spot capital FOEs as you wander the labyrinths. FOEs — or Fysis Oikein Eidolons, to give the semi-Greek in-game backronym — are enormous enemies visible on the map that move or act in (usually) predictable ways in step with your own movement. They’re also ludicrously, stupendously overpowered, to the point where engaging with one most often spells certain doom for the entire party within a turn or two. When you first encounter them, they essentially act as map-based puzzles — moving targets to be avoided on pain of death — but you’ll eventually be able to return to previously explored areas, after lots of leveling up, and take down the FOEs which once blocked off passageways and secrets, earning huge rewards in the process.

Whether you’re fighting foe or FOE, once you launch into battle you’ll be treated to a unique turn-based combat system that combines signature aspects of both Persona and Etrian Odyssey into a single, satisfying mix. Your characters have access to the HP-consuming physical attacks, SP-consuming magic attacks, buffs, debuffs, and instant kill skills from Persona, as well as the link skills (follow up attacks which activate each time another party members hits the target), pierce attacks (which strike across multiple rows of enemies), defensive skills (to draw fire away from teammates, for example), binds, and auto-counters from Etrian Odyssey. Persona’s status effects, three types of physical damage, and six-part system of elemental strengths and weaknesses come into play as well, while Etrian Odyssey contributes the multiple rows, positioning effects, and multi- and cross-turn skills that require advance planning and careful reading of your enemies. The combination makes even standard battles immensely fun and engaging — especially when you factor in the joy of exploiting Persona Q’s Boost system.

Similar to the 1 More Attack in both Persona 3 and 4 or the Press Turn concept in Shin Megami Tensei IV, the Boost system rewards players for taking advantage of enemy weaknesses. If a character hits an elemental weak spot or scores a critical hit, they’ll be ‘Boosted’, and their next attack on the following turn will cost 0 HP or 0 SP. There’s a catch, however: if a Boosted character is attacked before their next action, they’ll loose the Boost. Since powerful skills often consume significant chunks of your health or SP gauge, Boosts provide a huge advantage, and they’re hugely fun to go after as well — planning your attacks around enemy weaknesses feels great, and there are plenty of strategies to help you get the most of the boost, like drawing fire away from Boosted characters or manipulating the turn order in their favour.

Switching the turn order, as it turns out, is just one of the many helpful services that can performed by the two support characters in Persona Q. Fuuka and Rise both reprise their roles as off-site psychic mission control, but this time they’re working together — one will help you keep track of enemy weaknesses in battle, and the other will guide you through the labyrinth. Depending on who you pick for which task, you’ll have access to a different set of helpful skills in each setting. In battle, for instance, Rise can move a character to the front of the turn queue or reduce skill costs for a turn, while Fuuka can heal your team and cure any ailments. The battle skills can’t be used for free, of course, but they’re not tied to SP as you might expect; instead you’ll fill up a Leader Skill gauge as you attack, and can store up to five levels for later use.

Finally, by either racking up Boosts or knocking down enemies, you’ll also be able to trigger two stylish finishing moves: All-Out Attacks and Follow-Up Attacks. All-Out Attacks have your whole party rushing the enemy, engulfing them in a cloud of smoke and comic book-style visual onomatopoeia before dishing out massive damage, while Follow-Ups let one teammate take the lead with an extra — and extra-devastating — attack.

You’ll want to take advantage of these as often as you can, too, because Persona Q puts up quite a fight. Etrian Odyssey titles are known for their difficulty, and Persona games aren’t exactly pushovers either, so it certainly comes by it honestly — but thankfully four selectable difficulty levels let players pick their challenge level. In addition to the default ‘Normal’ mode, there’s an ‘Easy’ mode with reduced challenge, a ‘Safety’ mode where you can redo any battle after falling, a ramped up ‘Hard’ mode, and an insane ‘Risky’ mode, where a KO for the protagonist spells Game Over for everyone. Battles are tense and involved even on ‘Easy’, so you won’t miss out on any of the fun by dialling it down a bit, and you can switch between difficulties (apart from ‘Risky’, that is) anytime you’re outside of a labyrinth.

Just like in the mainline Persona games, characters’ attacks and skills come from their Persona — the embodiment of their ‘other self’. Personas range from mythical figures (Cú Chulainn), gods (Parvati), and demons (Lilith), to sprites (Pixie), spirits (Mokoi) and beasts (Chimera), all filtered through the series’ unique visual style, and the massive, globe-spanning collection in Persona Q is as appealing as it is varied. Each character has a pre-set Persona — including the protagonist, who can no longer switch between them at will — but in a new twist for the series, you’re also able to assign ‘Sub-Personas’ to everyone on the team.

These secondary Personas are picked up by acquiring dropped Persona Cards from battle, and each one comes with its own skills, as well as several more that become available as they level up through use. Sub-Personas are a great way to customize each character to your play style, and they’re also helpful in that they essentially make it feasible to use your favourite characters in every situation. A party made up of fire-casters Yukiko, Junpei, and Koromaru would normally be drowning in Agi attacks, for instance, and wouldn’t put up much of a fight against ice-weak enemies; yet with the right Sub-Personas, you can have all three of them casting Bufudyne ice-blasts on every turn. Rise and Fukka can take on Sub-Personas as well, and many Personas grant support-specific skills when paired with one of these two.

As is tradition, you can also fuse your Sub-Personas into new, more powerful forms in the Velvet Room. An easy-to-use, Persona 4-style Fusion Search will show you your options based on the Persona Cards in your hand, and you can buy back previously held Personas from the Compendium whenever you like. Fused Personas can inherit skills from their component Cards as well, and between their appealing designs and customizable skill sets it’s remarkably easy to lose an hour or two to crafting the perfect Persona. If you end up crafting one you’re especially fond of, StreetPass integration that lets you swap profile cards and an attached Persona with fellow players. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a good opportunity to show off your favourite Persona — or grab a gloriously overpowered one from a higher-level passerby.

The battles and fusion are both good fun, but if the Persona series has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t fight without friends. While the Social Links of Persona 3 and 4 are nowhere to be found, Persona Q doesn’t skimp on character development. Instead of ranking up your relationships through Social Links, you’ll instead get to peek in on your teammates (and chosen protagonist) hanging out in-between missions with the new Stroll feature. As you work your way through the labyrinths, new scenes will open up in the Stroll menu, and you can choose to view these semi-interactive vignettes whenever, and in whatever order, you like. They’re mostly slice-of-life side-stories, and they’re lots of fun, with well-written dialogue and lots of callbacks to previous Persona games. The lovable characters are a huge part of Persona Q’s appeal, and their personalities come across wonderfully here.

Another, perhaps unexpected, place where the characters really shine is in the Quest system. You can pick up side quests throughout your journey — by visiting Elizabeth in the Nurse’s Office, stumbling across key items and areas in the labyrinth, or talking to your teammates — and completing quests will earn you valuable items and experience. Rather than simple fetch-quests, however, Persona Q’s quests are unique, outside-the-box experiences that are compelling in and of themselves, combining fun gameplay setups with an extra helping of character development. Early examples include helping Naoto solve a(n apparent) crime with Layton-style deduction and dialogue choices, using Aigis’ sensors to search for arrows stuck in the labyrinth walls, or helping Teddie sniff out a love potion, to name a few. Even when the quests are based around more mundane tasks like ‘kill this many enemies’, there’s always a twist; early on, for instance, Elizabeth will ask for a snakeskin, which ostensibly means you’ll need to hunt down a Lustful Snake — but you’ll only be able to acquire the skin by besting it while it’s under an Agility Bind. Thoughtfully designed quests are one of Persona Q’s best features, and turn what often amounts to throwaway grinding elsewhere in the genre into something genuinely exciting.

Between the exploration, combat, quests, and characters, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth is a blast to play — happily, it’s also a real pleasure to look at. Stylistically, it’s beautiful; the chibi character models make the most of the 3DS’ resolution, with bold, solid colours that give them an almost hand-drawn look, and the fully 3D backgrounds — in both the labyrinths and school facilities — are detailed and inviting, with subtle animation and a soft focus that adds to the dreamlike quality of the surrealist school setting. In fact, these backgrounds go a long way towards making the menu-based school feel truly alive; instead of staring at a static backdrop while you’re moving through the menus — as in Etrian Odyssey IV — you’ll get to see Yukari, Yukiko, and Mitsuru petting a happily panting Koromaru in the hall, Teddie pretending to be an octopus as Yoskue looks on, or Junpei excitedly miming a woman’s figure to a nodding Akihiko on the stairs.

The battle visuals are also considerably more dynamic than their Etrian Odyssey counterparts; though they’re still fought from a mostly first-person view, your characters jump in front of the screen as they attack, All-Out Attacks and Follow-Up Attacks trigger more action-oriented camera angles, and hits on enemy weaknesses are accompanied by elaborate cut-ins of all-new Persona portraits. The stereoscopic 3D effect is a nicely done as well, and adds an appreciable sense of depth to the labyrinths, though it can be tricky to nail down a good spot on the slider. It’s a definite improvement over the hyper-fidgety layer-hopping in Etrian Odyssey IV, but we still had trouble finding a setting that didn’t result in at least some of the on-screen text looking fuzzier than it should.

Cutscenes range from fully animated story sequences to Bravely Default-style scenes with 3D character models, and both look great. The later pop up fairly frequently while combing the labyrinths, and they’re lots of fun — combined with the fact that teammates will sometimes pass in front of you as you go through doors or open treasure chests for you, they help make exploration feel like a true team effort rather than a solitary slog.

Aside from the somewhat finicky 3D effect, our only complaint with Persona Q’s presentation comes from a small but significant annoyance: a six-character limit on naming your protagonists. The names of both Persona 3 and Persona 4’s heroes are up to you, but you’re only given six characters to work with for both the first and last names of each. As in most Megami Tensei games, the Persona main characters are meant to be blank slates — avatars for players to project themselves into — and we imagine many named their Persona 3 and Persona 4 protagonists after themselves accordingly. If either your first or last name is longer than six letters, however, you’re out of luck here, and the discrepancy is disappointing. Having to choose between being called “Sleepr-san” and “Sleper-san”, for example, works against the otherwise immersive experience, and it’s a problem even if you tend to go with stock or ‘canon’ names — good luck squishing “Narukami” into six characters.

With an upcoming rhythm-game spin-off and a series of several successful live concerts in Japan, the Persona series has a reputation for delivering standout soundtracks, and Persona Q doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with excellent remixes of favourites from Persona 3 and 4 — including an infectious, downtempo reimagining of ‘When the Moon’s Reaching Out Stars’ — but there’s also plenty of new music in Shoji Meguro’s signature style. The battle theme (which comes in two flavours, depending on your chosen protagonist), for example, is an impossibly catchy track that artfully combines audio influences from both Persona 3 and Persona 4, opening with a steady blast of J-hip hop before launching into an anthemic, female-fronted J-Rock chorus. The background music in the labyrinths, meanwhile, takes its cues from Etrian Odyssey, with atmospheric, orchestrated loops lending the exploration an eerie, ethereal feel.

As we’ve come to expect from Atlus, the extensive voice acting is expressive and natural throughout, and adds considerably to the game. Almost every character is voiced by the same actor or actress as in either Persona 3 Portable or Persona 4: The Golden, with just a few exceptions; though the newcomers have a high bar to live up to, they do a very good job. Even the sound effects play on audio nostalgia to great effect; if you’ve spent hundreds of hours in Persona 3 or 4, the chirpy ‘confirm’ sound will instantly bring back many happy memories, and the ‘tink-tink-tink’ of Theo’s hammer as he crafts new gear will put a smile on the face of any Etrian Odyssey fan.

Conclusion

Persona Q has something for everyone. If you’re a Persona fan, you’ll get a huge kick out of seeing your old Gekkoukan and Yasogami classmates in an all-new adventure, and Etrian Odyssey fans open to a change will love it — this is the story-driven experiment of Etrian Odyssey Untold taken to the next level, with a stylistic overhaul to match. And if you haven’t played either of its inspirations, you’re still in luck — this isn’t just a great crossover, it’s a fantastically fun RPG in its own right, with colourful characters, engaging gameplay, and a whole heap of style. Persona fans will undoubtedly get the most out of the fan-service, but even if you can’t tell Junpei from Junes, you’ll still have a blast exploring Persona Q.