Another day, another shot at our new ongoing feature, Outside In, where I take you inside Japanese critical reception to give you a better idea of how Japanese audiences really feel about games beyond the mainstream publications like Famitsu. This is day two of trial run of this feature, meaning that certain aspects are still in flux, but if you missed yesterday’s inaugural edition, I suggest you check it out here to get a detailed idea of what this is all about and what it’s aiming for at a fundamental level. Make sure to read the comments as well if you have questions about my research methodology, my sources, whatever, especially, but not only, the one I stickied, as it addresses a lot of the main pressing concerns I’ve seen thus far, particularly with respect to the reliability of amateur player reviews as sources.
Having said that, as anybody literate in English has likely determined by now, today’s focus is Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth for the 3DS. The structure employed in my analysis will remain largely the same as yesterday’s article, but with some critical additions thanks to lots of awesome feedback from you all. Aesthetically, pie charts for Amazon reviews moving forward will be colored slightly different and have a separate slice for 3 star reviews and headings are now added to each major section to help better locate at a glance areas pertaining to the praises and criticisms being heaped upon each game.
Most importantly, however, reviews from a family of sites known as MK2 have been added to the overall pool being used for research considerations. MK2 is the other main hub outside of Amazon Japan for player reviews of games. That being said, their reviews work a lot differently from Amazon and most other sites, so for what is likely the majority of you who are unfamiliar with it, an explanation is order. Because of the unusual nature of MK2’s review system, this part will be lengthy, so those who are only interested in my textual analysis and commentary are free to jump down to the second screenshot in this post, which is where the proper review breakdown commences.
MK2’s uniqueness is inherent to both the individual user reviews, as well as how all user review scores for a given game are aggregated as a whole, so this explanation will require two parts. First, user reviews aren’t allowed to be posted immediately on the day of a game’s release; a certain amount of time has to pass before review pages are opened up, with the specific amount depending on the genre. Once reviews are allowed to be posted, games are scored according to seven different categories, specifically originality, graphics, sound, immersion (ie: how engrossing a game is), satisfaction, comfort (broadly speaking), and difficulty. Each of these categories can be assigned numerical scores between 0 to 5, with different fields being weighted differently such that the overall score a game receives from a reviewer falls between 0 and 100 points, except for difficulty, which is exempt from the calculation process entirely. (For those curious about the actual math, originality is weighted 2.2 times, graphics and sound are weighted 1.7 times each, immersion is weighted 4.8 times, satisfaction is weighted 6.0 times, and comfort is weighted 3.6 times. The Japanese source for these numbers can be found here.)
From there, users have three fields to fill out, one for good parts of a game, one for bad parts or requests they wish to make, and a final comment field that can be used for any sort of closing thoughts or to provide additional clarification on certain points that influenced the review. Different overall scores also require different amounts of text to be written in some of the fields; highly positive reviews require a more substantial argument to be made in the “good” part of the review, while highly negative reviews obviously necessitate greater justifications to be made in the “bad” part. Reviews also come with a field that estimates how many hours have been played, whether the game was beaten at the time the review was completed, and, naturally, an indicator of how many people recommend said review.
The aggregating part of MK2, then, where the site averages review scores is unique in that both a number and a ranking are assigned to each review. The number is straightforward; obviously it’s the average of every user review put together. The ranking, however, which spans from S, A, B, C, D, E, F, and X, with S being best and X being worst, is an amalgam of a few variables. While the review average that the number denotes is a part of this determination, more importantly, how many reviews a game gets also affects the letter ranking. As such, letter rankings on MK2 therefore predominantly denote how healthy the conversation surrounding a given game is, with S and A rankings only even possible to attain when a game has more than 30 and 20 reviews for it posted, respectively. As such, a game can have a high review average, but if there are too few reviews, it’ll still earn a lower ranking regardless because there isn’t a sufficient amount of chatter to determine a solid consensus yet; it’s therefore not uncommon for otherwise seemingly well regarded games to get an average of 80-plus points, but only have a B ranking or even lower because of a shortage of reviews. For those curious, here’s a breakdown of the ranking thresholds (original Japanese here):
For Games with 30 or More Reviews Posted:
- S: 81+ point average
- A: 75+ point average
- B: 68+ point average
- C: 60+ point average
- D: 48+ point average
- E: 35+ point average
- F: 20+ point average
- X: Less than 20 point average
As alluded to above, non-S rank requirements change slightly if a game has under 30 reviews. Here are those requirements in a nutshell (Japanese version here):
For Games with Less Than 30 Reviews Posted:
- A: 78+ point average (a minimum of 20 reviews is required; otherwise it can only get a lower grade)
- B: 70+ point average (20-29 reviews posted), 72+ average (15-19 reviews posted), 76+ average (10-14 reviews posted) 78+ average (5-9 reviews posted))
- C: 60+ point average (5+ reviews posted)
- D: 48+ point average (5+ reviews posted)
- E: 35+ point average (5+ reviews posted)
- F: 20+ point average (5+ reviews posted)
- X: Less than 20 point average (5+ reviews posted)
In cases where a game has less than 5 reviews posted, the average score is still listed, but no letter ranking is assigned.
That’s more or less all that needs to be known with respect to how MK2 reviews work. Basically, a higher letter ranking is the best indicator of the overall consensus of Japanese users towards a given game because it indicates a better quality ongoing discussion, while the average review score is mostly good for grasping at a glance how people are scoring it regardless of the number of reviews posted. As a side note, the site also mentions that D rankings do not inherently note that a given game is widely considered to be bad, but rather in many cases are simply the result of an insufficient number of reviews being present to potentially balance things out.
With all of that finally out of the way, let’s take a look at how Persona Q has done for itself among Japanese players since its release this past June!
- 5 Stars: 83 reviews
- 4 Stars: 42 reviews
- 3 Stars: 21 reviews
- 2 Stars: 15 reviews
- 1 Star: 15 reviews
MK2 Ranking and Average Review Score (as of August 19, 2014): C Rank, 69/100; 19 reviews total
MK2 Review Breakdown:
- 80-89 points: 3 reviews
- 70-79 points: 6 reviews
- 60-69 points: 4 reviews
- 50-59 points: 2 reviews
- 30-39 points: 4 reviews
As is surely apparent by now, the recent Persona games have attracted a pretty strong following in Japan, due in no small part to the very thorough licensing spree that the third and fourth installments have been subjected to while Atlus continues to quietly develop Persona 5 in the background. In spite of the confused and hostile reception that the game initially garnered when it was first announced last year before Persona 5 was made official, it should be clear overall that both Famitsu and consumers generally agree that Persona Q is a quality product, although how much it resonates with individual players may vary, an issue I’ll cover a little later.
Among the most highly praised aspects of Persona Q, naturally, is in how it brings the casts of Persona 3 and 4 together, with many reviews finding the interactions between characters from different games to be fun and amusing. While Persona 4 Arena was the first game to really have this distinction, this virtue is still appreciated in Persona Q, likely because the interactions between the characters take place within the constraints of a genre much more familiar to the Persona series in general. This naturally only applies to people who have already played the last two numbered Persona games, with opinions of those outside of that demographic being split for reasons that will, again, be covered soon.
Many of the other foundational aspects of the game have also gotten a lot of love, particularly Atlus’ philosophy of rewarding players who make the most of Persona and enemy affinities during combat, as well as the visual and sound design, although the character designs are somewhat hit-or-miss. Etrian Odyssey fans especially largely look pleased that a lot of systems familiar to them in terms of both combat and dungeon crawling have remained intact. Meanwhile, the Boost System, which is new to both Persona and Etrian Odyssey fans alike, has been warmly received. When a character successfully hits an enemy weakness, rather than put the enemy in a downed state as in Persona 3 and 4, the character enters a Boosted state, which lets them use any skill on their next turn for free, including those that would normally cost HP, provided that they don’t get hit. Many reviewers state that the system takes time to get accustomed to and while some don’t strongly like its presence as much as others, it’s generally regarded as at least a solid twist on standard RPG combat.
The major divide in opinions by and large stems from how the game handles certain aspects combat and dungeon crawling. As is likely apparent to many of you by now after the many months of weekly promotional trailers that Atlus was pushing up prior to its release, Persona Q in practice by and large plays much more like an Etrian Odyssey title rather than a Persona one. Indeed, map making is a required activity during dungeon crawling, although some of it can be automated, and the combat doesn’t handle enemy weaknesses like Persona 3 and 4 did. Some aspects of those games do have a presence in Persona Q, particularly the All-Out Attack and follow-up attack systems, but still otherwise operate differently than before.
As a result of this genealogical mishmash, so to speak, reception among fans who are predominantly familiar with only one of the series prior to playing Persona Q is mixed. Some Etrian Odyssey-only fans, for instance, but distinctly not all of them, aren’t especially keen on the game’s narrative elements due to the game providing a lack of justification for them to be attached to the preexisting cast, while some Persona fans find the transition to Etrian Odyssey-style dungeon crawling and mapmaking to be jarring, even with the optional assist features that the game includes. There are even some existing Persona fans who agree that the game’s storyline isn’t up to par, arguing that the dialog isn’t as good as they’ve come to expect and that some otherwise likable characters in previous games come off as grating. In a well-liked review by MK2, user 429 expresses confusion over why the game deserves the Persona series labeling when it doesn’t have the series’ standard narrative trappings such as the presence of a school life and examination of life in the real world versus another world. Bearing all of this in mind, it can be difficult to ascertain who is most likely as a single series fan going into Persona Q to enjoy it the most, but it appears that the rebalancing of the prominence of certain cherished aspects from both series has left some razzled after initially feeling the game would still be recognizable to them on their own terms.
Debatable points aside, there are nevertheless a handful of criticisms that are routinely brought up in reviews, even in highly positive ones, with Persona Q’s sense of balance most often being called into question. Chief among the balance-related complaints are ones pertaining to the game’s puzzle and dungeon designs, with many contending that the game can make it overwhelming to deal with it times during exploration segments. In the most popular critical review highlighted by Amazon Japan, user Rakishisu states that the problem lies in the overall game flow. With Persona Q inheriting Etrian Odyssey’s knack for high enemy encounters, Rakishisu argues that it can be hard as a player to retain necessary information in the back of your mind as you keep having your attention shift to fighting.
This is especially problematic in the game’s latter half, where the game’s dungeons are said to employ especially devious gimmicks that rely on memory retention to surpass. Rakishisu doesn’t go into specifics to avoid spoilers, so it’s difficult to know whether it’s a problem that could be resolved easily with the 3DS’ built-in memo functionality, but it’s a sentiment that’s echoed in other reviews, including more positive ones, indicating that the problem might be more fundamental to the raw game design itself. Many other reviewers also echo similar sentiments about disliking the latter half of Persona Q, contending that the nature of the combat and the dungeon layouts make going through the motions an increasingly tedious process.
A handful of users also call out the game’s light and dark spells, which are once again one-hit KOs, as being surprising strong against enemies, as well as the high cost of even cheap spells, although the prominence of such things may very well depend on the difficulty level. A number of reviewers on MK2 specifically go out of their way to point out that the affinity system towards each type of attack for both Personas and enemies has been simplified such that attacks can no longer be reflected or absorbed, amplifying the previously-mentioned balance issues with light and dark spells in that there’s no longer any risk to having them backfire and potentially knock you out when utilizing them against enemies.
In spite of those issues, Persona Q is a pretty well-liked game out in Japan from the look of things, even if it may not be universally considered a high point in either the Persona series or the Etrian Odyssey series from which it derives much mechanical inspiration. Despite the gameplay ostensibly hewing much more heavily to Etrian Odyssey’s traditions, the story and characterizations to a lot of people make the narrative half of Persona Q a recognizably Persona game. Some users do contend that as a result, existing Persona fans are the ones who are likely to enjoy the game the most rather than Etrian Odyssey fans in spite of the gameplay differences, but if the ratings are any indication, the underlying mechanics are still seemingly solid enough to transcend the potential limitations of such a foundation.
Although users on Amazon Japan on average like Persona Q to a higher degree, it’s again worth emphasizing that the letter ranking and average it has on MK2 do not denote that users there by and large dislike the game. As my statistics note up above, reviews are predominantly positive, with individual categories generally getting decent marks. The lower ranking is mostly indicative of relatively few reviews being available on the site, especially in comparison to Amazon Japan, and the lower average score is the result of the site routinely attracting a more critical audience all around. As the site’s staff notes on its own FAQ page, unlike more popular places, MK2 isn’t the sort of place where people can expect to simply find fan cheering for their favorite games wherever they go. All games, no matter what they are, go through a trial by fire, meaning even the nicest reviews are often not without spotlights on their subjective weaknesses. Such is no different with Persona Q. It’s nothing personal in the end.
That was a lot of information to sift through, but pending any other potential pieces of feedback, things should get less dense moving forward, especially now that the explanation of MK2’s review system is out of the way. As always, I look forward to any and all feedback you have, although I would once again suggest reading yesterday’s post, comments section and all, to see whether your concerns have already been addressed before doing so here. The trial run for this feature is set to continue all week, so come back tomorrow for my analysis of Yokai Watch 2 reviews!