Persona Q’s second outing feels considerably weaker than its first.
Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth is an interesting game to talk about, because in addition to all the numerous considerations the first game threw at you, Q2 has a few quirks of its own that add more factors into the mix. The pitch is reasonably simple- take the dungeon crawling and map making gameplay of Etrian Odyssey, and mix it with the strong stories and character moments and imagery of Persona. But there’s a lot more to these games than that, and they end up being quite unusual, even for fans of both, Etrian Odyssey and Persona.
Given that Persona is the far more popular series, and that Persona Q2 is technically a Persona game, let’s approach it from that angle. Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth is a first person dungeon crawler. You go deep into massive, labyrinthine dungeons, which are unlike anything you find in the mainline Persona games. These dungeons can be vicious, and the smallest thing can mean the difference between failure and success- your party composition, your squad formation, how many items you are carrying, your meticulousness with the mapping of the dungeon.
Let’s talk about that mapping first, since it’s the primary difference Persona Q2 has with the other games in the series (except, of course, the first Persona Q). Rather than the map automatically populating itself and filling itself out as you go along, Persona Q2 tasks you with mapping the dungeon as you explore it, from its paths and walls, to obstacles, or treasure, or safe spots, and more. Your map is your best friend as you venture deep into the game’s dungeons (which are presented with the movie motif in this game), so how well you maintain it can be all-important.
This can sound tiresome and tedious, and at first, it can be. However, there is a rhythm to map-making, not to mention the satisfaction of completely plotting out every area you venture into, that becomes considerably addictive over time; if, however, the cartographic requirements of the game fail to grab you, then there is an option for you to enable what is essentially an auto-mapping function (though you still have to fill in some details yourself).
"The pitch is reasonably simple- take the dungeon crawling and map making gameplay of Etrian Odyssey, and mix it with the strong stories and character moments and imagery of Persona. But there’s a lot more to these games than that, and they end up being quite unusual, even for fans of both, Etrian Odyssey and Persona."
Other differences- your parties are now comprised of five characters, not four. This may seem like a lot, but you have the complete playable casts of Persona 3, Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4, and Persona 5 to draw from, so it’s really not. Even though there is a lot of overlap between characters – for instance, Kanji, Akihiko, and Ryuji all fill similar niches – it can still be hard trying to settle on a squad you want to take into a dungeon with you. This choice becomes especially more nuanced because each character can equip a secondary Persona, which can greatly influence what moves and skills they have access to. Just selecting your characters is never the end of it, because a character can at times fill two very different niches based on the secondary Persona they have equipped.
Just selecting your team isn’t enough, though, because where you place them in your lineup also matters. So, for instance, a character that is put on the frontlines can attack anyone in the enemy lineup, but they will also bear the brunt of the damage. Characters in the back are better shielded against damage, but they are also limited in terms of who they can attack. You need to be familiar with your character’s build, how well they deal damage, as well as how much they can take abuse, before you decide where to place them. Just wantonly and randomly slotting them in wherever is a recipe for disaster.
This leads to an element of RPG party management Persona otherwise lacks. It’s immensely fun and satisfying to build out each character, and then to create a squad with them. Squad building itself becomes an art form, and those who truly come to grips with the game’s many systems will find themselves well prepared for most things it throws their way.
That said, Persona Q2 does make it hard to experiment much. Inactive party members get no EXP, and grinding in this game can be difficult. This makes you want to stick with your favorites- because the penalty for experimenting is being subjected to more battles.
"Battles can be hard. They feel a bit unfairly adjusted, because it seems like anything other than weakness exploitation will simply result in these fights dragging on for what seems to be an interminable amount of time."
Let’s talk about the actual battle system- unlike in the mainline games, exploiting a weakness doesn’t give you a second turn, it just puts you in a powered up state for your next turn. Getting all your characters boosted like this enables an “All Out Attack”, those memorable pile ons that have become signature to the Persona series by now.
These battles can be hard. They feel a bit unfairly adjusted, because it seems like anything other than weakness exploitation will simply result in these fights dragging on for what seems to be an interminable amount of time. Matters are made worse by the fact that, much like Etrian Odyssey, Persona Q2 also places an emphasis on your inventory management. You can only take so many healing items with you into a dungeon, so you have to be on top of your game with when and how you use them, or you could find yourself in deep trouble, with no items to bail you out.
The good thing is, there are easy difficulty options (including one that functionally does not let you die), so if the battles get gratingly difficult, or just plain annoying – and trust me, that will happen – you can knock the difficulty down and proceed with the game.
That tedium is frequently an issue with Persona Q2, unfortunately. The battles are difficult, as mentioned, but the dungeons also often can feel poorly designed, which is a shock to me. The original Persona Q has some of the best dungeons in the series, and Persona Q2 has, much like the original game, the developers of Etrian Odyssey collaborating and working on it. These folks know how to design great dungeons- which makes the banality and unnecessary obtuseness of some labyrinths in Q2 that much more frustrating.
In the end, you are playing Persona Q2 not for the gameplay, then, which frequently seems to undermine itself, but rather for a chance to spend some more time with your favorite Persona characters. Getting Yukari, Chie, and Makoto in the same game is absolutely wonderful, as an example- and sure enough, we get some amazing character moments between all the two dozen plus characters in the game, which can be great fun.
"Getting Yukari, Chie, and Makoto in the same game is absolutely wonderful, as an example- and sure enough, we get some amazing character moments between all the two dozen plus characters in the game, which can be great fun."
To be clear, neither the story nor the characterization here is anything on par with the mainline games. The story itself is a distinct step down from the surprisingly poignant Persona Q, and definitely not even on the same level as Persona 3, 4, or 5. It starts out well enough, with a routine Phantom Thief job gone wrong, and the characters then finding themselves confronted with one of their earlier foes, but gradually begins to unravel and lose much of its coherence. The inclusion of Persona 3 and 4 characters feel less earned here than the crossover in Persona Q did, and while the story still tries to examine some heady themes, it doesn’t have the nuance to do them much justice.
The characterization, too, suffers from flanderization, with each character being reduced to a single personality trait or two. In spite of that, however, the writing is just strong enough to compensate for these weaknesses- and the novelty of Yosuke, Ken, and Haru all interacting can win over even the most cynical fans.
I do have a very strong objection here too, however, and that is the complete and utter lack of an English dub. This is a game that is pure fan service, and fans in the west largely know and love these characters for their dubbed voices (the Japanese dub for Persona 3 and 4 was never even made available here). The lack of an English dub in Persona Q2, then, puts a distinct dampener on things. I don’t mind a Japanese dub being present, and am glad for the fans who prefer things that way- but not having an English dub at all creates an initial level of dissonance with these characters that is hard for me to overcome. The Makoto on screen doesn’t sound anything like the Makoto I know, so it’s hard for me to care as much about her. To be fair, and to the best of my judgement, the Japanese voice acting is great, and I do greatly enjoy it. But I absolutely would have preferred an English dub, even if I do recognize the economic realities that precluded that from happening.
The one area where I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever is the game’s presentation. It looks absolutely gorgeous, with an extremely stylish UI, and a chibi art style that it pulls off far better than it has any right to.
But more than anything else, I love and adore the soundtrack. Whether it’s the new tracks (the Persona 5 side battle theme, Invitation to Freedom, is probably among my all time series favorites now), or the remixes of older tunes (A Corner of Memories from Persona 4 gets a stirringly evocative rendition in this game), the soundtrack is top notch, and utterly perfect, and is almost reason enough to buy the game.
For those who need more convincing, do remember there are a lot of caveats- cute character interactions, but no English dub, and often trivialized character development. A whole bunch of deep RPG systems, but poor balancing that makes the whole game tedious, more than anything else. Wonderful presentation, but the game itself is stuck on a 3DS. It’s a game of contradictions, and it feels like far more of a miss than any other Persona RPG has in over a decade. But it’s fulfilling for fans in spite of all of its flaws, and in the end, I think that they are the ones who will care for it more than anyone else.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.
Some very deep and fulfilling game mechanics; gorgeous graphics, fantastic soundtrack; amazing UI; fun and cute character moments and heapings upon heapings of fan service.
Poorly adjusted difficulty; banality and triteness in dungeon designs; the game can feel like a chore to play; there is no English dub; the writing is not as strong as the main games, leading to flanderized characters and a story that doesn't fully hit the mark.
Persona Q2 is very satisfying fan service, but the whole experience comes with a fair few significant caveats that anyone buying in would do well to be mindful of.