Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth Review
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS
There's nothing like a good old fashioned crossover when it comes to reveling in fan service and exploring otherwise impossible "what if...?" scenarios. Fans of the developer Atlus are well served when it comes to characters making leaps from their respective franchises, with the likes of Catherine's protagonist Vincent Brooks appearing in a couple of Persona games, Persona 5's Joker arriving to steal the show in Smash Bros Ultimate not long ago and of course the entire cast of Persona 3 and 4 joined forces for Persona Q back in 2014. Now, with Persona 5 having stolen the hearts of many, it's time for the Phantom Thieves to lead the way in a sequel inspired by the big screen - Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth.
Firstly, there's good news for anyone tempted by Persona Q2 that perhaps missed the first entry - the plot here is self contained. With Joker and the Phantom Thieves leading the charge from the outset, events of the previous game are left in the past and a fresh story begins with the gang being pulled into a strange, unfamiliar cinema. There, a pair of mysterious characters named Nagi and Hikari are seemingly as trapped as Joker and company are. With a little guidance from these enigmatic strangers, you'll rapidly be getting into the game itself and exploring the world of cinema in an effort to find out who or what trapped you there and what you need to do to escape.
The gameplay of Persona Q2 is both an evolved callback to the original games in the Persona series when it comes to exploration and an offshoot of Persona 5's highly refined battle system when combat kicks off. Each level is a maze you'll be navigating from a first person perspective, wandering the narrow corridors and searching for things to interact with. The bottom screen of the 3DS is used for an interactive map that you'll have to fill out yourself, at least in part. Walls and routes can be mapped automatically if you're inclined to save a little time, but aspects of puzzles such as switches and rotating walls need to be marked manually. It might sound like busy work, but in practice I found it to really helped to keep puzzles and routes through areas clearly in mind at all times because I had to make note myself, rather than just checking pre-made maps over and over again.
As you might expect from a Persona game, random encounters are the core of the combat in Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth. As you explore each area, a small marker in the corner of the top screen gives you a vague warning of how far you are from the next battle - changing from a "you're totally safe" grey to a "brace yourself for battle" red as you take each step. Not every enemy hides in the shadows though, the strongest in each area are known as FOEs and they patrol the very same paths you intend to travel. Their set routes are often used as part of the pathfinding puzzles that litter the game and their combat prowess will have you running away time and again until you're suitably over leveled for the area.
When combat kicks off, those familiar with Persona 5 are going to be in for a surprise as the size of your team and the way they approach the battle has changed. The core concept of picking moves and trading blows is as it ever was, but your team now consists of five party members, as well as a front and back row. Equally, the enemies you face also have a front and back row to their formation, with those in the front being able to get to anyone on the other side of the field with their physical attacks, while those in the back must either equip ranged weapons to face limits on who they can target. Enemies have the usual selection of strengths and weaknesses to avoid and exploit, as do your team, so constantly tweaking and upgrading your crew is vital as you encounter new enemies and their almost perfectly balanced combinations of moves and vulnerabilities.
Unlike the mainline Persona games, in Persona Q2 you'll be able to maintain one main persona for each character while also equipping a sub-persona on top of that. The power of the wildcard has changed in this strange cinema and as party members from the different games gather and protagonists join the team, this new versatility allows for some massively varied setups and invites you to build groups that are suited to specific situations. Much like other games in the series, you'll be acquiring new persona from battles, leveling them to unlock new moves and then fusing them together to create new, more powerful creatures. With so many potential team mates and combinations of techniques, there's all the more reason than ever to spend time trying to find the most perfect synergy and balance of strengths and weaknesses.
Another element of the game that's going to be at once familiar but different is the need to grind a little. Beyond battling for money and experience, you'll also receive items depending on how you won the fight. If you managed to exploit weaknesses, down enemies and provoke an All-Out-Attack to win then you might get that particular enemy's rare item. Back at the cinema lobby, a familiar face from a previous Persona game will trade these rarities for new stock in the shop. It's a mechanic that divided my opinion because on one hand there's a small buzz to be had from new goodies to shop for after each trip to the silver screen, but it also meant that unlocking stronger weapons required some grinding that I might otherwise have avoided.
Between bouts of exploration and battling you'll be enjoying some powerful fan service, as Joker leads his group forward into a twisted world of cinema and crosses paths with the casts of Persona 3 and 4 as well as, for the first time, Persona 3 Portable's female protagonist. It takes a little while to build the team, as you'll only get your first extra team mate toward the end of the first level, but quite rapidly after that you'll have more team mates than you'll know what to do with.
There's so much incidental dialogue to have a chuckle at once the groups have gathered, with the likes of Persona 5's aesthetically inclined Yusuke obsessing over the way P4's Teddy looks, much to his chagrin. It's all quite light and comedic in a way that the mainline games sometimes aren't. It's a chance to have some pure fun with the characters now that they're away from their usual context and I've thoroughly enjoyed the often silly scenarios the writers have come up with, even if I'm not overly familiar with the characters of Persona 3. If anything, this is a perfect chance for players to whet their appetite for a return to Persona 3 or 4 if they missed them on release.
In terms of looks, Persona Q2 hits the highest standards for a top flight 3DS game. Limited by the hardware, the 3D battle graphics are a little jagged, but the artistic style applied is stellar and has clearly been built to make the most of the relatively weak graphical power available. Battle animation is smooth, but mostly quite simple when it comes to the visuals attached to your attacks. The images used for the persona themselves may be familiar to anyone who has played other Atlus games on 3DS such as Shin Megami Tensei 4 or Devil Survivor, but that's no bad thing if you've got your favourites and look forward to getting them on the team.
It's unusual to point to audio as a high point in a handheld game, but the music in Persona Q2 is fantastic. From the introduction sequence to the battles to the overworld - style is practically dripping from the speakers. Free DLC adds music from Persona 3 and 4, while a few pennies more will get you a selection of Persona 5's funky tracks to enjoy as you indulge your passion for the series. Truly, it's a testament to the franchise and the hard work of the team working on it that these tracks never seem to grate or wear out and even enhance moments of gameplay after many, many plays.
There's a ton to do in Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, with optional side quests opening up as you progress, increasingly expansive dungeons to explore, tricky navigation puzzles to work through and a huge library of persona to collect, fuse and level up. While the plot isn't quite the serious social commentary that Persona 5 offered up and hooked so many with, it's a lighthearted alternative that ought to put a smile on fans of the series. In all, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth is a thoroughly enjoyable love letter to the characters that make the games what they are.