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Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth


Review by Clark A.

Atlus has been expanding the world of Persona in recent years with the likes of dancing and fighting game offshoots. It’s inspiring how well these spin-offs fare, translating the core appeal of revered narrative masterpieces like Persona 4 into contexts far removed from JRPG action. Of all these experiments, though, 2014’s Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth was probably the closest to the original framework.

Related Reading: Our review of this game's predecessor

Shadow of the Labyrinth gave adored characters like Aigis and Kujikawa Rise cutesy new chibi character designs and drew more than a few of its gameplay ideas from Etrian Odyssey. Charming crossover interactions between the cast of Persona 3 and 4 carried the game, but it had plenty to offer besides. This humble little dungeon crawler went on to net our 3DS Game of the Year award when it released. That Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth can be considered in the same ballpark is a testament to how much Atlus respects its characters.

Q2 trades the school festival hub of the original Persona Q for a fun-filled night at the movies. Well, “fun” in the sense that Persona 5’s rebellious gang, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, have wound up locked inside the theater and a couple of their members have been kidnapped. The leader of the group, Senoue Jun (yes, he’s named by the player), touches the screen to discover a living, maze-like world within. The Phantom Thieves head off to save their pals. Along the way, they’ll befriend wayward souls from Persona 3 and 4 whilst solving the mystery of these labyrinth worlds.
From the jump, it bears mentioning that Q2 is a little more accessible than its predecessor. I don’t mean this in the sense that it requires less knowledge of Persona (it wants more if anything). Rather, the story is paced to gradually introduce the cast of three separate titles.


Juggling around 30 playable characters from three games was never going to be an easy task, certainly not in a dungeon crawler that draws from preexisting characters with captivating personalities. Much of the game’s dialogue can be boiled down to comedy antics and self-aware parody. It also bears mentioning that you can’t simply pick your favourite protagonists from the start. You’ll have to assemble your dream team over the course of several dungeons as you encounter them in the story, starting with the Persona 5 gang. Considering Persona 5 didn’t exist when Q was released, making them the “core” group was the right call and freshens things up.

Although the crossover shenanigans will take some time to truly gain momentum, it’s worth the wait. The character dialogue here is on point right out of the gate. Barely half an hour into the game, the Persona 5 cast’s surface traits are blooming. You’ve got Sakura Futaba acting shy upon meeting strangers and making situational observations that reflect her otaku hobbies and shut-in nature. Morgana’s off committing literal cat burglary and siding with Takamaki Ann whilst bickering with Sakamoto Ryuji. Kitagawa Yusuke is being asked to paint pictures of his missing friends and makes an offhand comment about lacking money for popcorn and souvenirs (referencing his financial struggles as an artist). The characters feel alive and they’re written with love.

To me, that care is what makes Persona Q as a crossover concept so precious. Many video game scripts struggle to be as poignant as books, even with more words. It’s a lofty goal when trying to integrate gameplay mechanics and account for the cutthroat business aspects of the industry. Honest attempts at depth occasionally devolve into circular, unfocused conversations where a novelist’s punchy paragraph would have sufficed. Q2 has the right idea by taking a different approach from the original and introducing its cast in a drip feed. It just couldn’t make a story substantial enough to facilitate so many three-dimensional characters without fluffing up the mundane. Because only so many characters can act and react within the confines of a simple plot base, progression has to pause and indulge the likes of exposition and tutorials.


I’m pointing this out not to lambast Q2 for lacking the expansive, intricate plot developments of Persona 4. I want to applaud the team for doing a better job than was probably needed. The writers just needed to give the characters context and facilitate most of the philosophical discussion through the themed dungeons that are more challenging to digest. Here, the characters are thrust into little scenarios that allow all their quirks and idiosyncrasies to shine. At the game’s peak, it magically handles half a dozen characters from different games conversing without it feeling rote. Their lines reflect who they are at their core and the events that transpired throughout their respective games.

There’s a sense of discovery and actual discussion conveyed in inter-series conversations. It all resonates like few crossover games have ever achieved. This is especially great since the new Q2-specific characters don’t gobble up as much screentime as their Q1 equivalents. I’ll gladly put up with a little meandering and on the nose writing for a story that pumps out the purest fanservice you could dream of throughout its running length.

By “fanservice” I’m not even talking bikinis. Crossovers tend to choke up on inter-character dialogue, exaggerating clichés and tweaking characters into whatever role suits situation at hand. In other instances writers will focus on a story fans never signed up for and forgo golden opportunities at character interaction (see Jump Force's struggles). It’s inherently risky to take characters from different settings with their own internal logic then try to maintain continuity and intrigue. Q2 sets a standard that modern games will be hard-pressed to meet. Whether you're inside a dungeon or out, it gives all these characters moments to just chew the fat convincingly. I won’t deny occasional road bumps or claim the underlying narrative surpasses Persona proper. I’ll just tell you what you already knew: if you liked the folks from Persona 3, 4, and 5, you need Q2 in your life.



Where exploring the theater is concerned, Persona Q2 plays out much the same as the original (and, by extension, the aforementioned Etrian Odyssey games). Crawling through a handful of lengthy first-person dungeons wasn’t the core ingredient that made the previous game so enticing but it certainly didn’t hurt. You’re still methodically mapping out dungeons on the 3DS’ touch screen as you go, though there are some automated options if you want a faster and less personal experience. The chests strewn about act as rewards for completely exploring a dungeon, but you can open them with a couple dozen Play Coins. Other rewards can be scavenged repeatedly but you run the risk of bumping into monsters so there’s a tradeoff if you’re deep into a dungeon. A handy radar tells you roughly when enemy encounters will occur. While most fights are random encounters, giant FOEs (yes, that’s what they’re called) introduce tension by threatening to bump into you while you’re preoccupied. Careful expedition is the key to success here.

For better and worse, the dungeons in Q2 are not as puzzle-centric as the original game. The loss of leading gimmicks makes dungeons far less frustrating than, say, the Inaba Pride Exhibit from Shadow of the Labyrinth. There are still switches to be pressed and context-sensitive quandaries to contend with, but their scope is reigned in.

The tradeoff is that if you get stuck it’s going to be because you’re not fighting carefully. There are several difficulties running the gamut from Safety to Risky. Regardless of the challenge level you like, though, blindly mashing the attack button and hoping to survive won’t bring home the bacon. Even taking bosses out of the equation, random encounters can give you trouble if you don’t treat them as worthy of your brainpower. Aside from the requisite level grinding you’ll need to factor in the elemental weaknesses of enemies, when to bust out status conditions, which row to put your teammates in, and what Personas to bring to combat. You want your characters to enter a boosted state as much as possible so that you don’t need to expend points to use fancy attacks. The early game is spent frequently retreating from dungeons to regroup your party until you develop sufficient confidence and exploit the underlying mechanics. 


Conventional as it is, the mechanical conveniences and minor aspects that speak to the core of Persona make it oh so compelling. Party members besides Senoue can enlist the aid of a sub-Persona for greater team diversity and utility. Then there’s the requisite Persona fusion and evolution systems. If inventive dungeon exploration is the sole factor drawing you to Q2, you might be served better by Etrian Odyssey.



What truly makes these dungeons definitively Persona is the underlying themes. Riffing on the likes of Superman and Jurassic Park, New Cinema Labyrinth makes full use of its movie theater setting. Within the surface level silliness is genuine commentary the main games deliver in spades. My gut reaction to the first movie, Kamoshidaman, was a mix of laughter and disgust. Seeing a gossipy, lecherous gym teacher obsessed with dominating his students recast as a muscular Superman proxy was more than a little scandalous. While exploring his movie world, you’ll find signs on display proclaiming “Kamoshida is god” and equally egregious phrases.

So yes, despite ostensibly being a hero, this version of the vile narcissist isn’t that far removed from the one the Phantom Thieves fought in Persona 5. Nevertheless, he’s this world’s monarch. Why? You’ll find out as you delve deeper, but this question is a prelude for an overarching theme between the movies about humanity’s struggles between order and freedom. The later dungeons are willing to tackle this idea a little less transparently too. As definitive proof the developers were serious, the game does not open with a funny gag or an action packed scene. Nope, it’s a quote by the 1700s philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "We do not go astray because we do not know, but because we think we know”. I hung onto that quote as I traversed the dungeons and pondered not only how it applied to Q2 but the actions of Persona 5’s characters.


So just like Persona Q, you're going to want at least passing knowledge of the Persona titles to get true mileage from this one. Considering the PS4 exclusive Persona 5 alone can gargle down 100 hours of your life and characters from Persona 3 and 4 show up too, that's quite a bit of presumed investment for 3DS owners. Likewise, the fanservice extravaganza won’t mean as much if you don’t know who the heck these people are. Seeing the male and female protagonists of Persona 3 meet is one moment to anticipate, but might not mean much otherwise. On the flipside, there’s no need to have played the original Q so there’s that.

It can’t be overstated just how delightful Q2 is in its presentation. Atlus hit gold with these cutesy chibi character models and they work wonders for the game’s overall aesthetic. The way characters flow from cutscene portraits to moving around shows the care that went into trying to capture Persona 5’s overflowing sense of style. The emphatic shakes, silly hand gestures, and curious head tilts are leagues beyond static character portraits. The battle menu recreates one most players will be intimately familiar with, making it feel a little homey. It goes without saying that the music selection is choice, featuring a superstar lineup of composers responsible for the gorgeous soundtracks of Persona 3, 4, and 5.

If Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth is really the last big 3DS release, it's one smashing swan song. The game is more straightforward than its predecessor, but this change plays to the strengths of Persona’s multitudinous characters. All up, it’s an exemplary crossover game worth investing hundreds of hours before you even start playing in just to appreciate its nuance.



- Clark A.
Anime Editor


Review: Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth
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