Content of the article: "Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth (2019) is a great game, but I can only really recommend it to existing Persona fans"
If you're not already aware, the Persona Q games are a pair of 3DS games made by the studio that makes the Etrian Odyssey series. Etrian Odyssey is a dungeon crawler RPG where you and a party of characters venture through labyrinths in first person, facing random encounters, environmental puzzles, hidden treasures and the like. The main feature is using the 3DS's touch screen to manually fill the map in as you go, adding icons to signify treasures, switches, secret passages and so on. There's something very satisfying about filling out a map, seeing those clear squares turn coloured as you go, adding all the details and seeing it come together. Persona Q is essentially the exact idea, but with a Persona skin on it. You play as the characters from Persona 3, 4 and 5 (just 3 and 4 in the first Q) and the story has you dealing with the same kind of themes and motifs you normally encounter in Persona. Things like struggling with identity and individuality, facing the pressures of conforming to society and finding one's place in the world.
Gameplay elements from the Persona series are carried over, such as the Velvet Room where you create new Personas to do battle with, and elements from the battle system such as the focus on targeting enemy weaknesses to stagger them and then launch an all-out attack. The battle system is different enough to feel fresh and unique from the mainline entries, and has enough of its own ideas to keep you engaged throughout its long runtime. I think fans of both Persona and Etrian Odyssey would find something to enjoy in this mash-up. I've got a few little niggles; inventory management being a little cumbersome because there are so many characters to cycle between and keep equipped, it can feel overwhelming and confusing – doesn't help that inventory space is fairly small – and Persona fusing can still be just as complicated and head-spinning as it is in Persona regular.
I played through the entirety of the first Persona Q, but I wasn't crazy about it. I found the difficulty to be a little too steep (even after turning it down to easy it was still challenging) and the story was not really to my liking, mostly because it revolves around two new characters I really didn't care for. That being said, the music was fire (if you've played a Persona game, you'll know) and it was actually pretty funny, all things considered. They lean into the comedy a little more in these games and I think it's better for it.
I'm almost at the end of Persona Q2, having put over 80 hours into it, and I've had an amazing time. While not much has actually changed from the first Persona Q2, I find the difficulty to be just right – but still enough pushback to keep it interesting, and prevent you from getting too complacent (although I admit the boss fights turn it up a little too steep) – the dungeons are fun to navigate, the music is just as good as any other Persona title, and the story this time, while nothing special, is more enjoyable. The story this time focuses on Hikari, who despite just as much as a cliche as Zen and Rei from the first game (she's a very shy and soft-spoken amnesiac girl), is actually pretty endearing and has some satisfying character development. These side games (and indeed the Etrian Odyssey series they are spun-off from) don't exactly have the most amazing narratives, and due to the very nature of their existence (there's a lot of time travel, world-hopping shenanigans going on to justify these characters from different games coming together) are better appreciated if you don't take them too seriously and, in my case, don't even consider them canon, there's still enough on offer for a seasoned Persona fan.
The first Q game got criticism for flanderisation of characters, which is something I can't deny but never really bothered me. When you have this many characters sharing the spotlight in a game that's already more about gameplay than pure story, it's difficult for any one of them to really stand out, you kind of have to simplify them, especially when you consider that this game technically takes place *within* an existing game, so it's not exactly like you can have too much meaningful character development because it can't create any contradictions or inconsistencies when they all inevitably return to their timelines. Q2, I would say, does some of this, but I don't think it's too offensive overall. You still get your usual memes like Akihiko talking about protein all the time and Teddie being horny af 24/7, and there's a couple of new ones (Yusuke is perpetually hungry) but I still think the vast majority of characters are well-rounded enough to stand apart and be endearing in their own right. Of course, though, it's a lot easier to say that when you've already played through Persona 3 through 5 and know these characters well, having seen their story arcs already, you don't feel the need to be introduced to them and learn what makes them tick. Which brings me to my key point…
Persona Q2 is a game full of fanservice, and not ashamed of it. As someone who is a devout Persona fan, I couldn't be happier. There are so many cute references, recurring jokes and nods that will have any veteran of the series grinning ear to ear. The entire game is a crossover, built on the premise of "What if the characters from these three games all met each other?" The results are equal parts cute, funny and wholesome. There is something inherently enjoyable about seeing characters you love individually coming together and interacting in ways you both will and won't expect, in a "safe" environment where you don't have to worry about canon being completely obliterated. Even better, upon completing side quests, you can unlock special union attacks, similar to the ones seen in Persona 5 Royal, where two or more characters team up to deal a powerful strike, injecting their own personalities and style into them. All of them are great and get me pumped up whenever they happen. The fanservice goes beyond that, each team (P3, P4 and P5) have their own unique themes that are each like something that could have easily come from their respective games – they even got those singers to come back. So Shihoko Hirata sings the P4 squad's theme, Lyn does the P5 one, and so on. I mean shit, if you want to talk fanservice, the female protagonist from Persona 3 Portable is in the game!
But as enjoyable as all of the above is to me, it's for that reason I have a hard time selling it to someone who isn't already on board the Persona hype train. While the game is of course a perfectly servicable dungeon JRPG in its own right, the core appeal of it really is the IP. If you jumped in with little to no knowledge, you'd be lost, and the game only makes the smallest effort to get you caught up. Characters reference events that happen in the mainline games, albeit fairly indirectly, there are countless in-jokes and musical cues that you wouldn't catch, and the characterisation would seem somewhat thin because, as I said before, everyone's personalities and stories have already been established in the main series, and the game uses that as a jumping off point, rather than starting from scratch. A lot of stuff just probably wouldn't make a lot of sense, like the involvement of the P3P female protag. You'd probably feel overwhelmed because all in all there are about 30 party members and while you do get them fed to you in small groups throughout the first half of the game, it's hard for most of them to really make their mark.
So while I can acknowledge that this may be a "problem"… I don't really think it's such a bad thing for a game to be made solely for existing fans of the particular IP. While the potential audience for this game is surely pretty small (3DS game in 2019, spin-off of medium-popularity JRPG series, Japanese voices only), I'm kind of glad it embraced that angle. I mean, it's not like this game would have sold tons anyway, trying to break out to new audiences seems futile. I think trying to make this game super accessible for newcomers would have hurt it. As it stands, it's not like it's some inpenetrable wall only diehards can climb over, like some Kingdom Hearts spin-off. It just doesn't bother with constantly trying to get everyone on the same page, it assumes you've played the games, know these characters and gets on with having them interacting, which is the real joy of the game. Sometimes it's nice for a game to just say "Hey, this is a spin-off, we're not gonna explain everything, you're probably here because you already like this thing, so let's just have fun with these characters". It's like a wacky crossover episode of a Saturday morning cartoon, but it still feels faithful and true to the source material, with plenty of heart and thematic depth that almost any fan would appreciate. For that reason I've found my time with it immensely enjoyable.
In short, if you've played and enjoyed Personas 3 through 5, I can't recommend this game enough. I think you'd have a fantastic time. If you haven't, then… play those games already. But if you don't have any interest in Persona and you just want a decent dungeon crawler JRPG, then Etrian Odyssey would probably be a better pick.
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