Atlus has been one of the strongest supporters of Nintendo’s 3DS handheld over the years, keeping RPG fans busy with a total of seventeen stellar RPGs from the company. These releases have been coming at a consistent and reliable pace since the 3DS’ first year, so it's only fitting that Atlus gets to be the one to turn out the lights on Nintendo’s autostereoscopic platform. As of the time of writing, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth is the final release scheduled for the 3DS (barring the final DLC expansion for Shovel Knight) and if this game is to be the punctation mark at the end of the life of the 3DS, it’s reassuring that we’re looking at an exclamation point, rather than a period.
As the follow up to 2014’s Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth demonstrates the ability and willingness of the developers to listen to feedback and improve on their previous work; what we have here is an enormously enjoyable RPG that builds on what its predecessor set out to do in finding the perfect harmony between the wildly different styles of two different RPG series’. The lovable characters and Jungian-infused theming of the Persona games have been married to the fraught decision-making and first-person dungeon crawling of the Etrian Odyssey games in a way that feels so natural, it’s a bit disappointing to consider that this experimental spin-off series might be ending with this entry.
The narrative starts off with the curtain rising in a mysterious cinema as a glowing blue butterfly flutters about in the dark, all of which evidently is taking place within the dream of Persona 5’s main protagonist. After he’s woken up by Morgana, the Phantom Thieves soon go on a routine mission to Mementos to stay sharp ahead of an impending deadline, but things quickly go awry when the gang finds themselves dragged through a portal and onto the streets of a sprawling city that might or might not be in the Metaverse. Confused and disoriented, our heroes are soon accosted by a powerful foe and flee through another portal, this time finding themselves trapped in a strange movie theater.
From this point, the main drive of the plot is established: our heroes must find four keys to unlock the front door and free themselves from the theater, and each key is locked away in the larger than life technicolor worlds of the movies playing on the screens. Each movie contains its own set of villains and Shadows (the staple Persona enemies), but the Phantom Thieves aren’t alone in their struggle against these obstacles on the path to freedom. Not only do they meet a couple mysterious new characters original to this release, but most of the casts of both Persona 3 and Persona 4 are introduced with time, leading to a bevy of intriguing and hilarious encounters as many of these characters meet each other for the first time.
Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth assumes you've played (or are at least familiar with) the casts and storylines of the Persona games and though newcomers will certainly be missing out on a lot of key moments and fan-service, the plot is still kept simple enough that it’s easy to follow and (mostly) understand what’s going on. Centering the narrative around this established and known cast of characters is a smart move, as it lends the narrative proceedings a certain kind of familiarity that the first Persona Q lacked in some ways. Fans of Persona 3 and 4 will perhaps be a little miffed to hear that the story primarily focuses on the Phantom Thieves of Persona 5, but everyone gets their fair share of the screen in due time. The story is all well-written, then, but one omission we feel bears highlighting is the complete lack of English voice acting here. It’s not game breaking by any means, and you gradually acclimate to the Japanese actors as the hours pile on, but it still would’ve been nice to have the option to hear the lines delivered in one’s native tongue.
Though the storyline is distinctly Persona-flavoured (for the better), the gameplay style primarily takes after the Etrian Odyssey series, and this iteration of that gameplay certainly doesn’t disappoint. Upon entering a new movie, you’re faced with a dungeon that’s viewed through a first-person perspective on the top screen, while the bottom screen presents you with a completely blank, grid-based map. Every wall, floor, crevice, treasure chest, trap, or whatever you come across in your expeditions must be recorded by hand on the bottom screen with a stylus, using the extensive selection of symbols and tools at your disposal to make it readable. Indeed, this custom mapping proves to be one of the most divisive aspects of the experience, something that will be loved by some and hated by others. Luckily, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth favors both camps, and if you don’t want to be bogged down with scribbling down everything, you can enable an ‘auto-map’ function that will fill it in for you. We’d encourage you to at least give the manual cartography a try, however, as it adds a certain element to the exploration that’s lost by just having the game do it for you.
Rather than the random generation employed in some past Persona titles, these dungeons are all smartly designed around sets of traps, shortcuts, secrets, and powerful enemies that keep you on your toes as you search for the stairs to take you to the next floor. New puzzle ideas, like gates that have to be temporarily disabled with switches, are introduced at a brisk but manageable pace, and help to keep the relatively slow pace from getting stagnant. See, nothing in the dungeon ‘moves’ until you step forward onto the next tile, and many of the environmental hazards and puzzles are designed around this key limitation. For example, powerful enemies called “FOEs” roam sections of the dungeon on a set path; you don’t have a chance to beat these enemies when you first encounter them, so it becomes a game of finding the holes in their rotation and slipping through unseen. Puzzle segments like this are often bookended, then, by convenient shortcuts that then make subsequent runs through the dungeon that much quicker.
Enemy encounters are handled in a semi-random way, with a small counter in the bottom right corner of the screen displaying how long you have until you get jumped by another enemy. Once it reaches “1”, however, you don’t necessarily get attacked right away, although each step is likely to trigger a fight. The key thing here is the surprisingly tense situations that can develop from balancing one’s odds with that counter; if you happen to be embroiled in combat when on a tile in a FOE’s path, that FOE can then enter the battle and effectively wipe the team in one or two hits. Puzzle segments can then become a matter of weighing one’s chances as you judge whether or not you can make it to safety in enough steps.
Once you enter combat, the system takes on something of a blend between the Persona and Etrian styles of combat, which gel surprisingly well together. Taking from the Etrian side, your five party members are arranged in a two-line formation, three go in the front and two go in the back, and elements like Link Attacks and Pierce Attacks have been worked into the movesets of the characters. On the Persona side of things, the eight-way element system, HP-draining special attacks, and All-Out Attacks have made their way in to round out the fights. A standard fight unfolds almost like a puzzle, as you initially experiment with different attacks to figure out what can ‘floor’ the enemy and disable them for that turn. If you can manage to incapacitate all of them, an All-Out Attack is triggered in which the entire party lays into the enemies in a cartoonish ball of smoke, dealing enormous damage and often ending the fight.
Landing a super effective hit on another enemy will also have the benefit of giving the character who inflicted the attack the “Boost” status. When in Boost, all special attacks by that character cost zero SP or HP and many attacks even receive a damage buff to boot, but this comes with the caveat that the Boost can’t be taken advantage of until the next turn. If the character takes damage before the turn comes, they lose the Boost and go back to normal. This Boost mode adds a nice wrinkle to the already deliciously gripping combat, especially when you factor in how the Baton Pass of Persona 5 has been reworked here to allow you to pass on your Boost status to another member of your party.
This leads into another wrinkle of combat, which is the involvement of the support member of your party. This extra member doesn’t directly participate in combat, they instead have a broad selection of support skills—like a party-wide damage buff or passive health regeneration—that are governed by the “Party Meter”, which fills incrementally every time you deal or receive damage. The meter grants you a star every time it fills and you can hold up to five stars at once, with a certain amount being spent depending on the support skill you want to use. Though the bulk of the work is always being done by the five members involved in the heat of the fight, this support system proves to be a lifesaver in many ways and makes fights that much more interesting due to the wealth of options available to you. Later on, you can even equip another support character to help out when you’re off the battlefield, offering passive boons like healing for every step you take, or highlighting the locations of treasures on the floor.
It’s a given that your party likely won’t have the stamina to clear out a floor, much less a whole dungeon, in one go, so a positive feedback loop is quickly established to keep you regularly bouncing in and out of dungeons. Once you’ve filled up your bag with enemy drops or your characters are running too low on HP or SP, you can leave the dungeon (manually or by using a consumable item) and return to the theater, where the party is refreshed and you’re given the opportunity to gear up. Items you find in the dungeon can be sold to the store for profit and also will occasionally ‘inspire’ the shopkeep to offer new items for sale, such as better equippable weapons or consumables. You can also have ‘mystery’ items you find in the dungeon appraised by the shopkeep, often granting you access to better gear than you could buy in the shop. What’s nice about this shop system is how straightforward it’s kept relative to other RPGs; there’s still plenty of depth to the myriad things you can equip to each character, but none of it bogs you down in exhaustive detail over things that really don’t matter. Stat upgrades are clearly marked so that it’s obvious when a given piece of gear is better than another, and the shopkeep will even offer to buy your discarded piece of equipment at a decent rate.
The theater also grants you access to the Velvet Room, which acts more or less as the Persona ‘store’. Though every character’s main Persona is set in stone, each of them can equip a Sub-Persona to build out their options for combat skills, and most of these are ‘made’ in the Velvet Room. Here, you can fuse two existing Personas into a single (often better) Persona, and a certain number of skills can be carried over in the transition. It’s always a tough decision, of course, as you have to pick what elemental attacks and debuff abilities you could live without, but the passive stat gains offered by equipping more powerful Personas is essential to surviving the occasionally harsh difficulty. Plus, any Persona that you’ve possessed will forever be recorded in a compendium that allows you to summon them again for a price, encouraging the player to keep experimenting and changing up the Persona line-up on a frequent basis.
What’s nice about this whole system of equipping and swapping Personas is how it allows you to functionally turn any character in your party into any ‘class’ you’d like. Both a character’s skillset and stats are heavily dependent on what Persona they have equipped, and if you want to experiment with turning your tank into a pure healer, you can do so with a few quick reassignments in the pause menu. This goes a long way towards keeping characters useful and interesting, as nobody is pigeonholed into a particular role and you can take risks on swapping those roles with very few drawbacks.
Naturally, you’ll build up quite the deep bench of characters as the campaign wears on, making it more and more difficult to avoid favoring one set over another. To combat this, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth uses a concept called “Motivation” in which certain characters will have better stats and a higher critical hit rate if you swap them into your party before jumping back into a dungeon. Motivated characters change each time you come back to the movie theater, ensuring that you keep a balanced bench, and things are made even easier by the impressively organized party management screen, which partitions characters by the game they came from and allows you to set up a few pre-set teams that can be swapped out on the fly.
To encourage you to take advantage of Motivation more often, the theater also offers a “Special Screenings” section that expands on the “Stroll” feature of Persona Q. Special Screenings are essentially side-quests that have you go back to completed floors or movies, but with fresh objectives and incentives, and with the caveat that your team be composed of specific characters. These are where Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth gets creative with its mission objectives, often offering up things more interesting than the tired “go get me five boar skins” RPG mission tropes, while also creating the space for some memorable and interesting character encounters that wouldn’t fit in the main narrative. Think of the Special Screenings as sort of ‘mini-narratives’ that take place within the bigger picture; they aren’t essential, but they’re often more than worth your time for both the quest rewards and narrative payoff that they offer.
Much like its predecessor, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth employs a chibi style of animation that’s both charming and well-tailored to the limited horsepower of the 3DS, making it a game that’s quite easy on the eyes. The flamboyant pop-punk aesthetic of Persona 5’s menu design has made the transition here almost without a hitch, giving each menu you come across a little something more to make it visually distinctive and interesting. Environments are similarly over the top and detailed, whether you’re moving through a crowded city or a dinosaur-riddled jungle, and each one is afforded its own colour palette to make it stand out in your memory. Our only complaint in this area is the way in which stereoscopic 3D has been completely omitted; considering that it was present in both Persona Q and Etrian Odyssey Nexus, the omission here feels a bit lazy and half-hearted. Still, you don’t miss it after a while, and though it would’ve certainly made the experience that much more immersive, it’s not essential.
Matching the stylized visuals is an equally impressive, boundary-pushing soundtrack that showcases some of the best tunes we’ve heard in either the Etrian or Persona series to date. This soundtrack takes more after the music of Persona 5—characterized by its piano-heavy acid jazz and big band style—and this works greatly in Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth’s favor, as it infuses effectively every minute with a certain kind of vim and vigor that many RPGs often lack. The main battle theme is infectiously catchy, but even tracks like the slightly more dialed back tune that plays back in the theater still have an undeniable energy that keeps you locked in. We would definitely encourage you to play through this one with some headphones, as it's well worth paying some special attention to the music.
It’s rather hard to believe that Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth could very well be the last game to grace the 3DS, but it's a fantastic note to end on if that does turn out to be the case. The style and characters of the Persona series fit perfectly into the Etrian Odyssey mold, and this entry in the Q sub-series seems to be a bit surer of itself than the last. The movie aesthetic is clever and well-handled throughout this lengthy adventure, the exploration and combat remain as gripping as ever, the Persona system is pleasingly deep and flexible, and the stellar soundtrack ties it all together extraordinarily well. If you consider yourself to be an RPG fan and you still haven't sold off the old 3DS, we’d highly encourage you to look into picking this one up; as the final release on a platform that’s enjoyed a proud and successful run, what a way to go out.