It's Persona Q, too!
Written by Syrenne McNulty
So just to get this out of the way upfront, Persona Q2 is very much another Persona Q, for better and worse. The final Etrian Odyssey style game to release on the Nintendo 3DS, the game features five dungeons and, most notably, 28 playable characters. The entire playable casts of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Persona 5 are represented, as well as the female protagonist from Persona 3 Portable. Despite the enormous cast size, the game doesn’t give you access to all of the characters at once.
When you start, you actually only have access to a strict party of five (five is the maximum number of characters you can use in an Etrian party) - Joker, Ryuji, Ann, Yusuke, and Akechi, all from Persona 5. The game quickly gives you Morgana, then the P3P female protagonist, and then at the end of the dungeon it gives you Makoto and Haru. As the story progresses this continues, eventually giving you the full casts of Persona 4 and, finally, Persona 3.
While this seemed stifling at first - I personally wanted to shuffle out a lot of the starting characters for my favorite characters from the source games - it actually served its purpose in getting me to experiment and explore different team compositions. Each character has their own inherent strengths and weaknesses, and whether a character is in the front row or the back row matters. Physical attackers need to be up front, otherwise they can’t hit every enemy. Skill-users (magic users) can be anywhere, but healers and buffers/debuffers need to be protected in the back, as they tend to be fragile, as in most Etrian games.
This mix between the Persona series combat system and the Etrian series combat system worked extremely well in Persona Q, and they’ve expanded on it here with some of the new changes that Persona 5 added. There are four new elements to consider - Nuclear, Psi, Bless, and Curse, which makes going back to some of the older characters interesting to see who was retrofitted with each. The Baton Touch ability makes an appearance too, here allowing party members to pass their advantage off to each other.
If you haven’t played an SMT game before, the advantage or “press turn” system is what this year’s Octopath Traveler styled its combat system on. Each enemy has weaknesses and resistances, and if you attack its weakness, the enemy is downed for the rest of that turn and your character gets an “advantage,” which involves going earlier the next turn and not using up SP if they don’t get hit beforehand. If all enemies are downed in a single turn, you get the option to punish the enemies with an All-Out Attack, where your party piles on the opponents in a free attack that deals orders of magnitude more damage than basic attacks do. This rhythmic push and pull combat system worked well when combined with the traditional Etrian dungeon crawling formula in Persona Q, and it works even better in this game thanks to the new additions.
Of course, like Persona Q before it, Q2 allows every party member to equip a sub-Persona in addition to their main Persona, which gives access to six additional abilities as well as essential stat boosts. Fusing the Personas together is as fun as ever, but for those who don’t necessarily want to memorize the entire Persona Fusion Matrix, the game allows you to just view a list of all currently possible fusions, sorted by either Arcana or Level. Mixing and matching different sets of skills is essential, considering there are nine types of attack skills, healing skills, buffs, debuffs, passive skills, field skills, and more. It’s a fun aspect of the Shin Megami Tensei battle system that is no less enjoyable here.
In Persona Q, the game featured four main dungeons and then a final dungeon, with each primary dungeon theming itself off of an attraction you might find at a Japanese high school’s culture festival. While this made sense with the setting and plot of the game, it left many of the dungeon themes feeling odd, uninteresting, or uninspired. The haunted house themed dungeon in particular was pretty rough. For Q2, as you may have guessed from the subtitle of the game, the story’s central hub is a movie theater, and each dungeon is a different “movie” that the characters participate in. The first dungeon, Kamoshida-man, is a city-at-night themed dungeon riffing on superheroes, with a large P5 influence. The second dungeon, Junessic Land, is themed pretty explicitly on the Jurassic Park film franchise, but with a notable P4 twist. The third dungeon, A.I.G.I.S is a fun Sci-Fi themed dungeon based around P3. While I won’t spoil the fourth dungeon, I will say that mechanically and level design wise it may be my favorite dungeon from any Persona or Etrian Odyssey game to date (including Persona 1 and 2, which do exist), which is strong praise. It’s also a nightmare to localize, so best of luck to the team at Atlus USA.
The newly added casts of Persona 5 and Persona 3 Portable made the transition to chibi low-poly 3DS models well, and many of the new visual effects are incredibly flashy - which serves to underscore the mild disappointment of the game not supporting 3D visuals. I get (more than many) how difficult it is to include high quality 3D in a 3DS game, and it’s certainly no longer the standard, but I definitely miss it after Persona Q’s 3D visuals were so well done. First person dungeon crawling just isn’t the same without it.
Outside of the dungeon-specific stories, three new characters are introduced in the game. Nagi and Hikari are two theatergoers who got trapped in the theater that Q2 takes place in, and Doe is a large shadow-like bipedal black blob with a yellow face that screens the movies and dispenses the keys necessary to leave the theater. It’s a bizarre cast of characters, but when the story was all said and done and all the reveals have been...revealed, I was left hoping that one would actually make its way into other Persona stories in the future.
While the gameplay is paced well with a tight loop, the story is paced in a rather odd manner. You get bits and pieces of the main story between the first and second dungeon, and between the second and third, but until you finish the third dungeon, the narrative is largely focused on the player characters, the worlds they came from, and the stories of the individual dungeons. Upon clearing the third dungeon (effectively the 3/5ths mark of the game,) the main story kicks into high gear for the rest of the game. In practice this feels a bit sudden, but I’m glad they condensed their main story into the shorter backend if the alternative was stretching it throughout the entire runtime. It’s a good, well-written, and often touching story, but might not work well stretched thin.
The length of the game actually seems to vary greatly with the difficulty you play the game on. While Etrian Odyssey V had only two starting difficulty options, Q2 follows the Persona tradition of having five. Risky, at the hardest end, rebalances how much damage both you and the opponent take and receive so that while battles might be over faster, you have to play expertly to navigate through tough threats. Safety, at the easiest end, dramatically tilts the odds in your favor, and removes all failstates; in any other difficulty, if your full party gets wiped out in battle, you must reload your last hard save (you can only quick save while in dungeons.) On Safety, you can resume the fight with full HP/SP any time, essentially removing all difficulty and allowing you to brute force any enemy regardless of level disparity if you’re patient enough. This could be used to circumvent entire sections of dungeons and puzzles, which will absolutely lead to a shorter run time. For this review I played the game on Hard, the second hardest mode in the game, and had a final clear time of about 54 and a half hours. I’ve seen several reports that on Safety you can mainline the game in about 30 hours, though again this removes much of the fun tension of the game. You can change the difficulty at any time during the game unless you select Risky, in which case you are locked into your choice.
Outside of the main quests, Persona Q2 introduces the Ticket Counter, a new sidequest system that replaces the “Stroll” feature seen in Persona Q. In “Stroll,” players could watch unlocked “fluff” cutscenes of the playable characters talking and hanging out with each other, which was fun given the crossover nature of the game. In Q2, you instead have 45 premade sidequests featuring different combinations of party members. The sidequests take place on modified segments of existing maps and have you doing a variety of things. The least interesting are just “kill three of this enemy” quests, but more interesting sidequests include logic puzzles based on environmental observation, going through small-sized self-contained stories, and trying to navigate dungeons with mechanical changes. Throughout the sidequests you get plenty of dialogue and interactions, but with more gameplay and longevity added to the experience.
Ticket Counter rewards include recipes for high-end Personas, rare crafting materials to take to the concessions stand (which is your armory), and 絆の力, or “power of bonds” (no clue how they’ll translate that). When you get these power of bonds, you’ll get access to Combination Attacks, which are conditionally triggered attacks that pair up different characters for a flashy animation followed by a large amount of damage. You may have seen some of these in footage of the game, and they’re a real highlight. The fact that you don’t need the entire group of involved characters to be present in your party also means you can trigger many types of Combination Attacks, and involve characters that aren’t currently in your party.
As a sidebar, I feel it’s important to mention that the series still falters with respect to its humor, specifically its attempts at punching down with offensive and out of touch stereotypes. While I can’t recall much explicit homophobia or transphobia in this game (which makes it a standout relative to other games in the series,) the game does have several scenes relating to a recurring fat-shaming “joke.” Similar to a recurring “punch line” character in Persona 4, the joke is that there’s a fat girl. That’s it. They don’t do anything with it. It’s gross, and while it didn’t enormously detract from my play experience, I’m going to continue to call out the consistent missteps in these games in an attempt to remind Atlus and Sega to do better. Sega/Atlus is my favorite publisher but it feels as if it’s been years since I played a game of theirs that didn’t have me grossed out at some point.
I’ve spent much of this review just breaking down the different mechanical parts to Q2, but it’s worth noting that it all comes together seemingly effortlessly to become an experience greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a beautiful looking game with an expectedly amazing soundtrack (seriously, what 3DS soundtrack goes this hard? The boss theme didn’t need to be as good as it is, but it is. Wear headphones.) Tight inventory limits and SP management in the early game create a tight gameplay loop of exploring and returning to base. The character writing manages to be true to all 28 original playable characters, and the new characters are fun additions. I found myself setting down my 3DS while in the theater lobby and just smiling, taking in the ambient idle animations of characters competing with each other, lost in conversation, chasing each other, or otherwise having fun, while a relaxing sung tune that grows with each new cast of characters plays.
It’s an experience that has led me to reflect on the last 12 represented years of the Persona franchise and what it’s meant to me personally. As potentially the final AAA Nintendo 3DS-exclusive game to be released, it has me reflecting on the strengths and joys of this wonderful system. I excitedly (if my Twitter was any indication) anticipated Q2, purchased it immediately, and played it as soon as I could. I expected to find a suitable sequel to Persona Q, and some fun character interactions. I didn’t expect to emotionally feel like returning home in such a powerful way.