Anyone who plays videogames more than casually will soon learn to despise an element of the industry which is always in plentiful supply: a lack of creativity. It's sad but true that as soon as a new genre or idea bursts onto the scene that its soon followed by countless carbon copies, only shades different from the original inspiration.
While every genre has a fair amount of copycats fighting for your hard-earned game dollars, the RPG genre is debatably the guiltiest of them all. So many RPGs rehash tired clichés and unoriginal ideas that it's not even funny. Role-players typically take place in the same type of generic fantasy setting using the same basic game engine, and it soon becomes nearly impossible to tell one game from the other. Don't even get me started on the plots. If I had a dollar for every time I've played an RPG where a lone hero (usually a teenage male) endures a life-altering tragedy, gathers a band of heroes and saves the world, I'd have enough cash for a lobster dinner with all the trimmings at a four-star restaurant, including tip. In my opinion, variety in RPG game design should involve more than just changing the hair color of the hero or the name of the villain.
Enter Atlus. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is definitely an RPG in every sense of the word, but changes the formula enough to become a breath of fresh air instead of a double dose of valium. The bare-bones gist of the story is that you play the role of magazine reporter Maya Amano, who is tracking down a serial killer terrorizing metropolitan Sumaru City. That's right… you're not a villager, nobody lives in a castle and there aren't any dragons. This is a modern-day city with modern-day people with a dose of supernatural mysticism thrown in to spice things up. (Although I daresay it would be pretty interesting to play a standard RPG-type game which was based completely in reality.)
The game uses high-quality 2-D hand-drawn art for dialogue, and employs sprite-based characters moving around environments rendered in 3D viewed from an overhead perspective. It plays much like a standard RPG in that battles are turn-based, the interface utilizes a series of menus and the characters have hit points and other various stats. The main difference in how the game plays is that the most necessary things to your survival aren't swords or armor; they are entities from the spirit world who act as your alter-egos during battlethe Personas. The easiest way to explain this system is that Personas act like personal summon spells, with each character being equipped with one. Instead of being minute-long affairs full of fiery meteors or beams of heavenly light, they simply function as regular elemental-based attacks. The combat system is extremely intricate and I certainly don't mean to over-simplify the effort put into it by the development team. However, if I were to go into detail and explain every nuance, it would take up the entire review. Let's just say that its an in-depth and non-standard way of doing battle.
Far and away, the best thing about the disc is the setting. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is an installment in the Japanese-only Megami Tensei series, and its pretty evident that there is a lot of history behind the game. It's a little tough to describe, but from what the characters say and how they react to things I got the feeling that I was walking into an epic tale halfway told. From people I've talked to, it's not necessary to have played the other games in the series, but there are a lot of nods and pre-established themes which connect to the older titles.
Regardless of the series popularity in Japan, RPGs set in modern times using a fairly realistic design are so rare as to be practically unheard-of in the U.S. It's really a shame, since theres just something extremely interesting about playing this type of game and going into a store that looks like a 7-11 to buy items, or going into a gun shop to buy weapons. In the course of unraveling the plot, you go to real-life locales like schools and police stations to talk to citizens and hunt for the clues that will advance your search. Heck, you can even go into the local Internet café to log on and poke around.
Something that really blew my mind when playing Persona 2 was that when you encounter Demons during a random battle, you have the option of simply talking to them. You can always go "classic" and fight it out, but there are benefits to having a discussion with the slavering pack of minotaurs you bumped into. Depending on the discussion style of the party member who parleys, Demons will rapidly pick up one of four "moods". Say what they like to hear (which is not always an easy task) and you'll be rewarded with Persona Cards or Contracts which give money or items. If youre not so great with words, it will enrage them and give them a free shot at your party. It's a very unique and fresh approach, and while it's not perfect, just having the option is much better than just mindlessly battling your way through every dungeon.
For those who love to curl up on a couch and get completely immersed in a game for months at a time, Persona 2 is the only disc you'll need to go the distance. The title is absolutely jam-packed with hidden quests, extra items, mini-games and other things that can easily eat up an obscene number of hours. I'd be extremely hard-pressed to think of a single RPG that offered more things to do, and I found myself skipping over a large amount of the extras due to my real-life time constraints. For those looking for a cheap way to kill a large amount of free time, Persona 2 is it. As a word of warning, don't buy the game if you have a significant other, children to take care of or a job where you can't telecommute.
To cover the standard questions usually asked about videogames, the characters are all likable and attractively rendered with a strong sense of character. I particularly enjoy the lead artists style. The environments have a large amount of detail to them, and while they can be a bit rough in the technical implementation here and there, I thought it was a great-looking title as far as the PlayStation goes. The dialogue is very mature with a lot of innuendo, sarcasm and mature themes, and sounds a lot like how real adults would talk. There are a few mistakes and oddities in the translation, but overall it's top-notch. The music in the game is absolutely fantastic as well. My personal favorite was the jazzy scat-type music that plays in the item store of Satomi Sister #7, and if I ever locate a soundtrack to the game it's an instant purchase.
While Persona 2 succeeds wonderfully in many areas, I don't want to make it sound like it's all roses. The biggest downside of the game is firmly rooted in some of the genre's old staples—random battles and leveling up. However, it isn't so easily explained… the thing which holds Persona 2 back is kind of a three-pronged problem concerning the way the Persona system itself works, the random battles and the amount of leveling up required.
The biggest sticking point for me in Persona 2 is also one of the things that I liked about it—the original take on the battle engine. The bulk of the game isnt the story or CG effects, its the Persona system and engine itself. In order to advance in the game and increase the strength and effectiveness of your party, you have to collect cards by talking to Demons for the purpose of unlocking new Personas. Once a new Persona is unlocked, you have to level it up (the Persona, not the character) in order to gain access to the higher-level spells which make it useful. You also will eventually have to gain a few levels for your characters to increase stats and raise the Persona users abilities. What's the problem here? All of those necessary activities are accomplished through random battles.
While some of the hardcore RPGers probably wouldn't even see this as a problem at all, I found the amount of encounters needed to make the game play smoothly was too high, and it seriously detracted from my enjoyment of things. I simply didn't want to have to wander around and get into battles for a half-hour powering up a new Persona, or have a series of chats trying to get the correct type of cards when the story got really interesting. The thing that really compounded the problem was that there are dozens of Personas to choose from, and picking the right one was the proverbial needle in a haystack. One reason for this is that the spells have odd names (nothing like "Lif3" or "Fir2" here) which makes it harder to know which Persona will best suit your playing style or be most effective for the area where you are currently stuck. It's a bitter feeling to realize that you've just wasted your time powering up the wrong Persona since the bosses in the game will stop you quicker than a brick wall if you aren't equipped with the right ones. Team compatibility also plays a large role, and even one wrong Persona in your group can be an anchor around your neck when youre trying to keep your head above water.
If you're following a step-by-step FAQ you'll be in good shape. (I'm not advocating using FAQs your first time through, by the way… it's just an observation.) Otherwise, expect a lot of trial and error, with each new strategy requiring some time set aside for collecting cards and powering up Personas. This is really the only flaw in the game besides some niggling things like slightly cumbersome menus and other nonessential gripes. Unfortunately, it will be a large one to most gamers.
Overall, the extremely interesting urban setting, excellent artistic direction and well-written story overcame the tedium and number-shuffling of Persona 2s core play system. The game boldly strikes out on its own away from the standard conventions of domestically-released RPGs, while keeping enough of the elements (which don't exactly thrill me) to drop its final score down a few points. In any event, it's a great game for people who love to get deep, deep, deep into RPGs, and it's different enough that I ended up enjoying myself despite my aversions to it's shortfalls. There is so much content in the game, so many side-quests and so many interesting things to talk about that even after roughly two thousand words, I feel like I haven't even really done more than scratch the surface of the game in this review. I definitely applaud the developers, as well as Atlus for releasing it, and I'm kicking myself for not having played it sooner.