Atlus makes unique games. From Kartia to Rhapsody, this company has managed to find some of the oddest and most compelling titles to ever hit the market. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is one of these very original titles, which has the added benefit of being one of the most addictive, fun RPGs created for the PlayStation.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment takes place some years after the events of the original Persona, in the Japanese city of Sumaru. The game centers on heroine Maya Amano, editor of Kismet Publishing's teen magazine, Coolest, and her quest to uncover the mysteries of a recent string of serial killings by someone known only as JOKER. The rumor goes that, if you call yourself on your cell phone, the JOKER will come to kill whomever the caller curses. And in the world of Persona 2, rumors are very important.
Eternal Punishment builds off the events from Persona 2: Innocent Sin, in which Maya and a group of High School students try to discover the cause behind similar gruesome murders. In the end, something went terribly wrong, and now Maya and her friends have to fix things before the evil forces working in Sumaru City manage to complete their plans for world domination.
One of the most interesting aspects of Eternal Punishment's story is its modern setting. Sumaru City has skyscrapers, internet cafes, night clubs, and subways. Most people carry around cell phones and talk to you about the latest punk bands and new-age shops. It's the type of backdrop that you don't see too often in RPGs, and it helps you really associate with the game's plot and characters.
Another great element about the game world is how distinctively Japanese it is. Albeit Eternal Punishment is a Japanese game, Atlus really put an emphasis on both modern and traditional Japanese culture, including everything from Japanese-style high schools to Shinto Shrines. Sumaru isn't "Anytown", it's Sumaru City, Japan, and Atlus didn't sacrifice this identity for the American audience, either.
This brings us to Atlus' translation job, which was absolutely excellent. Atlus did its best to keep the Japanese atmosphere when bringing the game to America. All characters retained their Japanese names, for instance Maia Amano, Tatsuya Suou, as did all locations, such as Sumaru City, Satomi Tadashi convenience store, and Araya Shrine. Sometimes this made keeping track of certain characters difficult, especially Tatsuya Suou and Tatsuya Sudou. Atlus did its best to preserve as much of that Nihon-teki style as it could during the localization process, and while some gamers might miss certain references to Japanese culture, the story manages to explain all the important plot elements in terms Americans can understand.
In addition, the text itself, and there was a lot of it, was all translated very well, with few mistakes and almost no botched dialogue. Eternal Punishment received one of the best translation jobs I've ever encountered, and Atlus should be praised for its diligent work in this area.
Atlus also did a great job on the gameplay in Eternal Punishment. The game has quite a few unique and fun aspects to it that are both engrossing and well laid-out. The signature element is what is known as the Rumor System. The world of Sumaru is affected by rumors, that is, if you spread a rumor it becomes reality. By collecting rumors from different sources and spreading them, you can change elements of the game world. For instance, if you spread a rumor that the local bar, Parabellum, sells weapons, pretty soon you'll be able to buy weapons from the barkeep. The Rumor System is also dynamic, as some rumors give you a choice as to which part of the rumor you want to spread, and some rumors have random outcomes. It increases replay value to say the least.
You get from place to place in Sumaru City by moving your little icon from building to building or from ward to ward. Upon entering a location, you move Maia around in a traditional 3/4th overhead view, departing from the awkward first person view used in the original Persona's dungeons. In dungeons, you encounter random enemies, and are shifted to a closed battle arena. Here is where the real fun begins.
Battles take place in a turn-based manner, in which you issue commands to your characters and they take action accordingly. Most actions are self-explanatory; attack, use item, defend, and run. However, EP has a few interesting twists on the standard turn-based battle engine. The most prominent is the use of Personas. Personas are much like Guardian Forces from the Final Fantasy games. You summon Personas from an area known as the Velvet Room, using tarot cards you collect from enemies. Once you equip a persona, you get to use their spells in battle. Each Persona starts out with one spell, but as you keep using it in battle, it increases its rank, up to rank 8, gaining more spells as it goes. Also, certain spells and certain Personas used in the right combination will produce combination attacks, which can range from making your fire spells more powerful to making all your enemies run away.
Personas each have their own statistics, such as agility, strength, and defense, and when you equip one, your statistics are added to the Persona's statistics, and, for as long as you have that Persona equipped, your statistics will be the average of the two. Different Personas also possess statistic bonuses, such as resistance against certain elements or attacks, and each one adds a point to a different statistic every time your character gains a level.
You spend most of your playing time leveling up Personas, trying to find the right ones to most effectively combat the enemies from the dungeon you're in, and depending on how you look at it, this is either an asset or a weakness to gameplay. With the sheer number of Personas and spells and combination attacks in the game, you'll either get a Pokemon mentality and "wannna catch 'em all" or wind up with too many choices to find the right Persona for the job. I liked the system, but I have to admit that some Personas were just useless.
Another innovative feature, making a return in upgraded form from the original Persona, is the Demon Contact system. During a battle, you have the option to contact most enemies and talk to them with up to three characters at once. Depending on who you use and what you say, you elicit one of four emotions from the demons; joy, anger, interest, or fear. If you elicit the same emotion three times, you get a particular result. For instance, getting three interest responses prompts the demon to give you tarot cards, getting three joy responses prompts the demon to make a contract with you that can be used next time to get items, money, information, or free tarot cards, three anger responses might make the demon attack you, etc.
Demon Contact is not only helpful in getting tarot cards, but also in avoiding enemies, as joy and interest responses end the battle. Striking the right balance between leveling up and contacting demons to get cards is important and it's one of the more challenging aspects of the game.
On the whole, the gameplay is balanced for the most part, though the actual process of fighting, talking, and Persona choosing can get tedious at times, especially the second time through the game, after the novelty wears off.
Fortunately the control scheme is very easy to learn and use. Rotating the camera is never a problem, and accessing the menu and, more importantly, navigating it, is fairly easy. If you have a dual shock controller, remember to turn on the vibration feature, as it's used to great effect in the game itself. My only complaint would be that I always mixed up the menu access button and the view map button, perhaps out of habit.
Graphics dominate the "excellent" side of the scale. All the characters are sprites, and are well detailed, down to Maia's guns and Katsuya's tie. Slight pixilation occurs during close-up scenes, but nothing Xenogears didn't do worse. All the dungeons and stores are created out of well-textured polygons and the camera angle rotates very smoothly. The only problem is that the dungeons are all very bland, with few having any impressive landmarks or textures that stand out as interesting. One corridor blurs into the next quite often, and even with the auto map it's easy to get lost.
Spells aren't earth shattering, and the battles themselves are on a small scale, but the big spells are impressive, especially when you compare them with the scale of the battlefield and characters.
The artwork, on the other hand, is nothing short of gold. I love the character portraits, which continue in the style of the first Persona game, thanks to Kazuma Kaneko. What's more, each character has different portraits depending on his or her mood and attitude in the dialogue, which really helps to communicate the feelings in the story itself.
Mention must be made, though, to the movies in EP, as they are simply gorgeous. Anime artwork overlaid on CG backgrounds characterizes Eternal Punishment's cutscenes, and I never got tired of watching the title animation. The direction in the movies was also superb, managing to combine modern settings with dark and eerie themes. Atlus gets kudos for their work.
Along with the graphics comes the music and sound. The musical score in Eternal Punishment fits perfectly in the modernistic setting. Up-tempo techno narrates the overworld map, while dungeons range anywhere from pulse-pounding club to eerie atmospheric tunes. They even managed to get some classical music into the Velvet room. It was definitely a nice touch. My favorite, however, was the ending song, which is a very sweet R&B remix of the world map theme, entitled "Change Your Way". It restored what little faith I had in the genre.
There's also an option to buy soundtrack CDs in the game's CD store and listen to them back at Maia's apartment, as a sort of pay-to-play sound test. I bought all of them.
What impressed me even more, though, was the good quality of the sound effects. Not since Grandia have I been so impressed with a game's sound effects. Everything from sword blocks to the crackle of fire sounded clear and authentic. I'd swear some of the effects that accompanied the movies were recorded in Redbook, but I can't be sure.
There is voice acting in the game, quite a good deal of it. Most characters, such as Baofu, Ulala, and Tatsuya Sudou did an excellent job, but Maia and Tatsuya Suou needed real help. The rest of the voice actors did passable jobs with their characters, and in the end, the voice acting was better than that of most localized RPGs.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is a great title and a solid buy. It's a sleeper hit, as many of Atlus' titles are, but if you can, pick up a copy. The game is fun, has more replay value than almost any RPG out there, save maybe Chrono Cross, and lets you explore a creepy world where modernity meets the mythic. Eternal Punishment took me over 100 hours to go through the first time and I still didn't find everything I could have, so if you're looking for an engaging and innovative RPG with tons of replay value, look no further. But be careful: I hear that the game is addictive, though it's just a rumor… isn't it?