Fans of Atlus' first-person dungeon RPG Persona have waited long and hard for a sequel to hit US shores. The anticipation has been well warranted; despite some execution problems, the original Persona impressed with its fresh modern-day setting and its occult-rooted theme. Four years after the release of the series' initial installment here, the coveted sequel has finally hit store shelves. And it's been well worth the wait; Persona 2: Eternal Punishment not only surpasses its predecessor while staying true to the series' innovative premise, it ranks as one of the finest RPGs yet released in the US.
Eternal Punishment is actually the second of two sequels created for Persona; the first, Innocent Sin, failed to make it across the Pacific to US gamers. While Innocent Sin created a new storyline in the series (thus forsaking most continuation of the story told in the first Persona), Eternal Punishment is a direct sequel to Innocent Sin. Taking place in the highly modernized Sumaru City, Eternal Punishment stars Maya Amano, one of the primary characters from Innocent Sin.
As Eternal Punishment opens, Maya is working as a reporter for Coolest, a magazine published by a company called Kismet. After a chance encounter with an inexplicably familiar young man, Maya finds herself haunted by bizarre, dream-like memories of events that she, to her knowledge, has never experienced. To make matters worse, Sumaru City is gripped in fear as a serial killer runs rampant, and Kismet's foul-tempered editor-in-chief orders Maya to head over to Seven Sisters High School to investigate the latest tip in the rash of homicides.
At Seven Sisters High, Maya discovers that the prime suspect is an entity who calls himself "Joker". Not much is known about this mysterious killer, but it's rumored among the Sumaru denizens that he's a contract killer summoned by dialing one's own number on a cell phone. So, it's up to Maya and her allies to get to the bottom of this mystery, and to see how her strange memories tie into the murders.
Eternal Punishment gets off to a much more exciting start than both the first Persona and Innocent Sin, and, to the likely delight of players, it follows the example of the eventually riveting Innocent Sin rather than the first game in the series, which faded quickly after an auspicious introduction. The event-based portions of the plot are the strength here; the innovative, dark foundation of the storyline is augmented by bone-chilling plot twists throughout the game's length, ultimately delivering one of the darkest and most deeply disturbing tales ever told in this medium.
Although character development in Eternal Punishment isn't at the forefront of the game's storyline, it is reasonably strong. Those who have played the other Persona games should find that Eternal Punishment's characters are deeper than those in the first game in the series and on a par with the protagonists of Innocent Sin. These players should also enjoy the fact that Eternal Punishment's plot is closely tied with not only Innocent Sin's story, but with that of the series' initial offering as well.
As usual, Atlus' translation work here is strong. Despite some grammatical and spelling errors and a few moments of confusion during key story points, the dialogue flows quite well. Slang is used judiciously, too; it's there enough to remind you of Eternal Punishment's present-day setting, but it's never overused to the point of intruding on the game's dialogue.
Eternal Punishment uses almost the exact gameplay engine conceived in Innocent Sin, meaning that significant differences exist between Eternal Punishment and the series' first game. Gone are the first-person 3D dungeons; instead, all of the area maps are viewed from the overhead 3D perspective popularized by Game Arts' Grandia and Square's Xenogears. In addition, world map play has thankfully been streamlined; moving from location to location is much faster now, and you don't have to fight random battles in the city streets anymore. Like in Innocent Sin, you can spread rumors in Eternal Punishment, causing them to become true.
The battles feature some significant changes, too. Instead of each character being able to use both a melee weapon and a firearm of some sort, each character only uses one weapon type, though the weapon type used is personalized to the character. In addition, the annoying combination of fixed character placement and limited attack ranges has been eliminated; characters still have limited ranges with their weapons, but they can move towards their enemies to attack and don't waste an entire party turn when they do so.
Elements that made the first Persona such a cult favorite return in Eternal Punishment, but in augmented form. Once again, magic spells aren't cast through characters directly, but through Personas, spiritual manifestations of different aspects of the inner essence of the characters. This time around, these magic spells can be combined between characters, leading to even more devastating attacks and unlocking hidden powers in the Personas involved.
Also, enemies do not necessarily need to be defeated; contacting them and interacting with them can save you the trouble of a tough battle as well as yield items, money, and spell cards, which are used to create new Personas. The contact system is more simplified in Eternal Punishment than in its predecessors (each character now only has one way of interacting with enemies, instead of 4), but it's there otherwise intact, and it even introduces some new features, such as alliances and multiple-character interaction with enemies. The simplification of the contact system is a welcome change; I found interaction with enemies to be much less of an exercise in menu management in Eternal Punishment than in its predecessors.
Like in the first Persona, you can create Personas in Eternal Punishment using spell cards. However, the Persona creation system also undergoes some changes in the series' newest installment. Instead of combining two different spell cards to create a new Persona (like in the original Persona), each Persona in Eternal Punishment costs a certain number of spell cards of a specific type. The new Persona creation system works quite well, though it doesn't seem to be any better or worse than that of the first Persona. Like in the series' first installment, items can be added during Persona creation to confer additional abilities or create previously inaccessible Personas.
What sets Eternal Punishment apart from its traditional RPG peers, other than its unusual setting, is its impressive execution. Unlike the clunky Persona, commands in Eternal Punishment are carried out very smoothly, with frequent but brief loading times. In addition, the RPG introduces some mechanisms to help streamline gameplay. Along with the elimination of the movement restrictions in combat mentioned earlier, changing Personas no longer costs characters a turn, which makes doing so a much more viable strategy option. Battle commands no longer have to be issued at the beginning of every turn; characters carry on their assigned actions until told otherwise. Eternal Punishment also remedies the excessive scarcity of save points in the first Persona; in the sequel, you can save almost anywhere in the game.
As enjoyable and impressive as Eternal Punishment's gameplay is overall, it does contain some significant flaws. First of all, the encounter rate of the random battles is way too high. Sometimes, you'll encounter a battle two steps from where you fought your last one. Compounding this problem is the game's dungeon design. Eternal Punishment's dungeons are overtly convoluted in their design, and the combination of the high encounter rate and the area map intricacy makes traversing the dungeons an often-tedious experience. Also, Atlus' newest RPG is extremely difficult, to the point of being frustrating at times. The difficulty also causes Eternal Punishment to play slow in spite of its smooth execution, so gamers intent on playing an RPG that progresses quickly may be inclined to go for something easier.
Eternal Punishment also excels in its control. Your onscreen character Maya moves responsively in 8 directions, and a dash button speeds her up quite nicely. In a welcome change, the isometric control featured in the overhead sequences of the first Persona has been tossed; your characters now move in the exact direction that you command them to on the directional pad. The camera can be manually rotated in 45-degree increments. The menu layout is somewhat unconventional, but it's well organized and easy to navigate.
Perhaps the only weakness in Eternal Punishment's control has to do with the speed of the manual movement of the camera. Because the camera is slow, precision in control is sacrificed to a significant degree when players attempt to move the onscreen character and rotate the camera at the same time.
Graphically, Eternal Punishment is nearly identical to Innocent Sin, meaning that it is much improved over the dull visuals of the first game in the series. Featuring sprite-based characters on polygonal 3D overhead backgrounds, the graphics are brightly colored (at least when appropriate in this dark game) and carry a high level of detail, despite some blockiness up close. Although the character animation isn't as smooth as that of some of the top sprite-based RPGs of today, it's at least adequate, and the animation of the Personas in Eternal Punishment is both quicker and more fluid than that of the series' initial offering. Also noteworthy is the world map; the ugly 3D overhead board-game look of the first Persona's world map has fortunately been ditched for detailed 2D prerendered bitmaps. Spell effects aren't spectacular, but they're not bad, either.
The CG/anime hybrid movies, on the other hand, are stunning, blowing away those of the first Persona and nearly matching the brilliance of those in Innocent Sin. These full-screen FMVs boast a high level of detail, strong animation, and brilliant direction, giving them a level of panache seldom seen in RPG cut scenes. They also help showcase Eternal Punishment's beautiful character art, which is highly similar to that of Innocent Sin and vastly improved over its counterpart in the first Persona. Each major character in Eternal Punishment is stylishly designed, and male RPG fans should enjoy the assortment of attractive female protagonists (and antagonists) that the game holds.
In terms of sound, Eternal Punishment also excels. Innocent Sin had some of the most impressive sound effects ever to grace an RPG, and Eternal Punishment uses the exact same sound programming. Almost every sound effect in the game, including those that accompany menu navigation, carries an eerie, hollow echo, which not only sounds great but also helps maintain the dark, tense atmosphere of the game.
The voice acting is also done quite well. The first Persona was perhaps the only RPG I've ever played where battle cries in English were actually impressive, and, thankfully, Eternal Punishment continues the trend. Although I didn't like some of the voices, such as Maya's and Ellen's (both were overacted, in my opinion), almost all of the other voices in the game are quite commendable.
Like those of the previous Persona games, Eternal Punishment's soundtrack is quite heavily dance-influenced. Although it doesn't quite match the compositional masterpiece that accompanied Innocent Sin, and there are few standout tracks aside from the battle themes, the score of Persona's newest installment is consistently strong, matching the game's tense mood well and surpassing that of the first game in the series.
In spite of stiff competition from the plethora of excellent RPGs released this year, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment stands out as one of the very best games of 2000. This RPG is difficult and time-consuming, so impatient gamers or those who dislike challenge may opt for an easier game. All other RPG fans, however, are strongly recommended to check it out.
Reviewer's note: This review is based on a review copy of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment sent to RPGFan by Atlus. Changes may have been made to the final version of the game.