"Persona 2: Eternal Punishment remains one of the best RPGs I've ever played."
History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, doesn't it? In RPGs this is especially true, since many feature an ancient evil that comes back to haunt the world every millennium or so. While Persona 2: Eternal Punishment does feature a recurring villain, it takes the whole 'history repeating itself' theme to a whole other level.
The key events of Innocent Sin (the direct prequel) are chronicled in the first page of Eternal Punishment's English instruction manual. Reading that should be required if you haven't played Innocent Sin because it will set up the game's events much better. To summarize, here goes: Tatsuya Suou, Maya Amano, and company foiled the plans of the Kamen-To (aka Masquerade), JOKER, and the greatest evil of Nyarlathotep. However, the end was far from victorious. One of Tatsuya's friends was killed never to return (perceptive folks can easily figure out who dies). In desperation, Tatsuya and his remaining friends strike a deal with Philemon that the deceased will be resurrected and a new parallel world will be created in exchange for their memories; a reality reset. Everyone agrees to sacrifice their memories to bring back their friend. Unfortunately, Tatsuya's will is too strong and he refuses to forget his friend and the events of his world. So Tatsuya is in this new world as a paradox, and where Philemon intended to shut the door between two worlds, Tatsuya left it a crack open.
Enter our heroine, Maya Amano - an up-and-coming reporter for the popular Teen magazine "Coolest." Life was going well for her until one day when she encountered a young man at a subway station. She had never met this young man before, but she felt a strong sense of deja vu when she encountered him and thus refers to him as the "deja vu boy." I think you can all guess who this deja vu boy is and why Maya feels the way she does.
Anyway, one fine day, Maya is at work when she finds a strange letter at her desk that says, "You're next! -Joker." Her boss, Mizuno, then calls her into her office. It seems there has been a rash of serial murders at Seven Sisters High School, and she wants Maya to forego her afternoon off and go investigate. Yuki Mayuzumi (camerawoman and recurring character) is angry that Maya's boss treats her like dirt but helps Maya anyway by contacting a teacher she knows at the school. Waiting in the lobby for Maya is Ulala, her red-haired flatmate with the hot temper. It seems they were to go to a party, but Maya instead has to work. Ulala then accompanies Maya to Seven Sisters High where she ribs Maya about her 'deja vu boy' going to that school.
At the school, the duo rendezvous with Yuki's teacher and finds a police officer at the school. Maya makes her rounds talking to the students, many of whom talk about typical high school things, such as romance. One boy in particular, Tatsuya Suou, is on the lips of many of the girls. The police officer investigating the school is curious about young Suou as well, and for good reason. Katsuya, the officer, is the big brother of Tatsuya. But the subject on the majority of students' minds is that of the JOKER Curse where, if you dial your own cellular phone and mention somebody's name, JOKER will kill them.
Speaking of being killed, Maya and Ulala, after doing their rounds and witnessing an unpleasant encounter between the principal and a female student (Anna Yoshizaka), decide they want to speak with the Principal. However, upon entering the principal's office, the grisly sight of his dead body greets them. Katsuya emerges on the scene and Anna enters as well, and denies doing the JOKER curse on the principal. She bolts out of the office and the trio follow. They don't get far before a large canine demon comes around the corner, and a tall man with a long coat and a paper bag over his head, JOKER, emerges and menacingly talks about fate and tosses a pair of familiar pistols to Maya. The trio's personae awaken and after some words from Philemon in his realm, return to the school.
This is where the fun really begins. Seven Sisters High School is now infested with demons and our intrepid trio must make their way to the school's clock tower, where JOKER is holding Anna hostage. Just like in Innocent Sin, the first dungeon is Seven Sister's High School, and the first boss battle occurs in the clock tower. Deja Vu? Speaking of deja vu, the deja vu boy appears after the clock tower battle and gives Maya a Seven Sisters emblem and a cryptic command, "Go to Kuzunoha detective agency in Aoba ward and ask Chief Todoroki to spread a rumor that anyone with this emblem can't be harmed by JOKER. And please, forget about all this."
After this, Katsuya is dismissed from the JOKER murders case but remains curious, so he accompanies Maya and Ulala to Kuzunoha as a police escort; after all, if the note is any indication, Maya is marked for death. It seems deja vu boy was right, rumors CAN become reality. From Todoroki's office, the gang does an online chat with Baofu -- a mysterious man who runs a rumor collection website. They agree to meet him at the 2x Slash cyber caf and later proceed to the Parabellum bar. It is very clear from conversation that Katsuya does not like Baofu's wire tapping tactics to get information, but Baofu could care less and blatantly tests the rumor thing himself by starting a rumor that the bar sells weapons. It works like a charm and then, in a very stylish FMV sequence, Maya burns the Seven Sisters emblem and thus the quest to find out the truth about JOKER, the deja vu boy, and a world domination conspiracy (every good RPG needs one) is fully underway. This is but the first couple of hours of the game, and the story only gets deeper from there. As is par with the series, the storyline is quite fond of Jungian psychology and theory.
The storyline is gritty, dark, mature, and has many twists and turns. The cast is quite strong and is fleshed out quite well over the course of the game. What I really like is that the cast members are all adults. While I do enjoy RPGs with teenage heroes, I was overjoyed to play an RPG where the characters are adults in my age group (I'm 24 as of this writing). I had a very easy time relating to them, particularly Maya because I used to work in print publishing. There is a lot of dialogue and all the story portions of it are well translated and intelligently written; one shopkeeper even greets you saying "irasshai" rather than "welcome" (irasshai is short for irasshaimase which is Japanese for 'welcome to my store'). The characters all talk and think like adults. So, while the story is among the most original and most compelling I've played in an RPG, I found that the prequel, Innocent Sin, had a more interesting plotline as far as events go. While Eternal Punishment has many memorable moments, some of them feel a little lost without exposure to Innocent Sin; some of the scenes are verbatim repeats of Innocent Sin's scenes thus creating that wonderful 'history repeating itself' feel. Still, the game makes excellent use of flashbacks and history lessons through dialogue to bring a Persona neophyte up to speed on past events.
Oh, one thing that's dummied out from the US version that was really cool in the Japanese version: In the Japanese version of Eternal Punishment, you could carry over your final save from Innocent Sin in much the same way the Suikoden and Arc the Lad games work. By carrying over your save, your final Tatsuya from Innocent Sin gets carried over, among other things, thus making it even clearer that he's a paradox with memories of the 'other side.' Also, there are events in Innocent Sin where, if done correctly or incorrectly, can affect Maya's flashbacks in Eternal Punishment. Of course, this was dummied out of the US version as well. Thus the US version assumes you did everything 'right.'
Other than that, though, everything from the Japanese version of Eternal Punishment is fully intact. This is a blessing to those who felt burned by the awful localization that Revelations: Persona received, as well as its omission of an alternate story arc. Though some recurring characters from Revelations do keep their 'Americanized' names to keep the continuity (i.e. Mary Sonomura, whose Japanese name in Persona was Maki). And the personae retain their true mythological names, despite a few misspellings. I appreciate that Atlus USA directly lifted the demon and persona spellings from the kana rather than make up their own stuff like in Revelations (i.e. renaming Aizen Myouou to Voodoo or Phaleg to Halo), but there were some glaring errors such as keeping Stuparideth (the kana in the Japanese version is SUCHIyuPARIDESU) instead of making it Stymphalides (from the Greek myth of Hercules). There were also a few isolated errors such as the demon description saying Ratatosk is from Celtic myth when, in fact, Ratatosk is a Norse creature. As a mythology buff, errors like that jumped out at me.
One thing that's semi-controversial is that in Megami Tensei tradition, Maya is a mute lead. This is both good and bad. She has a talkative personality in Innocent Sin, so making her mute in Eternal Punishment seems bad. But on the other hand, it also works. Working for a teen magazine and having been around a gaggle of teens in Innocent Sin shows Maya's reluctance to grow up (Ulala ribs on her for liking younger guys sometimes). In Innocent Sin, her role as 'big sister' was defined and comfortable. In Eternal Punishment, her age is mid-pack. She is neither the oldest nor youngest, so in that dynamic of primarily adult company, her identity is limited wherein she needs to come to grips with her adulthood. And because she has voice clips during battle, she seems less mute.
The gameplay is pretty much the same as Innocent Sin with a few tweaks. Little tweaks include analog control support and the ability to exit stores from the shopping menu rather than have to walk to the door. In battle, the options are pretty standard, such as attack, use persona, use item, defend, etc. And like in Innocent Sin, a character can switch personae without wasting a turn. The battle system has some great features. Turning off the battle animations is a great feature that speeds battles along. And the command-canceller is still one of the coolest things ever. Here's how that works: Ulala is poised to do an earth attack, and Maya is poised to do one right after. Ulala's earth attack is ineffective. With a press of the circle button, I can stop the flow of battle and redistribute commands or even change the order in which each person acts. Order is very important in combat; up to three people can combine their magic into hard-hitting fusion spells. And unlike Innocent Sin, where you had to set the fusions up manually each time, Eternal Punishment allows 'one touch' fusion spell set-ups if the fusion is already learned. Smooth. Battles occur randomly, as is the norm in many Japanese RPGs.
The contact system received the biggest tweak. Rather than have four individual contacts, each person only has one (such as Maya's 'interviewing' or Ulala's 'fortune telling.') Thus the focus is more on combined group contacts, which are modified from Innocent Sin's group contacts. In Innocent Sin if you highlight Yukino's name first, then Eikichi's name, their contact will be the same as if you highlighted Eikichi's name before Yukino's. In Eternal Punishment, order matters. If you highlight Katsuya's name before Ulala's, the contact will be different than if you highlight the names in the reverse order. And yes, the maximum number of people who can do a contact is three.
While I prefer having four individual contacts to gain more insight into the characters' individual personalities, the focus on group contacts is a great way to bring a group of disparate individuals together. The lesser emphasis on the group contacts in Innocent Sin was fine because there were common bonds between the majority of characters, such as multiple students attending the same high school and wearing that same uniform. Many even had shared pasts. Plus, in high school, you're trying to establish your individuality whereas in young adulthood you're an individual looking more to share yourself and develop more meaningful relationships with others. This was an excellent way to integrate story and gameplay and tighten the bonds between the disparate cast members.
For those unfamiliar with the Persona games, the contact system is the signature element of the series. You not only have to fight demons, but you also have to talk to them in order to gain stuff. As usual, the demons can express one of four emotions: joy, interest, fear, or anger. Eliciting one emotion three times ends the contacting session. Interest and joy are the most desirable, obviously. If the demon is interested in you, it will give you tarot cards from its arcanum (i.e. DEVIL, CHARIOT, etc) that you can redeem in the Velvet Room for personae, which are summon spirits (and the only way to use magic in the game). If a demon is joyful, it will draw up a contract with you, and if you interest it under contract, you'll get 'free tarot' cards along with arcanum-specific cards. The 'free tarot' cards are important because some arcana (such as HIEROPHANT and PRIESTESS) do not have demons running around, so if you have 'free tarot' cards, Demon Artist in the Velvet Room can paint them into whatever you want.
As in the rest of the series, once you equip a persona, you take on its characteristics as far as resistances go (i.e. if you equip a persona that reflects fire, any fire attack launched at you will be reflected). The more you use a persona, the more it will rank up (8 is the max) and learn more spells. Using them in fusion spells help rank them up more and encourage mutation when equipped to a compatible person. Mutation can result in many things, such as a persona ranking up quicker, its vital statistics increasing, or 'modification ability' wherein Igor in the Velvet Room can turn it into another persona. Here's what I mean by compatibility: based on personality, some character are more compatible with certain arcana than others. For example, Maya is poorly compatible with LOVERS personae so if a LOVERS class persona costs 15 SP to use by default, it may cost 25 to use when equipped to Maya. Ulala is more compatible with LOVERS, so for her, the SP cost may be 10 or less. And some personae, regardless of arcanum may have little or high compatibility with others. For example, Maya is generally neutral to CHARIOT personae, but CHARIOT Susano-O is highly incompatible with her. This seems confusing at first, but it makes sense when you play the game. This also adds a nice strategic element to the game and integrates character personalities into the gameplay. Many personae are good, but some are not worth wasting your cards on. Also, the game is set up such that you have to change your personae often. There is no way you can sail through the entire game with low level personae.
One thing that could be an issue is the spell names. If you have exposure to the Japanese Megami Tensei games, the spell names are old hat, but for those whose only exposure to the series is the US version of Revelations: Persona, it's more of an issue as Revelations changed all the spell names for easier understandability (i.e. Medirama was HealAll). Most of Persona 2's spells are in foreign languages such as Sanskrit (Maha Agi), Latin (Magna), Hebrew (Megido), and others. How is a series initiate supposed to know that Agi is a fire spell until they use it? A 'see what each spell does' guide in the Velvet Room (or the instruction manual) would have been very helpful when invoking new personae. You can cycle through spells and get their descriptions in the main menu, but only if you have that persona in your repertoire. I utilized multiple save slots in the Velvet Room to 'preview' personae, then if I didn't like it, I'd load up a prior save. I felt this was an unnecessary headache, but I do admit, as you go through the game, you will become comfortable with the spell names. And I like that Atlus USA kept the spell names consistent with the Megami Tensei norms in this installment.
For anyone who bemoans that modern RPGs (meaning post-FF7 RPGs) are all easy cakewalks, Eternal Punishment comes back and shows us that challenge is not dead. Even a veteran RPGer like me was given a run for my money in many boss battles and some serpentine dungeons. And unlike many old-school RPGs where power levelling alone could allow you to pummel a boss, levels are less of an issue in Eternal Punishment. What personae you have equipped is more important and adds a nice depth of strategy to planning out battles, rather than falling back on the hack-and-heal method. The bosses are difficult, but never cheap.
One thing I did find subpar was how weapons were handled. Most weapons you buy and equip have a magic attribute to them. To me, this is asinine because you get tons of magic in your personae. And if perchance you encounter a boss who reflects magic and your natural inclination is to switch to physical attacks, then those will be reflected if the weapon has a magic attribute rather than physical (such as shot, sword, or throw). I think guns should have been 'shot' only, swords 'sword' only, and throwing weapons 'throw' only. Keep weapon attacks physical. You could circumvent this by only buying weapons with physical attributes, but you often miss out on stronger ones.
And what makes the dungeon crawling easier is the automapper (your best friend) and the ability to save the game anywhere you want outside of battle or non-interactive cutscenes. But I will say this, if you don't like dungeon crawling, then this game is not for you. Many dungeons are quite long and very involved. Personally, I loved them and after the insultingly short and easy dungeons of games such as FF9, the meatier dungeons of Eternal Punishment were great to keep me in practice. Another thing that makes the game tougher than its prequel is that many shops and services have higher prices, so one needs to monitor their finances more.
Replay value is quite high. In the middle of the game you choose a fifth party member, and thus can follow one of two subplots in the game. Following both subplots is a good idea to get the full scope of the story. If you finish the game with one person's path, you can do a 're-start' that works something like New Game Plus in the Chrono Series. Your characters' levels are reset back to 1, but you retain a bunch of important things from the previous playthrough, such as all your leftover tarot cards and your fusion spell list. This definitely makes the second going much smoother. But that's not all- once you beat the game with both paths, you gain access to the bonus EX dungeon wherein you can select which party members you want to dungeon crawl with. I've only briefly mucked about in the EX dungeon, but let me tell you -- it is HUGE and the enemies are quite powerful. Even enemies who were weaklings in the normal game are turbocharged here. My conjecture is that the EX dungeon would take as much time to complete as some entire games do. Amazing how all this material fits onto ONE PlayStation CD-ROM. You really get your money's worth with this game.
The rumor system has also been modified. Like in Innocent Sin, you can collect rumors from various rumormongers in Sumaru City, or even some townspeople, and spread them at Kuzunoha. And, yes, rumors are set apart by red text in the dialogue boxes. Unlike Innocent Sin, where store rumors follow the low price/crappy goods, mediocre, high price/excellent goods, some of Eternal Punishment's rumors actually change the type of goods sold. For example, one person may rumor that a store sells special weapons and another may rumor that the same store sells special armor. So it's up to you to choose. This makes the decisions tougher than the no-brainer of 'high price/quality goods.'
One playthrough of the game proper took me over 110 hours. I could have beaten the game in half that time, but all the extras kept me busy. Sidequests/optional dungeons, gambling in Mu Continent, buying CDs at the music store and listening to them at Maya's apartment (I bought them all), loitering in Sumaru City talking to every NPC and all my party members in various locations (this opens up new dialogue, insight into personalities, and perhaps new combo contacts once the characters get to know each other), doing mansearches (identifying various people in Sumaru for a price -- really gave life to the city) were all things that kept me busy. I also spent ridiculous amounts of time in the Velvet Room perusing new personae and trying many of them out. One thing is that if you simply cannot get into the whole demon dialogue and persona systems, the game is not for you. The game is highly dependent on its play mechanics systems.
The graphics are well done. While not WOW worthy like FF7-9's visuals, they have a lot of style. The game uses Innocent Sin's engine, so many things look the same. Certain places, such as Seven Sisters High School have the same layouts as the prequel. The 2D sprites are large and well detailed, and the 3D polygon backdrops are smooth and look almost hand drawn without any seams or clipping. When the camera goes behind a wall, the wall becomes semi-transparent so you can see your sprite. We only see Maya's sprite while dungeon crawling, but we see everyone's in certain rooms. These rooms often have the best detailing, such as Maya's apartment. Little touches, such as a PlayStation in Maya's room are great.
The battle graphics are both better and worse than the prequel. The personae are much larger, the 'summoning' blue light around the caster is more detailed, and the tie-dye swirls around the battlefield return. The spell effects, while nice, are nothing to write home about. They do animate quickly, though. But while these enhancements are in place, I felt that Innocent Sin had more diverse and varied sprite animations during contact sessions. And, again, the first Persona game had higher resolution sprites.
The overland is a prerendered image of either the larger Sumaru City map, or a smaller map of each district. From the brown, ghetto-like Hirasaka to the bright, lively, night-lifey Yumezaki, to the wealthy, uptown feel of Narumi, each district has its own distinct feel, very much like a big city. No battles occur on the overland, and you guide a little green icon around the city. Blue icons are NPCs you can talk to.
The highlight of the graphics are the FMV sequences. Often blending anime and CG, these cutscenes are stylish and feature CG with no graininess. The intro cinematic is excellent eye candy, but doesn't feature into the plot as well as Innocent Sin's intro does. My favorite part of the intro cinematic was seeing anime Maya and Tatsuya back to back casting their personae and said personae coming out in full CG glory. I thought that was an extremely slick and smooth blending of anime and CG, however, the FMV cutscenes are extremely scarce throughout the game's course, and most cutscenes are used with the in-game engine. Still, the FMV is a nice treat when it occurs.
Important characters and shopkeepers have their dialogue boxes accompanied by portraits. Often, these portraits change emotion along with the dialogue. Again, Kazuma Kaneko proves himself one of my favorite character artists with his modern, unique, and stylish art. Also, some character designs were changed slightly. Maya's visage is prettier in Eternal Punishment. Katsuya is one whose appearance changed a lot; in Innocent Sin he looked old and haggard, but in Eternal Punishment he's quite handsome (and popular among fangirls). Methinks these characters were made more attractive in this reality/parallel world to be the 'ideal' versions in Tatsuya and company's minds before the 'parallel world shift.' See, it's little things like that, which keep you thinking about why things are the way they are in the plot and game world.
Sound is a very mixed bag. There is more voice acting in this game than Innocent Sin. There are battle clips, but the pre-boss dialogues are much longer in this installment. The voice acting ranges from good to 'gag me with a spoon.' Baofu had, in my opinion, the best English voice actor. Baofu's lines were delivered with that perfect hint of gruff, laconic arrogance. Our favorite violent schizophrenic, paper-bag wearing JOKER Tatsuya Sudou also was well cast. In fact, I thought his having a rough, threatening and menacing voice in the English version fit better than the ghostly voice he was given in the Japanese version of Eternal Punishment. I also found Ulala's English voice a hoot; I liked the excited way she said "I am the champion!" after battle rather than the Japanese seiyuu's more nonchalant "I'm champion." Katsuya's voice actor has his ups and downs in both versions; in the Japanese version, he sounds like a hardened cop, but spoke too roughly sometimes, but while the English voice was smooth, the voice actor made Katsuya sound like a whiny wuss rather than a hardened cop. Other English voices just outright sucked. For example, dj vu boy himself, Tatsuya Suou, sounded like he was totally out to lunch and half-asleep when delivering his lines. And one male character who's supposed to be a speechmaker was given a voice actor with poor enunciation who sounded quite muffled. And another male character who's supposed to be around 18 sounded like he was 12! Despite some silver linings, the dub was mostly a black cloud.
What gets me is that Atlus went out of their way to give an unknown, unproven title like Thousand Arms an excellent dub, yet gave their flagship series game a generally poor one. Personally, I would have loved for Eternal Punishment's voiced dialogue to stay in Japanese, as it would have lent a more immersive feel to the game, as it is set in Japan. The English dialogue boxes could have acted as subtitles- but given all the name changes in Persona 1, a dub was necessary. And at least all the demons retained their Japanese voices.
The music is also conflicting. The sound quality is great, and like other Megami Tensei titles employs well-done, ultra modern sounding electronic techno. Unlike Innocent Sin's soundtrack, this one is devoid of any character themes, though during a few plot segments there is a cool remix of Maya's theme from Innocent Sin. This was my favorite piece of music in the game. I also really liked the overland theme and the regular boss music. The boss music is punchier than Innocent Sin's, and there are a bunch of other good tracks in the game, but there are also some clunkers that are either annoying or unmemorable, such as the factory's and the undersea ruins' music. It's a decent soundtrack, but I felt that Innocent Sin had more memorable pieces and an overall catchier soundtrack. So, perhaps part of my slight disappointment stems from having expectations just a wee bit too high. Still, though, not many RPGs use electronica in their music, so Eternal Punishment gets serious points for that.
Still, despite all the flaws, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment remains one of the best RPGs I've ever played. Oftentimes RPGs leave me bored by the 50th hour, and I just want it to end right away. With this game, the 50th hour felt like I had just barely begun the game, and I was surprised the clock didn't read 50 minutes. Sound familiar? Yes, I felt the exact same way about Innocent Sin. Did history repeat itself? In a way, yes. Did lightning strike twice? No doubt. It is thus that I wholeheartedly recommend Persona 2: Eternal Punishment to anyone who loves RPGs. It is a very refined title and offers a different flavor than you might be used to (unless you're a Megami Tensei veteran). If you've never played a Megami Tensei or Persona title before, definitely give this game a spin -- it really offers something new to those looking for something fresh and unique in their RPGs.
Though, if you are a Megami Tensei veteran who thought Persona 2: Innocent Sin was a 'dumbing down' of more traditional Megami Tensei systems, then Eternal Punishment may not change your mind. But you will be pleased to know that, as I said before, the boss battles are much more difficult in this game than Innocent Sin. Hey, at least that's something. Still, the Persona 2 games are more accessible to mainstream RPG players than other Megami Tensei titles, such as Soul Hackers or even the first Persona game.
The ending is long and rather melancholy (a nice change from the saccharine happy endings of many RPGs) and leaves a LOT open for a possible Persona sequel. Unfortunately, from what I heard, Eternal Punishment is the end of the Persona trilogy. But if perchance Atlus R&D 1 were to change their mind and make a Persona 3, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be one of the first in line to snatch it up.
Oh, and be sure to check out the fan disc that comes with the game. It features a cool anime trailer and an interview with Cozy Okada (series producer) and the aforementioned Kazuma Kaneko. It was nice to put faces to the names. Sure, the US fan disc has fewer goodies than the Japanese fan disc, but I think the anime trailer and the interview are definitely the coolest bits. The gentlemen say in the interview that they'd like to maybe do a Persona game set in feudal Japan in perhaps the Meiji or Sengoku era, so I can only keep my fingers crossed that said wish will come true.
Maybe if we propagate the rumor, it will...