Persona 2 was a bit of an impulse buy, for me. I remember it well – the very last day I was on one of my frequent trips to Michigan, we went to the mall shortly before the flight left, and I had Persona 2 pointed out to me in a store. I decided to pick it up – why not, it wasn’t going to come to England any time soon, if at all – and we dashed back to the airport shortly afterward. Upon getting it home, I started playing. And didn’t stop for a loooong while. I think, though, that was the jetlag hitting me and forcing me into ‘automaton’ mode.
To clarify – I picked up Eternal Punishment, the sequel / ‘other side’ game to Persona 2: Innocent Sin. If you can get a hold of it, I’d suggest playing IS first, to get hold of important background information first- rather than second-hand. Either way, you’re told roughly what occurs in Innocent Sin in the manual, so it’s not that big a blow.
In Persona 2: Eternal Punishment you play the part of Maya, a journalist for a local newspaper who is investigating a string of murders and encounters involving a man named the Joker, the subject of a popular rumour in the area that if you call yourself, you can contact him and tell him who you want killed. Maya is, according to the manual, an upbeat and cheery person – so I don’t quite get why at the start of the game she dresses so… goth.
The game comes with a nice couple of extras: a trailer for the anime, which if I recall is either out in Japan or in production, and an interview with the creators, both packaged on a bonus disk. The anime is the exact same style as the animation in the cutscenes ingame, you note as you start the actual game, and it is a very fitting style for the game, a little dark, and a little moody. This tone leads you into the game, starting off with a young man in red, contemplatively watching a shrine from a distance, remarking about how this is the place.
You won’t find out what he means, unless you’ve played the former game, for a looong time indeed, and here’s the thing about Persona 2’s story: it’s very good in its own right, even without knowledge of Innocent Sin. It twists and turns like… well, a very twisty-turny thing, and while it can be cliched and while characters can give you blatant hints about what’s to come up (more later), it’s nonetheless a treat to work through.
From here the scene changes drastically to a busy newspaper office, and Maya enters the area, immediately told she has to go and see her boss. At this point, you learn the unfortunate Maya has Crono Disease, that crippling injury so often prevalent in RPGs – she doesn’t speak. I’ve never quite understood that – if it’s so you can choose what her response would be, why tell you her personality in the manual?
Either way, it’s not quite as bad as all that – Maya does get a lot of dialogue choices throughout the game, and much more than simple yes or nos. The best comparison would be Suikoden – the phrases presented do give you some idea of her personality, even if it’s just a small glimpse.
Sadly, one of the most infuriating parts of the game is actually getting out of the first office. To do so you have to talk to a particular person in the office, then speak to everyone at least once, maybe twice, then return to the particular person, something many gamers used to the repetitive speech of NPCs may not think to do, especially when there’s no hints along the lines of “Go talk to people, then return to me.” Eventually, though, you’re given access to the elevator and head downstairs, to meet your flatmate Ulala, and together you go to the latest Joker sighting, a nearby High School.
Once here, you get to see the dungeon layout and use the map. Practically everywhere in the game is rotatable, which manages to solve plenty of view problems, and combined with an extremely useful map there’s really little I can fault in terms of map design and ease of use. The High School map is exactly as you’d expect from a high school, a U shape with classrooms branching off the outer side. Plenty of extraneous details, too, firepoints, lots of lockers, and a classroom full of lab equipment and cowering teachers, which is where you’re going next.
Upon being briefed on what’s happening, our intrepid reporters leave the room and attempt to find the principal, who they find all too easily – dead, in his office. In comes Katsuya, local police detective on the Joker case and definitely not a member of the Beatles, no matter what he might look like, and together they go to attempt to find his murderer, running straight into the Joker who’s been waiting for them and who unleashes a pack of demons throughout the school.
Those familiar with Persona will probably realize what’s going to happen here, and it’s pretty obvious to those who haven’t. Yes, you guessed it – it’s battle time as everyone suddenly manifests Personas. For those familiar with Persona 1, it’s a recognizable but also very updated battle system. This might take a while to explain, but let’s start with the Persona themselves.
Persona serve many purposes in this game: they affect your elemental resistances, they determine which spells you’re able to cast, and they help set your stats, amongst other things – each character and person has a set of five stats, Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Constitution and Luck. At each level up the character gets 3 stat points to spread, and one bonus from the persona they’re equipped with, which goes on a particular stat based on Persona. As you use the Persona, it’ll level up, gaining more spells and more stat points, and your character’s overall stats are based on the average of the two values, after that applying any item bonuses. You set where the points go for Maya, but she shows a natural bias for magic, while everyone else sets their own stats.
Those astute enough might notice a flaw here. To get your Persona to level up, you have to use them as much as possible. This, combined with the complete uselessness of weapons (The only person who didn’t ever do less than 20 damage was Katsuya, who tends to dump almost all of his stat points on Strength) means that the “Attack” command becomes quickly obsolete and you’re basically using spells constantly. Add to that the fact that Maya, if you follow the ‘general’ pattern of her starting stats, will have such a high magic rating she’ll be nearly unstoppable, then you quickly get characters who, due to their lack of Intelligence and concentration on Strength and Constitution, can take a lot of damage but basically tend to end up standing there during battle. In addition, Persona level is far more important than character level, making your character’s stats in the most part useless.
That said, there are some fun things to do in battle. There are a multitude of combination spells, and helpfully the game lists the ones you’ve found for you so that you can always perform them without having to remember commands. Finishing the battle with one of these combination spells may make one of the Persona involved ‘mutate’, which can do one of any number of effects ranging from a slight increase in the persona’s stats to gaining a new spell to gaining a couple of levels to getting the ‘Special Mutate’ ability, which lets Igor (yes, folks, Igor’s back. You may cheer now.) mutate the persona into a potentially completely different – and maybe more powerful – type.
There’s also the very handy Auto system, which starts as default. While hard to get used to, it quickly becomes a great timesaver. Say, for instance, you have a generic boss strategy, or you want to continually practice healing spells to get your Persona levels up. The Auto system means that once you’ve set your commands and started the battle, the characters and monsters will just keep going in Dexterity order until you interrupt the battle: say, you need to change tactics, or quickly heal a dying party member. Head back into the Command menu, and it’ll list the order of characters about to go. Switch the character about to go to a healing spell, or move your healer up in the order (risky, because it’ll delay everyone else) and then continue the battle.
It’s hard to get used to at first – you expect the commands menu to pop up again – but surprisingly fluid once you’re used to it. The only problem with this is if you set up a combination spell one turn, differences in speed mean that next ’round’ their attacks could be out of order, or seriously separated, thus nullifying a second cast of the combo spell.
What else is there to touch on? Well, the other very intriguing system is the Rumour system. Throughout the game, people will tell you rumours they’ve heard, if you swap with them. Asking a certain person to spread these rumours will then make that rumour true in the real world. For instance, at once point of the game near the start, at about the time you could really do with some decent armour, a rumour is floating about saying that the local clothes boutique (which up until now has sold dresses and suits) is looking into selling actual armour. Take this rumour to the rumormonger, ask him to spread it around, then return to the newly ‘created’ armour shop and spend away. Certain rumours have multiple choices contradicting each other, and thus you can only choose one of the paths the rumour could take. It’s a weird system, but it works really well and it’s rather good fun shaking up each of the Gossip Kings after each major section of the game.
Oh, yes. Sections of the game. Well, while the plot is fantastic, with twists and turns all over the place, actual layout of the game, well, isn’t. The game is extremely linear, going from one dungeon to the next. It’s always rather obvious where you have to go, and you’re stopped from going into dungeons you shouldn’t / have already completed by your party members. While it’s irritating, there is Kusugayama High School, which is always accessible and opens up as you go through the game, containing a large logic puzzle throughout it and also letting you grab some experience and Persona experience.
Fans of the first game, rejoice! You can still talk to the demons and make them your friends, but the system’s been upgraded even more. Now, the reaction of the enemy is not based on which characters do what, but which combination of characters talk to the monster – and there are some very strange ones. Say, the hacker recording a tape of the monster, and the detective hmphing in the background. Or the detective pulling out a guitar while Ulala dances. Or three characters pulling out drinks and drowning their sorrows along with the demons’.
The demon will respond with anger, fear, joy or interest, and combinations of these allow you to gain tarot cards – with which you can purchase new Persona – Free Tarot cards – even better, they’re ‘wild cards’, effectively, being usable for any tarot symbol rather than the monster’s innate symbol, occasional money or items, or a contract with the demon, effectively meaning you’ll get extra cards whenever you make them happy or interested.
The sound’s rather a mixed bag, to be honest – I’ve personally always liked Persona music, and this game is no exception to the rule. Tense tracks, teenybopper music for the drugstores (with strange vocals ‘wa-wa’ing in the background), the whole spectrum’s a treat to listen to.
However, the sound effects aren’t always too good. Many character voices are annoying, and given they say something every time you use a Persona and only have about 5 samples each, likewise for the end of battle, it gets annoying quickly. “Whoop-ass completed!” is one I particularly loathe and fear.
The graphics in the game are seriously uplifted by the beautiful cut-scenes, and it’s a good thing, too, since the in-game graphics are decidedly average. The characters are all simple sprites in a rotatable 3D world, and while they look pretty they’re really no different to those of, say, Breath of Fire 3 right back when the PlayStation came out.
The in-battle character graphics are the same sets of sprites, only now they’re in ready positions with their weapons, and the effects are not good, but not bad – they’re as you’d expect for a game that’s been out a while. However, I feel it’s worth reiterating that it’s all worth it for the cutscenes, which are a treat whenever they pop up in all their FMV-ey goodness.
Overall, Persona 2 is not simply Persona in a different case: they have added a lot of depth, a great plot, and many new innovations to the already existing system. You may want to be wary of buying this if you already have Innocent Sin, but I think it’s worth it just to see what happens after. If you picked up Persona 1, chances are you’ll want to get this. If you’ve never touched the series before, go for it. All you have to lose is your non-gothiness.