Review by Yurameki
"Let's Positive Thinking!"
To start off with, yes, that is an intentional misprint in the tag line. It refers to the misprint of Maya's catch phrase ''Let's think positive!'' found in the Japanese version of the game. That said...
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was something of a whim purchase; I saw it in a store and picked it up on the basis of its snazzy box art to fill what was turning out to be a boring summer vacation. I beat the game almost exactly one year later, a testament to the game's extreme longevity as well as a few gameplay flaws that could make or break the game for you. It turned out to be a pleasurable experience for me on the whole, but it doesn't contain the slightest ounce of cross-genre appeal. If you're not a serious RPG fan, this one isn't for you. If you are, and you're looking for a very different experience than your average swords-and-sorcerers romp, you'd want to take a look.
To start off with the least impressive aspect of the game, the graphics are not going to floor you with any feat of technical prowess. A mix of 2D sprites combined with some very basic 3D polygonal backgrounds, they rarely manage to exceed the bare minimum necessary to get the story across. The character sprites quickly become pixelated when the game's camera zooms in - which is quite often - and are very stiffly animated. The backgrounds, comprised almost entirely of right angles, are simple and very often cross over into the realm of drab and boring, particularly in some of the underground dungeons. Monster sprites are often recycled, although each variation does have enough originality to avoid being a direct, MK-style color swap.
The saving grace for the game in the graphics department are a few well done cutscenes, a whole lot of excellent, high-res character portraits, and some of the most interesting designs to surface in an RPG for quite some time. The portraits, shown while each character is speaking, do a lot to cover for the game's other graphical flaws. They're high-res, excellently drawn, and characters hardly more important than the nameless guy on the street have at least one. Main characters will have sometimes have as many as 6 or 7, to convey a variety of emotions. The anime-style cutscenes are done in the same style as the character portraits or in combination with some 3D rendered animations, and while they're nice, you won't find yourself keeping a save game right before one to relive the magic. For as rare as they come, there is surprisingly little animation for most of the hand drawn stuff; although the animators used a number of well-utilized tricks to cover for the lack. The designs for the characters and particularly for the personas are excellent, often bizarre and drawing from a wide range of mythological backgrounds. From Verdandi to Jack Frost to Marduk to Suzaku, they cover the global range of myths and provide an interesting touch. The characters are definitely not the typical RPG range; most are older and their problems more mature than the typical teen angst that's been categorizing the genre lately.
The sound, like the graphics, is a mixed bag. There is quite a bit of voice acting; although not all of the lines are read aloud, major scenes do get a voice reading and all of the characters' battle actions, victories, entrances, retreats, and a lot of the contacts are accompanied by vocal work. The downside to this is that very little of the voice acting is very good. A lot of it is average enough, but there are quite a few lines sure to make you wince, and I always found myself turning down the volume whenever someone else entered the room. If you're the type that clamored for Square to add voice acting to the Final Fantasy series, you won't mind; but somehow I don't imagine those are the ones who'll be playing the game anyways. Other sound effects and spell effects are good, but nothing that really stands out.
The music is generally well done, although a lot of the music played during the dungeons and particularly during the regular battles wears out its welcome. Not a whole lot of tracks to make you rush out and buy the soundtrack, but the music fits well, there are tons of different themes with little repetition, and the game lets you buy various CDs in the game to let you play whenever you have an urge to hear a particular theme again.
On to the story. To sum up quickly, the story is excellent. You take the role of Maya, a magazine reporter who's assigned to cover a bizarre spate of murders, rumored to have been the work of the Joker. You quickly team up with Maya's long time friend Ulala, a restless twenty-something, and Katsuya, a police detective. Other characters team up later in the game; including Baofu, the long haired tap buster who appears to have had run-ins with the Taiwanese mafia, as well as several others, some holdovers from the first Persona and another from Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Each of these characters has the ability to summon personas, shadows of the heart that are used to do battle. Almost all of the game's magic spells, attacks, and fusion techniques are derived from the use of these spirits. The story gradually gets more involved as the forces behind the Joker are slowly uncovered. The story is very mature, with quite a bit of political play and a large emphasis on Wang Long, a type of fortune telling popular in Sumaru City, which serves essentially as the game's sole backdrop. A major component of the story revolves around rumors, which have a sometimes nasty habit of becoming true. You'll find yourself manipulating rumors and attempting to counteract the villain's skillful use of them to accomplish their ends. The mafia, officials of the Japanese government, the police department, and the media all have a part to play before the game reaches it's final conclusion. The translation is good technically, but there's little attempt at localization and much of what localization effort is made is a holdover from the poorly translated Persona: Revelations. There are a few quirky lines and a few puns that don't make a lot of sense translated as directly as they are, but given the vast amount of text that needed to be run through the translation mill, they're insignificant. I do wish they'd gone into the personas a bit more; as omni-present as they are, there's very little background info on what they really are and why you can summon them. Characters reference to them being useful in social settings as well as combat, but you'll only use them outside of battle to use recovery and status spells. A lot of possibilities the story could have taken with them are only superficially glanced over, or sadly unexplored.
The gameplay is what will probably make or break this game for you, and there's a lot to cover here. To start out with, this is one long game. I had thought that Xenogears was long at 45 hours, but this game easily eclipsed that mark. I can't say precisely how long it was before I completed the game on the first play through, because the in-game counter stopped at 99 hours and 59 minutes! To make a guess, probably about 110 hours. There's a definite downside to this, however, and I'll cover it later in this review. The game has a ton of depth to it, an almost unbelievable amount. The number of personas normally accessible is large enough, but when you add into it the minor arcana, special mutations, and special personas requiring specific material cards, you're left with a staggering number of mythological allies to fall back on. Since personas require tarot cards to summon, you'll find yourself often negotiating with demons to obtain the cards necessary to summon new personae. It's an interesting feature, which allows you to contact almost any monster you encounter and try and either interest it enough to give you some cards from whichever arcana it belongs to, or make it happy enough to sign a contract with you. Poor negotiating, however, will enrage the monsters and allow them first strike, which can be particularly devastating at times. It makes for a nice shift from the typical battles, and allows you to basically bypass random battles quickly when you begin to tire of them. They also provide an effective method of retreat, as the battle ends if you manage to get a demon to hand over some cards. The menus outside of the battles are a little cumbersome, and it always feels like you're going through one menu too many to do what you want. Particularly cumbersome is switching a persona after a battle to heal your party, and then switching it back. The battle menu is nicely streamlined, however.
The battles themselves run on an unusual system. You're given a queue in which each of your characters fits in, although you don't see where enemies fit into the turn order. You select an action for each character, or let them continue their previous action, and you let them automatically carry out the actions until you interrupt the battle flow. You can even re-arrange the order in which your units move, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a character at the bottom of the list moved to the top will take his turn before the enemy smacks him around a bit. Although there is an option for your characters to attack without any supernatural aid, you'll mostly be relying on your personas to inflict pain on the myriad numbers of enemies you'll face. Spells or actions in a specific sequence will unlock a fusion technique, in which two or more personas will combine their powers to do some serious damage. The game fortunately keeps track of these fusions once they're unlocked, and will even automatically arrange your party to carry out a particular fusion. This is very nice, because there are a lot of fusions available in the game. Also useful is the analyze feature, which allows you to access most monster's stats and weaknesses at any time without the loss of an action, although it won't work on bosses and enemies you haven't faced before. The system allows you to make all of your selections at one time and then sit back while your people carry them out, requiring your input only when you wish to change a characters action. That's pretty often, though, so you'll find yourself navigating the battle menus pretty frequently, but it's nice to get a little bit to sit back and watch the action once in a while.
I mentioned before that the game's length had a definite downside. That downside is that a fair portion of the game's length will be spent running in circles and fighting random battles. Random battles used to not bother me too much until a couple of years ago, when I suddenly developed a intense dislike for the roleplaying staple designed solely to add a veneer of interaction and a few more hours of clock time to what is essentially a very long graphic novel. In minor amounts, they're passable. In frequent amounts, they're a burden. Persona 2 has a high encounter rate to begin with, but you'll find that almost all of the games secrets are unlocked either in battles or in dungeons. And how many secrets there are! You'll find yourself negotiating with demons to sign a contract to get a rumor that the minotaur can destroy the rock blocking the path to a room holding a treasure trove, then getting a contracted demon to spread that rumor, then signing a contract with the minotaur to convince him to do it, or trying to get a rumor that one of your personas is secretly another persona, unlocking the ability to mutate your persona into a new, otherwise inaccessible persona, or trying to get a demon to spread a rumor that another demon/persona has a secret ability, and another rumor about whether that spell is strong or weak, and another rumor that that particular spell can be used in combination with another spell. This is in between negotiating with demons for cards, and negotiating with contracted demons to get free tarots needed for some particular arcana that can't be obtained normally. This gets worse when you add in the fact that demons won't necessarily cough the information or rumor you want, or when your personas do randomly decide to mutate, you have only a 25% of getting the mutation you want, and even if you do get the modification mutation, you sometimes have only a 12.5% chance of it mutating into the persona you want. In the worst example, I have spent hours upon hours trying to obtain a particular rumor before just giving up on that secret persona in frustration. And if you're desperate for some FOOL cards, Lord help you. Further, while you might read elsewhere that most boss fights aren't hard, you just need a particular setup, you may want to pay attention to how particular that setup is. They'll have two rare personas, each with a rare spell card added to it, and another persona of a minor arcana. You won't know to equip that setup before you go into a dungeon unless you're playing from a FAQ or have developed psychic powers, and if you happen to have a proper setup it's really entirely a matter of luck. You go in with fire-affiliated personas and you end up fighting an ice-affiliated boss. This coincidence is made an even more rare occurrence because the affinities aren't the simple ice-water-fire-physical. You'll run across demons and personas affiliated with those four, dark, holy, lightning, ice, mind, nerve, and all-mighty (don't think that's strong against everything, because it's not). Even physical is split into strike, shot, and sword. I happened upon a boss fight with just the right setup of personas maybe, oh, twice, in over 100 hours of play. In the end, you're going to end up spending some time either leveling up your characters and personas to defeat a particular boss, or unlocking secret personas if you're going from a FAQ, or back tracking to the nearest Velvet Room (which in some dungeons isn't possible) to switch out your setup for the proper one, in addition to any time spent getting cards or trying to unlock other secrets mentioned previously. This all really boils down to one bullet point:
There are a LOT of random battles.
The other problem has to do with the story line. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is, as you may know, Persona 2 part 2. The first part, Innocent Sin, remains to this day unfortunately limited to Japan or those who have a deep enough knowledge of the Japanese language to be able to work their way through 70 hours of kanji. This doesn't damage the game in any major way, and the game does give an extremely short summary in the manual - which goes about as deep as the blurbs in the TV Guide - but when some characters start talking about ''the other side'' and feelings of deja vu you'll be as baffled as Maya and her bunch until two thirds of the way into the game. It's minor for the most part, but having completed the game once and going deep enough into the background on my own time, it's definitely more enjoyable playing through when you know what those lines are referring to.
Speaking of replay, there is some incentive to go through the game a second time; at one point the game requires you to pick between two characters and you may want to go through again with the other. You'll keep all of your Tarot cards and your fusion and analyze info, and can unlock a couple of extra secrets and a dungeon at the end of the second play through. Replaying the game is a major undertaking, though, given the game's length, and it might be a while before you decide to allocate the enormous chunk of time the game requires. Rent it only to get a taste of the gameplay; completing this game in the amount of time mandated by a rental sends chills through my spine. There's a second CD packaged with the game which contains an anime trailer and an interior with two of the game's designers. The anime trailer is very well animated, but it draws as much from the events of Innocent Sin as it does from Eternal Punishment, so don't be surprised if you don't get most of it your first time watching. They're nice little tidbits, but the don't impact the game in any significant way.
Well, this has been a very long review, which I suppose is somewhat fitting. To sum up things up in a nice, easily digested blurb, if you want a good, unique story, like uncovering tons of secrets, and don't mind spending a lot of time in random battles, you'll enjoy this game.
Overall Score: 7/10
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 08/07/02, Updated 08/09/02
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