Monday, May 18, 2009

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment-PSX-Atlus

Over the years, the Persona series has grown to become one of my favorite series of games, and with its ascension up the ranks, its developer Atlus grew to be a name I trust. But this wasn't always the case. Both Persona 1 and Eternal Punishment were far too confusing for me when they were released back in 1996 and 2000 respectively. So it wasn't until Persona 3, which streamlined both the persona and battle systems, was released that I fell in love with the series. However, both games left their mark on me, and I found that throughout the years, I would often recall moments from both that seemed, even years later, so fresh and so cunning. Of course, that begs the question, is Eternal Punishment as brilliantly challenging as I remember, or was I wearing the mask of a fool?

The story is one of the most important parts of an RPG, so I'll try to explain the plot of Eternal Punishment as best I can. Persona 2 is actually made up of two games: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. Innocent Sin never made it out of Japan, but we did receive Eternal Punishment. So in effect, what we got was the second half of a very long, confusing, and dark plot. As I have never played Innocent Sin, I know little of what transpired in the first game, I shall start with Eternal Punishment and explain what I know.

When Eternal Punishment begins, the characters have lost their memories of the events of Innocent Sin and exist in a parallel dimension where the events of the first game never occurred. Their peaceful existence is conditional though. They must never remember the events of Innocent Sin . Unfortunately, Tatsuya, the main character of the first half of the story, is unable to forget, which causes the cycle of destruction to begin anew.

As I mentioned, you don't actually play as Tatsuya in Eternal Punishment. It isn't until much later in the game that he even joins your party. This time, you play as Maya Amano, one of the party members from the first game. Maya, an editor for the fashion magazine Coolest, is sent to Seven Sister's High School in order to investigate the rumor of the JOKER, a bag wearing serial killer who murders anyone he's asked. To make matters worse, this psycho-for-hire is easy to get in touch with. One simply needs to dial their own cell phone number.

While investigating the school, Maya stumbles across the grizzly murder of a principle who'd been harassing a student. While leaving the scene, Maya is stopped by the JOKER, who is capable of summoning demons. Rambling like the madman he is, the JOKER demands that Maya remember the "other side" and laments that he is living in a world that is completely wrong. On their first encounter, JOKER causes Maya, her friend Ulala, and a police officer, Katsuya, to awaken to their persona through taunts and attacks. On their second encounter in the school's clock tower, Maya and her party are put to sleep because the JOKER cares more about Maya remembering the "other side" than about outright killing her.

Not surprising when the tale involves demons, magic, and persona, no one believes Maya's group when they try to explain the situation So they take it upon themselves, with the help of an information seller named Baofu, to discover the identity of the JOKER and figure out exactly what this "other side" is.

Graphically, the game hasn't aged that badly. The sprites are slender and capable of showing off a good deal of emotion and movement. And other than being almost featureless, they do a good job of replicating the artwork they are based on. The monsters are well designed and varied. There are a few enemies, such as slimes, that show up more than once as simple recolors, but for the most part, each area will throw around ten new enemies at the player.

Inside environments are clean and crisp, doing a good job of melding the real world look and feel of an area with the more gamey dungeon structure. Outside areas, on the other hand, are more often blurry, confusing, and outright dungeon like. This can occasionally break the flow of the game, especially considering that the in game map is cumbersome at best. Fortunately, outside dungeons occur less frequently than the indoor ones, so it is rarely a problem.

The battle screens are a good for their time. The floor of the arena is created from the more dominant ground pattern of the place the party is exploring, while the area around it is made up of a wiggling wall of shadows and fog. The ground twists and warps a bit around the edges, which is either a representation of reality breaking or a graphical glitch. The former adds a bit of mystique, but the latter is probably the truth.

Speaking of the battles, the battle system of Eternal Punishment is completely designed around the fact that it is a grind heavy game. What I mean is, you do not command Maya to shoot enemy A and then Katsuya to heal. Instead, you create a strategy that the party will follow by telling each character what you want them to do. So, while grinding all you have to do is select battle, and the characters will attack on their own until either the battle is over or you press circle to pause the fight to change the strategy.

There it is. I had to mention the kiss of death for many a decent RPG: grinding. And I will not lie, there is a lot of it in this game, but it is not as bad as one might think. And that's because you aren't just grinding for levels, and when you do, they actually come fairly quickly. Combine that with the auto battle system, and leveling becomes as hassle free as possible without using the gambit system. No, I call Eternal Punishment a grind heavy game because you have to grind twice. Once for levels and again for tarot cards or vice-versa.

The tarot cards are earned by contacting the various monsters and conversing with them by sending out various combinations of your party members. This allows the player to not only win battles through combat, but through diplomacy as well. Each monster has a set personality type that can be influenced to feel one of four emotions: anger, fear, happiness, or interest. A monster that is angered may go berserk or attack without warning, while one that is afraid of your party will flee. A happy monster will either make a contract or give you something. But, it is their interest that you'll most want to pique as an interested monster will grant you tarot cards that allow the summoning of more powerful persona.

The summoning of persona is the backbone of the game, because not only do the persona attached to each character effect their stats and stat growth but also determine the skills that they will be able to learn and perform in battle. Of course, you can't just attach any persona to whom ever you want. You have to match based on affinity. A character with a high affinity will use less SP when summoning a persona than a character with low affinity. And one with a low enough affinity may not be able to summon that persona at all. Matching affinity is important, because SP isn't drained by spell but rather by the act of calling upon a persona. All the spells that are at a characters disposal will cost the exact same to use every time, so if the affinity is too low your characters will blow through their SP before the battle is even near complete.

As I mentioned, it was Persona 3 that really brought me into the series, and one of the major differences between the games is that stats aren't linked just to persona. Your characters have their own stats, which are increased along set parameters that match up with their personality, except for Maya. Maya's stats are dependent on how you want to build her. If you want a powerful mage, put most of her points into TEC. If you want a strong fighter, put them into STR. With each level, you are allowed 3 points to assign as you see fit and a bonus point that is determined by the persona that character has equipped. It's a nice little bit of customization that allows you to build based on your needs, and gives the game a bit of replayabilty.

Of course, that's not the only facet of the game that you are allowed to bend to your will. In the world of EP, anything that becomes a rumor,or rather anything believed by a significant number of people, becomes reality. By hiring a detective, you are able to spread rumors that you need. Need a bar to sell weapons? No problem. Need an exchange student to be a mafia smuggler? Not a worry. Need the symbol of Seven Sisters High School to protect people from the JOKER? It can do that too. Anything that the people believe is now as real as a table. Even that which is spread by the enemy. The story becomes a bit more hectic when anyone that ever called upon the JOKER becomes one themselves.

The music in the game is a mixture of techno, rock, and more atmospheric songs, and, in general, lacks the repetitious JPOP songs that most people grew so tired of in the third and fourth games. The only real problem with the game's audio is that the voices sound like the character is talking into cupped hands. It's an odd effect that could have been an attempt to highlight the game's muddled reality, but in the end, just comes off as slightly sloppy. And while the voice work isn't stealer, the voices definitely match the character, so it's a shame that it isn't as clear as they could be.

Eternal Punishment is not a game without faults. It is confusing, and it is challenging. More often than not, I survived a boss battle more due to a lucky Persona equip than skill. But if you've got the time, and the patience, Persona 2 will reward you with an interesting trip through a dark world populated by adults rather than the standard teenager.

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