When it comes to the RPG genre, most games really don't stray too far from the normal conventions that made the genre popular. It almost seems like, outside of twisting the combat and magic system in new ways, RPG developers are designing the rest of their RPGs' systems with a "one from column A, two from column B" mentality. Should the game have random encounters, or should the monster be visible from the world map? Should status effects last outside of battle, or should every character be returned to normal status at the completion of the battle? The list of "either ors" goes on and on, and the result is a genre that, for better or worse, is packed with games that are extremely similar to one another - yet one key system or concept can either make or break each game in the minds of the genre's fans. For the most part, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment sticks to the conventions of the genre - your party moves from place to place, randomly encountering monsters on a quest to save the city. But in both storyline and in execution, Persona 2 isn't your average RPG, and results are mostly pleasing.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is actually the second half of the Persona 2 saga. The first chapter, subtitled Innocent Sin, was released in Japan in 1999. Eternal Punishment takes place in the same setting as the first chapter, but it retells enough of the first chapter's story throughout its first few hours to ensure that you're up to speed with the game's bizarre events. To make a long story short, Sumaru City is plagued by a curse. The Joker's curse turns rumor into fact, causing all sorts of trouble, from mass murder to filling the land with tons of different demons. At the center of all this madness is Maya Amano, a reporter for a popular teen magazine called Coolest. What starts as a simple investigation into the Joker murders becomes a full-fledged adventure once the Joker shows up at Seven Sisters High School and murders the principal. Persona 2 is an interesting mix of mature themes (mass murder, the occult, monsters that ask questions about your character's breasts) and a hint of Japanese pop culture that lends a bit of misguided but welcome humor to the proceedings.
Spreading rumors is a large and interesting part of the game. By getting in touch with various rumormongers, you can plant ideas that will eventually come true, such as the ability to win valuable items, the concept that wearing the Seven Sisters High patch protects you from the Joker's curse, and so on. Also, the ability to speak to monsters rather than fight them has returned from the original game. Rather than giving each character a collection of approaches, Eternal Punishment assigns each character a personality trait. You can combine up to three members of your party for each attempt at conversation, and each combination has a different effect. Anger the monster, and you'll find yourself in a fight. Manage to scare the monster enough, and he'll probably run away. The real object of contacting monsters is to either make them happy or interested. Making a monster happy will net you some items or cash, while interesting a monster will score tarot cards. Tarot cards can be used for summoning new persona, which serve as each character's spell-casting alter ego. If your levels are high enough, you can make a contract with the different monster types, allowing you to collect blank, or free, tarot cards, which can be painted to be any card you like, making them extremely useful in summoning some of the game's rarer personas.
Much like your characters, your personas gain experience in battle. Each persona gives the character it's assigned to certain elemental strengths and weaknesses, and each persona can cast different spells, ranging from healing spells to various types of elemental attacks. As their levels increase, your personas will learn new spells, gain enhanced stats, and even mutate into different forms. While your personas are most useful in battle, you'll also be using them to heal your party between fights, a task made extremely easy by the game's otherwise cumbersome menus. Everything, from attaching a new persona to one of your characters to simply assigning tasks before a battle, seems like it takes one or two more steps than it should. However, battles usually go quickly, as once you've chosen actions for each character, the battle will rage on until one side is defeated, unless you stop to change your plan of attack.
While the battle system in Persona 2 is unique and usually reasonably brisk, it's very easy to end up with extremely unbalanced characters. In the beginning of the game, your characters are rather weak, making talking your way out of fights an extremely attractive option. However, talking your way out of every fight means you and your personas aren't getting more powerful and gaining experience, meaning you're in for a harsh lesson in defeat once you reach an inescapable boss fight. If you fight your way through the game, you'll never get enough tarot cards to summon some of the later, higher-level personas. Either way you look at it, you're going to have to spend an occasional hour or two wandering aimlessly to get into enough encounters to ensure that your characters and tarot stocks are nice and solid.
Graphically, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment isn't terribly exciting. The game places your 2D sprite-based characters into polygonal backgrounds, which can be rotated to different positions at will. While the character sprites look decent, and some of the monster animations are unusually entertaining, things like spell effects and the game's environments are fairly drab. Some higher resolution on the sprites definitely wouldn't have hurt, either, as they all look a little blocky, particularly in some of the closer camera angles used in battle. The soundtrack lends a spooky atmosphere to the proceedings, and most of the game's key plot points and battles feature some decent voice work to lend a little more character to the game.
The localization of Persona 2 seems like a very by-the-book affair. While the game is definitely in English, the wording and grammar is rough at best. Also, the game contains a few concepts that would really make sense only to someone with passing knowledge of Japanese pop culture. Add these together and you're left with game that has a high potential to confuse, though some will definitely find humor and perhaps even a bit of additional challenge in the game's mind-bending take on the English language.
Persona 2: Eternal Punishment has its share of flaws. The graphics could have been a little sharper, the translation could have been a little clearer, and the menus could have been easier to navigate. But if you can manage to get over these flaws, you'll find an RPG that dares to be different, but not at the sake of an interesting story and exciting gameplay. RPG fans looking for something other than the standard "boy meets girl, boy loses girl in heart-wrenching cutscene, boy avenges girl's death and saves world" formula should definitely give Persona 2 a shot.