I've been a fan of Atlus since I played Lucifer's Call (that's Nocturne for the US crowd). Since then I've played all of their RPGs I have gotten my hands on to and I've never experienced much of a disappointment. Well, the first Devil Summoner aside, but even then they corrected their mistakes in the sequel. Atlus has a tendency to do two things really well: deep game mechanics and intriguing plot. Storytelling on the other hand was a clear weakness before Persona 3. So um anyway, enough with the context. Although I knew from the start that Persona 2 would be in no way comparable to its successors I think that a lot has gone wrong with this game.
Actually, the only thing the game really has going for it is its plot which is primarily hindered by the f-ing long and numerous dungeons in the game that have random battles bursting out at approximately five second intervals. Talk about old school. These are pretty common errors and not worth a blog post really, so let's take a look at some of the more specific screw-ups in Persona 2.
1. Demon contacting gone horribly wrong
This has been a stable in the Shin Megami Tensei brand for quite some time. Especially in the main series. Normally contacting is done to obtain new demons for the player's party. The core mechanic is quite simple: the player chooses a communication skill to use and the target demon reacts to that. The reactions are predetermined and often predictable because they are based on a fixed set of personality traits. All this makes contacting less of a random selection and more of an actual decision. The mechanic is overall just fine and in the main series it actually demands decisions from the player because recruitment skills take space from battle skills.
Persona 2 turns the occasional demon negotiation into a grind. Instead of immediately gaining new allies, the player now has to collect tarot cards from demons which can then be spent to summon personas in the Velvet Room (a blue room with creepy people in case you're wondering). This system effectively means that to obtain new personas you'll be contacting the same demon over and over again to get that bucketload of cards you need. What grand fun. Before that though, you'll spend some time figuring out what the f all those contacting skills actually mean regarding demon personalities. The protagonist for example has the amazingly useful skill of imitating the sound of construction equipment and can also initiate a discussion about manliness with the demon. Based on my experimentation, if a demon is "wise" and "forceful" it will be intrigued by a good talk about being a man. Mind = blown.
Although this contacting business is quite the grind there is actually a silver lining. Once you get a demon to become eager, the battle immediately ends after you get your cards. This typically takes a fraction of the time it would have taken to actually kill the demons so it's a good way to skip lots and lots of battles. I found myself doing this a lot in the longer dungeons.
2. Let's drop this demon fusion business...
Hi. What? In case you're unaware, one of the biggest hooks in the entire Shin Megami Tensei brand is the ability to raise demons (or personas) and then fuse them together to get more powerful demons while inheriting the more useful abilities from the "parents". The beauty of this mechanic is that every raised demon serves a purpose and often the lineage of end game demons is amazingly long. The fusion mechanics have all sorts of interesting rules and properties which people have written very long guides about. So what's the genius move in Persona 2? Oh they dropped demon fusion altogether (actually they might've done this in P1 already, I haven't played it).
Basically they kept everything else which makes about as much sense as keeping the stuffing and throwing away the bread from a sandwich (on a second thought, the analogy makes more sense). Because personas are leveled and higher level personas learn more powerful skills, the player needs to upgrade their persona arsenal after pretty much every dungeon. The player also cannot summon personas that are 5 levels higher than their characters. A newly summoned persona starts with a grand total of one ability and another can be added by throwing a skill card into the summoning process. Personas open new abilities by gaining ranks which involves using them in battle. At least they had the decency to show which skills a persona will learn.
Since you need experience and levels to summon new personas, and you also need to use personas to make them actually useful, you're faced with a choice in each battle: grind for cards or grind for levels/ranks. That means double the grind, yay! Not to worry, the game gives you a lot of time to do both because the number of battles is overwhelming. All in all, this system is just incredibly stupid. Every persona you raise is essentially worth nothing in the long term. Sure, you get a small gift for releasing a maxed out persona, but they are very rarely worth the trouble. Second, a new persona starts out really crappy but you are forced to use it if you ever want to make it better. Completely and constantly replacing something the player has spent a lot of effort into developing is a fucked up mechanic.
3. Fusion spells
This is the only "new" mechanic in the game that actually makes sense. Well, almost, and it comes with a cost. If certain spells are cast in succession, their effects are replaced by a fusion spell, which is typically more potent than the individual spells would have been. To make this possible, commands to characters are given in advance and then executed by hitting "run". The player then needs to decide whether to start a fusion spell or cancel it. Starting a fusion spell cancels the individual spells as characters wait for the final participant to cast the final component and then the fusion spell itself is unleashed. Figuring out the most effective persona configurations and battle order to effectively utilize fusion spells is the best part of this game. Sadly the combat UI is a bit lacking and makes this often rather tedious.
UI problems are nothing new though, they are pretty common in old RPGs. What's amazingly stupid about the fusion spell system is that the player has to discover the recipes by trying out combinations of spells. Oh my god, what were they thinking? I have never ever been a fan of "try everything" puzzles or systems. Including such a system in the game's already tedious combat mechanic is just plain wrong. Hidden information that is in no way hinted is an annoying trope in Japanese RPGs and I don't really find it excusable ever, but it gets a several magnitudes nastier when applied to the one core mechanic that makes the game's battles go in decent time. Fortunately for us modern gamers fusion spell lists are nowadays available on the web.
The theme in Persona 2 game design seems to be "everything is a grind". I didn't find the game particularly enjoying to play. It was playable though, partly because for an Atlus game it was ridiculously easy. I played on hard difficulty and I got a grand total of one game over. I would usually complain about this, but with all the screw-ups made in the game's design I was just happy to get through it in good pace. I'm not certain if this is just a quirk with the PSP re-release though. Despite all this thrashing, I'm still going to play Persona 2: Eternal Punishment when it comes out in Europe. It uses the same system, so at least I will be familiar with all the quirks. I'm also dying to see how the story develops. The quirky humor is also a bonus.