The plot of Persona 2 is “What if a spooky demon man was spooky?” Fanboys act like this is the best story ever written.
I really don’t need to say anything more, but I will for the sake of thoroughness.
I heard the gameplay didn’t significantly change, so I wisely did not play this one and instead YouTubed the whole thing.
So, like with Digital Devil Saga, the writers thought this story was somehow meaty enough it needed to be split across two games. It isn’t. The entire first game turns out to be effectively just a prologue for the second one, which isn’t even a direct sequel but a different timeline. Like with Digital Devil Saga, the second game is better and the first honestly didn’t need to exist in the first place. It’s still not very good.
The story is much better than Persona 1, I will say. The characters have more personality and there are fewer of them, and there are enough references to the previous game to feel rewarding without feeling like it takes over the plot of this one. The previous player character cameos were all great, and I found it particularly sweet that Maki ended up in a fulfilling career as a psychotherapist; the entire story was about her suffering and fighting to give her the chance at a normal life, so it’s meaningful that she took that chance to ensure people wouldn’t suffer like she did. Additionally, they wisely restricted themselves to only one returning player character, and it was the best one (Yukino). As for the characters themselves, I generally liked all of them, with one exception.
I want to like Lisa, I really do. I like that she gets to be a melee fighter despite being a girl, I like her overall proactiveness, I like how her dad is a hilariously cutting jab at weeaboos while she herself is more complex in relation to her identity as an immigrant. But dear god, her constant sexual possessiveness towards the main character, which borders on sexual harassment at times, is so gross and uncomfortable. I presume the writers operated under the assumption that men can’t be sexually victimized, so unwanted sexual advances are merely amusing instead of frightening. It’s disgusting and unconscionable. She would have been fine if not for that element of her character, why did they have to do this?
…And I was going to praise the game for having a female-majority party, but then right before the final dungeon Yukino gives her persona to a boy so he can replace her, because she’s decided she doesn’t need personas anymore… while the city is still an active warzone where fighting will be necessary to survive. Just, ugh. It’s not like it’s even that hard to gain persona abilities, apparently anyone can get them just by doing a simple ritual! Even if the story absolutely had to replace Yukino with Jun, she didn’t need to be depowered for it. It’s such a stupid and disrespectful way to remove her from the story.
Unfortunately, there is also your standard 90’s era transphobia. One NPC is a trans man who just talks constantly about whipping out his dick to prove he’s a man, and is only ever referred to as a “weird girl” by the narration. There’s later an unrelated NPC who is either a mockery or fetishization of crossdressers, can’t tell which. I get that people didn’t have the best understanding of trans issues in the 90’s, but geez, you couldn’t have removed those bits for the 2011 rerelease, guys? The second game also plays the schizophrenic slasher villain trope completely straight, and actually doubles down on it in the rerelease.
The plot itself is a more personal conflict about a baddie directly victimizing the main characters rather than an impersonal epic conspiracy, which works a lot better. The central conceit of the story this time is that rumors come true, and I was pleased to see the characters react very intelligently to this, outright speculating on the mechanics and possible edge cases and how they might spread rumors that are to their advantage. There’s even a major gameplay mechanic where you can pay an agency to spread rumors for you, which can do things like make shops sell better equipment or make rare demons appear. Given many of these rumors involve changing peoples’ history and factual events it raises some ontological questions, but the tone rolls with the absurdity well enough that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief there. (The possibility of this happening to the main characters is teased at one point, but in their case it just creates evil clones, which… we’ll get to that.)
You may be wondering, how does this interact with conspiracy theories? Are they not a kind of rumor spread on a mass scale? And indeed, the story rides this idea all the way into town: The climax involves the public buying into a book of Nazi conspiracy theories that results in literal Nazis showing up to invade the city, with the final boss being literally Hitler, who of course secretly survived all these decades. The characters are mercilessly scathing about the absurdity of this, and I liked that it reveled in the silliness of conspiracy theories while also acknowledging their connection to Nazism. It is definitely surreal to see this knowing how deep the mainline writers would go on to fall into Nazi conspiracy theories themselves.
Now another thing that really should have interacted with this is religion, yet there’s not a peep of it; a shockingly glaring omission in a series built upon mythology. What, were the “Let’s team up with Lucifer to kill God” guys too afraid of offending people by insinuating religion is fake?
(The one exception to this is the Lance of Longinus, which they claim caused Jesus to bleed continuously, therefore it inflicts wounds that can never heal… which is a story I have never heard anywhere and Wikipedia makes no mention of. The story is that the spear made him bleed water, and he was stabbed when he was already dead, so bleeding continuously would have been miraculous for completely different reasons! Where on Earth did they get this from???)
However, the plot itself is… well. It’s better than the first game’s, but that’s not saying much. Like most jRPG plots it’s way too backloaded; basically everything up to Ms. Okamura’s infodump (which is like… two-thirds into the game) is filler. The ultimate resolution is also emotionally incoherent; like Persona 1, it’s a “save the forsaken child from themselves” plot, but unlike Persona 1 (which didn’t even do it that well), the forsaken child is someone we never even met. The protagonists keep saying “The person I knew wouldn’t do this, they’re so kind and good and we have to save them!” and we just kinda have to… take their word for it. The child’s original personality is only shown in flashbacks, and even then we see very little, on top of it happening years ago. Like, people change, guys? Are you the same person you were 10 years ago? You only knew them for like a month when they were 8, maybe they really do want to destroy the world now.
I think what’s most instructive is how the story fumbles its foreshadowing in a way that seems to be a common pit trap for writers: It makes it clear that a plot twist exists, but gives you no way to predict what that twist is. (This gets to the point where you kill a major antagonist in a climactic boss fight before you learn who he is and why the fight is meaningful.) The story is beating you over the head constantly with hints that something big happened to the characters when they were kids, but those hints are never enough to give you even the slightest idea of the specifics. This is particularly grating when, as I said, the plot is backloaded; the story could have spent its first half giving us clues to the mystery, but instead it just gives us the same useless hint over and over and over again. “Maya has fire-related PTSD! Maya has fire-related PTSD! Did you notice Maya has fire-related PTSD?!” Yes, thank you, game, but why does she have fire-related PTSD? “Something happened at Alaya Shrine! Something happened at Alaya Shrine! Did you notice the characters keep saying something happened at Alaya Shrine?!” Yeah okay, but what happened, game? “Here’s a vague flashback of King Leo burning Alaya Shrine while Maya watches!” Okay, but why was she at Alaya Shrine? What does this have to do with anything else? Can you get to the point already? “Well you see, all the characters met each other as children and the Masked Circle was actually their friend group and they locked Maya in Alaya Shrine the day before it burned down and they conveniently repressed all their memories and that’s why they never mentioned any of this until now!” Oh, come on, that is completely out of left field. I sat through hours upon hours of Maya saying “I have fire-related PTSD!” like half a dozen times and you couldn’t have taken even a few minutes to foreshadow any of that in any way?
Like… let’s take a moment to appreciate how dense that reveal is, too. It’s not actually a single reveal: It’s revealing… let’s count… four major plot twists all at once. If those reveals had been spaced out to happen earlier it might have been possible to piece together the rest. By withholding all the cards until the very end, you rob the audience of the ability to engage with the story. If I had been piecing the mystery together the whole time, I would be much more invested in the final answer; instead I was just impatient for the story to get to the point already, because I had no idea what was going on. (This isn’t even getting into the repressed memories excuse, which is such a cop-out.)
I’d like to compare this to a somewhat similar plot twist from Last Scenario (still somehow setting the bar for RPG writing all these years later), where a late-game scene drops three major reveals about the characters’ backstories. The third twist (that Ethan killed Wolfgang) is, I believe, impossible to predict without some pretty wild guesses. However, you are in fact given all the information you need to completely predict the first two (Castor was at Cromwell and Ethan is Castor‘s brother), to the point that people following the Let’s Play in fact did just that. This changes how I feel about the unfairness of the third twist: Instead of it being random on top of random, it’s added zest to ensure that even the people who were paying enough attention to predict the other twists still get something to surprise them. The audience gets the satisfaction of having their engagement validated and the surprise of something genuinely unpredictable. (Or, if they weren’t paying attention, they just experience a bigger surprise, but that’s fine.) It also helps that these twists don’t comprise the entire plot, so the whole story doesn’t ride on them landing well.
I wonder how much of this is writers believing that if the audience sees a twist coming it’s somehow a failure. In reality, the opposite is true. A good story doesn’t withhold all the information until the very end; you’re supposed to drop breadcrumbs to keep the audience engaged and maintain an even pace to the story.
Additionally, backloading the plot to this degree also renders a lot of it emotionally incoherent. See, the villain’s motivation revolves entirely around punishing the protagonists for the bad thing they did in the past, but because they don’t even remember it the whole thing becomes a farce. In his introduction he outright says “I want to kill you, but there’s no point if you don’t even remember why I’m killing you, so I’ll let you live,” which has to be up there for one of the most contrived villain cop-outs ever. Like with so many jRPGs it seems like, it feels like the plot only starts after the climactic third-act reveal, by which point there’s almost no time left to develop it. If we, or at the very least the characters, knew what was going on from the start, this could actually be the meaningful discussion of sin and retribution and atonement the writers were clearly going for. Instead we get this.
But alright, if the game had just ended at the reveal it would at least be thematically coherent. “Memories are fallible, and we can remember things as much worse than they were, causing us to torture ourselves and others over things that didn’t really happen,” is an accurate statement and a perfectly fine thing to base a story around. Except after you confront Joker it’s revealed that the real villain was a spooky demon man who manipulated his memories and tricked him into doing everything, so actually he’s completely innocent (yet he inexplicably still acts like everything is his fault). Then the game keeps going for several more hours so you can stop the spooky demon man. This mixes with the established theme about as well as oil with water.
Speaking of eleventh-hour left-field twists, it’s also revealed at the very end that a rumor created evil twins of the main characters, who they have to defeat to reach the final dungeon and… for some reason the story acts like they’re actual Jungian shadows and not just some random boogeymen who happen to have their face? We are explicitly told the shadows were born from a rumor based on something the characters didn’t even do, spread by people who didn’t know them, and they behave completely differently. Yet the shadows share all their memories and insist they’ll “always be a part of” them, and everyone just acts like this is true for some reason. The story goes on to wax philosophical about how everyone has a different perception of you and all these imagined versions are equally “real”, which a) no they’re not and b) that’s generally used in the context of people who actually know you, not random strangers making up a conspiracy theory about you.
So then after a grueling boss battle the bad guy wins in a really contrived way anyway because what is player agency lol and the protagonists have to reset the timeline and make it so that none of this ever happened. So the entire game was a massive waste of time, cool, thanks. The second game takes place in the new timeline, and is better by dint of hitting the ground running instead of wasting hours on filler. (It’s also much darker, with people outright dying instead of just getting supernaturally cursed.) I did also appreciate the party consisting of adults this time, which is quite rare in jRPGs. It still ends with “It was all a spooky demon man’s fault,” followed by you fighting the same spooky demon man again but inexplicably this time it actually works, then an ostensibly happy ending that just felt pointlessly cruel to me in that it completely destroys everything the characters were fighting for in the first game. (There is no moral connection between the characters becoming friends and the world ending, a spooky demon man just arbitrarily chose that as his foot in the door, so forcing them to give that up just feels like making them suffer for no reason.) Again, what was the point of the first game if it wasn’t going to go anywhere?
I’m ultimately left deeply confused about what this game was trying to say or why. It keeps seeming like it’s going somewhere, then fantasy nonsense shows up to derail it. The game keeps talking about these big ideas like “people need to work for their ideals instead of having them handed to them” (there’s a lot to unpack there) and “rumors are peoples’ subconscious desires” that are never actually proven or borne out by anything. It gestures vaguely in the direction of conspiracy theories linking to fascism with a late-game cult that literally brags about being “the master race”, but that never goes anywhere, making it seem like Hitler is just here for shock value. It’s also very victim-blamey: It asserts the people who spread rumors are just as culpable as the media who start them (they aren’t), and at the end it’s argued that humanity deserves to be destroyed because a few people secretly desire it. I know this was before awareness of climate change really took off but yeesh does that read as ecofascist now. The vast majority of people do not want the world to end, thank you!
I think they were trying to be profound by making their spooky demon man the anthropomorphic personification of all the evil of the human race, but like every attempt at that trope it falls flat because it completely fails to understand what real evil looks like. There is no single, unified idea of Evil, because evil is by its nature selfish, and evil fights itself just as often as it fights good. (As is evident from the very example the game uses: the Nazis and the Soviets opposed each other bitterly despite both being evil.) Evil is in the specific actions of specific individuals, not some abstract amorphous mass that is fed equally by gossiping as by genocide. Nyarlathotep fails as an accurate reflection of real evil, and so any attempt at profundity or social commentary using him is in turn a failure.
(Oh, and yes, they chose to represent primordial evil with a character invented by a 20th-century novelist. I guess making him the Devil would be too derivative of the mainline series?)
Ugh. I am just so tired of spooky demon man plots. It’s such utter laziness and cowardice, a refusal to engage with human evil so you can retreat to comfortable cardboard fantasy villain instead. Such utter arrogance in pretending you’re saying anything profound about human nature when you shrink from the very thought of touching that same human nature. The villain is effectively just a natural disaster with a face. You can do interesting things with that if you understand it’s a man vs. nature conflict instead of man vs. man (like my beloved Devil Survivor, still the best SMT game), but so few games seem to. What a shameless bait-and-switch. What a complete waste of my time.