"Innocent Sin's core gameplay suffers because it adheres to some of the RPG standbys of times gone by."
I was beyond excited that Atlus USA chose to localize Innocent Sin, a title that's been long in coming to the West. It's a title I've longed to experience, and now that I have, I'm satisfied – but I can't say that I look back on my play time with incredibly fond memories. Innocent Sin would have been an absolutely great title to play back in 1999, but many of the game's individual pieces haven't been treated kindly by Father Time. Still, Innocent Sin is a worthwhile title to play for Shin Megami Tensei fans – it's just not going to be a title that casual fans will flock to.
To be completely fair to Innocent Sin, it's far from a bad game. In fact, most of its flaws are remnants of its location in the annals of gaming. Were Innocent Sin released in 1999 in North America, I'd likely hold it in the same regard as I do most of the other classic RPGs from that era. It's 2011, however, and things like incredibly high random encounter rates, labyrinthine dungeons with few clues on where to go, and the necessity to grind – and not just for experience points – are incredibly frustrating. This is a Persona title, however, and Atlus has never been known for making poor games. Much was ahead of its time in Innocent Sin, so there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for those who can stomach its anachronistic elements.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin follows the story of Tatsuya Suou, a high school student who finds himself at odds with a demonic entity known as the Joker. The Joker holds a grudge against Tatsuya, but Suou is completely oblivious as to the reasons why. Suou's life then becomes a living hell – he and his classmates must unravel the secrets behind the Joker and deal with the fact that he is granting wishes to those who pledge to him. It's a fairly interesting story and one that has both quality characters and writing. This is one of the few elements of the title that doesn't feel dated – because this is a new translation, it's far from hackneyed. The idiosyncratic characters' banter is all quite charming, and while some of the communication is awkward, it still holds up.
The graphics, on the other hand, simply don't. The PSP has a glut of pretty games, both 3D and 2D, and while it's not unexpected that a port of a PSOne title wouldn't look spectacular, both the game's dungeons and sprites are particularly unimpressive. Considering that gorgeous 3D titles like Chrono Cross were released in the same era in Japan, Innocent Sin's tiny, low-resolution character sprites and generic-looking dungeons do little to impress. Battle animations are particularly simplistic and don't even have the grace to move particularly quickly. Luckily, the character art is both unique and beautiful, so there is an upside, albeit a small one, to the game's visuals. Audio is fairly standard – voice acting is sparse, though passable, and the music is quite good. None of the tracks were incredibly memorable, but they all fit well into the atmosphere of the game.
Innocent Sin's core gameplay also suffers because it adheres to some of the RPG standbys of times gone by. The game's turn-based combat system is fairly straightforward and includes expected features like elemental weaknesses and combo attacks. The encounter rate is incredibly high, and combined with the labyrinthine dungeons and sometimes unclear directives, finding your way around can be lengthy and frustrating. This isn't the level of Phantasy Star II we're talking about, though, especially considering that the game features an auto-battle system that works. Instead of simply defaulting your characters to autoattacks, the auto-battle repeats previous commands, making it so you can grind easily. As well, characters' SP regenerates as you walk around dungeons, so you'll never get caught almost dead with no mana in the middle of the dungeon, but the grinding's still not something that's friendly for today. Some dungeons are particularly frustrating – like the shelter under one of the high schools – which requires literally walking in circles to complete. All this is exacerbated by the frustrating analog controls and minimap – it's very easy to get disoriented due to the quick movement of the characters and environmental hazards like traps.
One of the reasons for the high encounter is that repeatedly battling isn't only necessary to get experience points, but for repeated demon negotiation as well. Demon negotiation is one of my favorite parts of Shin Megami Tensei titles, and it's just as impressive here as it is elsewhere. In fact, because Innocent Sin allows you to select multiple party members to negotiate, there's additional depth in trying to get your demonic deeds done. Each demon has its own characteristics and reacts differently to each player character or combination of characters. There are four emotions that can be evoked in each demon: anger, happiness, eagerness, and fear. Evoke a particular emotion three times, and different things will happen – happy demons form pacts with you to get more done later on, scared demons flee, angry demons attack, and eager demons give you tarot cards. These cards are at the core of the game's Persona system, so it's necessary to make demons eager over and over.
There's a little depth to be had here, as well: should you form a pact with a demon, they'll also give you "free cards" which can be transformed to any of the other tarot. When returning to the Velvet Room, which should be familiar to Shin Megami Tensei fans as the place where persona are summoned by Igor, tarot cards can be spent like currency. Instead of purchasing items, though, cards are used to summon new persona. As the aforementioned fusion attacks are important, there's plenty of depth in choosing a persona for each of your five party members. It's by and far the most rewarding part of the game, but it's still frustrating that it requires grinding through the same monsters over and over using the same options.
There are several other game systems to switch up the gameplay, including the ability to spread rumors that affect the mechanics. Should you want to start, head to the Kuzunoha Detective Agency and pay some yen to get it done. There are a variety of effects that can be spread here, affecting anything from the strength and cost of weapons in shops to the placement of additional bosses in dungeons. Combined with the PSP version's new theater, which gives a series of new quests and a quest creation system, there's plenty of content here for completionists. I'd love to see some of these features in newer Shin Megami Tensei, so it's unfortunate that the things that do separate Persona 2 from the pack are held back by the game's random encounter rate and frustrating dungeons.
I have no doubt in my mind that fans of classic JRPGS are going to find themselves enamored with Persona 2: Innocent Sin. The game is just that, though: a classically-styled JRPG, with all of the negative things that come along with it. Should you be able to stomach the incredible grind, there's a quality title under all of this – just one that's covered in the grime of age. It's really too bad that the game wasn't retuned significantly for this release – had it been, it might have become the next classic PSP RPG. As it stands, Innocent Sin is worthwhile for Shin Megami Tensei fans and those who are pining for the RPG days of yore, but those looking for the comforts of modern RPGs should look elsewhere.