Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Note 2: For the review, any references to Persona 1 will be made using the Japanese names.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin — a game that’s very high on gamers’ wish lists for an English translation. The game adds much insight into the events of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (Innocent Sin’s direct sequel) and after playing Innocent Sin, many of the events in Eternal Punishment became that much more special. Many times the characters in Eternal Punishment refer to ‘The Other Side.’ Innocent Sin is The Other Side and it is so much more satisfying to play the events of the past rather than just see them as flashbacks. Without Innocent Sin, the English trilogy of Persona feels incomplete.
Before I get into the meat of the review, I shall address the importer-friendliness of the game. If your Japanese reading abilities are nil or basic, then this game is not very friendly to you. The game has extensive dialogue and is chock full of difficult kanji. Though I obtained a basic understanding of the story through my current, albeit limited command of Japanese, I feel like I missed out on so much because my kanji-reading abilities are lacking. I also recommend that importers play the US version of Persona 2: Eternal Punishment before tackling Innocent Sin. I did, and because of that I was able to get a better grip on the gameplay systems and figure out the names of spells which, for the most part, are in languages other than Japanese or English. For example, some spells are in Latin (Magna, Aqua), Sanskrit (Maha Agi), Hebrew (Megido) and many others. One good thing is that, like most other Japanese RPGs, the game is quite linear. And the game will not allow you to enter a dungeon you’re not supposed to enter, so finding your way around is not difficult.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin’s story is one that starts simple, but gets deeper and more complex as you go along. Your main character is one Tatsuya Suou, a fairly typical angsty teenage boy whose rebelliousness, thinly veiled arrogance, and motorcycle skills have earned him the hearts of a good majority of Seven Sisters High School’s female population. In Megami Tensei tradition, Tatsuya is a mute lead, but he fits the mute lead role quite well, as he is a private person. But through his interactions with others and his voice clips during battles, he doesn’t seem mute at all. Also, unlike many angsty teens, Tatsuya is surprisingly likeable, pretty sociable, and many of his actions show strength of character.
After a breathtaking and artfully done intro FMV featuring a CG and anime blend (like the FMVs in Xenogears), we find Tatsuya at the school’s bike racks working on his motorcycle. After talking with some classmates, Tatsuya feels a strange omen. Then the hard-assed Principal Hanya, who you might recognize from the first game, comes out and exchanges a few words with Tatsuya. This is where you can change his name. Once you have control of Tatsuya, you can explore the school and interact with his fellow schoolmates. Many of them talk about JOKER and the JOKER ritual, which is done by dialing your own cellular phone. More on this later.
Once Tatsuya’s done his rounds at Seven Sisters High, he’ll have a cutscene with Saeko Takami (the teacher from the first Persona game) and then bump into Lisa Silverman — a classmate and idol singer with a very big crush on him. Lisa is an American girl whose father raises her Japanese and who rebels by watching kung-fu films and speaking Cantonese (she speaks no English). It’s not unusual to see her, for example, refer to Tatsuya as her ‘chinyan’ (darling). So after some dialogue, she and Tatsuya go to the abandoned Sumaru Prison on his motorcycle.
Waiting at Sumaru Prison are some punk guys from the rival Kasugayama High School and a fat girl from Seven Sisters named Miyabi. The punk leader is a blue haired guy named Eikichi “Mischel” Mishima who, along with his cronies (Ken, Takeshi, and Shogo), uses the prison as a rehearsal space for his band, Gas Chamber. After some words are exchanged, Eikichi attacks Lisa and Tatsuya with his persona, thus causing Lisa’s and Tatsuya’s personae to awaken. All three knock each other out and find themselves in Philemon’s realm between consciousness and unconsciousness. It is Philemon, a man with a mask, who bestows the power of persona unto people.
After the fateful meeting with Philemon, the kids awaken and gather in a circle and do the JOKER ritual with their cellular phones. The ritual works, and an evil looking jester clad in white appears. Called “JOKER” he is a powerful being who feeds on peoples’ hopes and dreams. He uses a glowing skull to absorb said essence from Eikichi’s cronies. Lisa, Eikichi, and Tatsuya attack him, but he’s too powerful for their personae. JOKER then leaves, but before he does, he tosses an iris to Tatsuya. Miyabi then says something with reddish text (signifying a rumor) and the party runs into Tadashi (also a returning character) at the Shiraishi Ramen Shop then goes to Kuzunoha Detective Agency to spread the rumor. It seems with JOKER unleashed, rumors can become reality. Rumors play a huge part in the game and I will explain the ‘rumor system’ later on.
After another cutscene in Shiraishi, Lisa says something about Principal Hanya, and the trio heads back to Seven Sisters High School only to find it evacuated with all the students in a panic. It seems the minions of the darkness have invaded the school, thanks to JOKER’s release. So it’s up to our persona-powered heroes to see what’s up. But our trio won’t be alone for long, for two more persona users are at the school — teen-magazine reporter Maya Amano and her trusty camerawoman Yukino Mayuzumi (who also returns from the first Persona game). So with a full party, and one plot-based puzzle (involving breaking clocks) later, our quintet faces their first boss battle, in the school’s clock tower, with a possessed Principal Hanya (who did the JOKER ritual to become the students’ favorite principal; so it seems summoning JOKER is akin to selling your soul in exchange for something you desire). Once the battle ends, Hanya jumps out the window and a female student comes in asking whether Hanya’s dead or not. Depending on what answer you choose, something will change later in the game. This is the first of many choices to be made that will affect various outcomes in the plot.
In any case, that was only the first 2-3 hours of one of the most intriguing tales I’ve experienced in an RPG. Not only do our heroes find themselves on a mission to save humanity from JOKER and later the greater evil of Nyarlathotep, but their pasts come back to haunt them in myriad ways as well. The characters are deep, with very involved backstories, and some have very traumatic pasts that you delve into quite a bit as the story progresses. As the story goes on, many wrenches are thrown into the works such as terrorist bombings from a masked gang of sociopaths (called Kamen-To; Kamen is Japanese for mask) to exploring the very depths of the Jungian unconscious. There are even visits from some foes from world history’s shadowy past.
The story is paced quite well, always interesting, and there is always something to keep you on your toes. Even with my limited Japanese knowledge, I was able to use the character portraits and the sprite animations along with the dialogue in order to make better sense of the plot. For a Japanese game to convey a powerful story that tugged on every emotion out there to a person with limited knowledge of the language shows how wonderfully done the storytelling is. The visuals, music and text (well, that which I understood) all work marvelously together to set the tone and mood. “In” characters, such as Maya, use a lot of katakana (Japanese alphabet for foreign words and some other things) English phrases (such as Maya’s famous “Let’s positive thinking!”) and one NPC you meet actually uses romaji (our alphabet) when she talks sometimes, because she had studied abroad in the US and speaks good English.
The rumor system that I hinted at earlier, is one of many ways in which story and gameplay work symbiotically. Once Kuzunoha becomes your rumor-spreading central, you can obtain rumors from various rumormongers in Sumaru’s many districts or sometimes, from regular townsfolk. You can even check the Internet from a cyber cafeé’s iMac for rumors. You can tell if you’re ‘hearing’ a rumor if there is reddish text in the dialogue box. Some rumors affect stores, such as allowing a clothing store to sell armor, or a bar to sell weapons. But don’t spread the first rumor you hear because the store rumors work like this: If you go around Sumaru to collect rumors, you may hear one that says a store sells crappy goods at rock bottom prices, another that says a store sells okay goods at medium prices, and a third that says a store sells top-quality goods at high prices. Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you want to spread the third rumor. The best stuff is always the best buy, and money is easy to earn in this game. The rumor system was improved in Eternal Punishment, where some store rumors actually changed the type of goods sold rather than quality/price changes. There are also times in Innocent Sin when your characters utilize the rumor system to their advantage in order to advance the plot. These are pre-scripted, though, as a make-your-own-rumor system would require more capacity than one PlayStation CD-ROM would allow.
Like any other RPG, Persona 2: Innocent Sin features demon-filled dungeons, battles, and a magic/ character growth system. Battles occur randomly in dungeons (there are no overland battles) and are carried out using a turn-based system. Though the battle engine doesn’t make for the quickest battles, the amount of control I have over the characters more than makes up for it.
Fighting is standard fare, with all the options you could want: Physical attacks, using a persona’s magic to attack or heal, using items, etc. You can also do things like change a character’s persona without wasting a turn, and my favorite feature — cancel and redistribute commands. Let me explain: Let’s say you’ve poised Lisa to do a fire attack, and next in line is Tatsuya to also do a fire attack. Lisa’s fire attack heals the enemy. So, with a press of the X button, the flow of battle is stopped and you can change your characters’ commands, and even the order in which they ‘do their thing.’ Setting up the right order is very important when combining up to three peoples’ persona attacks to do hard-hitting fusion spells. The fusion spells work a lot like the macros in Phantasy Star 4. The only beef I have is that whenever you want to set up a fusion spell, you have to do it manually. In Eternal Punishment, it’s a one-touch fusion spell set-up.
One feature many people will love is that you can turn off the battle animations, so that fights play out more quickly. More RPGs should carry this option. Another change from the first game is that after a battle, each party member earns the same amount of experience. In the first game, the party members earned different amounts of experience based on how much they participated in battle. Whether you prefer Persona 1’s or Persona 2’s method of experience gain is up to you.
However, the battle engine does have a few bugs; nothing threatening, but they can be an annoyance. There is some slowdown at times where, say, you’ll hear the gunshots of a character’s weapon before seeing said character fire his or her gun. There is no slowdown like that during Persona summoning or when the battle animations are shut off. Also, one time the slowdown caused my game to freeze.
But fighting is only half the battle. In accordance with the series’ signature feature, you can also talk to the demons. Like in the first game, each character has four individual ways to talk to the demon. Unlike the first game, however, is that we get to see these actions animate. For example when you use Yukino’s photography contact, we actually see her take out her camera and take pictures of the demon. The animations can be stopped with the touch of the circle button. And like with the fusion spells, up to three people can join up for a combined contact, but only if there’s a common link between them. For example, Yukino, Tatsuya, and Eikichi’s combined contact is all three of them ‘talking with their fists’ to intimidate the demons. As the story progresses and you learn more about the characters, new bonds form and thus, new combo contacts. This is a great method of developing the characters and utilizing their personalities in combat.
There are four emotions you can elicit from a demon: fear (blue), anger (red), joy (green), or interest (yellow). Once you elicit a particular emotion three times, then contacting is over. If the demon shows fear three times, it runs off. If it shows anger three times, it attacks you and you cannot appease it. If a demon is joyful, it may give you stuff or draw up a contract with you. Interest is the emotion you want, though. If a demon is fully interested in you, it will give you tarot cards from its arcanum of tarot (MAGICIAN, CHARIOT, DEVIL, etc). You can then redeem these cards in the Velvet Room for personae from that arcanum. For example: you successfully interest a MOON: Pariker demon. She gives you a bunch of MOON cards. You can redeem these cards for a MOON class persona, provided you have enough. However, there are arcana, such as JUSTICE and HIEROPHANT that have no corresponding demons running around. So how do you summon those classes of personae? If you have a contract with a demon and you interest it while under contract you will get free tarot cards and you can have Demon Artist in the Velvet Room make them into whatever cards you want.
So what are these personae I speak of? Well, personae are summonable manifestations of various mythological deities and are categorized into the arcana of tarot based on their role or personality in their respective mythologies. Depending on each character’s personality, their compatibility with certain arcana of persona may be good or bad. For example, Maya has poor compatibility with LOVERS class personae. You can tell her compatibility is poor because if a LOVERS: Jack O’ Lantern costs 21 SP to use by default, then when equipped to Maya it will cost 31 SP to use. On the other hand, Lisa is highly compatible with LOVERS personae so it will cost her only 15 SP to summon Jack O’ Lantern. Also, some individual personae may prove compatible or incompatible regardless of arcana to certain people, so choose your personae wisely. For example, some of the party members have poor compatibility to the TOWER: Kanaloa persona, yet those same people have neutral compatibility with TOWER: Loki. So choosing the right persona for each person is important.
Each persona has a set repertoire of spells to learn, and the more you use a persona, the more it will increase in rank, and thus learn more spells. Compatibility and frequent use in fusion spells can only help things along. A persona maxes out at rank 8, after which it can be redeemed for an item in the Velvet Room. Each persona costs a certain amount of SP to use (depending on character compatibility) and the SP cost is dependent on the persona rather than the spell. Also, personae have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, some may be strong against one element but weak against another. If you equip that persona on someone, they take on those characteristics. So when invoking personae in the Velvet Room, choose wisely. I found a good majority of personae useful, but there are some clunkers that are not worth wasting your tarot cards on.
The contact skills and the persona compatibilities/tarot alignments are wonderful ways to gain insight into the characters and their personalities.
The simplified contact and persona systems may either please or displease series fans. In Persona 1, you had to earn the card of a particular monster and combine two different monster cards in the Velvet Room for a new persona. Also, in the first game, demons could have combined emotions, for example a demon could have anger and interest maxed out simultaneously whereas in Innocent Sin, it’s either or. Also, the moon phases were omitted from Innocent Sin. I liked how in the first game the moon phases would affect demons; for example, during a full moon demons were less willing to talk. On the one hand, these simplifications streamline the gameplay and make Persona 2 the most accessible MegaTen title to series initiates, but some hard-core fans may lament the changes and call them a ‘dumbing down.’ As for me, I’m not affected either way. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. And most importantly, I had loads of fun playing this game.
One change I thought was awesome was how the analyze feature was handled. In Persona 1, if you fought a demon once or successfully obtained its spell card, you would have the full skinny on it in your demon list menu. With Persona 2, you can only find out the demon’s personality by talking to it, or find out its strengths and weaknesses by fighting it. This felt more realistic and was a definite change for the better.
And the best change is how saving is handled. Gone are the sparse save points from Persona 1 and in its stead is the ability to save anywhere you want outside of battle. After being spoiled by this ‘save anywhere’ feature, going back to RPGs with save points is rather difficult. And, as usual, the automap is still around. I wish more RPGs had automappers.
The automapper is your best friend in this game because the dungeons can be rather long and mazelike. They’re not as serpentine and labyrinthine as those in Phantasy Star 2 or even the original Persona, but they are much longer and more mazelike than, say, the dungeons in Final Fantasy 9, whose dungeons could fit in the coat pocket of Innocent Sin’s dungeons. Personally, I had loads of fun exploring each and every inch of the dungeons just to fill out my automap.
And though the game follows a linear course (no more so than the typical Japanese RPG), there are many sidequests and secrets to uncover that are off the beaten path. There is also a casino filled with games such as poker, blackjack, slot machines, and the like for when you wish to take a break from the main quest and play some mini-games for prizes.
The graphics are quite good. While not full of WOW worthy flash like the PlayStation Final Fantasies, the graphics more than make up for it with style. Graphics consist of detailed 3D polygon backdrops with 2D sprites (such as those used in Xenogears and Grandia). The sprites are quite well drawn, large, and very detailed. Their body language animations during plot segments are somewhat exaggerated, but I loved that as it helped me understand the plot better. There is some pixilation during close-ups (particularly in battle) but it’s not too bad. However, both character and enemy sprites in battles are of a lower resolution than in the first game. Unfortunately, the graphics of the personae during battle are smaller than in the first game. This is too bad, because they are quite stylish, thanks to Kazuma Kaneko’s unique art style. Also, the spell effects during battle are nothing to write home about. Everything animates fairly quickly, though, so that’s a plus.
The important characters and shopkeepers get dialogue portraits, so there is never a hunger for Kaneko’s character art. And unlike the first game, the portraits here change expression depending on the characters’ mood. Like with any art style, Kaneko’s is a love it/hate it style, and I absolutely adore it. Eikichi, in particular, is very expressive and often has some very wild takes in his facial portraits.
The first person perspective in dungeons has given way to a more traditional 3rd person perspective. The polygon backdrops look almost hand-drawn. They look as realistic as they possibly could with their detailing, and there are no seams or clipping, thus allowing the world to look immersive and believable. When you rotate the camera and it winds up behind a wall, the wall becomes semi-transparent, so you can see your character at all times. Wonderful! The compass and the automapper also contribute to the ease of navigation.
In dungeons we only see Tatsuya’s sprite walking around, but in stores and other rooms, the others are present too and Tatsuya can interact with them. Nice. Oftentimes if you’re stuck, you can go to a store or something and talk to your party members and one of them may remind you of your objectives. Also, there are many NPCs in the stores as well, and talking to them gives you a greater sense of Sumaru City. You can even chat with the shopkeepers too. And as events occur, the NPC dialogue changes as well. After important events I often found myself going all over Sumaru City just to talk to NPCs and my party members in various locations before going onto my next objective. I also enjoyed, in some locations, seeing old friends from the first Persona game alive and well, such as Maki Sonomura working in Reiko’s psychotherapy center in the Konan district. Exploration is, therefore, highly encouraged in this game and is often quite fun.
The overland is a 2D prerendered backdrop where, as in the first game, you guide a green icon to various places. Sumaru City consists of multiple districts and each district has its own unique look and color scheme. The Hirasaka district features a lot of browns and feels like the ghetto that it is. The Yumezaki district with its brighter shades of grey and many buildings make it look like the hip, happening nightlife district it is. Again, it’s style over flash. Blue icons scattered around the overland are NPCs you can talk to.
The highlight of Innocent Sin’s graphics are the FMV sequences. Though the FMV sequences don’t occur often, the CG is of very high quality without any graininess. And the FMVs that feature anime characters on the CG backdrops are awesome to look at. Innocent Sin is much more generous with the FMV than its sequel. Every time I load up the game, I watch the lengthy intro sequence. Not only is it great eye candy, but it features into the plot as well.
It is only fitting that a game with such an ultra-modern style should feature an ultra-modern soundtrack. Electronica and techno reign supreme here, but it’s more of a listening techno than a dancing techno. Where Innocent Sin’s soundtrack shines is in its character themes. Not only are there standard character themes, there are also sad versions of the character themes. The sad character themes are among the most memorable of the pieces. There are a few tracks that are either unmemorable or annoying (Aoba Park’s, Giga Macho’s and Caracol’s dungeon themes come to mind), but generally the soundtrack is quite good. A cool thing is that you can buy CDs at Giga Macho and listen to them on Maya’s stereo at her apartment. I bought all of them and spent ridiculous amounts of time listening to my favorite pieces.
Many of the pieces feature variations on similar themes, so oftentimes the music is fresh yet familiar, as is fitting with the tone of the game. For example, the music that plays while traversing Mount Mifune on the outskirts of Sumaru City contains a very catchy, ear-grabbing remix of the overland theme. It’s easily my favorite piece of music in the game and happens to be a fan favorite too.
The Velvet Room is where the music makes a stylistic shift. Piano based classical music is the order of the day there. Along with the wonderfully redone Velvet Room theme from the first game, there are some other classical pieces that play randomly such as Debussy’s “Clair De Lune.” It really gave the Velvet Room that wonderful ambiance and sense of peace.
The only downside to the music, aside from some less-than-stellar pieces, is that after a battle the music loops back to the beginning of the piece, so unless you open the menus to listen to a piece in its entirety, you’ll often only hear the first bit every time between battles.
The game features some voice acting. It’s generally limited to battle cries and some pre-boss battle dialogues. The voice acting’s generally pretty good, and the actors deliver their lines well. However, I thought Tatsuya’s and Maya’s voice actors were slightly inconsistent. Tatsuya’s voice actor delivers his lines with that perfect hint of arrogance for his character, but I thought the voice was too deep much of the time. Tatsuya doesn’t look like a guy who’d have a voice that deep. And while Maya’s voice actor was bubbly, perky, and cheerful, I felt her voice was sometimes too high and made her sound like a teenager, when she’s actually 23. Still, I’d rather have the lines well acted by a slightly misfit voice than lines poorly acted by a fitting voice. And I did get used to it. My favorite was Eikichi’s voice actor who beautifully captured his over-the-top/out-there personality.
So, when all is said and done, Persona 2: Innocent Sin is flat-out one of the best console RPGs I’ve ever played. Excellent story and characters, deep and innovative gameplay, great graphics, cool music… what more could you ask for in an RPG? Well, aside from the faults I mentioned (which are all minor, for the most part) I’d have liked analog control, but that’s no biggie either. And though the game is more challenging than the average RPG, I found it noticeably easier than other Megami Tensei games I’ve played. For comparison’s sake, Eternal Punishment’s boss battles were generally more difficult. Though, admittedly, some bosses did give me a good run for my money.
Another noticeable change I forgot to mention earlier is how weapons are handled. In Persona 1 each character carried both a melee weapon and a gun, but in the sequel each character only carries one type of weapon. This is how it works in most RPGs, but series fans may not like this change either.
And, while the game has an excellent driving plot, the game is equally driven by its gameplay mechanics. In other words, if you simply cannot get into the whole ‘demon dialogue’ and ‘persona’ systems then the game is not for you. As for me, I could spend hours talking to demons and mucking about in the Velvet Room, but many people who’ve tried a Persona game don’t like the whole idea of talking to demons, which is a necessity to survive in the game’s world.
All niggles aside, I still feel that Persona 2: Innocent Sin only adds to the overall greatness of the Megami Tensei RPG series. It’s one of Japan’s top RPG series, and with such stellar games as Innocent Sin, it’s easy to see why. Even after the 79 hours it took, I did not want the experience to end. When I reached the rather disturbing final boss, I was like, “Huh? I’m at the end already?” For me not to be completely bored by an RPG after 50+ hours is quite an achievement. At the 50-hour mark, I felt like I had barely begun the game and was surprised the clock said 50 hours instead of 50 minutes.
The well-done ending was very melancholy and had a major cliffhanger, which gets resolved in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. A nice thing about the Persona 2 imports is that, as with the Suikoden and Arc the Lad games, I can carry over my final save from Innocent Sin to Eternal Punishment. And thus, my Persona 2 experience won’t have to end.
And if you will excuse me, I must now return to Sumaru City and go propagate some rumors.