IGN Review of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 Innocent Sin
Persona 2: Innocent Sin for the PSP has been, in some circles, a very long time coming. Originally released in 1999 by Atlus for the Japanese PlayStation, this PSP port represents the first time the game has ever been available on American soil. Its sequel, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment is a beloved classic among RPG aficionados, though many fans were unaware that it was actually the second half of a larger story arc.
Those who were aware have likely been crossing off the days until Innocent Sin's release. As a huge RPG nerd myself, I am happy to report that Innocent Sin was well worth the wait. The game sometimes fights itself with archaic mechanics and dated visuals, but in the end, Innocent Sin emerges the victor thanks to its unique sense of style and a level of gameplay and thematic depth that even the best modern RPG's would be hard pressed to beat.
For those late to the party, Persona 2: Innocent Sin is one of many titles developed by Atlus as part of a larger RPG "brand" known as the Shin Megami Tensei series (or MegaTen for short). Nocturne, Digital Devil Saga and Persona are but a few of the most recent IP's in this long running family of games. The MegaTen series is known for keeping with the hardcore tradition of the JRPG, and Innocent Sin is no exception. Genre staples such as level grinding, random monster encounters, turn-based combat and undirected dungeon exploration are all present.
If your idea of a challenging RPG is a Final Fantasy with a double digit number next to it, you are in for a very rude awakening. Innocent Sin was developed 12 years ago when RPG's were very different from what they are today. Players who find the "old guard" of RPG game design infuriating need not apply. Those of you still playing and enjoying Eternal Punishment need to stop reading this review and go out to buy Innocent Sin ASAP. For those in between, read on to discover if this unique gem is the right game for you.
Innocent Sin casts you in the role of Tatsuya Suou, an emotionally removed yet widely admired teen attending the prestigious Seven Sisters High School. Sevens is home to the most popular, most attractive and most academically successful students in all of Sumaru City, the fictional town in which the game takes place. Trouble has come to Seven Sisters, though. Students are becoming afflicted with a mysterious disease that disfigures their faces. Other students are enacting a schoolyard ruse called "The Joker Game" in which they use their cell phones to summon a man called The Joker who either makes your dreams come true or steals them from you, essentially wiping you from existence. The new principal is acting very strangely and rumors are beginning to circulate that the school insignia has been cursed.
That last bit about rumors is important. It becomes apparent to Tatsuya and his fellow adventurers that rumors, no matter how farfetched, are becoming truth. The result is a series of bizarre, rumor-fueled happenings ranging from the personally devastating to the globally threatening.
It's a wonderfully original story that creates a serious commentary on the average person's willingness to believe anything they see or hear while making teenage ennui manifest in tangibly dangerous ways. If you renamed Sevens to "Sunnydale High" you would be half way to a Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG... and I mean that as a great compliment.
Much like Buffy, things go from lighthearted and personal to heavy and far-reaching quickly. This is no high school "coming of age" tale. The story contemplates the nature of sin, and the difficulty of forgiving others and one's self. The cast of characters, who initially appear to be typical young adults, share a dark past. By the time the credits roll, they end up being memorable in a way few video game characters ever are. The "what happens when perception becomes reality?" question at the story's core is as relevant today as it was when the game was created in 1999.
Refreshingly, this element of the plot also factors heavily into the actual gameplay when you start conversing with various NPC's around town and even the enemies you encounter.
Yes, you read right. You can actually have a chat with the monsters in this game.
Ever wanted to discuss manliness with a poltergeist or tell an undead lich that you think it's sexy? Now's your chance! At the beginning of most non-boss encounters, you have the option of making "contact" with one of your enemies instead of fighting them. Each demon can have up to three different personality traits that govern how they will react to the dialogue choices you make. The system is quite robust with multiple interaction options for each of your five party members as well as the chance to have multiple characters interact with the demon at once. Depending on how they feel about what you have to say, they may attack you, start a rumor about you, offer to enter a pact with you or, at best, hand over some tarot cards which can be used to summon new Personas.
The Persona system offers yet another detailed mechanic to explore. As the fiction explains it, Personas are pieces of yourself buried deep within your unconscious mind, waiting to be unlocked in order to aid you in your quest.
The basic gist of the system is this: you chat up demons and get them to give you tarot cards. Once you have enough tarot cards of the proper type, you can go to The Velvet Room and trade them in to summon a new Persona. You then attach the Persona to one of your characters. In this way, you gain new abilities, stat boosts and different resistances to enemy attacks. By adding rare cards to your summoning recipes and ranking up or mutating your current Personas, you can discover rare and powerful ones. Collecting and experimenting with different Personas to fit your battle strategy is great, addictive fun. If the words "gotta catch 'em all" mean anything to you, Innocent Sin will mark the end of your 2011 social calendar.
Sadly, all this depth comes at a price. While Innocent Sin brings the full depth of the late '90s RPG to bear, it also brings the visual limitations of the era along with it. While the unique monster designs and beautiful new character portraits and intro movie display a unique sense of style, the in-game graphics do little to conjure up any sense of awe or atmosphere. The combat animations and spell effects (which you will spend a ton of time watching) are barely competent, even by portable gaming standards. It's a shame because it's clear that there is a solid artistic vision behind it. But ultimately, the technical gap proves too wide to bridge.
Also problematic is the one-two punch of an abnormally high enemy encounter rate and frequent load times. Every time a battle starts, there is loading. Every time a battle ends there is loading. Every time you perform a special attack there is a brief pause for loading. Given that, in some areas, you can be stopped for a battle every seven or eight steps, this problem threatens to derail the pacing of the game completely. The battles, while deep and challenging, have you in a series of menus for inordinate amounts of time.
The sum of these issues is that even for a veteran of this kind of gameplay, slogging through the game's many dungeons can get PSP-throwingly tedious. While features like the data install, auto-battle and battle animation skipping help alleviate the issue, they're just Band-Aids. It's bad when sometimes you just want to toss on auto-battle and walk away to grab a snack instead of sitting through another bout of "load, attack, load."
For me, these shortcomings are not deal breakers by any means. While the visuals didn't exactly wow me and navigating through some dungeons took longer than I'm accustomed to, the sheer amount of depth exhibited here makes Persona 2: Innocent Sin worth the occasional annoyance. I felt more than willing to bear the technical limitations of the era the game comes from and the platform I am playing it on in order to have this experience. They don't really make RPG's like this anymore and from where I stand, that's something to be lamented.
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