I said in my White Knight Chronicles 2 review last week that JRPGs are a dying genre and I still stick to that statement but there is one series that is still striving to keep it alive. That series is the Shin Megami Tensai games and more specifically their Persona branch of titles. The last new numbered game in the series was the stellar Persona 4 back in 2008 but since its release and success the series has had a bit of a boom and has allowed for remakes of the previous games on the PSP. The most exciting of these re-releases is probably the just released PSP remake of Persona 2: Innocent Sin. While the PSP version of Persona 3 was technically impressive and the remake of Persona 1 allowed us to get back to series’ roots, this entry is special because the original never came to North American shores. We only got it’s sequel, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, so for most people this game will be a completely new experience regardless of how long they’ve been with the series. That begs the question though, why would they keep this one from us for so long? It could be because it’s a stinker (there was a seven-year break between Persona 2: Eternal Punishment and Persona 3) or it may be because of cultural differences; well either way we dove into it to see if this classic lives up the mystique.
The biggest difference between this game and the current entries (aside of course from a massive leap in graphical quality) is the actual gameplay systems it uses. The current Persona games put a large focus on actually gathering personas and generating social links through what can be best described as a pseudo dating game. This game however has a focus on actual leveling and while collecting personas is still a thing it’s considerably more difficult. There is still talking and conversation as a major gameplay system though but it’s not with other people here, it’s with the demons you’re fighting. At pretty much any point in a fight you (or the enemy) can decide to just strike up a conversation. Once in a conversation you pick one of your five characters to engage a chosen enemy and then select from four different actions they can perform. Depending on the action you choose, the enemy, and their current temperament one of four emotions will rise. The four emotions are fear, which is if raised enough will cause a foe to flee; anger, which when full makes the enemy stop talking and fight; happiness, which if raised will allow you to make a pact with the enemy you’re talking to (what a pact does is never really well explained but it’s supposedly good); and eagerness, which when maxxed the enemy will give you some cards of which you need a vast number of to summon new personas. Each character has their own completely different set of actions and figuring out which will one will garner the currently desired effect from any given monster is a deep and fun process. Best part is if done right it can essentially replace unnecessary random battles as once you’ve reached a level in a dungeon where you feel over-powered you can just spend the rest of the battles until the dungeon’s end talking to foes to get cards and allies. This is handy because-just as a little side note-I found the dungeons in this game to be a bit long and labyrinthine for my tastes; while Persona 3 and 4’s dungeons were also big and confusing they were fairly easy to get out of so you could take breather whereas here that’s not the case.
Of course for as much as this series is loved for dependable well made gameplay it’s always been the writing in these games that keeps me coming back, thankfully this entry does not disappoint. The premise is essentially that thanks to the standard and not well explained persona awakening related event that starts all of these games, rumors are coming true and you must stop it and the dastardly fiend Joker from the rumored “joker game”. This is a unique concept and one the game uses very well in both major and minor execution. The game uses the idea that while rumors are powerful they are still created by human beings and have flaws in their logic thanks to the telephone style way they are passed around. Your characters and the enemy both use this to their advantage; you can use a detective agency to spread rumors like a weapon shop having really good items or low prices and the enemy can use it to do things like make dungeons even more devious (one enemy just straight up starts a rumor that no one can find the exit to the dungeon he’s going to put you in). The characters are pretty well-developed too but they do fall into the Persona archetypes we’ve become used to and without the S-link system to get a lot of one on one time with them they feel a little flat compared to the series’ recent offerings.
One thing that does feel surprisingly different between this game and the new ones is its general vibe. This game-a lot like the first one-has darker overall feel to it than many RPGs do, regardless of time period. The content is serious in most spots and just the feel of the world is more that of a dirty city than the sunny metropolis of Persona 3 or the quiet cool rural town of Persona 4. I personally prefer the smooth jazz feel of the new games but there is definitely something to what this game has going on. The earlier games in this series had a deeper focus on the psychological aspect of the whole idea of personas and the theme of a social and cultural sub-conscious hive mind that the darker feel of this game fits perfectly.
Moving right along to the presentation things are kind of as you would expect, very good but just as dated as a game this old should feel. Just to get it out-of-the-way the music is of course fantastic but that is to be expected as Shoji Meguro the man who composed Persona 3 and 4’s amazing soundtracks returns once again to provide another sampling of genius. It’s the visuals here that require discussion as they feel very different from what the series is now. The look is more stylized and it has a weirdly gothic air to it that fits with the aforementioned darker feel. The other thing you’ll notice (again aside from the technical quality of the graphics, those are given a Mulligan here as this game is more than a decade old) is that the design feels very dated now. So much of this game in style and story feels stuck in the late 90’s when it was released. The spread of cell phones isn’t really there (explains why you need to hire a detective to spread rumors instead of y’know just calling the school gossip) and one of the main characters is part of band that looks like it plays some weird mix of grunge, punk, and J-pop. Even when era specific references aren’t on-screen there is just something about the game that feels “of the time” which depending on your tastes can be a good or a bad thing. My personal feelings are that I love a bit of 90’s nostalgia but it does make this game lack a bit of that certain timeless quality.
So before I render my final verdict and give this game it’s due we come down to that question: why was this game never released here originally? Well as far as I can tell it’s a mix of just over all cultural differences making this title niche and tough to import at the time and a couple of areas that back then, when video games and Otaku culture weren’t as wide-spread, could have taken offensively by an American audience. In one place you encounter zombie soldiers and zombie schoolgirl enemies in an old air raid shelter who have retained their attitude since their deaths during the war. In conversation they say the things you’d expect you’d expect someone trapped in an era of war time racial propaganda to say and the soldier does have a kamikaze attack. While these sound like and honestly are minor things-especially as they’re done for the sake of an artistic statement-video games were still in a relative infancy when the game was released and a small company at the time like Atlus probably couldn’t really afford the kind of controversy it might bring especially for what was then a small time series. These days of course we regularly have video games with more blood, profanity, and actual deep mature themes than a weekend of watching of AMC original series, so the sort of things this game presents feel like child’s play.
My final thought here is that this is a great game but it’s not necessarily one of those all round classics that every one needs to play. If you have an interest in the Persona series or like RPGs (western or eastern) it’s worth checking out and any really big fan Persona should pick this up no matter what. However it is quite dated and if you don’t already have a grasp on the series mythology than I doubt this will be the game that will make you want to learn it. It’s pretty easy to see this release is here to do one thing, satiate Persona fans until the upcoming lot of recently announced Persona games (Persona 5, a PSVITA remake/upgrade of Persona 4, and a fighting game if you can believe it) comes out to take up our time and honestly I’m happy to have it. So for a deep dark Persona experience I can take on the bus with me as well as answering the question of “where’s our missing Persona game?”, Persona 2: Innocent Sin gets 4 out of 5 star arcana. Series fans will be more than pleased (especially if they get physical version that comes with the CD of the soundtrack) but newcomers might want to start with Persona 3 and 4 to see if this series is for them before picking this one up.