We all had to deal with schoolyard rumors and gossip as adolescents; whether directed at us or friends, it was usually never a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a world where these hurtful rumors are coming true, from the mundane to the utterly ridiculous. This is the world of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Originally released way back in 1999, this particular entry of the Persona franchise actually never left Japan back then, while the second part of this two part series, Eternal Punishment, did. Many reasons have been cited for why this exclusion originally occurred, most notably a homosexual relationship within the game and the inclusion of Adolf Hitler as a major villain. Thankfully for all “Megaten” fans with a PSP, there is now finally a legal way to play this game.
Fans of Revelations: Persona, and its later PSP port, will find that the game is vaguely similar in many ways, except for a huge facelift. First and foremost, gone are the first person dungeons, replaced by a familiar isometric over-the-head view made standard by many a Japanese RPG. This sounds like a minor change, but it makes the dungeons slightly less monotonous and confusing, especially in areas like a school building where all walls look the same. Other improvements include the ability to select between three difficulty levels, the ability to save almost anywhere, and a far more streamlined battle system.
The battle system is of the tried and true “random encounter” variety from yesteryear. Everything is turn-based, except the player is given almost complete control over character positioning, turn order, and other commands, including auto-battle. This comes in handy in two major ways. Firstly, when one is trying to obtain new “fusion attacks”, one needs to be able to re-order various spells as they need to be performed in a very specific order. The second example is when you see that the turn order is going to lead to a character dying (e.g. they are poisoned), all you have to do is open a menu and switch them around. I really enjoyed this, as the completely random nature of newer Persona games drives me up the wall even though I love the series.
All of the main characters are equipped with an initial Persona, a sort of multi-dimensional being that gives its user the ability to use magic. Aside from leveling up the actual characters in the game, one can also level up these Personae (Personas?) to learn new spells and abilities. If you tire of the “factory” models, you can always hunt for more. Of course, the legendary “contact system” is here in full force for franchise veterans. For those new to the series, this system allows for players to communicate with the demons they are fighting. When on the “contact” screen a player has to negotiate with the target demon. One can ask for money, healing, items, or even a “pact” that allows for the player to summon that demon as their new Persona. Think of something similar to Pokémon (SMT did this first though), except on more of an intellectual field. The player has to figure out which character would be the best to speak to the demon, and what they need to say; say the wrong thing and you can provoke an extra attack from the monster rather than a shower of goodies.
The story of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin is initially fairly confusing, but rewards people for “hanging in there”. The game opens with the silent protagonist, Tatsuya, getting into trouble at Seven Sisters High School with the new principal. One can see that something is definitely wrong immediately as the comically evil-looking principal (complete with a scar over his eye) has apparently mysteriously won over the student body to the point where he gets cheered by passers-by and has had a statue built in his own honor. This coupled with a sudden rash of disfigured students has led to rumors of curses, demons, possessions and other occult happenings. Tatsuya and his rag-tag group of friends (including his female companion Lisa, and visual-kei musician and overall comic relief character, Michael) assume that the urban legend of a person called “The Joker” who grants wishes must be true. It is said that if one calls their own number on their cellphone, they can summon him and get their greatest wish.
Without spoiling too much, it is revealed that these rumors are in fact coming true, and this plays a very significant role in the actual game. In most games, talking with non-player characters (NPCs) doesn't get you very far. In this game, one can actually come across rumors in dialog, which, with the help of a certain detective agency and a nominal fee, can ultimately come true. Early on in the game one such rumor pops up in which a local Ramen shop is said to be a front for a black-market munitions shop. This is obviously nonsense... until you pay off the detectives to help spread the rumor. Once it hits critical mass you have access to your very first weapons shop. Players that explore every nook and cranny for rumor-mongers, gossip-peddlers, and other nosey people could end up with optional quests, optional weapons, and altered maps.
When looking at the graphics and audio in this game it is important to realize that it's over a decade old, and originally ran on a console far less powerful than the PSP itself. Because of this, it’s hard to see this as much more than a nostalgia title – a “lost game” in a widely popular series. That doesn’t ruin this game at all, but when comparing the presentation to other PSP RPGs, like Valkyria Chronicles 2, for example, you can really see the age. There are cleaned-up “modernized” menus and an option to use the remixed music. Fans that like to keep things retro can toggle the music option off - a huge bonus for those that hated the musical revisions in Persona PSP. Keeping the above in mind, Persona 2 does have good graphics for its time, and with a few pre-rendered cut scenes here and there, it never feels too antiquated.
I mentioned earlier that one of the major stumbling blocks of this game's release in the West was some of the content held within. There is good news and bad news, as almost all of the game is intact, including an implied homosexual relationship (assuming the player chooses that path), and the inclusion of Hitler as a boss character. The bad news is that Hitler is simply referred to as “Fuhrer” and is seen wearing a hilarious pair of sunglasses - just as he was in the Japanese version. This has caused many to jokingly call the character “cool Hitler”.
Assigning a value to this game can be hard as it will be loved by one generation of RPG fans, and possibly hated by the other. On one hand, the sheer length and content held within is staggering, especially compared to Persona PSP. While you could breeze through that game in no time at all, Innocent Sin could easily take 40-50 hours if you are a “completionist.” It took me a total of around 55, but bear in mind that I power leveled, talked to all NPCs and tried to do as many side quests as I could. People with less time on their hands might be able to finish it in around 25 or so, just breezing through the storyline. This is great for a handheld RPG, and makes it feel more like the real deal than other, sparser handheld RPGs out there.
All in all, Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a strong choice for any PSP RPG fan, and with PSP entering its twilight moments, this could very well be one of the system's last hurrahs. The game shows its age with dated conventions such as mindless grinding, random encounters, and muddy graphics, but makes up for it in spades in both the storyline and gameplay departments. Fans of the newer Persona games will want to play it, as it is definitely the “missing link” between the old school mentality of Perosna PSP and the newer Personas (3 and 4). So was the long wait worth it? Yes, and I loved every minute of it.