Persona 2: Innocent Sin (PSP) review

Persona 2: Innocent Sin, as you might expect, sticks you with a group of high-school Persona users (with a few young adults in the mix this time) who, like all teenagers, are trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.  The only real difference this time is that these kids already have the power of Persona and aren’t introduced to it in the story.  A new fad is spreading around town called the Joker Game where players dial their own cell phone number in order to meet the mysterious Joker and have their dreams come true.  What nobody seems to mention is that being unsure of your dreams instead means all your desires and potential are sucked away, leaving you an empty shadow of your former self.  As if Joker wasn’t bad enough, rumors spread around town also seem to be coming true or even to life once they’ve spread far enough.  Urban legends become reality and people find themselves actually personifying the untruthful things said about them in hushed whispers.  Your group gets sucked further and further into the strange events causing widespread panic, eventually learning who is behind them and what they truly mean.

These events unfold in a manner that is much more similar to Persona 1 than the sequels that follow Innocent Sin.  There is no day-to-day structure, socializing with friends and family, or S-Linking.  Instead, you follow the events of the story from Point A to Point Z with the occasional side-quest or grinding session.  It’s a much more standard JRPG, before Atlus discovered the magic of adding social elements to counter the repetitive nature of grindy combat.  Because of this, fans of the more recent Persona games may not enjoy Persona 2 as much as the others.  It was a very different time for RPGs, one where digging deeper into a character’s motivations wasn’t really possible.  You get what the game gives you–nothing more, nothing less.

Innocent Sin’s story really feels like three stories in one: the main overarching plot, the various rumors that influence the town, and the backstory of how your characters all seem to know each other.  My favorite parts of the story were always when a particular rumor became widespread, and the party had to deal with the ramifications that followed.  These events range from innocuous trifles such as one of your party members making her debut as a pop idol to the completely insane reincarnation of Hitler (more on this below).  It’s a fascinating idea that I sadly feel isn’t used to its full potential.  You do actually have a small amount of influence on the rumors circulating around town, as you can pay a detective to spread them enough to make them true, but the only effects this has are on opening new shops or side quests.  Imagine if this element had been part of the main story, where you had to combat the rumors causing new enemies to emerge by spreading rumors of your own.  The whole rumors-coming-to-life is an amazing idea, one of the biggest reasons I played Persona 2 in the first place, but it is also tragically underused, other than to push the story forward in its linear way.

Also intriguing is the backstory plotline, which comes to a head about halfway through the game.  Throughout the early parts of the game, it’s quite clear that your team members recognize each other in some way but can’t quite remember how.  Slowly, you are shown that they knew each other as kids and that tragic events essentially made each of them repress the memories of their childhood bonds.  Even though this backstory is told entirely through text and poorly animated sprites, it packs a surprising emotional punch.  Most of the feelings I had for these characters at the end of the game came from this section alone.  It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and made the events that had led up to that moment mean a great deal more.  Sadly, this plotline pretty much wraps itself up around the halfway point, leaving only the main plot to remain.

The main plot is where the game loses me.  What starts out as a simple chase after the Joker soon involves a secret society wishing to steal dreams, terrorist plots meant to summon the fictional city of Xibalba, an ancient alien race with ties to the Mayans, and even Adolf FREAKING Hitler (named the Fuhrer in-game) with an army of Persona-neutralizing mechs.  Every hour of the story gets crazier and crazier with each moment making me shake my head and mouth “What the hell…?”  It took me a long time–pretty much the final few hours–to finally realize that (POTENTIAL SPOILERS) all of these crazy events and characters really don’t have a purpose; they all are just manifestations of rumors spread around the town.  Scant few of these characters are at all important to the final bits of story, meaning that they are completely superfluous.  The story is crowded with these useless characters and details that just get in the way of a story that is quite similar to later Persona games once you strip out all the fluff.  It kept me intrigued until the end, granted, but it also left a bad taste in my mouth at its conclusion.

I also feel that I should mention that the ending of Innocent Sin is a big cliffhanger, due to Persona 2’s duology nature.  The other Persona 2, Eternal Punishment, picks up directly where this game leaves off and (likely?) features the conclusion to the story.  Where this game ends is unfairly anticlimactic, unrewarding for the several hours spent reaching it, and largely frustrating.  I sat my Vita down when I was finished, the knowledge that I would have to play another 50+ hour RPG to see the “true” ending pounding in my head, and tried not to shout loud obscenities into the quiet of my bedroom.  Cliffhangers aren’t necessarily bad; they often provide good motivation for players to move to the next game and see more of the characters they know and love.  However, they only really work when there is enough closure that the player feels satisfied while still energized for the next game.  That isn’t the case here.  In fact, only Halo 2 comes to mind in having a cliffhanger as poor as the one found in Persona 2.

The general gameplay loop in Persona 2 is very similar to that found in the prior game: you traverse a simple world map populated with shops and side-activities before tackling the next story beat and being dumped into a dungeon for an hour or two of grinding battles punctuated with a boss fight.  Repeat for 50 hours or so and finished.  Most of the story is relayed in text with the occasional voiced bit appearing now and again, usually in pre-battle “cutscenes.”  Instead of the  first-person dungeons found in the original Persona, you now traverse them in full 3D; however, the encounters are still randomized unlike the player-initiated encounters found in later games.

The combat itself operates mostly as a fairly standard classic JRPG.  You have the option to attack enemies directly, use Persona abilities (spells), switch Personas (a skill all of your party members have, unlike future games), switch the turn order around to determine which of your party members attack first, and flee battles.  If you’ve played a Persona game before, even one of the newer ones, it will all feel very familiar.  However, there is one unique element to be found in Persona 2–Fusion Spells.  These are combinations of Persona abilities that form extremely powerful attacks, heals, and buffs to better combat your foes.  Setting these up requires management of your party’s turn order, as the spells must be activated in the correct pattern to form a Fusion Spell.  These patterns are never spelled out directly; you instead must experiment until you find one, at which point it is saved in your list for future reference.  Or, of course, you could just look up a list online.  I highly recommend finding one of these lists, unless you want to experiment on your own.

Fans of more modern Persona games may also be surprised by the way you obtain new Personas.  Instead of randomly getting new cards after combat, you are tasked with talking to the various demons you fight.  Each of them have various personality traits, and it is up to you to pick the right party member and the right response (out of the four unique responses for each character) to properly stroke the ego of the demon.  Do this well enough and you are rewarded with cards of the various Arcana or even Free cards, which can be used for any Arcana.  A visit to the Velvet Room, complete with your old friend Igor, allows you to trade in these cards for various summons.  Also important to note is that Personas don’t level, unlike your party members; instead, they rank up to unlock the variety of their skills.  Each attack from a particular Persona moves them one step closer to ranking up.  Once a Persona is ranked up fully, it can be returned to Igor for a bonus item if you don’t need it anymore.

While I think Persona 2’s combat is enjoyable, it is also quite sluggish.  The menus are layered in a way that makes finding what you want take forever and even manipulating these menus takes a little longer than I liked.  You do have the option to auto-replay the last actions your members did, which is a godsend for random encounters once you find Fusion Spells layouts that work efficiently, but any deviation from those action requires it all to be set up again.  The auto function also speeds up the combat quite a bit through a bit of time dilation.  Animations can thankfully be turned off to shorten the battles even further but at the cost of rendering them in a very plain and uninteresting way.  Even with all these time dilation and stripped-down animation, the combat still feels like it takes forever at times.  Combine this sluggishness with the absurd number of encounters–I was getting one every ten steps or so at points–and it’s quite clear why this game takes 50+ hours to complete.

I also found the game quite easy.  I will admit that I used a well-written FAQ with some excellent Fusion Spell suggestions, but Innocent Sin still felt like it lacked challenge on the Normal difficulty.  Enemies don’t hit very hard and you level up fast enough that you are always being fully healed (as levels restore your HP and SP).  A good Fusion Spell setup can trivialize the combat; I spent entire dungeons hitting the Auto button and waiting for the battles to finish without a single other input.  Bosses don’t offer much more of a challenge, except for the last few in particular.  The easy combat never really bothered me, as I have many games on my to-play list and don’t want to linger on any one for too long, but it may be a deterrent if you are looking fors omething with any semblance of challenge.

My whole reason for playing Persona 2 was closure; I have played every other game in the Persona series and wanted a complete set for my completed games collection.  The story, with its lingering on the dangers of rumors and how they can become true even when they aren’t, also sounded quite fascinating.  I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed when I experience it for myself.  I felt the game focused too much on the parts of the story I hated and not enough on the parts I liked.  However, there was enough going on with characters and events to keep me interested until the very end.  Combat isn’t something I always enjoy in JRPGs, and it usually the least interesting part for me, but I was actually quite surprised by the combat in Innocent Sin.  If it moved a bit faster, I would have liked it a great deal.  Its lethargic pace and the plethora of random encounters combined to make any dungeon a chore.

At the end of the game, knowing I had another Persona 2 to finish to get any closure on the story, I was torn.  Part of me wanted to surge forward and learn what happens to the characters I grew attached to.  The other part wanted to run far, far away and never return to one of the slowest combat systems I’ve ever experienced.  For now, I don’t know which part will win out.  All I do know is that I can only recommend Persona 2: Innocent Sin to those who really want to see the entire Persona series or fans of old-school JRPGs.  For everyone else, I don’t think the interesting bits of the story are enough to overcome the mind-numbing boredom of the combat.