Persona 2: Innocent Sin was originally released for PlayStation in June of 1999 — in Japan only. This game wouldn’t see the light of day in the West until well over ten years later. The story goes that the delay in localization was attributed to the presence of Adolf Hitler as an NPC in a segment of the game as well as the option of nurturing a homosexual relationship between two of the main characters. Both of these have been changed for the North American and European releases, as well as the remixing of the game’s soundtrack and the dialogue artwork for the main protagonists.
Before I say anything, I should mention that as an RPG princess I feel immense indifference towards the Persona series. Yes, Atlus always does its best to take players into unexplored territory and present them with new, unusual experiences (just look at Catherine)…but that is not an excuse to ignore flaws in its games. Some of the more ardent fans out there would argue that the ingenuity of the Persona series gives the games an automatic pass, and that I’m a moron for waiving off Persona and yet cooing over Final Fantasy. But, I am a writer and fiction lover in the cockles of my heart, and for me Persona 2: Innocent Sin didn’t tickle my fancy.
The game begins with a massive information dump and then a long, slow, uphill climb towards the real action. Intelligent but emotionally troubled Tatsuya Suo, Japan-born-and-raised gaijin Lisa Silverman, and punk-rocker wanna Eikichi Mishina are unceremoniously flung into the game’s plot with all the exuberance characteristic of the trope-worthy “typical” high school students caught in a supernatural drama. Suddenly rumors everywhere are coming true, and people are gossiping that if you call your own cell phone number a mysterious figure named Joker appears to grant your heart’s desire. If your desire isn’t strong enough, your personality is wiped and you are turned into a shadow of your formal self. Creepy, right?
Once their Personas have awakened, our gang is joined by reporter Maya Amano and photographer Yukino Mayuzumi, who aid them on their quest to unmask the Joker. What ensues is a cross-city chase involving detective agencies, spunky gal reporters, and demons reminiscent of a Scooby Doo cartoon. Who is the Joker? How do we stop him? And why does he kinda look like Tatsuya under all that clown makeup (Seriously, though… he doesn’t)?
Persona 2 does not share the same story-telling elements with its decedents. The game begins with awkwardly paced waves of information that culminate into a boss battle that you can’t even fight. At times there were a good five minutes in which my PSP sat motionless in my hands. I didn’t have to do anything, which was terrible because the dialogue and pacing were atrociously slow.
Whereas plot presentation in P3 and P4 is heavy-handed but meticulously instructional , P2‘s is not. The sudden appearance of the Joker, rumormongering, and the whole Persona deal come flying out of left field, and the explanations for each are blown through in an almost careless manner. At the introduction’s conclusion players may feel insufficiently ready to strike out into the main storyline. I know I did. This crazed whirlwind of information scattering lightens up as the game progresses, but the game’s first hour is hectic enough to drive the casual gamer away.
To put it bluntly, time has not been kind to this game. Both P3 and P4 presented players with challenges of time management and social interaction — both of which are not present in P2. The linearity is typical of the late-90s RPG, with the player skipping from event to event, each one building up (but only a little) to a dungeon that builds up to a boss battle that builds up to another string of crazed running around triggering more events. The dungeons themselves are lengthy to the point of tedium and often have confusing setups — players are offered little direction beyond the occasional tidbit from an NPC and the directional compass in the corner of the screen. The random encounter rate is also blood-boiling rage-inducing aggravatingly high. It was downright freaking infuriating to be running down a corridor and have the game flash over to a battle screen every five steps.
The battles themselves are perhaps the most unenjoyable thing about the game. For one thing the animations take an inappropriately long time to execute, and they can’t be turned off. The battle system slowly rotates through each character and their available attacks, for which there are a mind-numbing number of options. Setting up these options — combined attacks, Persona attacks, normal “Fight” attacks, or the choice to contact and speak with the enemy — is tedious and time-consuming.
If the player chooses to contact a demon or spirit on the opposition in order to make a “Pact”, or gain some materials to build new Personas, it’s an entirely different beast. The whole schtick is a frustrating game of trial-and-error that may as well be Russian roulette played with your sanity. If the player fails to make a pact or angers the spirit, they will have to fight and destroy it…and then go trigger another random encounter and start the process over again. Random encounters don’t even present a meaningful challenge; most are miniscule demons that can be knocked off in one or two hits. The real deals are the boss battles, which take some strategic planning and careful use of Personas and combined attacks to pull off. The learning curve and difficulty level between random encounters and boss battles, however, is such a heinously wide gulf that at times it’s like playing two different games.
Don’t get me wrong: building up Personas and creating multi-character combo attacks appeals to my maniacally strategic side. There’s a lot of good things to be said about the growth systems in the game and the creation and leveling of different Personas. These things are also time intensive, but the reward of trouncing more difficult opponents is worth it. As the story progressed and things started to make more sense I lost a bit of my initial resentment of the game — but not enough to find myself not irritated with the once-beloved, now-outdated designs familiar of old school RPGs.
Moving away from gameplay and story progression, the one thing that I can’t crap all over — and the one thing that has remained consistent in the Persona series — are the characters. They are appealing and likeable, and if you talk to your party members after entering each area you’ll be treated to some very amusing dialogue. Particularly interesting is game heroine Lisa, a Japanese-born white girl with Japanophile parents, who can’t speak a lick of English but is in love with China and often bursts into Cantonese. Unique as hell, that is. Alongside her is silent-but-deadly Tatsuya, the brooding antagonist with more going on than meets the eye, and flamboyant makeup-coated Eikichi who spouts witty and often narcissistic remarks every other line. Maya with her cheery “Let’s stay positive!” chant and Yukino’s tomboyish charm round out the cast and give the player something solid to dig into. If there’s one thing this game did not skimp on it was character design and development.
A plus for this amusing cast of characters in their constant interaction. Each and every new area, whether it’s a closet or a dungeon, grants each character a new set of dialogue, and the exchanges between the player’s teammates only grow in hilarity as the story moves along. While most of these conversations don’t contribute directly to the game at large, they do present insight into the characters’ personalities both in and outside the context of the main story.
The oddest feature of Persona 2 is the Rumor System. Players collect and exchange rumors by interacting with Rumormongers in each district of the game world. Once a rumor is heard, players must go to a detective agency and present their findings to its boss. The choice is then given to either keep quiet or spread the rumor; rumors that are spread become true, most of them resulting in stores becoming fronts for secret weapons and armor sellers. Often players can choose between one or more outcomes for a particular rumor and many of the rumors’ effects occur on random chance. The story will not advance without this rumormongering, and deeper into gameplay this becomes tiresome and irritating.
In the end the game doesn’t quite stack up to late installments in the series. Its gameplay mechanics have not withstood the test of time, and what was once groundbreaking is now simply stale. The re-release for North America should have at least seen an update in the battle system’s layout and pacing. Though the characters are vibrant, the story leaves much to be desired and the pacing is choppy. Atlus has thrown a lot of dazzling gems our way, but Persona 2 is not one of them.