Persona 2: Eternal Punishment for the original PlayStation was the second Persona game released in North America, but it was the third Persona game released in Japan. In a rather confusing move, Persona 2 was actually divided into two games — Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment — and North American audiences only got the second half. Due to the nature of the game, Eternal Punishment could be played without playing the first portion, but a good amount of the backstory and plot was more effective if you had. With the release of the PSP version of Persona 2: Innocent Sin, some of us finally have a chance to play this missing part of the franchise.
Innocent Sin follows the story of Tatsuya Suou, a student attending Seven Sisters High School in Japan. He and his friends are drawn into an unusual situation when they accidentally summon a strange man known as Joker, who claims that Tatsuya and his friends have wronged him and he seeks revenge. In order to survive the attacks, Tatsuya and friends have to figure out what happened. This is made more complex by the fact that a supernatural phenomena is occurring around the city. Rumors are becoming reality and altering the world around them. Tatsuya and his friends have to use this to their advantage to find out what Joker has planned and why he wants to kill them so badly.
Innocent Sin's plot sounds rather generic, and the first few hours feel that way, too. Once it gets going, though, there's a lot of incredibly interesting stuff. Without spoiling the story, suffice it to say that things are not as simple as they first appear, and a lot of the game builds up to some pretty shocking events. Although Innocent Sin is the first part of a two-part game, it holds up well enough on its own. The second half, Eternal Punishment, certainly works as a continuation, but you don't need to play it to feel like you're finished.
Persona 2 is a lot more akin to the first Persona than later games in the series. It's a rather straightforward dungeon crawler with random encounters and unique dungeons to explore. The somewhat awkward Persona 1 combat system has been replaced by a more traditional turn-based JRPG combat system. Players and enemies line up and take turns hitting one another until one side falls over. This is actually a step up, as it makes combat feel more quickly paced and less tedious. It's not without its problems, though.
Magic is important in Persona 2, but in a rather unusual way. As with the other games in the series, you can use Persona to cast magic spells. Your characters can switch Persona at any time, although magic spells are more effective if a Persona has a natural affinity with the character casting the spell. Regardless, once a Persona is equipped, it begins to level up to earn new spells and stat bonuses. A max-ranked Persona can also be traded at the Velvet Room for new items. There's a wide selection of available Persona and a lot of customization, but it all boils down to one all-important factor: fusion spells.
Like Chrono Trigger or similar games, fusion spells are a combination attack between a few of your characters. By casting certain spells in a certain order, you can choose to trigger a powerful fusion spell between those characters. These spells are extremely powerful and often far superior to casting both spells individually. You can even set up your turn order to assure that you cast these spells by delaying character action to the right point. Fusion spells also offer the possibility for Persona mutation. When you end a battle with a fusion spell, there is a chance that one of the involved Persona will mutate to gain new spells, stat boosts or even level up. Finishing with fusion spells will make your party skyrocket in power much more quickly than it would otherwise.
The big problem with the combat system is that there really isn't much to it. You can use fusion spells 24/7, and the auto battle system automates that process by repeating your predefined actions so you can win fights without even looking at the screen. For a huge chunk of the game, battles boil down to setting up a fairly cheap set of fusion spells and watching your characters automatically win. There's certainly potential for fun combat, but it feels too simplistic for its own good. If fusion spells had more consequences to their use, there would be a reason for you to do or use something else. As it stands, you're actively weakened by not using fusion spells since you miss out on the bonuses. A few boss battles require you to take direct control, especially if you've been slow on leveling up your Persona, but that's about it.
The other part of combat comes in the form of demon contacting. Instead of fighting demons, you can choose to talk to them. When you contact an enemy, you can select one or more of your characters for the discussion. Picking a single character gives you one of four options unique to that character. Tatsuya, for example, tries to intimidate the enemy with a stern gaze or discuss his ideas of manliness. Picking two or more characters attempts to do a combination convince. If a combination is available, it will activate; otherwise, only one of the characters will attempt to convince the demon.
Convincing the demon is a strange process. Each demon has four emotions: anger, eagerness, fear and happiness. Each time you talk to a demon, you'll raise one or more of those emotions, and each emotion can be raised three times. The emotion that is first raised three times earns you a different result and ends the contact. Raise happiness three times, and the demon offers to make a pact with you, so you can get items or information from that demon race. Raising eagerness gets you tarot cards, which you can use to get new Persona. Increasing their fear makes them run away from battle. Raising anger, on the other hand, makes it so mad that it'll attack and you lose any chance of contacting that demon race. Anger a demon with whom you have a pact, and he'll break it off and run away. To be honest, this process is not very fun. While a demon will sometimes throw in a random question or two to trip you up, convincing is so predictable that you'll pretty much always succeed once you've found the correct tactic.
It's quite the grind. You have to do a lot of convincing if you want to get everything. Earning new Persona requires you to trade in tarot cards at the Velvet Room, and this can literally involve hundreds of a certain kind of card; even when demons give you 10 or more cards a pop, that adds up. There are ways to speed this up, but not by much. A demon with whom you have a pact will give you free tarots, which can serve as any card, but even that is only a mild boost. It's far from necessary to create every single Persona in the game to succeed, but keeping your team regularly updated still requires you to do a lot of slow talking. Unlike combat, this process can't be automated. You have to go through a somewhat lengthy conversation each time. For those familiar with the later games in the series, it would be like repeating the same Social Link over and over again instead of having it advancing to something new at each level.
This wouldn't be nearly as frustrating if not for two other factors: encounter rate and load time. Enemies attack constantly, so you'll be lucky to go a few steps without getting into a fight. There are spells and items to reduce this rate, but the encounter rate can still be rather ridiculous. As for the load times, Innocent Sin feels like it hasn't been optimized for the PSP. Despite the inclusion of a data install function, there is constant and frequent loading. Before and after every battle, you'll have to endure a surprisingly long loading screen. It's only a few seconds, but when you're seeing it every 20 seconds or so, that really starts to add up. Lengthy loading times were understandable on the PlayStation, but coming off Persona 3 Portable, this feels really weird.
Innocent Sin was a PlayStation RPG, and it shows. While it isn't bad looking, it's clearly an older game with older visuals. The sprites are simple and charming, but the few uses of 3-D tend to look rather dated. What was clearly an impressive animation for the PS1 era is obviously not going to wow anyone today. With that said, the sprites manage to do a good job of keeping the game enjoyable, and it's hard to not smile at some of the simple animations that do a great job of conveying certain emotions.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is excellent. Moody and atmospheric at the right times, it is likely one of the franchise's best soundtracks. Even better, the game actually offers you a choice between two soundtracks. You can use the original PS1 music or a new series of remixed tunes. I found myself defaulting to the PS1 music, but each has its charm.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin is clearly an RPG from the era of the original PlayStation. It's slowly paced, archaic, and often unwieldy and poorly balanced. It is a testament to the game's strength that despite that, it is still incredibly fun. The characters, world and plot are interesting, and there's a lot to keep you forging through the loading times and high encounter rate. Innocent Sin has the potential to frustrate people who are used to the much quicker pace of the newer games, but if you're willing to work through its foibles, it's easy to see why it is so highly regarded. Persona fans should certainly check it out, and anyone with the patience for a slow and somewhat grindy JRPG will find a gem in the rough.
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