While playing games have you ever stopped and wondered what exactly happens outside of the protagonist’s viewpoint? While the vast majority of games are simply about throwaway entertainment they leave a whole range of unanswered questions, scenarios that you will never witness and most probably never even think about. Silently killing a guard and remaining undetected, or using explosives to clear a sniper’s nest, offers you clear benefits within whichever game world you currently inhabit, but have you ever stopped to think about the impact you have just had on the families of the men you just killed? Partners left to mourn the future that could have been, children stricken with the loss of a parent, forever to rue their missed opportunities. Wouldn’t it have been better if you could have walked up behind your target, tapped them on the back of the shoulder and just talked through your issues?
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin allows you to do just that. It’s a startling concept, and made even more surprising when you consider the fact that Innocent Sin was first released back in 1999 for the Playstation. Unfortunately for your younger selves the game never received a release outside of Japan - until now. In fact, Persona 2: Innocent Sin represents an almost unique opportunity for gamers; the game is actually the first part of Persona 2, with the more eager of the JRPG fans among you probably having imported the second part, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, from the States back in 2000. The game is a real hidden classic, unknown by many yet lusted over by bedroom otaku across Europe. However, it has been twelve years since the initial release, and Innocent Sin hasn’t been given the full optimisation treatment that Persona 3 Portable received and so the question of whether the game is still relevant to today’s market is one that must be addressed.
Choose 'Contact' for chitchat
The fact is that twelve years after release the ability to enter dialogue with the wondering monsters you encounter is still somewhat of an exclusive selling point. In fact, if you want to really progress within the game then Innocent Sin demands that you engage in this way. Each time you begin combat you have the choice to try to contact anyone of the opposing monsters – indeed, on a fairly regular basis they will actually initiate the discussion with you. While some monsters have no desire to chitchat, the majority will accept the invitation and talk to whichever of your player characters that you select (or, indeed, multiple player characters can all talk at the same time!). Each monster will have a combination of potential personality types and your actions can increase one of four emotions. These emotions, happiness, interest, fear and anger will result in different responses from the monsters. These responses include attacking you immediately, giving you the tarot cards required to acquire new persona, or even signing a demonic pact with you. If you manage to raise two different emotions to the top level at the same time you will experience different results, giving you a huge range of potential responses to play with.
Plot wise it’s all pretty much standard MegaTen fare; you play the role of Tatsuya Suou, a student at Seven Sisters High School (or ‘Sevens’). Tatsuya is the stereotypical silent protagonist, albeit one that is extremely popular at Sevens. You travel through the various districts of Sumaru City, fighting your way through a series of linear dungeons based at key locations. Unlike P3P the combat encounters here are entirely random and the dungeons can be labyrinthine in construction, leading you to reminisce on the frustrations of yore as every third step lands you with yet another loading screen and fight. The shining light here however is the characterisation of Innocent Sin’s cast; each one of the characters is incredibly deep and the level of interplay between then is simply remarkable. Many times you will find yourself exploring not just to see new areas but rather to try to locate a room which offers new dialogue from your party. The believable relationships between your party of friends become even more poignant as the revelations of the later game build up and the longer you play through the game the more rewarding the tale becomes.
Ah, those crazy teens
As with the other iterations of the Persona series the unlockable ‘other faces’ of your characters play a large part in the proceedings. Granting you various battle abilities and advantages the persona available in Innocent Sin are gained when you visit the Velvet Room and convert collected tarot cards into persona. Each persona can be levelled up through their use in battle, unlocking new skills and greater powers. This time round though you can assign various persona not just to yourself but also to the rest of your party – as long as you ensure their personalities are a good match you can micromanage your party to your heart’s content.
On the off chance that the inclusion of one fantastically well thought out and distinctive concept in a game isn’t enough for you, Atlus have been good enough to include two. Not only can you converse with your foes, winning their trust and receiving items and other goodies from them, but you can also actively change the state of the game world through the use of rumours. As the game develops you will have the chance to hear and spread certain rumours; these mainly concern the many shops you can find in Sumaru City but some will be necessary to spread in order to progress the main storyline. While the realisation of this concept is mired in Innocent Sin’s 90s development the sense of empowerment it offers the player is palpable – the only Western game to have experimented with such a concept is Planescape: Torment and even there using and abusing the power of belief was mainly out of the hands of the Nameless One.
It's simply not a JRPG without edgy imagery
All of which adds up to sound like a game that we should be recommending that everyone rushes out and buys now, clearing their social calendar for the next week as they hunch over their PSP screen and grind compulsively. However, some of the foundations of Persona 2: Innocent Sin haven’t aged particularly well so our lauding will have to come with some very clear caveats. Combat for one will have certain people shuddering – while the actual mechanics matches the style of many other JRPGs the delivery stutters, with loading screens on entry and exit and animation pauses throughout. The stop-start is made worse by the aforementioned random encounters, making a quick stop and play very hard to find any kind of flow. Visually it’s fair to say the game is outdated – the inclusion of new character portraits and PSP widescreen optimisation is necessary rather than a nice touch. Even the tarot card grind will weigh on some – instead of new persona being a regular occurrence you have to work your way to earning each and every one. None of these issues will deter an old school JRPG fan (and indeed, could even be attraction points for them) but anyone who has cut their teeth on Final Fantasy XIII and other examples from this console generation will be surprised at the dedication demanded.
The motley crew - sweet looking enough for you?
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a classic of the JRPG genre and its release in the States and Europe has quite frankly put right one of gaming’s longest standing grievances. The subtle interplay between characters, the control you are given over the game world, the depth offered by the sheer range of combat options you have ensures that Innocent Sin is a game that can keep giving for far longer than your average handheld offering. As long as you can forgive the looks and the loading and concentrate solely on the gameplay offered you will be able to sit back and enjoy a piece of gaming history, one that will quite happily swallow up your Christmas holidays and leave you feeling, well, not very warm inside – the game examines the theme of ‘innocents’ and their sins afterall.