It's been a very, very long wait for fans in North America to get their hands on Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Only the second half of the story, Eternal Punishment, ever made it to our shores. And while Eternal Punishment could be played without knowing the first part of the story, fans still couldn't help but feel they were losing out on a groundbreaking game. They were right: they missed out on a charming RPG with mature, likable characters and a well-paced story featuring plenty of surprises.
The problem is that Innocent Sin now feels dated - much has changed in the twelve years since the levelheaded yet enigmatic Tatsuya Suou first captured gaming hearts. Can it still be appreciated after all this time? Sure, but the ride isn't always going to be smooth. Had the remake improved on some of its faults, like a high random encounter rate and slow-paced battles, there's no question it would earn a top spot in handheld history. Unfortunately, without that, we are left with a game that would've once been a top-tier title, but is instead a vintage RPG with many frustrations for the modern gamer.
At the forefront of Innocent Sin are three high school students: Tatsuya, Eikichi and Lisa, whose paths intertwine with rookie reporter Maya and her freelance photographer, Yukki. They must learn to use the power of their Personas to solve the mystery behind an apparition known only as the Joker. Rumors have been circulating that the Joker grants people their greatest desires, but there's also a catch: those who lack the means to achieve their goals are turned into Shadows. But what does that mean for our intrepid Persona-users? Apparently, they committed some sin against the Joker in the past - one they have no recollection of - and so the Joker vows revenge.
For such an old game, it's truly impressive how much the narrative gets right - there's depth, pulse-quickening anticipation, unpredictability, and solid pacing. The aforementioned depth also extends to the characters: there's so much to uncover about them and their pasts and the character development is always eye-opening. Excellent story aside, the characters are what makes Innocent Sin what it is. They're all intriguing, multi-dimensional, and feel quirky, yet stay realistic. Honestly, Innocent Sin contains better dialogue than we've seen in most other RPGs of late - capturing a wide variety of emotions authentically. The group's camaraderie is evident - they banter like siblings, but also take care of each other like a true family. Watching the relationships grow is one of the high points of the game.
Unfortunately, the story and characters are where part of the enjoyment stops. Innocent Sin can be a tease at times because while it contains plenty of concepts that pioneered the RPG genre, many of the battle mechanics are now archaic. As a full-priced game released today, it's fair to expect that the developers would tweak these poorly-aged parts. Yet not only is the random encounter rate absurdly high, the turn-based battles play out sluggishly. Shin Megami Tensei standbys like elemental weakness are still there and auto-battle will be your friend, even if battles still take a while with this feature. Regrettably, auto-battle doesn't extend to demon negotiation and making pacts is important to victory.
At the start of a battle you can contact demons instead of fighting. Your characters have unique abilities to win over, strike fear in, or just infuriate demons. They can also team up to form a combination the demons will respond to - garnering happiness, anger, dread, or eagerness. Happy demons will form pacts with you, making future negotiations more fruitful, eager demons will give you cards used to create Personas, scared demons flee, and angry demons... well, they don't play nice. Sometimes the enemies will ask questions, for which you have to play the guessing game, since the correct answers may shift between encounters. Still, initial tactics that worked on a particular demon tend to stay effective.
Between the longwinded battles, the random encounters barely letting you breathe, long load times, and repeated negotiation, adventuring will drag. It doesn't help that dungeons are completely labyrinthine with dead ends, branching pathways, and traps galore. They become extremely difficult to navigate, and it's equally frustrating when the minimap doesn't do much to help. In fact, there was one dungeon with no correct path; the point was to make you go in circles a few times before triggering a cutscene. It's that old-school and cruel.
There are cool elements of gameplay, like a system for spreading rumors to make shops carry new items. Rumors can also open up new side quests and dungeons. There's even a theater, specific to the PSP version, where you can take on intense side quests that further flesh out characters and net special items. The only drawback to these is you can't save while in the middle of them, and some are lengthy to complete. Creating Personas is also a great draw: after collecting cards, you take them to the Velvet Room and trade them to Igor and company. Acquired items let you assign additional skills to your new friends. It's fun to experiment with different Personas to unlock fusion spells by using abilities with compatible elemental properties for a deadly, high damage attack. There's also a vast world with shops and NPCs to engage at every corner (some are unconventional - including an early-game transvestite). There's a lot to make Innocent Sin stand out from the pack - it's just unfortunate that the battles themselves haven't aged particularly well.
Graphics also show their wrinkles, as aside from a transformation to fit the PSP's screen, it doesn't seem like much has changed. The characters are all low-resolution 2D sprites, although they're accompanied by higher-resolution artwork during dialogue. Battle sequences use these same sprites, though few of the animations are actually impressive. It's not so unexpected for a remake of a PSone title, but it's still not up to par on the PSP. The voice acting is haphazard, and this matches well with the soundtrack, which features some standout tracks amongst forgettable dreck.
All told, there's a lot awaiting you in Innocent Sin, especially an immersive world featuring characters with actual depth. However, the battles and dungeons, making up half of the game, are real downers. It's disappointing because everything else is miles above what we're getting from the average RPG, but it's impossible to turn a blind eye to these drawbacks. The best advice is to know you're getting a game that's very old-school. That doesn't mean it can't be fun - but it also means that you'll be thrown archaic design choices that we're long past now. There's something special with Innocent Sin, but only the most dedicated RPG fans will ever be able to truly appreciate it. At least they can finally experience the part of Persona 2 they never knew
Aug 29, 2011