A bit of a change in format for this one. So, usually, when we’re doing these big retrospectives, we’ll just write up about twenty pages worth of text covering as much of a game as we’re able, add in some pictures usually shamelessly stolen from all over the internet, then put it up here in one lump sum. I’ve been starting to rethink that format, though. I’m not sure if just having one big, massive, 10,000 word+ post is best for myself the writer or for you the reader. So we’re going to try something new here. Something novel. Something that’s going to keep poor Matt from having to spend four reading sessions to get through the whole post. This time around, we’ll break things up, covering them topic by topic. We’ll divide the big massive study of this game into bite-sized, easily digestible sessions. Hopefully this will give a better experience for all involved. Sound good? Good. Let’s go!
So! Persona 2! I’ve been looking forward to doing this one. All the mainline Persona games have got some deep, deep roots in me. I’ve spent a good long while immersing myself in the series, and it’s one of the few franchises I actually consider myself passionate about. I’ve carved out a good bit of prime brain real estate for each of them. Yes, even the bad one. Persona 1 has it’s value as well.
Each of them, that is, except for Persona 2. Well, the first half of Persona 2. See, the second installment in this series has a really weird presence here in the western world. Persona 2 is a duology. Two games for the price of one. There’s Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, each telling half of the story. And way back when these games were new, Atlus, far from the bold and expansive localizer they’re known as today, decided to only release the latter game. The second half of the story. Flipping to the middle of the book and just starting from there.
There’s quite a few theories as to why that might be. Maybe it was because Atlus USA was a small department with too much on its plate at the time. Maybe it was because they couldn’t get it ready in time for the rush. Maybe it was because of the gay options in a time before America was ready for it. Maybe it was because of Hitler.
Nobody knows! But the fact of the matter is that we missed out on the first installment of Persona 2. Eternal Punishment came out, and trust me, it was a bit of a challenge making sense of that alone. Still, I powered through it, and while I know that game well, Innocent Sin was always a gap in my Persona knowledge, only experienced vicariously, until finally, the game got re-released on the PSP a few years ago. It’s still the game I’m least experienced in.
So this installment of our retrospective series covers the first release in the Persona 2 duology, Innocent Sin. Eternal Punishment will get its own, probably shorter post. Just seemed like the best way to do things.
Innocent Sin does form an interesting step in both the Persona series as well as the Megami Tensei series as a whole. Megaten games, up until the late nineties and early aughts, had been largely formulaic. First person dungeon crawling reminiscent of the old western CRPGs, demon negotiation and contracting, characters using both swords and firearms, they had variations on their style, but they were still pretty comfortable in their groove. Even the first Persona, which kicked off one of SMT’s more experimental series, still cleaved pretty close to the standard formula. Then came Persona 2, which mixes everything up completely. New engine for dungeon diving, new way of building your characters, new combat system, deeply explored characters, the game goes a long way towards moving things past the franchise’s well-dug trench. It’s not the first game in the series to do so, but it’s one of the most successful. You may argue that the changes made here led the development of the franchise as a whole. Now, granted, a lot of those changes were just bringing the series more in line with the standard JRPG form, but still, totally counts.
Largely, Persona 2 stands out by taking what worked about the first Persona and making it better, while reworking what didn’t work into something new entirely. The characters are deeper and explored more fully, dungeon design is a lot more sensible and they rarely overstay their welcome, the over-complex system of strengths and weaknesses has been pared down a bit, the combat engine is a lot more convenient to work through, stuff like that. While the game’s still a bit dated, even in the PSP remake, the experience as a whole is a definite step up from the original game. Hell, the Persona 2 duology even manages to make the first game better, retroactively. That’s no easy feat.
The Ground Floor
You know how in most games, you can rely on rumors with 100% certainty? No matter how stupid they seem. Or how unreliable the source. If you’re getting ready to fight Gargalath, Devourer of the Cosmos, and some coked-out bum recently escaped from the local asylum tells you that he’s weak to the Sword of 1000 Dicks that can coincidentally be found on some god-blasted island that literally nobody has ever been to in all the history of creation, you’d better be chartering the next flight out there to pick up on those absolutely truefacts. If a game takes the time to present you with a rumor, it always has at least one major thread of truth to it. It makes sense from a storytelling perspective. After all, why waste the time, resources, and storytelling momentum to give you information that leads nowhere? Yet, the level to which you can believe in the vaguest of rumors is absolutely unrealistic. In video games, rumors reflect reality almost all of the time.
But what if we turned that on it’s head. What if, instead of rumors reflecting reality, rumors created reality instead? That is the world in which we find the Persona 2 duology. If you can get enough people believing something, reality will shift to make that happen. No matter how insane that belief may be. If there’s a rumor going around that your main character is a totally awesome mechanic and can drive anything? It becomes true. If people start getting suspicious that a trinket dealer is really an arms smuggler selling weapons under the table? You just found your new supplier. If everyone starts believing a conspiracy theory that Hitler really survived World War II and has been hiding out, waiting for his next chance to strike? Well…
As you can imagine, this drives things a little crazy.
Innocent Sin opens on a small group of high schoolers just making their way through their daily lives. There’s a rumor going around that if you call your own cell phone number, a magical genie known as Joker will appear to grant you your greatest wish. Of course, events lead to your giving that a try. As I stated above, rumors are coming true, and this is no exception. It’s a shame, though, that Joker is incredibly pissed at you.
Luckily, this takes place in the same world as the previous game, where playing a children’s folk game gives you superpowers. Specifically, the power of Persona, the ability to call forth the facets of your personality you present to the world made manifest in the form of a mythical being that strikes down your enemies. Your group had played this game in the past. Most of them don’t remember it, but they’ve still got the power of Persona behind them. Good thing, too, because Joker sends hordes of demons after you, then goes off to further his plans. What plans? Nefarious ones. Ones that have to be stopped. Now, this time around, you’re not the only Persona users in town. Most of the Persona 1 crew show up at some time or another, and there’s plenty of new characters with the ability as well. However, nobody else seems to realize there’s such a problem just yet, nor has anyone else drawn Joker’s ire as much as you have. You’re in a better position to make things happen than anyone else, so you set out to oppose Joker and whatever he’s trying to do, all while reality is melting around you thanks to the warping power of the rumors.
Unlike the later games in the series which, although they all take place in the same world, don’t really cross in the mainline entries, the Persona 2 duology is a direct continuation of the previous game. One of your party members from last time joins your crew now, characters from the first game pop up all over the place, and the major behind-the-scenes players are all the same. You can easily enjoy this game without ever having played the first, but there will be a few times why so-and-so is significant at all, or why the game makes certain to mention someone as a Persona user when that never actually comes up. This game doesn’t directly touch on the plot of the previous game, that’s Eternal Punishment’s bag, but it does serve to retroactively escalate the conflict, and specifically one of your adversaries, from the first game into something much greater, and tie it into a larger whole. Honestly, I’ve found the first Persona to be a lot better when approached with the knowledge gained from this game and its other half.
Persona 2 expands on the elements of Jungian Psychology first introduced in the original Persona. Of course, the personae themselves, the personality traits one chooses to present to the world in order to manage their social connections with others and hide aspects of their true nature, plays a huge role in both the plot and gameplay here. This new entry adds two more elements into the Persona canon; the collective unconscious, and the shadows. The collective unconscious, simplified, is basically the thoughts and experiences of all individual psyches mixed, organized, and then psychically inherited and implanted into all living people without them ever being aware of it. So the reason that there’s lots of beliefs about a worldwide flood, a lot of myths about a sun hero, or that people are just naturally scared of big angry lions can be traced back to the collective unconscious, scores of people throughout the generations building up this group knowledge then imprinted throughout the ages. In the context of this game, two of the major characters, Philemon and Nyarlathotep, are avatars of certain aspects of this collective unconscious, and it’s what powers the effect that rumors are having on the world. If enough people believe something, if the collective unconscious grows strong enough on one thought, the collective unconscious shall make that happen. Given that the power of persona is given, or at least awakened, by Philemon, it probably plays into that ability as well. The Shadow, in Jungian Psychology, is the unconscious aspects of a personality that the conscious mind either does not or refuses to acknowledge in themselves. They play a part in all Persona games moving forward, but Innocent Sin handles them a little differently than later games. Namely, rather than being alien and malevolent manifestations of the collective repressed traits of humanity or the opposite but same power as personae, shadows here are simply beings that the power of rumors creates when two incompatible but widely believed rumors about an individual comes into play at the same time, in order to bring both those rumors to actuality. While they do seem to know plenty of hidden traits about their whole self, they’re not really used as a mechanism for accepting and exploring them, as they are in Persona 4, and mostly just exist to try and take the place of the original person. They’re not explored nearly as well as they are in later games, but hey, they still originated here.
The ability to use personae, the central ability in this series, has been significantly expanded upon in this new game. Collectively, your team here and in the next game are probably the most skilled parties, at least in regards to persona use, in the entire series. They can easily swap personae amongst themselves, use their personae to detect and track other persona users, and, most importantly, combine their personae’s powers to strengthen themselves and launch powerful combination attacks. You’ll need that additional power, too. Not only are you up against demons this time, but there are plenty of other persona-users out in the world that will cross your path, too. Not only that, but thanks to the power of the rumors in play, you’re going to have to deal with all the worst beliefs humanity can come up with.