Persona 2: Innocent Sin’s gameplay is a bit odd. The original PSX edition was a step up from the first Persona, built off of the series’ foundations with the conceptions of 1999’s contemporary JRPGs in mind. Then, in the PSP release, the only release we westerners officially have access to, Atlus made a few small updates to make things a bit more natural to modern gamers. So, in essence, you’ve got a late-90s JRPG with a few modern touches here and there, creating a bit of a weird mix when you’re coming to it fresh. What I found really intriguing is that they actually removed a few of the really unique mechanisms of the game’s engine in the re-release, making something much closer to your standard boilerplate JRPG in the new version. The changes aren’t necessarily bad, there was a lot I recall about the original engine that took a while to get a grasp on, but I do miss the old, more creative way of smacking down foes.
Much like the first Persona, this game has both elements of the classic Shin Megami Tensei formula as well as whole new mechanics giving the experience a flavor all it’s own. In fact, Persona 2 stretches even farther away from the Megaten boilerplate than its predecessor. The game came at a time where Atlus’s developers seemed to be trying out a lot of new things with their side-series, and Persona 2’s a lot more comfortable standing on its own than the original was. It still has a few elements in common with the traditional SMT game, and you can still see the foundation laid from the first Persona, but those are layered underneath some significant changes in mechanics that, especially in the original model, made this a game all its own.
As with most turn-based JRPGs, you’re essentially dealing with two separate engines here. You’ve got your big, dynamic, foe-blasting gameplay, and your totally thrilling just kind of walking around gameplay. The latter brings a completely new, absolutely innovative feature that will change the face of the Persona series forever. For the first time, you break free of the constraints of the old game, and you wander around in THE THIRD PERSON!
I’m sorry, was that too much for you to handle? Did your mind just blank that out, in an attempt to spare you from that paradigm shift? Well, too bad, because we’re going Third-Person now, and there’s no going back!
I mean, just check it out! In the original Persona, we were like:
But now we’re like:
Can you feel the freedom?! You can see the character on the screen! I have to tell you, picking this game up after immersing myself in the first Persona for so long, it felt like being a bird whose cage is finally opened. I’m not usually given to emotional displays, but I shed a bit of a tear, the first time I saw that lovely, lovely three-quarters view.
Right, so exaggeration aside, with Persona 2, the sub-series finally sheds its western CRPG inspirations and behaves more like the JRPG it really is. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first Megaten game to take the third person perspective; in fact, I know that Jack Bros and the Last Bible had third person perspectives years before Persona 2 came out. It’s the earliest game in the franchise I’ve played to boast such, however. Honestly, the change is welcome. The third person roaming fits the style of game they’re going for here a lot better than the first person perspective did in the previous game, and it allows them to expand on the dungeon design as well. There’s still some growing pains involved, a few elements that make me wonder if either someone on the dev team wasn’t quite experienced in the third person style, or that the game was originally conceived as a first person game. Either way, the lead to third person is still a really big one for the Persona series, and I honestly believe it does this game well.
In spite of this being novel, innovative, and a completely different approach for the series, there’s not a whole lot to the mechanics of the general wandering around that you’re not already familiar with if you’ve played any JRPG within the past two decades. Control stick runs, d-pad walks, and you can check interesting things out in greater detail or open the menu to outfit and prepare your party. That’s about it. I do want to note that the running seems a little hard to control, but I think that’s more of a fault of the PSP hardware than anything else. Seriously, how anyone thought that little control nub would be a good tool for twitchy video games is beyond me. You don’t need precision out of it very often, but for those moments where you spot some cleverly hidden trap disguised in the floors texture and need to just barely skirt it to get where you’re going safely, it might be time to switch to the control pad for the safer option.
The third-person perspective may give you a lot more visual information to work with, but just like last game, you’ll probably find yourself navigating more by the mini-map than your position on the screen. It’s not necessarily a bad design choice, although it is a pet peeve of mine, finding locking your vision to one corner of the screen more useful than, God forbid, watching what your character is actually doing. There are a few instances where it pays to watch the screen, like finding the subtle differences in texture that indicate a trap’s hiding somewhere, but for the most part, the mini-map’s just so much more useful than your general dungeon view. Pulling back the field of view may help, but that’d require a bit of a change to the dungeon design in many cases. You are focused awfully close on your main character. Everyone in-game seems to think he’s so totally smexy, so maybe the designers figured you’d feel the same way and moved the camera in more to accommodate?
Being in third-person also means you move a lot faster than the previous game. Freeform running is just plain quicker than the block by block movement of the first Persona, so you can cover a lot more ground in the same amount of time. Personally, I immensely welcome this feature. I threw a party for it and everything. Dungeons take a lot less time to get through, you move between the demon encounters a lot faster, and in general, it picks the pace of the game up quite a bit. There’s only a few dungeons that I remember that required more than a couple hours for me to complete, with plenty being done with after 30 minutes or so’s worth of work. This really helps the game keep things fresh and maintain interest.
It also helps that the dungeon design is a lot more sensible this time around. The last game felt like the level designers drew a bunch of random scribbles on a napkin, plotted out paths following them, and called it a day. Innocent Sin, on the other hand, possesses what’s probably among the most deliberate dungeon design in the entire SMT franchise. It still doesn’t have great dungeons, exactly, but that’s a weakness all Megaten games face. Here, the dungeons at least make a sort of sense for what the are. The school is actually laid out like a school, the department store dungeon actually seems relatively natural if you don’t think too hard, the gym could theoretically be made by actual human beings, etc. The only major exception are the last few levels, which hew a lot closer to the old style of dungeon design, but otherwise, you do have a clear sense of direction through most of the dungeons, which is a lot more than you can say for any other Persona game.
The overworld is mostly as we remember it from Persona and, indeed, the rest of the SMT series. Your character takes the form of a spinning icon that you can move along various streets toward your destination. You can talk to a few people that you run into there, picking up a few bits of information and the occasional rumor towards the completion of your quest. Rather than being one continuous overworld as in most games that use it, Innocent Sin’s is composed of a collection of one-screen neighborhoods that you can move between via menu selections. Because of this, locations are clumped together a lot more densely than you’ll usually find in the SMT series, and it’s usually easier than normal to hunt down any specific destination. You don’t have to deal with random encounters while you’re traversing the overworld. That’s nice, and you’d better enjoy it here, because aside from the rest of the Persona series, not a lot of Megaten games use this feature.
Interestingly enough, you’re not given a whole lot of freedom in the overworld. Shopping areas, rumor centers, and other resources like that are always open to you, but otherwise, you can really only go where the game tells you. You can see dungeons from the outside before you’re supposed to go there, but some party member will always make an excuse for you not to go inside if you try to enter. Likewise, once you finish up with a dungeon, it’s gone forever. Once you’ve unlocked almost all of the neighborhoods, you do get a permanent grinding spot opened up for you, so you can still catch up if you find yourself underleveled, but aside from that, the only real exploration you get is along those nice, shiny rails the developers were kind enough to set out for you.
Man, I just spent way too many words to describing how to walk around.
That’s enough about walking! Let’s talk about cracking skulls! And according to Sun Tzu, one of the first steps in defeating your enemy is to understand yourself. In this case, let’s take a look at our combat team.
Just like in the first game, your team is composed of a group of five Persona users. Unlike last time, you don’t get to choose any of them; you’re stuck with the crew the fates have given you. Luckily, they’re all pretty capable of handling themselves, so you don’t need to worry about dead weight. Unlike the dual sword and gun SMT carry-over armaments we saw last time, your characters only get one weapon here, and that weapon type is completely unique to them. So your main character’s the only one that can use swords, Maya’s the only one that can use pistols, and Michel’s the only one that can use the oh-so-common machine gun hidden inside of a specially-built bass violin case. I don’t know about you, but every single time I walk into a gun show, I have to wade through piles and piles of those bass violin machine guns. Defensive equipment is usually gendered, but otherwise can be equipped by anyone.
Characters have the same stat layout as last game, with strength, vitality, dexterity, agility, and luck being the main factors you have to play with. They’re all pretty self-explanatory, save for dexterity. Now, you might think that stat determines your accuracy, critical hit chance, or any of a number of physical offense options. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that. But you’d also be WRONG WRONG SHAME UPON YOUR FAMILY!!! That’s actually the stat that governs your ability to use your persona. Your magical power doesn’t come from your personae alone anymore. Now, higher dex leads to more powerful magic attacks and lets you call your personae out more often. I guess it helps you make a cooler pose when you’re invoking, which buffs them up somehow?
You get four points to assign to your stats every time you level up, one of which is determined by your persona. The rest, you get to assign for yourself on your main character, while the rest of the characters will assign them according to their own predetermined preferences. So, by carefully planning out your characters’ persona, you can influence their development in one way or another, but largely they’re going to be what they’re going to be and there’s not a lot you can do to change that tide. This means most of your characters will lead with dexterity over strength as their main offensive stat, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. I’d complain, but magic’s a lot more useful than physical attacks anyway.
The power of the outward-facing parts of your personality made manifest in the form of a kickass god or monster because your personality is just so wicked sweet. This is what gives you the power to stand up against the demons, cultists, and other foes arranged against you. Given that’s what this sub-series is named after, of course these take some pretty big parts in both the story and gameplay. These are what makes your characters special, these are your first choice in battle more often than not, and these are your most reliable option when facing down whatever foe you may have.
Your characters don’t remember it, but you still had your persona awakened by Philemon, the spirit guide and apparent master of the persona power. That means your abilities work like they did in the first Persona, rather than in the most recent games. Everyone in your party can switch their persona freely, but you have to worry about their arcana compatibilities determining who they can and can’t join with and how powerful they are with any given personae. This time around, your fighters are skilled enough to share personae, and all your unused personae are in a party-wide pool that your members can dip freely into. So if you switched your usual healer to a more aggressive persona but find yourself really craving some of that sweet, sweet dia action? You can pop the healing persona onto someone else and roll with the same skillset.
Persona are where all your magic and special abilities come from, so without one, you’re left with nothing to do but just swing your puny little weapon. And who really does that? Michel and lamewads who aren’t cool enough to play the superpowered children’s game, that’s who. If you want to cast spells, heal people, hit enemies with a fist of godly might, or blow up the world, you need personae that have the ability to do that. Unless you use a special item in their creation, personae start with just one skill, gaining more as you use them. Usually, all the nice skills are locked up pretty well, requiring you to call them out again and again against the cute little baby monsters so you’ll have the skills ready to blow away the big beasts. A given personae costs the same amount of SP to call them out no matter what they do, so it costs just as much to have Apollo light a match as it does to have him freeze time and punch the enemy a hundred times. For the most part, SP costs are really, surprisingly low until you get about 3/4ths through the game, so you can usually just invoke with impunity. Really helpful, given that your Personae’s spells tend to be so much more useful than any other form of attack against most enemies.
Unlike in Persona 3 and 4, where your stats were one and the same as your personae, and the first Persona, where you and personae had your own separate stats and the game just used whichever was higher, Persona 2 tries to split the difference between you and your personae. When personae have a higher stat than you, the game will use the average of your stats instead. Personae can still augment your stats, but they don’t have as much of an impact. On the other hand, this does encourage you to build your characters up in areas they’re weak in, since your personae can’t entirely compensate for that, so those interested in strategic building may find this part of the game more interesting. Personae also determine your elemental strengths and weaknesses, which attacks deal more or less damage to you. I didn’t find that to have much of an impact this time around. It’s just not a big deal. This runs counter to pretty much all entries we’ve seen in the Megaten series for the last decade, where having the wrong weakness is pretty much a death sentence, as well as the previous Persona game, where I totally cheesed the hardest boss with a bunch of weak persona that had the right set of defenses. Here, attacks just don’t do that much damage, at least on the normal difficulty, to the point where taking double damage for something or other isn’t that much of a big deal.
Persona are pretty easy to get, too, moreso than in any other game in the series. There’s no fusion system or demon charts to worry about; here, all you need is lots and lots of cards. Each demon belongs to an arcana. Successful negotiations with them get you a certain number of tarot cards of that arcana. The stronger the demon, the more cards you get. If you have enough cards of the arcana you want and your level’s high enough, just take them all to the Velvet Room and bam, personae for you. There’s a lot less fuss about it in Persona 2 than in any other Persona game.
So, to sum it up, you’ve got a lot more flexibility and ease of use with your persona than you’re probably used to if you’ve been playing any of the other games in the series. On the other side of that, persona’s stats and defensive traits probably matter less than they ever have, although their attacks and abilities still have a huge impact on your fighting capability. They’re a lot more useful than plain physical attacks most of the time, and they’re probably going to be your main option in combat.
Hey speaking of which…
The demon slaying, the knocking heads, the bread and butter of nearly every video game out on the market. The fighting. No matter how much importance you put on your plot, your sim aspects, your world building, or any other aspect of your game, if you have enemies at all, your combat mechanics will generally have the power to make or break your game. Persona 2: Innocent Sin is no different. As with nearly every game on the market, combat plays a big part in the experience. So it’d better be good, else the whole experience would fall apart around it.
You’re dealing with random battles in Innocent Sin. It’s a practice that really feels dated these days, opposed to the more modern-friendly fixed encounters, but at the time the game was originally released, it was pretty standard for the format. I don’t know if it’s quite required here, the Playstation probably had enough processing power for some alternative method, but it mostly works. It helps that the dungeons aren’t usually too long, so random encounters don’t slow things up too much.
I remember, playing the second part of this duology when I was just a cub, being really struck by the combat system. We’ll get into it more when retrospecting (I totally didn’t think that was a real word, but guess what!) the next game, but basically, it’s a system that’s always on auto-battle, allowing you to stop the fight and change the queued up moves whenever you feel the need. It was really hard to get used to, but it was a system that was fast-paced, efficient, and completely unique to Persona 2. It was unlike anything I’d seen before, and still remains one of the most distinctive parts of the game, in my mind. It was hard to imagine Persona 2 without it.
Guess what the biggest change Atlus made in the PSP remake is?
I have to admit, I was really, really disappointed with plugging Innocent Sin into my machine for the first time, getting into my first fight, preparing for some fast-paced and innovative skull cracking, and finding the unique system I had been dreaming of replaced with something far more traditional. Combat in Innocent Sin now works like pretty much any other JRPG on the market. At the start of your turn, your party member’s menus pop up and you queue up all their actions in order, then sit back and watch them act out your commands until everyone’s all done and it’s time for you to wash, rinse, and repeat. If you played the last game, your combat interface is pretty much the same here less the need to worry about your position. In fact, if you’ve played most any turn-based JRPG, you’re going to be familiar with this system. It’s not executed poorly and there’s practically no barrier to entry on the combat interface, but one of the most unique things about the game had been replaced with something utterly standard, and that still kind of stings.
Granted, you still have the ability to enter and exit auto-battle at any time, so if you kludge it out and pretend real hard, you can have a system that’s mostly like the old one, if a little less input-efficient. You can pause combat to change your commands at any time, too. This ends up really coming in handy quite a bit. If the enemies move and the layout of battle changes before all your characters get to act? No problem, you can just stop the fighting and readjust. If you find yourself with a sudden need to pop a heal on a dying character, switch attacks to the elemental weakness that you just figured out, or redistribute your characters attacks after that one enemy died a lot sooner than you expected, it’s absolutely no fuss to put a break in the fighting and do so. I imagine the game would be a lot more difficult without this function, as the original was built around the ability to change things on the fly, but either way it’s a really nice allowance that I’d have loved to see in a lot more places.
You’ve got one new ability in combat that’s worth noting. Usually, in the Persona game, your party is made up of a bunch of high-schoolers that barely have any connection with each other. In Innocent Sin, your party is made up of… well, a bunch of high-schoolers and a few adults that barely have any connection with each other as far as they know, but they’re still a lot better than most at working together. Meaning they can combine their attacks, having their persona merge their spells and abilities into one powerful fusion attack. Pick the right abilities in the right order, and your persona will surprise you by launching a joint attack, usually hitting all enemies for more damage than you’d get individually. And they can get pretty beefy. If you know what you’re doing, you can get some end-game levels of damage out of some really easy to obtain abilities pretty early on in the story. These play a pretty important part of building up your team, too. If you finish the battle with a fusion spell, all the persona involved have a small chance of mutating, either boosting their stats, jumping several levels in development, learning new spells, or giving you the ability to turn them into new, more powerful personae that you can’t get otherwise. If you keep them up, keep mutating your personae, you’ll end up with some really fearsome personality traits backing you up.
Innocent Sin has this really odd difficulty curve. So, Megaten games generally have a reputation for being hard. Most games in the series are designed so that any battle can overpower you, mistakes in setting up your team have dire consequences, and bosses absolutely require you to figure out a solid strategy and adapt towards it. The Persona series isn’t as tough as most of the rest in the franchise, but it’s still a step or two above average. Except for Innocent Sin. Well, for most of the game. And admittedly, I haven’t tried the game on hard difficulty, so that may be a new challenge entirely, but largely, Innocent Sin isn’t too hard to get through. The game’s challenge seems to progress in tiers. For the first half or so, you barely need to think about combat at all. Your enemies can barely do any damage to you, while you can kill them with only one or two spells, and your SP costs will be so low that you can summon with impunity, knowing that you’ll recover as much as you spent before your next battle. After the halfway mark, enemies grow to the point that they take a few hits to kill, you may need to actually start paying attention to their weaknesses and defenses, and they might be able to kill you if you don’t bother with healing. Still, the challenge isn’t much worth note. Then, finally, for the last couple dungeons in the game, your personae grow to the point where it’s a constant challenge to manage your SP while still getting use out of them, enemies get some troublesome attacks and instant-kill moves, and you actually have to start planning out your strategy. The tension in both the gameplay and story definitely pick up right around then, but it’s about 20-25 hours into the game and it might be a little too late for some. You don’t even have to bother with getting new personae, if you don’t want to. So long as you make the right choices throughout the game, you’ll get three sets of personae given to you through they plot, and they’re more than enough to handle any challenge before you until you get to the next one. It doesn’t mean that the game is unengaging, but I do find it a curious choice, especially given the series’ pedigree. Eternal Punishment definitely isn’t like that, so I wonder if it’s a change that was made for the PSP version.
One of my favorite things about Persona 2’s combat system doesn’t really matter, in the sense that it has absolutely no gameplay impact, but I still wanted to make note of it and now seemed like the best time to do so. Not everything’s about punching faces, you know? Sometimes, you’ve got to stop and smell the flowers. Although, the flowers smell like blood. Because Jun just punched someone’s face with them. Anyways, the characters in battle. They’re totally dynamic. They will actually move in battle. Usually, when you have a turn-based RPG, your team is locked in formation. They may all be on one side, or they may surround the enemy, but they’re always stuck in their relative position. They’ll dart up for an attack or another, but they’re back in lockstep soon enough. Not so, here. If you tell your main character to slice up an enemy, he’ll close the range, then just stay in the enemy’s face until next turn. Characters, both yours and your enemies, are moving all over the place in fights, constantly getting into their preferred range to launch their attacks and staying there. Well, as long as you’re using their basic attacks. Still, it makes the battles feel a lot more dynamic and punchy, and I’m really surprised this didn’t get picked up by other games. I’m trying, but I can’t recall any other turn-based JRPGs that have done this. It has absolutely no gameplay application, it’s just there for aesthetics, but it still makes the fights feel a lot better. And that really goes a long way with me.
Last game, I had mentioned, had a problem with overcomplication in its attack and defensive types. There were way too many elements to worry about that enemies could be weak to, reflect, or whatever. Persona 2 mitigates that somewhat. There’s no longer a separate attack type for each weapon, nor are there twenty different magic elements to worry about, but you’ve still got a bit more to concern yourself with than most games. If I’m remembering right, you’ve got eight types of physical attacks, from the weapon styles like sword and thrown to the special attacks type like havoc, ten elements of magic, and five flavors of status effects that work just like everything else. So yeah, still takes quite the mind to keep track of all that. Luckily, the ability to check your opponents has a much better interface, allowing you to see their strengths and weaknesses to anything whenever you feel like, and your cursor will change when you’re about to hit an enemy with an attack they resist or bounce back at you, which helps eliminate a lot of the problem there.
And… that’s about it for the combat engine of Persona 2: Innocent Sin. It doesn’t offer the most exciting fights you’ve ever seen, but it’s not bad, either, and it suitably serves its purpose. Most of the interest in the fighting is going to come from well-designed enemies, which, yeah, there are quite a few of them scattered about.
Demon negotiation has been a part of the Megaten series since the first game, and it makes a strong appearance here. It’s been reworked a bit from the first Persona, but it still probably the feature that’s undergone the least change from last time around. It is absolutely necessary if you’re looking to build up your Persona-power, and quite useful for all those fights you really don’t want to bother with.
Assuming you hadn’t already pissed them off, you can stop the fight at any time to try and talk to some demon among your enemies. From there, each of your characters has four communication options and you get to choose one, which will affect the demon’s emotions according to their listed personality types. Positive responses will make the demon happy, eager, or scared, while negative responses make them angry. Responses can raise up to two emotions at once. Raise the same emotion three times, and they’ll take the appropriate action. Getting them angry usually has them surprise attack you, and scaring them has them run away or pick up a status effect. But happiness and eagerness are the key emotions we want to work with here. If you get them eager, they’ll give you tarot cards of their arcana, which you can turn into nice, sexy, enemy-roasting personae. If you make them happy, and your level is at least as high as theirs, you’ll be able to make a pact with them. And that carries a variety of conversation benefits. Namely, you’ll be able to get items, money, or rumors from them if you make them happy again, you’ll be able to ask them to spread any rumors you’ve gotten from other demons, and they’ll give you free tarot cards, which you can turn into any arcana, along with any regular tarot cards they give you in the future.
You can get some combination contacts over the course of the story, too, usually representing how much closer your team is getting. So you can have your main character, Michel, and Jun form a rock band and perform for the demons, or have Maya and Yukki perform a manzai comedy show based entirely around bad puns. These contacts aren’t usually better or more reliable in any given situation than the ones your characters already have, but it is really nice to have some gameplay representation of plot developments.
I found demon negotiation to be more reliable than last game. Just like last time, you’re given the personality traits at play with the demon you’re talking to, but their personalities are a bit less complicated now. Furthermore, if you find something that get’s a positive response for one personality trait, it’ll generally get a positive response for all demons with that personality trait, no matter what other traits they have. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s still pretty close. Almost every demon seems to have either the foolish trait, which works well with Maya’s interview ability, or the wise trait, which responds well to Yukki’s persuasion, and those two contacts got me through about 80% of the demons, really.
You can’t just put in some new, reality warping power and not let the player toy with it. The rumors have messed up Sumaru City something fierce. They’ve created or empowered most of your enemies, they’re what’s constantly raising the stakes of your battles, and they’re what ends up putting the entire world through the sausage-grinder. It’s only fair that you should be able to twist them to your benefit too, right?
Lucky for you, you’ve got the support of the Kuzunoha Detective Agency. They’re among the first people who’ve noticed the changing powers of the rumors, and make themselves available to you in your quest to save them all from the horrors of oblivion… for a nominal fee. Sure, there’s the constant threat of total annihilation wiping out everything anyone’s ever known, but the detective still needs his Big Macs, and Big Macs don’t come free.
The Agency’s not a miracle worker, and they don’t have the kind of sway to create a rumor from whole cloth and get it believed widely enough to take effect. Otherwise, you’d be able to spread a rumor that your entire team is entirely composed of complete and total badasses with chiseled good looks and just steamroll over everything in the game. Instead, what you have to do is work with rumors that are already making the rounds, and have them influence those rumors so that the one you want comes true.
Each district of the city that you can visit has their own rumormonger, with whom you can trade info on some of the things you encounter in your adventures for rumors. The rumors you get from each rumormonger will generally be mostly the same but with small variations. So if you just unlocked a new area, all the rumormongers will tell you the rumor that the owner at the local high class restaurant runs weapons under the table, but one monger will tell you that the weapons he sells are awesome but expensive, while another tells you that they’re cheap in both price and quality, while another tells you that he has good selection, but won’t pay much when buying weapons back. You get your choice of which one to go forward with, which will then be in place for the rest of the game.
Rumormongers aren’t the only place to pick up rumors. You can get them from demons your friendly with (these rumors will also have to be spread by demons) and from the average Joe on the street. The most common rumors are those that open up new weapons or equipment shops in new locations, but they also have the ability to unleash optional enemies on areas, change the shapes (and treasures) of dungeons, and add new skills to demons and personae. Oddly enough, given how powerful rumors are in shaping reality, you only get to make small dents in it. A new armor store here, a new casino there, maybe have flowers start talking but they still keep your secrets so its okay. All the big ones that require huge shifts in space-time to accommodate come by through the plot rather than any player choice, and are usually enacted by your enemies or just the general public rather than you, but it’s still nice to have a bit of that power in your hands, too.