Ah, graphics. That which game industry professionals have been telling me for decades is the 100% absolute most important thing in determining a game’s quality. If you don’t have graphics, than what do you have, really? If your game doesn’t make those graphics cards catch fire, you aren’t trying hard enough. In fact, you can totally predict a game’s quality based on how many of those p’s it has. So how do the graphics in Persona 2: Innocent Sin stack up?
Well, not so great. It’s totally a Playstation 1 JRPG, and doesn’t really aspire to be anything more. The Persona franchise, hell, the Shin Megami Tensei series as a whole, has never been a graphical powerhouse. But that’s ok, those industry professionals are full of it anyway. It’s the art style that matters.
And there’s where the game’s visuals excel. Also, where they flop. Art design’s kind of a mixed bag in Persona 2: Innocent Sin. The duology seems to represent a sort of transition time for the Persona team’s visual design department. When talking about art direction in Persona games, there’s two big names to know: Kazuma Kaneko and Shigenori Soejima. Kaneko’s got at least the tip of his brush in pretty much every SMT game out there, and is legendary for the demons that come out of his head. Soejima seems to work almost solely on the Persona series, and is renowned for his character design. Here, they’re both working on the game’s visuals, yet neither seems to really be implemented to the extent they will be in the future. Kaneko in particular seems to be peculiarly limited in application. You could argue that it’s his demon designs that made the series what it is today, yet here, he only develops the main characters, the main personae, and the bosses, and leaves everything else to the rest of the art team. Soejima’s still coming into prominence, still working as one of the art team grunts, and handles the design of the rest of the characters and the character portraits. So, this leads to the game’s characters looking excellent, the headlining personae looking awesome, and some quite fearsome bosses, but the rest of it, the rank and file demons, non-unique personae and dungeon design, looking a bit bland.
The dungeon tilesets in particular I have to call out as being pretty bland. They’re serviceable, mind, they do get across that you’re in a cave or department store or bomb shelter or whatever just fine, it’s just that they’re small, repeated endlessly, and you’ll be seeing so much of them with very little variation that you’ll be glad for the random battles because at least they’ll give you something new to look at.
The music is… you know, actually pretty good. As I stated last time, the first Persona had two soundtracks made for it, one for the PSX release that was atmospheric and moody at the cost of any enjoyable listening, and one for the PSP that got your heart thumping but was pretty null at communicating any sort of atmosphere. The Innocent Sin tunes bring out the best of both worlds with some eminently listenable tracks that still succeed in bringing the proper moods across. I’ve even listened to the soundtrack for fun plenty of times, and most of it’s just as good on it’s own. The songs aren’t quite as memorable as those in the Persona 3 and 4, but it’s still obvious that the composers really knew what they were doing for this one.
The audio, while quite good, is noticeably a little different from the rest of the series. The original compositions aren’t quite as layered, and the instrumentation doesn’t evoke as much of a modern feel as the others. A quick glance through the credits reveals why. For whatever reason, Shoji Meguro, the composer behind literally every other game in the Persona series except for the Arena ones, was completely absent on this one. The composers who are here provide a strong showing, but Meguro does have a pretty distinct style that’s noticeably absent here. He did rejoin the team in the PSP release, remixing the old songs for a more modern sound, but they’re still mostly variations on the classic compositions. It’s definitely not bad, just noticeable, especially if you spend way too much time thinking about the series like some extraordinarily beautiful video game bloggers. In any case, both the remixed and classic soundtracks are packed into the PSP release, so you’ve got your choice of tunesets to listen to.
As always, Persona 2: Innocent Sin’s plot deals with big, world-shattering matters, but all the action’s condensed into one single city. Well, and the otherworldly domains tied to that city, but still, world-wide calamity on a home-grown scale. That’s one of the distinctive features of the Persona series, so get used to it.
Our battleground this time around is Sumaru City, a mysterious Japanese port city whose planner was apparently a really big fan of the classic Yin and Yang taijitu, as he or she designed the whole blasted city around that symbol. It’s a pretty big city, too. Over a million people. And all of them are in for some troubled times ahead. It either contains or is very near to Mikage-cho/Lunarvale, the setting of the first game, given the amount of recurring characters you’ll see. At the very least, it has to be the closest city to our old stomping grounds. It seems like almost everyone that had a name last time around pops up here again. You can even go back to St. Hermelin High School in one of the bonus missions packed into the PSP release, although not a single thing there is recognizable.
The name of the city, Sumaru, is based off of the Japanese word for the Pleiades or Seven Sisters constellation. The first location in game is the Seven Sisters High School. A bit of foreshadowing to the roles that stellar alignment in general and the Pleiades in particular are going to be playing in the plot. Stars make for a pretty common motif, here.
Of course, the big thing that sets Sumaru City apart from any other is the power of rumors. The collective unconscious has sway here like nothing else. Basically, if you can get enough people believing in something, one concept growing strong enough in the collective unconscious, the powers that be will make it come true. And the Sumaru citizens are infuriatingly gullible. It starts simple enough, with the magical genie that grants wishes from your cell phone, but is soon grows to empowering your enemies, then creating your enemies, then 2012-style Mayan doomsday prophecies. It’s unclear how long this has been the case, it might have been occurring since you were kids, but it shifts the world around you in some really strange and significant ways. It does have some odd effects on the way things work in the town. Because of people’s belief in it, holistic healing is not only effective, but immediately and totally effective. You don’t go to inns or hospitals to recover hit points here, you hit up the local chiropractor, or aromatherapy professional, or the freakin’ tanning salon. Most of the dungeons in this game are relatively normal places that have just been twisted by the power of rumors as well. Rather than delving through the deep, forbidden caves in the middle of the mountains, you’re questing through a bomb shelter underneath a local school. You’ve still got your forest around the local mountain to go through, but rumors have also brought the plants in the local park to life for your adventuring pleasure. Rather than storming the fierce technofortress, instead you’re powering through the great spaceship that the town was retroactively using as its foundation and ok, maybe that last one’s still a little weird, but you get my point.
Sumaru City is broken up into wards, five in all, which you’ll visit separately. The wards are pretty distinct, each with it’s own feel. You’ve got the suburban Rengedai, the downtown Yumezaki, the industrious Kounan, etc. Each of these places have a mall with a healer, weapon and armor shops, and a link to the Velvet Room, as well as a rumormonger hiding out somewhere and a couple of dungeons and other visitable locations. One thing that I really valued about this game is that nearly all locations are different. Aside from the drugstores, where their similarity is a running gag, every ward has a different healer, a different armorsmith, etc. So whereas Hirasaka, after a convenient rumor, has a ramen shop run by an ex-spy that sells weapons under the table, Yumezaki has a sidewalk vendor who smuggles for the Sicilian mafia, Rengedai has a clock shop whose owner, oddly aware of everything that’s going on, is happy to part with weapons for you, and so on. It would have been so easy to just copy and paste the same generic store in each location, as so many other games have done, but here, the locations are all unique and a lot more interesting for it.
The entire game takes place in this one city, where all your characters live. That’s a pretty simple statement to make, but as I think back on it now, it really does effect the tone of the game. Your characters are all at least somewhat familiar with most of the places you end up going, and that familiarity carries over to you, the player. With many RPGs, you have a hometown, with all your family members waiting, all the places your avatar knows so well, and all your friends going about their business, but inevitably the call to adventure happens and you leave it, spending most of the game seeing the new, the adventurous, the unfamiliar. Here, the entire game takes place in your hometown, and that carries a completely different feeling to it. Sure, the powers of rumors are shifting things around you, but it’s that much more of a shock when you’re coming across talking flowers or zodiac temples in areas you know should be normal than in magical locations you had to quest long to find. You’re constantly coming across new people or places your characters already know well, and it feels completely natural. It feels a lot less out of place to bump into your main character’s brother halfway through the game when you just happen to be visiting his precinct than in the middle of a battlefield several countries away, or to run into a random person from your school days when you both happen to be visiting the same burger joint a few wards down than when they just so coincidentally happen to be the military adviser for some kingdom nobody’s ever heard of. All the world-ending demon-summoning badness is going on in the same place you grew up, and that makes the whole adventure, no matter how wide-spanning the consequences may be, feel a lot more intimate than it does in other games. Even other games in the Persona series don’t carry this feeling, with most of their big combat taking place in some Other World.
Of course, that said, you do stand a bit apart from everyone else. Part of it is that your main character is supposed to be some big badass lone wolf type, sure, but beyond that, well, you’re pretty much fighting this battle alone. For all the intimacy the setting offers, for how much already feels familiar, you’re the only one’s really facing this adversary. Most everyone else is either part of the problem or just isn’t able to put up a defense. The police don’t even believe you at first, then when you finally have something for them to take action on, the precinct gets bombed and their forces scattered. The demons you face for most of the game are specifically sent by the Joker to hunt you down, so plenty of people don’t even realize they’re around. The general populace starts out completely unaware of the battles going on, then builds to unwittingly making your enemies stronger just by believing that they’re a threat. For the most part, while you’re risking your lives to save the world, the city that serves as this game’s battleground just keeps trucking on without even caring about your struggles. Then, when things finally come to a head, when the nazis invade (oh yeah, that happens) everyone is taken so much by surprise that the only people able to muster any sort of defense are the crew from Persona 1, a bunch of monks on the mountain, and Steven Seagal (seriously). This city may be your home, but your allies in it are few, and it pointedly offers no support in your efforts to keep it from devastation.
If you’re not paying attention the first time through, the tone of this game can be really hard to place. You’re just going along, facing down some harlequin and all his party-time team, gaining the affections of all the ladies and some of the gents, then finally going on a bunch of funtime adventures with those wacky nazis. Such joy! There’s barely any angst to be had at all, most of your characters seem to be relatively well-adjusted, and it seems everything’s going well. Then BAM! all of a sudden the (in?)famously dark ending of Persona 2 Innocent Sin hits, you fail harder than anyone else ever has in the history of anything, and it’s revealed that the world would probably have been better off if you had never even been born. Seems like the shift comes out of nowhere, right? I know it did to me, the first time I went through it. The dark, hard-hitting ending seems so completely out of place with the cheery character design, the ‘Let’s Positive Thinking!’ attitude of your team, and the overall way the plot develops. This swerve puzzled me, for a good long while, seeming like a contrived move to put the heroes back in danger at the end and justifying the ‘one game for the price of two’ duology release.
On subsequent playthroughs, when I took the time to actually think about it, things got quite a bit more clear. The ending does seem out of place at first, like it doesn’t fit with the tone of the game. That’s because most consumers, especially those of videogames, are so used to tone being set somewhere on a scale of light, happy fun-time to dark, heavy bloodangst. Tones are generally pretty simple to discern based on how many personal issues your characters need to go to therapy for but don’t because therapists don’t exist in fiction, how many people die, and how much the plot makes you feel like a fourteen year-old who hates your parents.
And then comes Innocent Sin, which brings with it a concept relatively unheard of among video game storytelling. Subtlety. This isn’t a story that’s going to spell everything out for you. The clues are there, waiting for you to pick up on them, but you’ve got to be paying attention to catch them.
Basically, what the issue is here is that your team is very much the stereotypical JRPG action squad. You’re a bunch of teens with fun personalities blessed with awesome powers and it’s up to you to save the world by kicking ass! And you do. You kick a lot of ass. Scientists have been working on developing a new metric to try and measure the amount of ass you kick. You deal with any challenge in the most direct way you know how, by running up to it and beating it until it cries. In most any JRPG, hell, most any video game, you’d be just fine in assuming that if you are happy and effectively pummeling some sad sack, all is right in the world. Innocent Sin will let you make that assumption. It might even lead you, ever so slightly, into making that assumption. If that’s all you do, you’ll assume that the game’s pretty light and happy. After all, you’re pretty much unstoppable, able to conquer any challenge before you with a minimum of fuss. You’re just racking things up in the win column! That has to be a good sign, right?
The problem is that, except for a few instances, the enemy is operating in very indirect means, and your direct methods don’t really stop them. Almost none of your opponents can be beaten with violence, but because you are Super Ultra RPG Megateam that’s all you have going for you. You try to physically beat your enemies, when you need to be counterplanning him. You go so far as being able to physically overpower the embodiment of humanity’s collective dark urges, yet you still lose because you do nothing about his schemes.
Once you realize that, and you start paying attention to the way the plot progresses, it’s a lot easier to pick up on the true tone of the game. And it is dour. It doesn’t really go fully dark until you hit the end with the whole world being destroyed thing. Your characters have issues, sure, but they’re never crippled by them, and the world is far from oppressive, at least as long as it’s still there. The game as a whole seems to have too positive an outlook to even approach the grimdarkness that pervades much of the rest of the series. But when you’re paying attention, it can get quite depressing. Largely because of the fact that, no matter how many people you beat up, you never seem to really accomplish anything. Sure, you may have defeated the latest bad guy, but does it matter when you turned his whole crew from a few crazies into a full-fledged city-wide cult just by talking to too many people about him? You may have stopped a terrorist from bombing a bunch of buildings, but when they all get destroyed anyways once you’re all through, it’s hard to feel too good about that. You may have tailed the enemies forces for so long, yet because you’re always reacting, never being proactive, you always find yourself arriving just a bit too late to do anything. And that’s where the tone lies. I can only think of two real things of value you’ve accomplished the whole game, saving the kids on their field trip from the mad bomber, and breaking your friend away from the big evil influence, and even the second one took a bit of help from outside parties. The rest? You win the battles, but you’re losing the war. And once you learn to keep your eye out for it, that’s the sense that hangs over you the whole game.