So, plots have always been more important in RPGs than in most other genres. If you’re going to be dragging the player around for like forty hours, if you’re going to be making them read a light novel’s worth of text, you got to have something going on to provide sufficient drive for all that. The Persona series in particular is known for being the more plot-focused branch of the whole Megaten franchise. So how does Innocent Sin stack up? Well, it’s got some growing pains, but you know, it’s still making a lot of steps in the right direction, and it’s definitely worth the experience. Namely, Innocent Sin uses something that you don’t see too often in video game storytelling, and that I raved about last time in the tone section. It has some subtlety to its storytelling. It doesn’t present everything up front, you’ve got to absorb and consider to get the full picture. Granted, the amount of actual depth there is pretty limited, but hey, for a PS1 era RPG released when everyone else was scrambling to catch up in the wake of the Final Fantasy VII bombshell, it does pretty well for itself.
The plot in Revelations: Persona was pretty lacking. It was certainly there, but didn’t really aspire for more than to be a simple justification for the gameplay. Well, the Persona 2 duology has a lot more going on. Not only does the plot have some degree of focus in this game, but it actually goes back and makes the Persona 1 plot retroactively better. It’s Eternal Punishment, the second game of the duology, that relates more to Persona 1, but Innocent Sin still sets the groundwork for it. Namely, it makes Nyarlathotep, who you may remember as being one of the bad guy’s persona from the first game into his own separate entity, a master manipulator and the main villain behind this game. As it turns out, the last game was just part of a greater contest between him and Philemon regarding the whole destiny of mankind. They’ve taken the rather shallow conflict of last game and added a bit of depth by tying it into something greater. A really smooth way of handling it, in all. The plot here ties the series more closely to Jungian psychology than the original game had managed to. Of course, there’s the titular personae making themselves apparent, but the game also introduces the elements of shadows, those parts of yourself that you don’t want to acknowledge, and the idea of the collective unconscious, one of the more major tenants of Jungian psychology. The collective unconscious drives most of the game, in fact, giving rise to both your ultimate enemy and your most powerful ally, as well as granting rumors their reality-warping power.
The narrative generally takes place over three phases. Or acts, if you’d like to fit it into the traditional structure. All of them are mostly conflict-driven. In other words, the plot’s drive works like almost every other game you’ve played before. The first starts off mostly down to earth, introducing you to your characters and setting up the conflict with the Joker, the cell-phone based wish granting genie that’s pissed off at you personally for something you don’t even know you did. Essentially, the first act is focused on building you into that world and your characters, and most of the conflicts are pretty interpersonal ones centered on relatively familiar locations. Your main is at the center of the first act’s plot, although each of the other characters get their own moments of focus. In the second act, Joker starts up the Masked Circle, a group of terrorists who serve as an analog to your own party. There, the conflict starts to expand a bit, as the Masked Circle are attacking the general public within Sumaru City, but thanks to them being largely focused on fighting you, and them being built of members that correspond to your own, it’s still a very small, personally-scaled conflict. Here’s where the idea of the global-destruction gets built, although it doesn’t really pay off with the Masked Circle. Your main, thanks in large part to being the silent lead, starts taking more of a backseat during this section, and the other members of your party end up leading more of the general happenings. And then come the Nazi’s. As often happens when they get involved, things blow up from there. The consequences finally hit the grand scale the SMT series is known for, with the Last Battalion and the Masked Circle duking it out over who’s going to rise as gods over the freshly devastated Earth. The character focus at this point shifts pretty squarely from the traditional members of your party to Jun Kurosu, the new member to join your squad in the final act. One thing to note here is that due to Innocent Sin being the first part of a duology, while most of the individual plot threads do end up wrapped up by the end, the overarching plot only just gets started here. You still end up creaming most of your major opponents and leave both the Masked Circle and the Nazis on the ropes, but you don’t beat all of them, and the game ends on a massive cliffhanger leading into Eternal Punishment. As for how the next game handles the lead, well, we’ll talk about that next time around.
One constant the Persona series really does well is make the plot with grand world-spanning consequences seem very intimate. Innocent Sin is no different. At the start, you’re just a group of mostly high-schoolers dealing with your high-schooler world. The first big villain, the Joker, may be evil, but he’s mostly driven by some grudge he has against you personally. Even the Masked Circle, the main group of bad guys for much of the game, seemed more focused on combatting you specifically rather than the general doom and destruction they’re trying to bring about. It’s not until the Nazi’s show up that the plot significantly expands to start seriously troubling the world in general. And because of that, it’s a lot easier to take seriously that your ragtag bunch of kids can honestly fight against the destruction of the world. Even if they can’t. Whatever, it works well here, and it’s not something that just any game can pull off. Honestly, it’s a little hard for me to review the quality of the plot, given that every single twist and turn was spoiled to me by the fact that I was forced by the localizers to play the second game first. Well, except for the Nazis showing up. But really, who expects to be going through your present-day Japanese high school warfare for hours only to have Hitler crash the party? Anyways, the overarching plot feels relatively straightforward, keeping its twists and turns gentle, but maybe that’s just a result of already knowing all the shocking reveals. After all, if you already know which villains are going to turn face and join your group, who’s going to die, and what that big secret everyone can’t remember is before you ever start the game, it’s a little bit harder to ride the swerves. I can tell there’s enough foreshadowing implemented that nothing should be completely a surprise, while it’s vague enough that some things should catch most unawares. Like, say, the Last Battalion again. Seriously, if I didn’t know the Nazis were coming, I never would have guessed. And you wouldn’t have either. Don’t even lie. Gameplay and story integration were good for its time, but still pretty weak. They do some interesting stuff with it, what with the rumor system at the core of the plot actually having decent gameplay impacts, the way actions taken during cutscenes can impact your characters in battle, and how making the right plot choices can power you up later in the game. For the most part, though, you’ve got your gameplay segments, you’ve got your story segments, and never the both shall meet. Dungeon diving and storytime alternate, so you get a bit of story that points you to the next gameplay segment, then you spend some time fighting monsters, maybe with a few bits of flavor along the way, then get a little bit of story when you reach the end, some more after a boss fight, and then the cycle starts over. It’s not a bad way of doing things, and it’s not really lacking anything, but the story doesn’t inform the gameplay the way that players of Persona 3 and 4 may be used to.
Characterization is definitely one of this game’s strongest suits. Get used to hearing that. The whole Persona series is like that, so it’ll be popping up a lot in this retrospective series. Just like the previous game, all the player characters have something different to say in every single room, and that really contributes a lot to fleshing them out. The fact that there are so many rooms and thus so much content you get from them, and the fact that the characters have plenty of layers, bring them to life in a way that few games have managed. Your team is interesting, and you really get a good feel for them over the course of the game. It’d be really easy to leave your team as relatively simple constructs in a game like this, but the writers have worked in a lot of characterization details and it makes the game so much better for it. The creators could have stopped at making Maya the genki girl caretaking love interest, and it still would have worked just solidly for the story, but they also worked in that she’s way overconfident in her nonexistent driving skills, keeps her apartment a mess, and a whole bunch of other features that help bring her out of the screen. Eikichi could have just been the loud-mouth street thug wannabe rock star, but he’s all the better for being the formerly overweight extremely reliable friend who has to hide his hobbies from his family. And so on. It’s not just your characters benefiting from this, either. Even the average npc gets in on it, with their dialog constantly adjusting according to the plot. You don’t find any ‘Welcome to Corneria’ types here, everyone has something new to say as the conflict around them progresses. You don’t get characterization out of them to the same degree as your cast, but they get enough that they feel alive rather than just graphics with a line or two of text attached to them.
Games in the Persona series, after the first at least, tend to be pretty deliberate with their choice of themes and rather obvious in the way they apply them. So there won’t be a whole lot of me picking unintentional themes up out of simple storytelling consistencies the way there was in the Saints Row series. Here, the themes involved are clear for anyone paying enough attention to the story. Doesn’t mean they aren’t worth discussing, though.
This is perhaps the most blatant themes in the entire series. Five of your six playable characters have unfortunate relationships with their fathers. Your main character’s dad disappeared when you were a kid, and you’re estranged from your older brother, who’s raised you since then. Maya’s father died when she was young, and she still blames herself for letting him go on his final trip. Eikichi has to constantly hide his lifestyle from his forceful father, who is constantly pushing him towards taking over the family sushi shop. Lisa is actively rebelling against her dad, who wants nothing more for her than to become a proper, traditional, demure Japanese lady. Jun was direly ashamed of his father for not living up to his lofty ideals before the man died. The only one spared from this is Yukino, probably because as a Persona 1 alumnus, her background was (kinda) already explored last game. The characters vary widely in how their arc handles this theme. Eikichi and Lisa barely develop it at all, while Maya and Jun seem to come to terms with their father issues, at least. Your MC’s matters are hardly touched on this game, but they do carry over, at least in terms of your relationship with your brother/guardian, into the next.
In any case, they do come to a head in a bit of a unique way in the final battle. It’s no coincidence that the boss of this game is an ungodly amalgam of all your characters daddies. Each is able to use their kid’s primary element, and each has attacks that their children are especially weak to, yet, in the end, each are eventually overcome by their offspring. This theme’s a little shallow, at least as far as this game goes. Fatherhood’s a connecting thread between a lot of the game’s characterization and plot, but they don’t really take it anywhere, don’t have anything to really say about it, within the context of Innocent Sin alone. It does tie in with some of what’s going on in Eternal Punishment however, which will serve to expand on the framework laid down here, so it’s not really a weakness at all, so long as you aren’t expecting the immediate payoff.
So, the power of persona is spawned from the self. It is the force of the manufactured aspects of your personality made manifest. Later games in the series even refer to the power of persona as ‘the facade used to overcome life’s hardships’, or something like that. In any case, even as Igor’s flying his chair around the Velvet Room slapping cards together to make personae, really, the power of persona comes from within. It’s a part of your personality. So, isn’t it sort of natural that your persona-power grows just as your personality does? Later games will pick this up and run with it, but really, here’s where it all started. Your personae are an extension of yourself. Literally, they are the traits and features of your personality presented to and used to relate with the outside world. Which you use to light monsters on fire. I’m pretty sure that Jungian Psychology teaches how to do that. Anyway, as you grow internally, your abilities to use your personae will change to reflect that.
In Persona 2 there are a number of powerful super-special candy-coated personae that you can’t get the normal way, by sticking a bunch of tarot cards together. These ones are granted to you at certain parts of the plot. Specifically, they’re given to you when your characters have earned them. Throughout the early parts of the game, you’ll periodically be presented with situations in which one party member or another is getting into a pinch, and you’re given the opportunity to get involved. Usually, the best choice in these kinds of situations is always to help out your friends. Why wouldn’t you?! They’re your comrades, after all! Your nakama! And what kind of festering fool betrays his nakama! Innocent Sin shows the underside of that, however. You could show your friendship by jumping in and saving them from the struggle. But sometimes, the struggle is valuable in itself. Sure, it may not be pleasant, having to deal with your obstacles alone, but rising above them on your own power, well, you learn something in doing that. It’s hard, but it leaves you stronger. And by helping them at the drop of a hat, you’re robbing them of that growth. Instead, you let them conquer their own problems, they grow from the experience, and they get greater power from it later. Some time after that, you get a second round or special personae, your party’s ultimate personae in fact, provided you’re able to completely recover your lost memories and thus learn more about yourself. Even beyond that, your ultimate personae will grow even stronger if you use them to overcome your shadows, the twisted counterparts to yourselves bearing all the bad little things you don’t want anyone else to know. So, yeah. The statement is pretty easy to glean here. Internal growth is just as valuable as external power.