Retrograding 05.26.04: RPG Countdown #2

#2. Persona 2: Innocent Sin/ Eternal Punishment
Developed by: Atlus
Published by: Atlus
Release Date: 9/14/2000 (IS) 12/22/2000 (EP)
Systems Released on: Sony Playstation


It’s funny. I churned out five pages for the commentary on the original Persona in about two hours. It’s taken me days to write anything about this, my favorite of the Persona series, and the Megaten series as a whole. I felt like I had to outdo the original entry which I came to realize is foolish. Instead I’m just going to talk about everything I find that makes me fall in love with this game every time I think of it.

I’d also like to address why I have two games at #2. Simply put, it is impossible for me to separate the two for the plots are so interconnected. No, you don’t need to play both to get the full enjoyment, and even with only one of the games, it’s still superior to nearly every game out there for the themes and deep thinking the game elicits. Hell, I played Eternal Punishment long before I played Innocent Sin, and I still enjoyed both games immensely. Even though 90% of you reading this will only be able to get EP at best, I have to impress upon you how important it is as a fan of a good story to play this game, for IS/EP contain the best interlocking story every created in video gaming.

And this is gonna contain PLENTY of spoilers for both Persona 2 games so you may not want to read this if that bothers you. But it’s the only way I can get my commentary out of my head. You also should read this part of the countdown to get a better understanding of Philemon. A final warning is I will be shifting from one game to the other without warning or hesitation. Because it’s befitting the nature of the two games. If you get confused, it’s part of the intent.

Eternal Punishment takes place in an alternate Universe of an Alternate Universe. As some of you may know, the Persona series is an offshoot or Gaiden from the original Shin Megami Tensei series. The original world, that where Innocent Sin takes place is supplanted to make room for the world of Eternal Punishment. In the original IE, the heroes of the game agree to let the new world come into existence in exchange for giving up their memories of the original world and to set things right. One of those things, and this is key to truly understand the game is that Maya, the main character in EP dies in Innocent Sin. And death changes her, for in Innocent Sin she was a cheery optimistic character who eventually forsees her own death. In Eternal Punishment she is older and not as upbeat as she was in IS. In fact, by the end of Eternal Punishment you see her crying and clutching Tatsuya, the main character in IS in a way that she would have never done in the world of IS. Maya evolves more than any character I have ever seen in video gaming and appropriately enough Tatsuya regresses for that any character I have ever seen. Like Philemon and Nyarlathotep, Tatsuya and Maya are polar opposites. It is this inherent connection between the two characters that causes an entire world to cease to exist and other to be reborn until the cracks in reality begin to show.

In order for the ritual of Maiya to be finished, (As in the goddess, not the main character of EP…but we’ll get to that later.) all the 5 main characters from IS must give up their memories of the other world and their previous life. This is the only way Philemon can reset time while Nyarlathotep looks on. And 4 of the five do so. The one who doesn’t is Tatsuya, who by the end of the two games truly deserves the moniker of biggest egocentric twat out of all playable characters in the history of gaming. And this creates the entire plot of Eternal Punishment. What happens when you make a deal with the Voice of God and then renege on your part of the bargain.

As mentioned in the entry in the countdown about Philemon himself, the plot of Innocent Sin revolves around a bet between Philemon and Nyarlathotep; a bet about the true nature of humanity. And Philemon lost big time. The end result is proving humans are weak and evil by nature. Of course one could argue after the bet that the sacrifice of Maiya proves that humanity is not dark at the roots of our souls, but Tatsuya again counters that argument when he refused to give up his memories, even when it meant saving reality and life as we know it.

In truth the very plot of Innocent Sin & Eternal Punishment revolves around three key concepts: the first is that good is not always good. The second is that evil is not always evil. The third, and most importantly, is a mortal can never begin to fathom the true intentions of the machinations of the gods. And when you try, bad shit happens.

Look at Jun from Innocent Sin. He appears to be a normal guy, then is revealed to be the Joker. He is psychotic, manipulative, violent, and evil. Hell in Innocent Sin, Nyarlathotep RAISES Jun after his real father is killed by the gears of a Clock Tower. (I’d love to make a Scissorsman reference here, but won’t to spare you from further confusion.) Jun is molded to be exactly what Nyarlathotep sees the true form of humanity to be. Totally ambivalent to everything but one’s own needs and wants except for the rarest of occasions when a person cares for whatever reason. For Jun, he cares only for Maya and Tatsuya. Why? Because Tatsuya is Philemon’s chosen just as Jun is Nyarlathotep’s. They are for all intents and purposes the same character with different physical appearances working for different sides. And both share a weird Oedipal type affection for Maya. It’s not sexual. It’s motherly. After all Jun and Tatsuya well…they’re “special friends.” Jun is both one of, if not THE major antagonist in Innocent Sin, but you also play as him. How’s that for a hard contradiction to swallow?

Eventually Jun breaks free from the influence of Nyarlathotep, but look at what he becomes? Simply put: he turns into a whiny little pussy. A sycophant if you will. Which further proves Nyarlathotep’s point about humans being weak and pathetic. And finally the cycle is completed in Eternal Punishment where without the care and attention from the Crawling Chaos, Jun is an ineffectual unimportant being glimpsed over by people who never played Eternal Punishment: The perfect deserving reward for a megalomaniac like Jun.

And I don’t even need to go into how Tatsuya is “Good” and yet damn near destroys reality twice, do I?

I figure this is a good time to bring up the two major influences on the IS/EP series other than Jung. Sure there are dozens of mythologies incorporated into the Megaten games, and Persona is no exception. But two stand out above all others: The Mayan Pantheon and the Cthulhu Mythos. Let’s start off with the one long time readers don’t think I’m obsessed with.

As mentioned earlier there is the ritual of Maya where Maya, who uses the Persona Maiya is sacrificed/killed by Okamura Maya. Yes, that’s a lot of Maya. In English it’s pretty confusing. In Japanese thankfully, all are spelled differently. It’s too bad 411mania’s script for posting doesn’t take Japanese characters or I’d show you. But basically they all sound alike, all the Maya’s in the game. But all are distinctly different.

We have Maya Amano, main character in Eternal Punishment, playable and important character who dies in Innocent Sin, and all around the best character in the two games. We have Maya Okamura, Maya and the rest of the IS’s gangs teacher who is a member of a cult and kills Maya Amano. We have the Mayans who are the Mexican/South American natives we all know and love that WEREN’T killed by Cortez and the Spanish. Those were the Incas. They are the descendants (in the game) of the Maiyans a group of Aliens who crashed on earth and took the name of the Goddess Maia, who in Greek Mythology was one of the seven daughters of Titan who eventually gave birth to Hermes, the messenger god, also called Mercury by the Romans.

So are you ready for what all this means? In order to the ritual of Maya and halt the destruction of reality, turn back time and create a new parallel universe in which the last remaining piece of the world of IS can rebuild itself into the world of EP a human who has the blood of both the Mayans and the Maiyans has to be sacrificed. This of course is Maya Amano whose Persona is Maia and she is killed by Maya Okamura. The funny this is Maya Okamura was carrying Maiyan and Mayan blood in her too. And the entire plot of Eternal Punishment and Tatsuya’s psycho fest need never have happened if she had been the one to die, Whew. Got all that? And oddly enough, that’s pretty standard for the sheer amount of plot you have to follow in the IS/EP games.

There’s a half dozen Mayan Gods that appear in the game from IXQUIC to places like the Mayan underworld and even the twenty day Mayan calendar has relevance to this game. If any of you are getting a PhD in History or Anthropology, consider the Persona 2 games as your dissertation. ;-)

And then of course we have Nyarlathotep.

“A tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique pharaoh, gay with prismatic robes and crowned with a pshent that glowed with inherent light – the fascination of a dark god or fallen archangel, and around whose eyes lurked the languid sparkle of capricious humour.” -The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath: H.P. Lovecraft

” Nyarlathotep, Great Messenger, bringer of strange joy to Yuggoth through the void, Father of the Million Favoured Ones, Stalker among…”The Whisper in the Darkness – H.P Lovecraft

Oh hell, I could keep doing quotes all night, but let’s do this instead. Originally printed in 1920 in a magazine called The United Amateur

NYARLATHOTEP
by
H.P. Lovecraft

Nyarlathotep… the crawling chaos… I am the last… I will tell the audient void…

I do not recall distinctly when it began, but it was months ago. The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard. A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a demoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences of electricity and psychology and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished, for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.

I remember when Nyarlathotep came to my city the great, the old, the terrible city of unnumbered crimes. My friend had told me of him, and of the impelling fascination and allurement of his revelations, and I burned with eagerness to explore his uttermost mysteries. My friend said they were horrible and impressive beyond my most fevered imaginings; and what was thrown on a screen in the darkened room prophesied things none but Nyarlathotep dared prophesy, and in the sputter of his sparks there was taken from men that which had never been taken before yet which showed only in the eyes. And I heard it hinted abroad that those who knew Nyarlathotep looked on sights which others saw not.

It was in the hot autumn that I went through the night with the restless crowds to see Nyarlathotep; through the stifling night and up the endless stairs into the choking room. And shadowed on a screen, I saw hooded forms amidst ruins, and yellow evil faces peering from behind fallen monuments. And I saw the world battling against blackness; against the waves of destruction from ultimate space; whirling, churning, struggling around the dimming, cooling sun. Then the sparks played amazingly around the heads of the spectators, and hair stood up on end whilst shadows more grotesque than I can tell came out and squatted on the heads. And when I, who was colder and more scientific than the rest, mumbled a trembling protest about imposture and static electricity, Nyarlathotep drove us all out, down the dizzy stairs into the damp, hot, deserted midnight streets. I screamed aloud that I was not afraid; that I never could be afraid; and others screamed with me for solace. We swore to one another that the city was exactly the same, and still alive; and when the electric lights began to fade we cursed the company over and over again, and laughed at the queer faces we made.

I believe we felt something coming down from the greenish moon, for when we began to depend on its light we drifted into curious involuntary marching formations and seemed to know our destinations though we dared not think of them. Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to show where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top. Then we split up into narrow columns, each of which seemed drawn in a different direction. One disappeared in a narrow alley to the left, leaving only the echo of a shocking moan. Another filed down a weed-choked subway entrance, howling with a laughter that was mad. My own column was sucked toward the open country, and presently I felt a chill which was not of the hot autumn; for as we stalked out on the dark moor, we beheld around us the hellish moon-glitter of evil snows. Trackless, inexplicable snows, swept asunder in one direction only, where lay a gulf all the blacker for its glittering walls. The column seemed very thin indeed as it plodded dreamily into the gulf. I lingered behind, for the black rift in the green-litten snow was frightful, and I thought I had heard the reverberations of a disquieting wail as my companions vanished; but my power to linger was slight. As if beckoned by those who had gone before, I half-floated between the titanic snowdrifts, quivering and afraid, into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable.

Screamingly sentient, dumbly delirious, only the gods that were can tell. A sickened, sensitive shadow writhing in hands that are not hands, and whirled blindly past ghastly midnights of rotting creation, corpses of dead worlds with sores that were cities, charnel winds that brush the pallid stars and make them flicker low. Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctifled temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness. And through this revolting graveyard of the universe the muffled, maddening beating of drums, and thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time; the detestable pounding and piping whereunto dance slowly, awkwardly, and absurdly the gigantic, tenebrous ultimate gods the blind, voiceless, mindless gargoyles whose soul is Nyarlathotep.

Now never let it be said that you don’t get to appreciate good literature AND read about video games over at 411mania.com.

As mentioned in my commentary on Be Your True Mind, Nyarlathotep is the voice of Azathoth, rules of the Outer Gods, center of the universe, mindless destruction and creation. It is a blind, dumb god that exists beyond space time and has existed since all things began. Nyarlathotep provides him with whatever instinctual urges Azathoth requires. There are other Outer Gods besides the Nuclear protoplasm that is the Lord of All things and the Crawling Chaos, but only Nyarlathotep has qualities the other gods are missing: A heart (metaphorically) and most importantly a soul. He is the only Outer God that has a personality, and acknowledges humanities existence. And sadly for us, he takes a perverse gleeful joy out of f*cking with us. He is not about death or destruction, but lives to create madness, insanity and mayhem. He is the Crawling Chaos after all. This is why he leaves the chance for the world of Eternal Punishment to be created, and also why it can be destroyed so easily as well. Atlus was correct in making Nyarlathotep a bad guy, but at the same time keeping his motives shadowy. In the end of both Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, only Nyarlathotep can claim he has won. Certainly not Philemon. And in neither games can the player characters claim to have achieved a truly satifying ending. In IS he proves humans are foolish and simpering putzes. And in Eternal Punishment…well, as you CAN get that game in English I won’t ruin the end of THAT ONE for you. ;-) Let’s just say everything fits in with Lovecraft’s original designs for him…

Oh. And Hastur is in the game as a Persona Baofou can use. But I’m going to shut up about him and the King in Yellow as it a passing reference in the game; not at all worthy of the detail everything else has been given.

I’ve now talked for six pages just about aspects of the IS/EP Plots. I’ve explained the many Mayas, Nyarlathotep, Jun, Tatsuya and have managed to not give away any real major plot points involving the one of the two games you can get in English. So why don’t I give you a quick summary of Innocent Sin without spoiling the game.

Maya Amano, reporter for COOLEST magazine, by Kismet publishing is in search of a good story. She decides to investigate the rumour of the JOKER murders. The rumor is similair to that of Sadeko/Sumara of THE RING, involving a phone call and a relentless supernatural killer. But a simple investigations goes to pot when the Joker kills the principal of the Seven Sisters high school and Maya happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Teamed up with her best friend Ulala (who looks nothing like the Space Channel 5 character by the same name) and a police office named Katsuya (who is my personal favorite character in the P2 games) who is the brother of Tatsuya they begin to unravel the mystery of the JOKER curse and in doing so, they also begin to unravel reality itself.

How is that for a teaser?

So enough on plot. Let’s talk about Gameplay. Like the original Persona, the game play is turn based and you begin with your characters on one side of the screen and the enemy on the other. As well, like the original Persona you can bargain with demons and signs pacts with them. Demons will give you everything from money to tarot cards. Unlike the original persona where a demon gave you their personal card which could be fused with another card to make a persona, you must collect a LOT of tarot cards to make Personas in IS/EP. And instead of having just one character talk to a demon, you can have up to three characters converse in an attempt to win over their allegiance to you. The best that can happen is signing a contract with a demon, which nets you blank tarot cards that Igor in the Velvet Room can have painted for you into whatever facet of the tarot you desire. This is the only way to get certain cards, and thus certain Persona as well.

And speaking of the Velvet Room (And Igor, who is my main user icon over at Livejournal), Eternal Punishment has the best version of the Velvet Room Operetta EVER. I would seriously load up my game and just have my characters sit in there for 15 minutes to an HOUR while writing or doing other activities where I required background noise. You can easily snag IS or EP’s soundtracks on Ebay for pretty cheap and I strongly recommend doing so. The music is amazing and I rarely suggest a soundtrack for a game as purchase worthy.

Okay, back on track with gameplay. My favorite aspect of this game is of course the Rumour System. For rumours can become reality. Think of it like the crappy White Wolf RPG, MAGE: The Ascension but actually making sense with the writers of Persona knowing what they wanted to achieve with their creation instead of just churning out a piece of crap for VTM and WTA fanatics to waste money on.

There are dozens of times with in the game, where you can choose to have a rumour spread, and as a result, aspects of the game will permanently change. Some of these rumors are as simple as changing the prizes you can win in Casinos and contests to having major repercussions such as changing dungeons or unlocking new ones and even deciding which character from Be Your True Mind you can use. My advice: always go for Nate. Not only because Nate is the second coolest character in the BYTM (Only Mark and his crazy dancing is better) but because by using Nate, you get to take on Guido (with a new last name) from the Original Persona one more time. It’s a far better story line than…ugh, Ellen. Not only is the rumour system unique and refreshing to see in an RPG, it also helps to highlight the effects of having the Crawling Chaos himself screwing with humanity. When Nyarlathotep is around, reality is rather tenuous.

The graphics of the game are good for a PSX game. They’re not the best by any means, but are a million times better than what we saw in Be Your True Mind. The spell effects are fun to watch and see the results of your fusion attempts. And the demons are great. Ranging from the ever cute Jack Frost who should some day do a crossover into the Pokemon world to a rampaging Shoggoth. Yes Lovecraft fans, you can and will fight a Shoggoth. And Shub-Niggurath. Go figure. There’s a wide mix of creature and thankfully both IS and EP have undead Nazi warriors running around. Because nothing says EEEVIL like Nazi Zombie warriors. Although this game being only 4.5 years old may seem archaic by today’s next gen console standards, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. But the real joy and value is in the story and gameplay.

Once you’ve played both Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, it is very hard to separate both games from each other. The fuse together in your mind and swirl around due to the very interlocking nature the two have. Although Eternal Punishment covers enough of IS in flashbacks to give you a basic understanding of what happened in Innocent Sin, I strongly suggest tracking down IS by whatever means you can and buying it. If you can’t read Japanese, there’s no worries. There is a website called the Oracle of Maiya that has done a fairly decent English translation of the script. So now you have no excuse not to get the game. “I don’t know Japanese” doesn’t cut it. Just make sure not to read ahead. ;-)

Innocent Sin. Eternal Punishment. Tatsuya and Jun. Philemon and Nyarlathotep. Reality and Chaos. Everything is a mirror reflection of itself in the end. Everything is an aspect of something else. IS/EP breaks the mold of the video Role Playing Game in every way. It is a grim tale, one where happiness is rare and fleeting. These are not games where the good guys win and life has a happy warm fuzzy Hollywood ending. These games are realistic in their portrayal of mankind against an enemy so sane mind can begin to fathom. Are the endings to both games satisfying? Yes! Are they considered rewarding for the hours in the triple digits you put into EACH game? YES! But they are melancholy endings for the most part. Not necessarily for the characters, but for you.

You have no idea how hard it was to write this without spoiling both games entirely and to have me ramble for about twenty pages on the two games. If there is one series I can say I’m an unmitigated fan boy for it’s the Megaten Gaiden that is Persona. Not Shining Force, not Sakura Taisen, not Pokemon elicits this kind of overzealous study and discussion by myself or my select gamer friends. And yet, it’s not #1. Makes you wonder what’s coming, right?