Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Innocent Sin
Developer: Index Corporation
Publisher: Atlus USA
Genre: Turn Based RPG
Release Date: 09/20/2011
Back in 2004, I did a countdown of the “thirty best RPGs of all time” – at least according to my own personal tastes and preferences. Tied at #2 were both Persona 2‘s – Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. They were tied because they were, in fact, one long story and you really do need both for the full effect. Although the second half of the story made it stateside in 2000, Innocent Sin never made received an English localization – until now, almost eleven years after Eternal Punishment.
I was a bit worried about the remake for two big reasons. The first is that the first three Persona games are wildly different from Persona 3 and 4, and so younger gamers, or those that missed the original Persona trilogy would probably have the same reaction to this as the original Persona generation did to P3. Namely, “This is to Persona as Phantasy Star 3 was to its series.” The second reason was that Atlus USA’s localization of the PSP Persona: Be Your True Mind remake was simply terrible. That English translation was truly deplorable and was almost universally hated by those that played the original. Considering the original PSX version, when brought to the states, was missing the Snow Queen Quest and took some liberties with the game’s dialog and graphics, that was an impressive and infamous feat indeed. The remake was a more literal translation of the Japanese version of the game, but also localized it in such a way that the actual meaning, mood, theme and point of the game was lost in atonal scripting, along with much of the “Carl Jung vs. H.P. Lovecraft” aspect. It was a beautiful example of how sometimes, doing a “Working Designs” style localization to a game is for the better as the team behind the US version of P1 obviously had no idea what they were doing. Factor in the remixed soundtrack which was also reviled and Atlus USA managed to piss offmost of the original Persona fan base. So putting this game at $39.95 after the P1 fiasco was a ballsy move by Atlus, to say the least.
The good news is, much like with the complaints Atlus of Japan received about Persona 3 (which gave way to the FES edition), both versions of Atlus (Atlusi?) listened. The original soundtrack was left in Innocent Sin, albeit it alongside another remixed set. As well, since Innocent Sin had only been translated by fans before so it couldn’t get the same visceral reaction except from the most hardcore of Persona fans. Unfortunately I wrote what was arguably the first translation guide for the game’s script back in the winter of 2001, so I’m one of those fans. It’s also why it’s taken me THIS LONG to write the review. Considering I was such a big part of the original Persona fanbase and I know some of the original designers of the Persona trilogy, it was a bit hard to separate the critic side of myself from the P2 fanboy side of me. In the end what matters is how the game fares eleven years after its original release and how it holds up by 2011 standards. Let’s take a look.
Without spoiling anything, I can say that the core of Innocent Sin is the same as Be Your True Mind and Eternal Punishment. Which is all about the Unconscious Collective and whether it affects humanity or humanity effects it. It’s a battle between things greater than what we would call Gods. It’s about Carl Jung’s The Red Book and a collection of works by writers known as the Cthulhu Mythos. At the end of the day, the original Persona trilogy requires a lot of knowledge about folklore, philosophy, early 20th century New England horror fiction and a bevy of religions to get the full effect of what is truly going on. They’ve been called the deepest and most intellectual games ever made and for a good reason. The good news is that you don’t have to know ANY of the above to get the first (and arguably the most entertaining) level of the story. Think of it like Gulliver’s Travels. You can read it as the adventurers of a British dude who encounters all sorts of strange folk and talking horses, or you can read it as a brilliantly satiric look at the principal players of post Restoration period English/European politics. Either way, the book is incredible, but the more you know about the niche subject matters at hand, the more impressive the book seems and the actual depth of which can be appreciated. This is true of all three of the original Persona games as well. If you want a cribbed version of the metaphysical events and the story with in a story that is being told about Philemon and Nyarlathotep, you can scroll back up to the very top of this review and click a link for a massive essay about IS and EP, or click here for one on Be Your True Mind. Both pieces are seven years old though and have some formatting errors due to being uploaded into WordPress, but at least they are there for the curious. For the rest of the review, I’ll just cover the first layer of the story, especially since, due to this translation, a good deal of the deeper message of the game is unfortunately lost.
Innocent Sin is the middle chapter of the Persona trilogy. Your main character here is Tatsuya Suou, a rather stoic teenager than attends Seven Sisters High School. Tatsuya is a quiet sort, but not the silent protagonist that has become something of a RPG trope at this point. Instead he seems sullen about something, but neither his classmates nor you the player know why – at least not at first. Strange things begin to happen after the gang boss of Kasugayama High kidnaps a girl from Seven Sisters and demands Tatsuya face him. Or at least that’s what Tatsuya is told. When Tatsuya and Michel (the aforementioned gang boss) meet, it turns out they wanted Tatsuya for a VERY different reason. A slightly comical conversation later and the “Joker Game” is played. Supposedly a being known as “The Joker” can be summoned if you dial your own cell number on the phone it is connected to. If you speak your mind, it will grant a wish. If you don’t, it will all but erase you from existence. Well, it turns out Joker is real, as are a lot of rumours these days and several of Michel’s friends are turned into “shadowmen” while Tatsuya, Michel and Tatsuya’s quasi-girlfriend Lisa are saved as they have been given the power of Persona by Philemon.
From there things get weirder. It turns out Joker has a massive grudge with Tatusya, but will not say what it is. Reality also starts to unravel as tales of fancy become actual fact. The statue of Seven Sisters’ principal begins to move on its own. A long dead clock begin to tick once more. The Crawling Chaos stirs…
There are many different mysteries to unravel. Why are the PCs having immense feelings of DéjÃƒÂ vu (which the game is erroneously translating as “nostalgia”)? What is Joker trying to accomplish? Who is Joker? Why are demons appearing? What the hell exactly is going on? All those questions and more are eventually answered, but it’s one wild ride as you just try to figure out what Innocent Sin is all about. Perhaps the best way to describe it to younger or casual gamers is that Persona 2 was LOST before LOST, albeit it with a quality ending and no Ezra James Sharkington. It’s a very Japanese take on Lovecraftian style fiction with a healthy dose of inspiration from White Wolf’s Mage: The Ascension. In fact, White Wolf would eventually return the complement in 2000-2001 with several official in-game references to Persona…
Although you’re only getting half the story here unless you own Eternal Punishment, the actual plot, pacing and story of Innocent Sin is one of the most memorable and cerebral in all of gaming. It’s something to experience even if the decade old turn based system isn’t necessarily up your alley.
Then there’s the localization. I won’t lie. It’s got some issues. The story is noticeably edited in some ways, and dumbed down in others. Somehow the game won’t refer to Hitler or Nazis by name, even though it’s a very important part of the game. This from the company that brought us Operation Darkness, which was all about Werewolves and Herbert West killing Nazis. Certain slurs and profanity are taken out, while stronger language is put in places where it didn’t originally exist. The story is tweaked and given modern day slang like “bro code” and sometimes the translation is a bit nonsensical – as if the developers went for a literal Japanese to English bent rather than the actual meaning of the words. It’s not Jimmy James’ “Macho Business Donkey Wrestler” by any stretch of the imaginations but there are noticeable issues for those that know Japanese and have played the original innocent Sin… or at least the US version of Eternal Punishment which contains some scenes from Innocent Sin as flashbacks.
So I’ll admit, I was pissed at first while reading the translation – especially since I imported the Japanese one and played them side by side to see the differences. My annoyance was mainly about the editing and neutering of the story as it is 2011, and I think people can handle the full content in a T rated game. However, the more I played, the more I got over it. Is it as good a translation as Eternal Punishment received? No, but it’s a lot better than the one the Be Your True Mind remake got. This time around, there was a much stronger attempt to keep the Twin Peaks style weirdness alive – especially in the conversations with demons. You even get to dance crazy once or twice. As well, I’m just happy the game is in English and so gamers can finally play the full story and see how fantastic it is. I was also pleased to see that Innocent Sin used established names and locations from the original English version of Eternal Punishment rather than what would be the “correct” Japanese names. This isn’t always the case, but it is true in the important ones and means that if you have both games there will be a sense of continuity instead of disconnect. Most of all I was happy to see that unlike the mangled Personas of the PSP1 remake, this version actually took most of the Personas word for word from Eternal Punishment. Again, it’s not true of everything, but enough that the older or more discerning Persona will be happy once they get over the initial “2011” dialog. At the end of the day, I can’t get on the use of modern English vernacular anymore than I could for Working Designs for including Bill Clinton jokes in Lunar. I liked it then, just as I liked the original translation of Be Your True Mind back in the late 90s so I can’t dislike it now. Could the translation have been better? Yes. The job done does bring down the story quality to those who know what the game is about beforehand, but honestly, there are so few of us that it doesn’t matter and unless you got the original Eternal Punishment translators to do this, it would be all but impossible to live up to what P2 fans would have wanted. At the end of the day this is MUCH better than the latest Be Your True Mind translation and although I take umbrage with some of the edits, 99% of people picking this up won’t know anything is edited and will enjoy it for the great story it is.
Innocent Sin is a game that needs to be played for the story. Older crotchety Persona fans will be grumpy about the translation as first, but the more they play, the more they will come around. At the end of the day, Innocent Sin is finally in English. That’s what matters most.
Story Rating: Great
Innocent Sin isn’t going to win any awards for visuals, that’s for sure. The game LOOKS eleven years old with a slight face lift. But then, the game isn’t meant to be a high definition remake – it’s meant to be a PSP port of a PSX game with cleaner, less pixilated graphics. Cut scenes are short but look good for what they are. Character portraits have been completely redone and look incredible compared to the original game, but will still annoy gamers who don’t want static images accompanied by lines of text. Again, Innocent Sin will probably be a generational divide – especially with that $40 price tag. Older gamers will pay it to finally play the game while younger gamers will probably be aghast as the visual quality of the game.
Battle graphics look very similar to the original game. Things are still pretty pixilated. Persona summoning looks cleaned up, but monsters – not so much. Character models have also gotten a noticeable fast lift from the original PSX version of the game and overall I’m happy with how the game looks. It looks old and dated by PSP standards but compared to the original, there is noticeable improvement. It’s not the ugliest game on the PSP by any means but gamers who put a strong emphasis on how a game looks will be turned off.
Graphics Rating: Mediocre
The original Innocent Sin soundtrack is amazing. The remixed one? It’s pretty terrible. Much like the awful P1 PSP remixed soundtrack, I felt like my ears were going to bleed while I listening to the pack-in soundtrack that came with the game. Not sure why Atlus included the remix tracks on the CD instead of the original (especially with the scorn remixing received on P1), but the good news is that you can choose which version to listen to. I would flip back and forth between both versions of the soundtrack while playing, but the original is superior in every way. Honestly, I could probably listen to the Velvet Room Operetta for an hour straight as background music. Hell, I have before. The remix version? No. Just…no. The awesome thing is that Atlus included both options here. That’s some quality fan service right here and it shows Atlus listens to criticism.
Most of the game lacks voice acting, just like the original. Actual spoken word dialog comes up in battle, the same as the PSX versions of both Persona 2. I was extremely impressed that recurring characters have voice actors that sound VERY similar to their original Eternal Punishment voices. I’m not sure if this was on purpose or sheer coincidence, but I loved it. My ultimate “hope against hope” was that Atlus would recruit the same Maya, Tatsuya and more. I can’t find any confirmation if it’s the same actors as eleven years ago, but it’s close enough for me. The voice acting can be quite hilarious, although unlike most PSOne era games, here the comedy is intentional. The voice acting only comes up occasionally, and even then only in combat, but the game makes the most of what little is here and it’s almost exactly what I had hoped to see.
Top marks here across the board.
Sound Rating: Unparalleled
4. Control and Gameplay
So here’s the thing. Combat is about 90% the same typical turn based combat that you see in a lot of JRPGs. The other 10% involves tactical style positioning of characters in combat. You don’t have complete control or a grid based map as you would in SRPGs, but it’s noticeable enough that it’s not just putting your mind on autoplay and flipping through menus for attacks. Oh, the choosing your options from a menu is definitely there, but the attacks you make determine where your character moves too and many attacks have a radius or blast effect, you want to get your enemies clustered together while avoiding the same thing for your own side. For people like myself who get bored quickly with turn based RPGs, it’s this combat style that helped keep me caring about battles back in the day and it still does the trick here in 2011.
Combat isn’t your only option when you encounter enemies though. You can try to woo them over to your side, scare them off with bravado or even get them to give you stuff. Each character has one of four slightly bizarre choices to make when entering into conversations with demons and generally the demonic response is equally bizarre. A good portion of the fun comes from trying to figure out all the different conversations and reactions you can create. Everything might seem insanely bizarre and comical to you at first, and that’s how it should. The more you play though, the more you’ll realize that this version of Megaten communication is patterned after European Existentialism . There’s even a bit of Kierkegaard thrown in, which is a wonderful touch. You can go through entire dungeons without having to fight if you get good at the communication bits, although this is ill advised as it will leave you weak against bosses. The best bet is to balance fighting with conversations as battles make you stronger and conversations get you tarot cards and other important items.
Much of the game is your typical turn based RPG. You have random battles, dungeon crawling purchasing of items, quests to go on and boss fights. Still, the game’s engine really stands out. After all you have demon summoning, you have Personas to mix, match and collect and you have a nice amalgamation of turn based and SRPG combat flow. Then there’s the rumor-mongering system. Certain aspects of the game can be changed based on the spreading of rumors. Reality is weak in places where the Old Ones and Outer Gods touch the membrane of our world and because of this, if you convince enough people that the improbable or impossible can happen – it will. You can change the outcome of many events in Innocent Sin by discovering and spreading rumors. Maybe it’s the changing of a dungeon layout or maybe it’s making a character more/less powerful. Rumors can really change how the game plays in some ways, and it’s a wonderful system to play with.
Honestly, the P2 engine was one of the few turn based engines I loved as a kid. I was more an action or SRPG fan. Eleven years later it still holds up as something that can capture my attention and it’s better than some JRPG turn based titles that have been released recently. I’m not sure if that speaks highly of Innocent Sin or poorly of some more modern JRPGs, but the Persona 2 engine still remains a highly impressive one and one that is far deeper than it appears at first glance.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled
Part of the game’s replay value was in playing this back to back with Eternal Punishment. EP was nerfed in this respect back in late 2000 as it was released stateside without Innocent Sin and now PSP owners might be in for the same thing unless they have a PSX and track down the ending to this story. Of course Atlus might release Eternal Punishment for the PSP someday too (Or the Vita). We can only wait and see. Until then, you might not be able to get the full replay value from Innocent Sin, but you’ll be happy to know there are plenty of reasons to come back to the game.
Besides the awesomeness of the main story, there are several side quests, hidden Easter eggs and a slightly different branching story around the middle of the game. There are also a few things to do after you beat the game as well. It’s a very long RPG, especially compared to others from its original release date, but the characters, plot, pacing and engine should keep you coming back to Innocent Sin time and time again. Or at least once to play the game on a surface level and then again for all the highbrow metaphysical philosophical metaphors being made.
Replayability Rating: Good
Although Innocent Sin contains three difficulty settings, the difference between the three is minimal. It’s basically damage dealt, damage received and the A.I. of the enemies. It’s a slight increase for each, but as the story is the key here, play on whatever you feel comfortable with. It’s nice that this option was included, especially for those that aren’t good at RPGs and Megaten titles are notoriously cruel the further you get into them.
You can’t customize any characters except Tatsuya, at least not on the surface. Tatsuya can be made however you want him to – you can make him a damage soaking sponge, a magical attack, a first striker or a tank. You get three points per level to spread amongst his stats along with bonus stats based on the Persona he has attached. Your starting one gives you a bonus +1 to your agility for example. Different Personas give a different level up bonus and it is through these that you can somewhat affect what your allies stats will be. Do you want Michel to be a physical attacker? Make sure he gets a Persona that gives him a bonus point to strength. So on and so forth. A clever min/max’er will take note of where they want their characters to be and how that compares with what they have equipped. As well, each character has specific Persona classifications (named after Tarot Cards) that they are more attuned to. So with Michel, you might want that +1 Strength bonus, but the only Personas you currently with that bonus aren’t ones he can maximize (or perhaps even use). It’s things like this that you have to keep in mind.
With Personas, there’s also a chance to customize those as well. When you make Personas in the Velvet Room there is always an opportunity to influence the end results, giving you a mutation or different abilities than what a Persona would normally have. This is as much luck as it is planning however, so don’t get too discouraged if things don’t turn out the way you were hoping.
Unlike most turn based RPGs where you are just on auto-pilot, picking attacks from a drop down menu, Innocent Sin requires you to think and plan almost like a SRPG. It’s not like Shadow Hearts where timing is as important as what you equip, but it does require a greater degree of foresight and concentration than most games of this RPG sub-genre. It’s one of the reasons I love it so. It wonderfully balanced in terms of offering you combat or communication. There’s always a degree of challenge and since you have the ability to set the difficulty level and even further refine things in game via the rumor system, Innocent Sin is whatever you want it to be.
Balance Rating: Unparalleled
So, back in 1999? Innocent Sin was above and beyond nearly everything else released in that era. Both Persona 2 games are some of the oldest cited with the whole “games can be art” argument, but both games are also the first to really tackle high level existential philosophy and Jungian metaphysics in a way that be both enjoyable and informative. It’s no Kafka or Camus mind you, but innocent Sin ESPECIALLY when taken with Eternal Punishment really were the most intelligent and thought provoking games of their day. These days there are quite a few games that try to be artsy and/or philosophical. Not many succeed though, and none as well as IS/EP did in ’99/’00.
The engine for Persona 2 (either one) still manages to stand out from the pack thanks to the demon bantering and the rumor system. It also has a nice battle engine that keeps things firmly in the realm of turn-based gameplay but with another layer or two of strategy behind it. The story is still unlike anything else out there and even though the gameplay itself can come off dated, the story has remained one of the most memorable in the industry for a reason. It’s not as fresh as it once was, but the game still comes across as quite innovative except perhaps in the visuals.
Originality Rating: Good
I have different things that I require from a RPG if it’s going to keep me at all interested. For an action RPG, I need a lot of character customization and extremely fun combat. For a tactical RPG, I need a solid engine and a quality story to keep me going on. From a turn based RPG? I need a story and a unique engine to keep me entertained. Well, Innocent Sin has one of the best stories in gaming (although admittedly it’s weaker than Be Your True Mind and Eternal Punishment), and the engine if fabulous. If I don’t want to fight, I can gab with demons. If I want an easier dungeon, there’s probably a rumor I can spread. If I want more of a challenge, I can give all my characters Personas that they aren’t quite compatible with. So on and so forth.
Look, I won’t lie. I was pretty disappointed with the localization by Atlus USA here, but I can’t think of a time this console generation when I haven’t been. This is the best job they’ve done in a long time and the more I played, the more I could tell they took the criticism about the P1 remake to heart and applied every bit of it to Innocent Sin. At the end of the day, I know there could be a better translation as the job done here turns one of the most memorable stories in gaming to “merely” a great one. But for ever edit, wrong translation or mistake I can find I can counter them all by saying, “Innocent Sin is in English now.”
It was very hard to put this game down, even though I’ve played it a few times on my PSX and I “imported” the Japanese version of the remake via the PSN Store in April. The game is that good.
Addictiveness Rating: Great
9. Appeal Factor
Although Megaten is one of the “Big Five” back in Japan (along with Pokémon, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and Sakura Taisen, it had a hard time achieving a place in American soil. Part of it was the fact that the Atlus USA of the 90s seemed terrified of being successful. We didn’t get a full Persona. We never got any of the main Megaten games. We didn’t get Devil Summoner, Soul Hackers and so on. We did get Eternal Punishment which received insane reviews and was Atlus’ most successful stateside release other than the Ogre titles (which Square-Enix now controls). Of course gaming was a different beat altogether back in ’99/’00 and RPGs were just becoming a mainstream genre for gamers. They’re definitely one of the biggest genres along with third person shooters and FPS titles these days, but Innocent Sin has several strikes against it with today’s market.
The first is that the game is not pretty and many gamers put a lot of emphasis on how the game looks – sometimes more so than how it plays. I don’t get that personally, but it is in fact so. Then there’s the fact Innocent Sin might be too smart for its own good. To fully appreciate the game, you’ll have to be pretty knowledgeable about certain philosophers, religions and an obscure author or three. It would be easy for me to call someone a plebeian or philistine if they don’t get the story of Innocent Sin, but that would be as erroneous as labeling someone who does get all the subtle nuances and metaphors as an intellectual elitist. It was one of those games that was intended to only be fully appreciated by a small niche audience in 1999 while still being something everyone else could be entertained by. It remains the same here in 2011. It wasn’t meant to be a lowest common denominator RPG like the Final Fantasy series and or even a mainstream success back in Japan. Trust me when I say if Lovecraftian creatures were considered a bit obscure in the 90s, it was doubly so in Japan when the game was released. I remember those early days of the internet where Persona message board primarily consisted of people on our side of the Pacific explaining who Robert Chambers and Nyarlathotep were and on the other wise people were explaining to Westerners what Kenren Taishou or Junnosuke Kuroda were about. It was meant to be a game that made you want to learn who Zhuangzi , Lovecraft, Bierce, Descartes, Jung, and other authors were. It was meant to make you curious about the dead or archaic religions from which the multitude of Personas came. It was meant to make you passionate about philosophy, mythology, folklore and the Cthulhu Mythos. It was mean to be highbrow entertainment in a time when video games were considered anything but. It’s what makes both Persona 2s so memorable…but it’s also their curse.
So the visuals of Innocent Sin will be a turn off for some. For others, it might be the localization. Still others might mistake the depth and artsy nature of the story to be plodding or even nonsensical at times. It’s not a game a lot of people will appreciate on the level it was intended to be and because of that, it’ll suffer in terms of sales and reviews Stateside. It’s truly an amazing game, but it might just be a product better suited to the previous generation of gamers.
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
So half of me is happy that we finally get Innocent Sin in English. The other half is disappointed in the translation. All of me however, is unhappy with the pricing. $39.99 for what is a slightly enhanced port of a PSX game? I’m not comfortable with that in the slightest. This game could have easily been thirty or even twenty dollars and Atlus still could have made a pretty good profit. This is little more than the fleecing of the oldest and most loyal Megaten fans out there. If they do Eternal Punishment at the same price. That’s eighty dollars for two games that are over a decade old. It makes me a little bit sick to my stomach at the thought of this, but not as sick as the fact the US version of Eternal Punishment goes for more than eighty dollars USED.
I can’t think of a reason Atlus priced this as expensive as they did, especially since most remakes and releases tend to have budget pricing. If Atlus on either side of the Pacific truly cared about their audience and wasn’t just trying to rake in money, they’d have either priced Innocent Sin in line with most remake/ports or put out a set containing both Persona 2‘s for $40. In a day and age where I can download PSX titles to my PSP OR PS3 for less than ten dollars, it’s hard to justify forty dollars for a UMD remake. Translating doesn’t cost that much. You want an example of a publisher caring about gamers and localizing a long requested franchise? Look at last year when Nippon Ichi gave us a Sakura Wars title – in a collector’s edition package and less than what we’re being charged here for Innocent Sin.
So yeah, I’m more than a little bothered by the price point Atlus has put on Innocent Sin, not only because it prices it far outside the norm that people will pay for a slightly remade game, but also because if this doesn’t sell really well, gamers who don’t already own Eternal Punishment will never get the actual conclusion to this game. I hate to end the review on a downer like this, but while I can justify the less than stellar translation of Innocent Sin, I can’t do the same for the price tag.
Miscellaneous Rating: Bad
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Very Good Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2 – Innocent Sin may have finally made it Stateside, but not without a few problems. The translation is far from quality as this version has several edits, translation errors and other issues that will be apparent to anyone who has played through either the PSX or PSP version in Japanese. The good news is that there are very few Westerners who have, so they won’t know the difference. While this localization isn’t of the same quality at 2000’s Eternal Punishment in capturing the essence of what the game is actually about, it’s good enough that longtime Persona and Megaten will be happy that it’s finally arrived over here. The graphics are noticeably outdated and the price tag is exorbitantly high for what is little more than a slightly enhanced PSX port, but that won’t keep Persona fans from paying full price for it. At the end of the day, Innocent Sin wasn’t made to be a mainstream success either here or in Japan. It was meant for a very specific niche audience with an even more specific knowledge base around philosophy, mythology and a certain group of fiction writers who peaked in the 1920s. For those gamers, Innocent Sin is nothing less than a work of art. For everyone else, it’s going to be a very weird and complex JRPG which they will play with a nagging feeling that they’re missing something.