Weirdness abounds in the world of Persona 2: Innocent Sin.

Preamble: I’ve been a fan of JRPGs for many years, but somehow managed to remain oblivious of the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series until the last year or so. Tokyo Mirage Sessions finally sparked my interest in Atlus’s well-regarded franchises, and I’ve since made it my business to collect as many of their games as I can. Specifically, with the much-anticipated Persona 5 due out in a few months, I decided to go back and play through some of the older games in the Persona series.

The first Persona game seems to be widely regarded as quite dated and non-essential, and so I started with Persona 2. However, one of the fascinating things about the SMT/Persona universe is the convoluted relationship the games have with each other, and Persona 2 actually consists of two parts. The second part, Eternal Punishment, was released on the Playstation back in 2000 and is now available for download on the North American PSN store for PS3 (though not in Europe). The first part, Innocent Sin, was released in Japan in 1999 but never got a Western release–until 2011, when it was released on PSP. Naturally, I didn’t want to play Eternal Punishment without playing Innocent Sin first. I played the PSP version of Innocent Sin, which is the subject of this review.

The Persona games have earned a reputation for the quality of their writing, which is manifested in good stories, characters, and relationship-building mechanics. Innocent Sin is no exception, and features a story which is highly unusual and original, during which you’ll meet a number of well-written and likable characters, and a number of scenarios to both entertain and move you. The main story starts with protagonist Tatsuya Suou, a popular but laconic high school student, and a group of friends trying to solve the ‘Joker’ mystery. Joker is a mysterious and malevolent entity who appears if summoned (sort of like Candyman) and who offers to fulfill your dreams, but who also steals souls. Joker is also seemingly behind a strange phenomenon whereby rumours are becoming reality. As Tatsuya and his friends investigate this mystery, they gradually uncover a vast and frankly bizarre conspiracy that draws in aliens, Nazis, and the Cthulhu mythos. This kind of zany nonsense would be a good reason to disregard some games entirely (cf. Assassin’s Creed), but Innocent Sin is different: partly because the zaniness is a function of human conspiracy theories coming true, but also because the characters themselves acknowledge the ludicrous and unbelievable nature of what’s going on.

It seems to me that one of the main reasons Atlus’s storytelling recipe is so effective is the basic sincerity and compassion with which they depict their main characters and indeed the vast majority of those who inhabit their game worlds. Innocent Sin is no exception, and for all the weird and wacky goings-on in the main story. the human drama that unfolds as the story progresses is peculiarly resonant and affecting. The themes that are explored–loss, coming to terms with your past, learning to know yourself and find a place in the world–are not unusual, but they’re handled with disarming maturity and simplicity, perhaps accentuated by the weird events of the story. It’s a moving, poignant, and memorable story.

While the story and writing has endured exceedingly well, and could be appreciated by most gamers today, the same can’t be said for the core gameplay. Innocent Sin is very dated, and relies heavily on dungeon crawling and the dreaded random battle mechanic. Dungeons look very generic, and your map is very limited, meaning exploration often relies on trial and error: and there is little more frustrating than wading through a sequence of random battles only to find yourself at a dead end. Many of the dungeons are relatively short, meaning this isn’t a major problem, but the endgame sees you placed in some massive, labyrinthine complexes. Even worse, once or twice you’ll find yourself completing a dungeon ‘against the clock’, with a game over in store if you don’t finish it in time. I played pretty much the entire game with a walkthrough open on my PC, and in this day and age you’d have to be a masochist to try and complete a game like this any other way.

Combat is a turn-based affair, but conducted in rounds. This means you enter your party’s commands, and then your party and the enemy carry out their actions in a certain sequence. It makes for a fairly abstracted affair and is really not that much fun. Instead of fighting, most opponents (who are usually demons) can be ‘contacted’ in an effort to befriend them and win items, money or cards. Each character has some unique ways of interacting with demons, which range from relatively familiar ones like “Persuade” or “Seduce”, to more creative methods like “Self-Promote”, “Discuss Manliness”, or “Do Impressions”. You can even combine characters to perform dual routines: some perform comedy sketches, while in one a female character performs a makeover on a male friend and laments he’s more beautiful than her. In fact, it’s heavily implied one major character is gay, and you can even pursue a gay romance between him and Tatsuya. Pretty groundbreaking stuff from a little-known JRPG from 1999. Demons react differently to your different performances, so you never know what will work. Unless you check a guide, but then you’ll miss out on some genuinely amusing interactions. The writing shows attention to detail and even these minor interactions show wit, sophistication and occasional bawdy humour.

One of the purposes of contacting demons is to acquire ‘cards’, which you can spend to summon Personas. These are equippable demons which make you stronger in battle and give you access to increasingly powerful spells and abilities. There are a huge number of Personas in the game and finding them all would provide you with plenty to do if you are that way inclined. The demon and Persona design is quite interesting, and draws on a very wide range of real-world mythology and anthropology, incorporating both relatively familiar beings as well as more obscure and interesting ones. These are depicted in equally creative fashion, and the game’s visual design and execution is a high point, at least as far as characters are concerned. Environments generally look bland and repetitive, but there are some fairly impressive FMV sequences, and the remake boasts an awesome intro sequence. I dare you to watch it and not be tempted to play the game. The game’s soundtrack is also excellent, with a very wide number of tunes and themes, some of which are really catchy and memorable, and a couple of which I think recur in other Persona games as well. Innocent Sin also features a limited amount of voice acting. This was very early days for voice acting, and much of what’s there comes across as a bit silly, with a few voices that sound like they’ve been done by the creators of South Park. In general, though, that’s in keeping with the tone of the game, and really doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

In a way, it’s a shame that Innocent Sin hasn’t been remade into an animated film or series, as the story and characters have an enduring appeal and value which one would think would be well-received by new audiences today. But the dated gameplay and mechanics would put most people off, and Innocent Sin can only really be recommended to the most intrepid of JRPG and Persona fans. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing how the story continues in Persona 2: Eternal Punishment.