Saturday, December 27, 2014

GOT 'IM - Persona 2: Innocent Sin

Woof.  That Bravely Default was in limbo for over a month.  This one was much easier to write, as it was fresher in my mind.  I beat this game in October instead of August!  Behold, the "lost" Persona game, Persona 2: Innocent Sin. 


I know I've mentioned my history with the Persona franchise on this blog before, so here's an abridged version.  I rented Revelations: Persona in 2001 and hated it.  I bought Persona 2: Eternal Punishment in 2005 and thought it was pretty cool, but didn't make it past the second dungeon.  Had trouble understanding what was going on.  I received Persona 3: FES as a gift from my friend Paul-Derek in 2009, played it in 2012, and fuckin' LOVED it.  Bought Persona 4 right after playing Persona 3, played it in 2013, and loved it EVEN MORE than Persona 3.  After playing Persona 4, I watched some Persona anime, read some Persona manga, bought a few Persona art books, subscribed to a Persona podcast, and played the two Persona 4 Arena fighting games.  I've managed to avoid buying Persona figurines, which is probably for the best.  I am currently playing Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth on 3DS, and that definitely is for the best. 

So I was (and still am) hardcore into Persona, but I still hadn't touched those first three.  Yes, three.  Persona 3 is the fourth Persona game; it's confusing.  That's because there are two games called Persona 2; Persona 2: Innocent Sin (1999, PS1) and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment (2000, PS1).  P2IS and P2EP (my preferred shorthand for those two games, after some deliberation) are two parts of the same story, set in the same city with most of the characters shared between the two games.  I won't get into the story complications that set up P2EP, because this is a review for the PSP version of P2IS, the "lost" Persona game.  (parentheses).

So why is it the lost Persona title?  Well, the United States got the first Persona game for the PlayStation, then skipped immediately to P2EP.  It's hard to say why, but the prevailing theory is that there was mature content and a homosexual relationship in P2IS that prevented its certification.  Which is too bad.  So anyhow, the United States finally gets the PSP remake of P2IS in 2011, but passes on the PSP version of P2EP, because, well, I guess Atlus was content to just put out their older version on the PlayStation Network instead. 

So here we are.  To continue my Persona obsession, I decided to finally try the first game in the Persona 2 duology.  I bought a UMD for it in early 2013, intending to play it when my Persona 3+4 obsession had calmed down a bit and see if I could find some fun in the weird early lifetime of the Persona series.  And hey, that's exactly what happened. 

Story and Characters

Persona 2 stars Tatsuya Suou, a student attending Seven Sisters High School in Sumaru City and not lacking in female admirers.  He's a cool dude who enjoys riding his motorcycle and nonchalantly flipping a lighter.  Coincidence leads him to a run-in with Lisa Silverman, a caucasian classmate of his who loves martial arts films (she's fluent in Japanese) and Eikichi Mishima, a juvenile delinquent who plays guitar in a rock band.  A mysterious smiling masked man named Joker attacks the trio and steals the souls of Eikichi's bandmates (!?).  Before departing, Joker expresses outrage that none of the trio remembers anything (??). Tatsuya, Lisa, and Eikichi have no idea what Joker's talking about. 

Long story short, Joker and his followers are stealing people's souls (or "dreams" or "ambitions," it's not 100% clear) and are guided by a mysterious prophecy.  Our three heroes immediately begin investigating Joker, starting with rumors that Joker was seen at Seven Sisters High.  There they run into Maya Amano, a reporter investigating the same rumor, and her photographer Yukino, who was a high school student during the events of the first Persona game.  Soon, the five characters discover that each of them has the power of Persona - the ability to summon and command otherworldly beings from the depths of one's psyche.  All five characters (plus a sixth that joins later) can access the Velvet Room, where Philemon and Igor reside, to unlock new Personas.  Yukino earned her powers during the events of the first game, but the other four have had their "guardian angels" with them for even longer.  Why and how?  Play and find out.  

Complicating all this is the mysterious curse of Sumaru City - if enough people hear a rumor, it becomes true.  Joker's allies use the rumors to their advantage, but so can you!  With the aid of a local detective agency (which I understand is a reference to some older Shin Megami Tensei games), your team can spread rumors and see them come true.  Rumors can be about anything from creating new random encounters - "I heard that there's a ghost in the old factory!" - to changing shop inventories.  Smart use of your rumormongers and detective agency can nab you great items, new skills, and most of the game's best equipment. 

So there's a lot to unpack here.  Soul-stealing evil Joker, everyone has Persona powers, and rumors coming true.  Amazingly, most of that is explained in-game if you dig a little.  Whenever your party has idle time (when you're stopping at one of the game's dozens of shops, restaurants, and homes, or in a "break room" in a dungeon) speaking to your teammates gives you tremendous detail on the main characters, the villains, current evens of the story, and background info on the area.  Some of that information, especially about the families of your main characters, provides insight into character motivations that really enhance the story. 

Look, the narrative in Persona 2 is really cool.  Behind all of this Joker and rumor stuff is a supernatural conspiracy that goes into some pretty crazy directions, including (but not limited to) crystal skulls, alien invaders, and Nazis.  Each character's arc pays off in a satisfying manner, too.  When you piece together the whole story, it's something special.  The events of the ending are  unexpected, and the final cutscene was particularly moving to me.  The characters and story of Persona 2: Innocent Sin are two of the best parts of the game. 

Playing the Game

Now, before I get into the nitty gritty of gameplay, let's talk about Sumaru City some more.  I mentioned that you can spread rumors to manipulate certain things, but that's not all there is to do.  Sumaru City is a large, interesting game city, consisting of 6 wards (basically neighborhoods), with each ward having its own landmarks, citizens, and shopping malls.  The city streets aren't very confusing, as they're navigated in a simple interface sort of like a city map in a visual novel, but with tiny moving icons instead of a menu. Plenty of citizens to chat up and world-building details to pick up. 

Each mall in Sumaru City has restaurants (where you can eat food to temporarily boost stats), stores, and healing areas (a tanning salon in one ward, a spa in another ward, etc.) that add to the variety and flavor of the game.  The only area you see more than once is Satomi Tadashi, a chain of drugstores that has identical inventory and (hilariously) identical cashiers.  Each store has a new remix of the Satomi Tadashi song, which is a fun little touch.  Shopping in Persona 2 is much more interesting than shopping in the average RPG. 

So right, the basic gameplay loop of Persona 2.  Demons in the game are running rampant due to some dark rumors spreading, so a few of the dungeons that our intrepid heroes explore are common locations like schools, businesses, and recreation areas.  Eventually you're fighting Joker cultists and Nazi soldiers in color-coded alien temples, but hey.  Persona 2 starts in something resembling real-world Japan before things spiral out of control; that's one major motif that's carried on to Persona 3 and Persona 4. 

Navigating areas outside the world map is... at times a bit tricky.  There's an isometric view for the most part, with a handy mini-map that can be toggled on and off.  You need to get a little creative with camera rotating to make sure to see every door and treasure chest, but in general it's functional and usable.  WORLDS better than the awful map and camera in the first Persona.  Occasionally stages have puzzles to complete, but they never take center stage.  Some conveyor belts, locked doors, and elevator backtracking here and there. 

Combat is mostly straightforward, but has some neat tricks.  Combat in Demon-infested areas is done by random encounters.  We know about those.  There's a next-turn display to see battle order, similar to Final Fantasy X or Radiant Historia, and you can pause combat at any time to switch the order of character action, but poor planning can mean enemies take several turns in a row.  The speed stat is a factor in when characters can act, but in general you can manipulate your team's turn order to create the setups you want.  And turn order is important, because that's how Fusion skills happen.  So let's talk about those.

Fusion skills had a minor cameo in Persona 3, and it was more a reference to the Persona 2 games than a key gameplay feature.  In Persona 2, you can perform a Fusion skill if a certain group of skills are executed in a particular order (between 2 and 5 skills), with complexity ranging from "a fire spell then a slash attack" to "these five exact skills from these five exact Personae in this exact order."  Fusion skills are almost always more effective than a solo Persona skill, and balancing how to do them is key to combat (should I cast these two Fusion skills this turn? Or this one and two solo healing spells?  Or maybe this big 4-Persona Fusion skill and one healing spell?).

Using Fusion skills more often rank up Personae faster, which increases stats and has them learn spells.  You don't fuse Persona together in the Velvet Room like in Persona 3 or 4.  You can keep unused Personae in storage in the Velvet Room, or you can "return" them to Igor (basically delete them) to gain an item.  Returning a Persona at max rank (Persona begin at Rank 1 and can level up to Rank 8) gets you better items.  Fusion skills are great.  Discovering new ones and learning to use them effectively is a HUGE part of combat in P2IS.  The rest of combat is pretty normal: attack, use Persona spells, use items, run away, etc.  It's pretty normal turn-based combat, but being able to change turn order and using Fusion skills are interesting additions.

So using Personae in battle is pretty cool, but it's not all gravy.  Actually creating new Personae is a trickier task.  To do so, you need to collect Tarot cards.  Tarot cards come in 22 types, and each Demon in the game (that is, regular enemies that aren't cultists, soldiers, or bosses) is of a certain type.  To get Demons to give you more Tarot cards, you need to contact them by having one of your characters perform an action (anything from insulting to flirting to singing to... it gets a little weird) and see if the Demon likes it.  If a Demon likes you enough, it'll give you Tarot cards, give you some information, spread a rumor for you, or make a contract with you.  Contracted demons, when encountered and made happy or eager again, will give better rewards.  If you frighten the Demon during a contact it'll run away, and if you make the Demon angry during the contract, it'll get an extra attack in battle.

Contacting Demons and creating Personae in the Velvet Room are two of the three most annoying things about P2IS, with the third being a slightly high random encounter rate.  Contacting Demons to make them happy and/or eager is a semi-random process, with most Demons having one or two actions they like, but some random behaviors that can make contracts break.  And hey, you might not always run into the Demon you want!  Seeking them out in P2IS's random battles is the first step, finding out what they're holding is the second, and getting them eager over and over is the third.  Yikes. 

Finding out what a Demon likes, what kind of cards they give, and then repeating the process for Tarot cards you want (from particular Demons) is LABORIOUS.  I used a guide to help me with Persona creation, and without it I'd have disliked this game much more.  If you want to use Personae other than the ones you start with (which do evolve over the course of the game if you find certain items and perform certain actions), you need to try Demon-hunting and card-farming a little bit.  And that sucks.

Boss battles are typically more interesting than random encounters, but the grind of sorta-long dungeons and doing a little card-farming for Personae I wanted was generally enough to cruise through the game.  With the exception of a few late-game boss battles, I never had any trouble moving through P2IS.  The difficulty is moderate, but the curve becomes obliterated if you mess around a little.  Which I did. 

Visuals and Audio

Well, P2IS is a PlayStation game.  That's a good starting point.  The battle sprites and animations are pretty clean, mostly cool to look at, and you can turn off animations if you want battles to move a little more quickly (a welcome feature).  But I won't say the visuals are stunning to behold or approaching the level of Atlus's PS2 output - they aren't.  The dungeon navigation looks pretty good, but perspective and camera can be your enemy at times.  The field map is helpful, and the UI and menus are clean.  No complaints, but I wasn't blown away. 

The character and monster designs are the work of Kazuma Kaneko, Atlus's chief character designer that worked on all of the Shin Megami Tensei games.  That's different from Persona 3 and Persona 4, whose character designer was Shigenori Soejima.  Like SMT: Nocturne and the Digital Devil Saga games, Persona 2's characters are designed with clean lines and distinguishing hair.  I've always felt that Kaneko's characters look a little too much like dolls (the rigid eyes, pale complexions, etc.) but I think that the character art in the PSP version were redrawn to be a little more colorful and expressive, in line with the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4.  But with all that said, I really liked the look of the main cast of Persona 2 and I enjoyed the art style in general. 

The music is pretty smooth.  I don't think it's purely a Shoji Meguro joint, but he did work on the soundtrack for the original PS1 version, and served as the director of the entire PSP remake project.  In a menu you can switch between original PS1 audio and remixed / remastered PSP audio, which is a nice touch.  The music is pretty solid all around - I never got annoyed by particular tracks, and have some fondness for various hooks and choruses of different songs.  That's a good sign.  My favorite piece is... I'll say the world map music.  Solid opening chords; good for background exploration.  Nothing bad to say here. 

There's some (kinda limited) voice work here, consistent with late-PS1-era audio.  You'll hear a few character catchphrases a LOT over the course of the game, and each boss has a few quips to say as well.  None of it's grating or annoying, and it's a nice surprise hearing Troy Baker in a Persona game again (he's the voice of Eikichi, as well as Kanji in Persona 4). 

The Final Word

This is a really good PS1-era RPG that's held back a little bit by its Persona 1 lineage (and I suppose its Shin Megami Tensei lineage).  Combat is a little slow, demon contacts are a little too random, and collecting cards to fuse new Personas is miserable if you don't check a guide.  Even when you do, it kinda sucks.  Which is a shame, because when you take out the worst parts of the dungeon grind and Persona fusion, P2IS is awesome. 

And hence why I'm a little torn about Persona 2: Innocent Sin.  The setting, story, and characters are really cool.  The combat in general and fusion skills in particular are quite good.  Its relatively unique non-combat gimmicks, like rumor-mongering and party chats, are positive factors.  But man, earning new Personae, which is easy and fun in Persona 3 and 4, is awful.  Demon contacts aren't much better.  Eventually I just gave up on it and just used the story Personas for the last few dungeons.  It's a shame that P2IS has a slow grind and frustrating customization, because otherwise it's a hell of a game. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition

1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
11. Sonny
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default
19. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
20. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
21. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Targets: 9/14


Well, I guess I'm in desperation-writing mode, since I cranked this one out about twenty times faster than it took to write my Bravely Default review.  I want to write at least one more review before the new year (for Persona 4 Ultimax, probably) and I'm going to see if I can beat at least two more games before then: pick two between XenoBlade Chronicles, Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Three big, long RPGs where I'm past the halfway mark.  Time to start grinding. 

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