This game is 12 years old and we’re finally reviewing it now? Huh?
In the glorious year of our Lord Mara, 1999, the year that Bill Clinton was acquitted from his impeachment and Star Wars I was released, little-known Japanese video game company Atlus (who was best known for what? Hell Night?) released the first game in its surprisingly ambitious duology, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. The sequel to 1996 a Playstation game only remembered for taking a Japanese character and putting him in blackface for the American release, the two games were known for seriously pushing the boundary in storytelling, coming up with mature themes that almost didn’t exist in companies without the words ‘square’ or ‘soft’ in their names. So ambitious and boundary-pushing, in fact, that Sony, or Atlus USA, or somebody just decided not to publish the first game in America, leaving us to enjoy only the second half and try to pretend we don’t notice the obvious dangling plot threads. Though Atlus has since grown tremendously with such games as Personas 3 and 4, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and Catherine, arguably picking up the mantle of JRPG kings from the spot SquareEnix tossed it in the dirt, still we in the English-speaking world were left with a half-finished game.
Until now, of course.
That’s right, on September 20th Persona 2: Innocent Sin finally came to America on the PSP, which should at least make some gamers happy in these JRPG-starved times. But how does a 12 year old game hold up today? Truth be told, the port has surprisingly little cleaned up from the original Playstation game: we’re still seeing the same 32-bit graphics and sound (though with an option for a new soundtrack from modern series composer Shoji Meguro). There’s a new anime intro done by series mainstay Shigenori Soejima, but as awesome as it is it draws considerable attention to the ugly CG cutscenes throughout the rest of the game. Compared to Square’s Final Fantasy IX released around the same time, Persona 2’s sprites look quaint and middle-of-the-road, though the character portraits admittedly are very well-done and expressive. The game also wears its JRPG badge proudly, perhaps too much so; anyone looking for the dating sim/dungeon crawl mix from Persona 3 or 4 will be surprised and possibly let down. Persona 2 is a straight up JRPG, with random encounters, heavy emphasis on grinding, and maddening difficulty spikes to catch the unwary.
But as the fans of the game who have had to make due with fan translations all these years know, the real meat of Persona 2 is in the story. And how is it? Insane. Gloriously, maddeningly, balls-out insane. Persona 2: Innocent Sin may have the most cracked, out-there plot I have ever experienced in a video game, and the fact that they make it all wrap up for Eternal Punishment in the end is testament to the writing, pacing,and inventiveness of the staff. Without giving away too much, expect school violence, Japanese idol pop, Steven Seagal, homosexual undertones, meddling Old Gods, and yes, Hitler himself leading a brigade of robo-Nazis. To say that the game is worth it for the story itself is an understatement; anyone who enjoys JRPGs owes it to themselves to see Atlus toss everything into the game and magically make it all work. The writing is superb and easily up to the standard of Personas 3 and 4, and you really feel for the characters as they go through their journey, and you’ll be left aching to see what happens in Eternal Punishment.
All in all, I have to give this game a stamp of approval. Despite being a somewhat standard oldschool JRPG, the story is totally unique and propels it out of what could have been mediocrity. Similarly to Squaresoft’s Chrono Cross, the gameplay is placed on the backburner while you see what amazing worldbuilding is possible in a video game. Now let’s hope that Atlus will put out a PSP port of Eternal Punishment as well, since it’s going for around $100 on eBay at the moment.