The Persona series evolved from a straight first person dungeon crawler to a high school dating simulation starting with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin lies somewhere in the middle with isometric dungeons, but still has a classic MegaTen staple – demon negotiation. Atlus made an attempt to modernize the PsOne game by giving the town a facelift and adding cut-ins for fusion attacks.
Aside from cosmetic changes, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin is the same game from 1999 – now in English. The story begins with manly Tatsuya, Lisa "Ginko" Silverman, and the flamboyant Eikichi summoning the Joker. Rumor has it if you call your own cell phone the Joker will appear and grant you a wish. Lisa and three of Eikichi’s subordinates (he’s a gang boss at rival school Cuss High) call themselves, but the Joker isn’t as friendly as they hoped. He wipes the ideals from Eikichi’s henchmen leaving only shadows behind. The Joker also has a strange connection to Lisa, Tatsuya, and Eikichi. He knows and resents them… Philemon (remember him from Persona 1?) bestows personas to Tatsuya and Lisa (Eikichi could already control one believing it to be a death spirit) and the group run to Seven Sisters High where the school’s emblem is rumored to be cursed.
Rumors are real in Persona 2: Innocent Sin and you can use this fact to your advantage. First, you have to find rumors by talking to rumormongers in town. You may hear things that alter the quality of goods you find in shops or even trigger events. Visit the Kuzunoha Detective Agency and for a small fee you can spread rumors and change the game world. It’s an interesting mechanic that opens the door for wackiness like a Nazi invasion by the "The Fuhrer" in Sumaru City. The one quirk about the rumor system is you need to talk to everyone frequently because it’s possible to miss rumors.
Fans of the series will immediately see connections between Persona 2 and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona more so than the PlayStation 2 sequels. Maya, a central character from the first game, returns as an overly positive journalist for the magazine Coolest. Yukino is also a returning character who is a photographer working with Maya. The unique cast of characters is part of what makes Persona 2: Innocent Sin memorable. Everything from Eikichi’s guitar case machinegun to Tatsuya’s manly motorcycle noises make the world in Persona 2 a bizarre take on ’90s Japan. Although, Lisa’s Cantonese interjections may fly over some player’s heads, Atlus USA did a fantastic job with their localization. The story takes sometime to warm up compared to modern RPGs, but as it unfolds with background reveals Persona 2: Innocent Sin pulls players in.
To make the plot move along, you’ll have to wade through schools and nightclubs turned into dungeons. Persona 2: Innocent Sin replaces the MegaTen style first person labyrinth with an isometric view. You can see Tatsuya run through mazes, often designed with deliberate dead ends, but cannot see enemies. Persona 2: Innocent Sin has random battles and Atlus USA didn’t blunt the encounter rate. Just like other Shin Megami Tensei titles, you need to exploit elemental weaknesses to win. Characters can team up for fusion spells, if you take the time to tweak with the turn order. Fusions spells are for players to find and discovering them is a lengthy process of trial and error, unless you have a FAQ handy.
I think twelve years ago, Atlus realized combat was the game’s low point. Once you know which spells or weapons to use, it’s a matter of repeating the same attacks until one side is defeated. An auto battle system that repeats moves hastens the pace, but you’re still stuck watching the same attacks over and over again. To further speed up fights, I turned off cut-ins and pressed start to skip all battle animations. The skip feature replaces fire effects with flashing enemies and flying numbers. Before you know it, Eikichi will say "so long" and you’ll get to move a few steps forward.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin has quite a bit of grinding because you need to level up your characters and negotiate with demons for tarot cards. You can trade these to Igor who will grant players new personas, but you’ll need dozens of tarot cards to unlock powerful personas. Midway through the game, I found myself with a different problem. Having visited the Climax Theater and completed the School of the Heart side quest early, my characters were overpowered. They could defeat regular enemies with a finger flick, so I resorted to negotiating just to end encounters faster. Still tedious, but at least I earned tarot cards. New for the PSP version is a handy meter in the top left that keeps track of a demon is happy, sad, excited or enraged.
The Persona series exploded in North America, thanks to the success of Persona 3. Because of this, I suppose I should warn people who only played the PS2 titles that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 2: Innocent Sin is an entirely different style of game. The core is the story, but Persona 2: Innocent Sin will make you work before reaching its finale. Prepare to stick it out for the long haul, if you decide to see what the so-called "lost Persona game" is about.