With the PS Vita now on shop shelves, it looks like the PSP is already being all but forgotten in the West. While it continues to do very solid business in Japan, the PSP was all but destroyed by Nintendo’s all conquering DS in the West, with Sony’s subsequent lack of support essentially leaving it to die a slow painful death on our shores. Still, even amidst all the doom and gloom, I for one have always been a huge fan of the PSP and with backward compatibility still somewhat limited between the two consoles, I expect to be playing on my humble PSP for quite some time to come.
While fans of traditional, Western-style gaming were understandably disappointed by the limited software support for the PSP, fans of Japanese-centric videogame design, and more specifically, fans of JRPGs were, and still are, spoiled for choice thanks to the continuing support by Japanese developers for this hugely underrated handheld. One great example of this support comes in the form of Persona 2: Innocent Sin; a title originally released by Atlus back in 1999 on the PSOne – one that criminally never made it onto Western shores. For fans of JRPGs, and especially fans of the larger Shin Megami Tensei series of videogames, this is the kind of release that will make the PSP an indispensable piece of gaming hardware until the Vita supports full backward compatibility.
The thing is though, as much as I enjoyed Persona 2, and as much as fans of the series will inevitably appreciate the chance to take on this previously unreleased entry into the series, there is no arguing the fact that the overall experience is rather dated. While the turn-based nature of the gameplay is an almost given due to the game’s original release coming back in the late 90’s, it’s the lack of any type of visual upgrade and the constant load screens that will put many gamers off this otherwise highly rewarding experience.
The story is fantastic, the cast of characters surprisingly layered and the combat system is both immediately enjoyable and surprisingly deep. The problem is, as great as the battle system may be, the combination of long and frequent load screens with an extremely high random battle count tends to bring the game’s pacing to a grinding halt (no pun intended). With numerous large, often rather dull dungeons to trawl through, the consistent loading screens turn a classic level grind into a borderline unenjoyable one. To make matters worse, most of that loading comes thanks to the games lengthy battle animations, animations that sadly fail to impress from a visual standpoint.
While serviceable, there is no way you could sell Persona 2 as being particularly pretty. Sure, the visuals are imbued with a certain 32bit charm and the reworked opening and menu images certainly look the part, but for the most part, everything looks a bit too grey and stiff to be considered anywhere near visually impressive. Some of the locations have clearly been created off the back of some solid art design but everything looks a little too ‘of its time’ for that underlying design to really shine through.
I’m well aware that at this point of the review, Persona 2: Innocent Sin doesn’t exactly sound like a classic, but honestly, if you can get over the aforementioned technical issues and old school design choices, a rather brilliant JRPG awaits. The story for one, following a collection of school kids from Seven Sisters High (well, most of them anyway) as they battle against the recently released ancient evil of The Joker is absolutely fantastic. Rather than some stereotypical jaunt through a collection of high school clichés, Innocent Sin instead deals with major issues of loss, redemption, forgiveness and self-worth. Being a JRPG, there is inevitably a touch of melodrama to it all, but this is a largely dark and grown up tale. The characters, both in your team and those that you meet along the way, are interesting and often well developed. Quite brilliantly, the game also allows you to interact with monsters before each battle with numerous responses and approaches available based on the type of monster about to be faced. The best thing about this is that, rather than being a throwaway gimmick, conversing with monsters has actually been intertwined both directly into the plot and the overall battle mechanics.
You see, upon releasing the ancient evil, you and your buddies were also imbued with the power to summon Persona’s. These Persona’s can be powered up and linked to each of your characters in the very ‘Lynchian’ sounding ‘Velvet room’. Each Persona can be improved and modified using tarot cards that are received upon making certain narrative responses to monsters before battle. Depending on the choices that you make combined with the type of mood that the monster might be can lead to numerous responses; it might conveniently hand you an all new tarot card to add to your collection, it might attack you or, heck, it might even start a rumour about you.
I know, I know, stick and stones and all that – thing is though, in the world of Persona 2, thanks to a curse placed upon the city, rumours started by monsters and humans alike have a troubling tendency of coming true. These rumours might have game changing effects to the universe as a whole or might influence something as basic as the kind of loot you might find after a battle or the difficulty of the dungeon you are about to explore. It’s a clever conceit and just one of the many ways that make both the story and design of this rather brilliant JRPG stand out from the crowd.
Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a game that will be loved by those willing to overlook its technical deficiencies. The story, the characters, the unique Persona upgrade system – it’s all great. Overlooking those deficiencies however is no mean feat. The loading times are long, the random battles far too frequent and the visuals extremely dated. As far as I’m concerned, quality wins out, but for anyone making their first tentative steps into the genre, Persona 2: Innocent Sin probably isn’t the best place to start.
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