Japanese publishers have an infamous legacy of banishing attractive role-playing games into Western obscurity. Mother 3 was dropped in response to the fading Game Boy Advance, the Saturn died before Sega could localized the other two-thirds of Shining Force III, and Square-Enix held off on Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Job System to focus their efforts on current generation development. Persona 2: Innocent Sin, the other "half" of Persona 2: Eternal Darkness, may have suffered a similar fate on PlayStation, and we almost missed it again because, if you haven't checked, Sony's PlayStation Portable is all but forgotten outside of Japan. Leave it to Atlus, long standing champion of niche gamers, to finally localize the missing piece in their Persona collection.
Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, the half of Persona 2 released on PlayStation, are two sides of the same coin. Officially they're both canonical sequels to Revelations: Persona, but their relationship between one another certainly isn't worth spoiling; suffice to say enough context can be gleaned from the vagueness of their respective subtitles to get a pretty good idea of their connection. From a gameplay perspective, many of the locations are the same and Maya (who remains a member of your party) is exchanged for Tatsuya in the silent protagonist department.
Innocent Sin kicks off with a rather silly premise. Rumor has it that if you dial your own cell phone number, the Joker appears and grants you a wish. Those who lack the conviction to respond in time are turned into shadows of their former selves, and suddenly lack the ambition to do much of anything. Yeah, it seems a bit ridiculous and thoroughly Japanese, but it's not out of the realm of possibility for crazy rumors to spread amongst mostly high-school age protagonists (not to mention it’s no more absurd than traditional MegaTen fare). Innocent Sin doesn't have the chops to flourish its ridiculous conceit like The Ring did, but it still manages a believable world with just enough metaphor and conflict to drive the player forward.
Credit a great localization with bringing Innocent Sin's characters up to modern spec. Poor or flat out wrong dialogue translations were the norm in the late 90's, but Innocent Sin indulges in the care and nuance associated with Atlus USA's exceptional localization record. The character of Eikichi, in particular, manages to actually generate sympathy when he could have just as easily been defined a narcissist. Ginko, too, manages to avoid a worn archetype with her sharp wit. There is a lot of dialogue here, most of it found in brief pauses in dungeons or through random NPC's, and it quietly fleshes out the world of Innocent Sin. Solid voice work is here and there, but not as omnipresent as it was in Persona's more scripted PlayStation 2 incarnations.
But how it plays is what matters, and its here where Innocent Sin begins to feel like a relic. The game is paced well between dialogue and dungeons, but its theoretically-smooth structure is constructed with ancient tools. Loading screens pop up for every door entered, and though they can be weakened with an optional install from the UMD, they're a constant reminder of bygone era. Same goes for random battles, which seem to occur every few seconds when scouring dungeons. Couple that with molasses-slow battle animations (which I seem to remember being able to turn off in Persona PSP*), archaic dungeon design that seems to always regress into a wild goose chase, and laborious stores that making buying, selling, and equipping a pain in the ass, and you're left constantly wishing there was some way to properly modernize elements too entrenched in their 90's origins.
A heap of interesting systems overlap the laborious exploration. Demon negotiation returns as the primary MegaTen signature. Persona and Nocturne veterans will know what to expect; each enemy faced can be spoken to and conversed with in order to win tarot or demon cards (to be used in the velvet room) items, or money. Negotiation relies more on trial and error than genuine insight and this can lead to potential frustrations when you're trying to crank cards out of less than forthcoming demons. It also doesn't make much sense; I have no idea why Tetsuya would assume that pretending to be a jet engine would entertain a demon, but then again, I don't know any demons. Purists will claim some of the fun is found in figuring out who and what to say to a demon, but most (myself included) will end up defaulting to a FAQ to speed things along. Negotiation is certainly more open-ended than the more focused system found in Nocturne, but it's up to your personal investment in the game to decide whether that's an asset or a liability.
The battle system is classic turn-based MegaTen. Standard attacks compliment each party member's particular style, and are augmented with magic spells via specific personas. Personas rank up and learn new spells as well, but a healthy stable of increasingly powerful personas, each rotated interchangeably amongst your party, is generally favorable. One could conceivably get lost in the rabbit hole of forging new persona in the velvet room, but such mad scientistry is not entirely necessary for survival.
Alterations to your favorite dress arrive when two or more characters each use a seemingly unrelated spell or special attack in the same turn, creating a fusion spell. These deal considerably more damage than standard attacks, but are kept in check by their naturally short shelf life. With constantly shifting persona amongst your party, you're not likely to always have the same fusion spells on standby. This incentivizes creating and leveling new and different persona, especially when you factor in certain fusion spells only available to rare or otherwise miss-able persona. Combining spells is far from a new idea, but it's a welcomed tweak to an (at this point) worn battle system.
Persona 2’s (Innocent Sin included) most endearing and interesting asset is its Rumor system. By either talking to a handful of "rumor mongers" stationed throughout the game's locals or via NPC's scattered about the dungeons, the player can dramatically alter certain aspects of the world. Did you hear the ghost of a girl was haunting the Seven Sisters High School? Pay a man at the detective agency to spread the rumor, which renders actually makes it happen by making said ghost (read: optional boss) appear. Rumors can also affect store stock, prices, and item-effectiveness, among other systems.
Innocent Sin is more an enhanced port than a legitimate remake, but it has seen some refinement on the way over to the PSP. Its widescreen, of course, but the sprites are either cleaned up a little or naturally look better on the system's smaller screen. Selectable difficulty (at any time!) is also a plus, especially for those of us who may get frustrated with MegaTen's traditionally tough challenge. Tasaki Toshiko's original soundtrack has been remixed by Atlus composer extraordinaire Shoji Meguro. I didn't have any particular attachment to the original and honestly felt Meguro's update to honor the initial work while simultaneously updating the sound, but either soundtrack can be switched on the fly at the system menu.
Of particular interest is a new collection of content found in the theater. Selectable on the world map from almost the start of the game, going to the theater allows the player to play out new, smaller scenarios using existing assets. It's essentially a mission mode designed to cater to the PSP’s portable nature, though slightly neutered in that you can’t save mid-mission and they can get really long. Still, more content, especially for those who are eager for something new to a twelve year old game, isn’t a negative.
* edit: 9/3/11 - Sort of ashamed I went through the game without figuring this out, but battle animations can be sped up by pressing the start button. Not quite as beneficial as a full skip, but a definite plus for those who tire of wading through combat. -- Eric