Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a hard beast to review. Technically speaking, what we're looking at here are two very distinct experiences. This is basically a slightly updated port of a twelve year old game, kind of like when the first Shin Megami Tensei was released on PSP just recently. But since this is the first time most people are running into this game outside of fan translations it is basically an entirely new experience for them devoid of nostalgia.
Due to this it's hard to get a fair review of this game out of most people. There will be plenty of "should have" and "could have been" coming up since that nostalgia filter isn't going to kick in. Basically nobody is going to pull a Final Fantasy VII here which is kind of disappointing. Luckily it's pretty easy for me to go into this review unbiased. Having indulged in the fan translation for this title I basically knew what to expect and was fairly pleasantly surprised.
As to the game itself, Innocent Sin is part one of the Persona 2 duology. The player enters the shoes of Tatsuya Suou, the mute protagonist. A student at the highly regarded Seven Sisters High he is dragged rather unwittingly into a conflict of nightmarish proportions. Rumors are coming true through unknown means and a mysterious entity known as The Joker is causing people's wishes to come true. This figure is anything but benevolent and seemingly has a grudge against Tatsuya and the other characters although they seem to have no idea who or what he is.
Dealing with the rumors is a large part of Persona 2. It's possible, and downright necessary at times, to spread rumors to change things around the city. Want a shop with better equipment? Spread the rumor that a restaurant sells high quality weapons. Need a special demon to spawn? There's a rumor for that as well. It's a unique system that can really shape your experience depending on how you use it.
The game runs on the updated combat system seen in the PSX release Persona 2: Eternal Punishment which is one of my primary problems with the game. Frankly I've always been fond of the combat system in Persona 1 and then fell in love with the "Press Turn / One More!" system in later Shin Megami Tensei titles. But honestly the combat system in these two titles has never been my favorite. It's very similar to most other roleplaying games, anyone can attack anyone and the only real strategy is in exploiting enemy weaknesses does a whole lot of damage.
One thing the Persona 2 duology has that I always liked are the Fusion Spells. By having party members activate spells in a particular order, immensely powerful attacks can be unleashed upon the enemy. Unfortunately these are a royal pain to actually figure out which limits how useful they actually are. Even when they're figured out they require three out of your five party members to use their turn up which can mean that in the end they actually do just as much damage without the Fusion. Their later implementation in Persona 3 is a vast improvement over this system.
Another complication with the game is the way new Persona must be obtained. Instead of just chatting up a demon and getting its card which can then be immediately used or fused into a new Persona now you pick up cards based on the creatures' alignment. Chat up Tower aligned demons to get Tower cards then bring them to the Velvet Room to have them turned into new Persona. Sounds easy enough but it's incredibly tedious. Trying to get eighty cards from a demon twelve at a time is a huge pain in the rear considering how fickle they can be at times. Making pacts with demons by making them happy can mitigate some difficulties... unless you make one angry by accident and lose one of the three pacts you can have at once.
To spice up the conversation system with the demons it's now possible to have two or three characters pair up to produce unique results. Not every character has the patience to pair up with others so not every combination will net positive results but it's a nice change overall. It's also a lot safer since when you send one person in they're stuck chatting with the demon until success or failure while doing pairs / trios lets you change things up repeatedly. This makes it a safer, smarter way to negotiate.
This all sounds incredibly critical, and it is to a degree, but that doesn't mean the combat is bad. Unlike Persona 1 and the later entries the combat just isn't interesting. It ends up being a bit of background noise between story events with the occasional boss fight to spice things up. And boy are the story events a doozy. Innocent Sin is a serious head trip that may not entirely make sense on the first pass. It's just that sort of game.
Much of the game has been updated and refined from its previous release giving this port one entirely superior aspect to the original. Well besides, ya know, being released outside Japan that is. For the most part the graphics still clearly show their old PSOne roots but they've been touched up quite a bit to give the game a crisper look and feel on the PSP's widescreen display. Even still I personally found the combat graphics to look fairly blurry. In the first games PSP re-release it was easy to see what the Persona were doing when summoned but here they appear more like colored, indistinct blobs much of the time.
The Audio is incredibly good whether it's the remixes or original music. It's really nice to see Atlus try to cut off the messageboard whiners with the inclusion of the option to listen to the game "the way it was meant to be" which was, apparently, a big issue for the first game's port. Another nice touch is the ability to watch the original opening which is much more somber and dark where the newer one is incredibly surreal.
One big area of concern for me were the controls. These are fairly responsive although using the dash option to run in dungeons leads to feeling like you're sprinting out of control. This basically makes precise movements really difficult and massaging into position to open chests or speak to people is strangely difficult. It feels like the controls weren't made for the 3D environment which is just kind of weird.
Frankly finally having this game in my hands is beyond exciting for me. Having Atlus' translation, the updated graphics and gameplay mechanics all really work well. Even if the combat in and of itself isn't incredibly compelling the story goes a long way to make up for it. It's bizarre, unique and a heck of an experience especially for those who have never touched either game in this duology. It's compelling enough on its own to be worth the price of admission.