About 20 years ago, I impressed a boy online by saying I had also played this weird Japanese RPG called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
. We had both been blown away by how different it was from the fantasy RPGs we'd seen up to that point, how strange the art style was and what a surreal horror story it came out to be. At the end, we bonded over both losing steam at the final dungeon—"the yellow UFO dungeon"—and never finishing it.
At the time, Persona
hadn't yet become the phenomenon it is today and certainly not outside of Japan. Eternal Punishment
was in fact the first Shin Megami Tensei
game I'd ever even met. And if you were coming from other JRPG franchises, like Final Fantasy
, this was a diametric opposite in tone. Instead of majestic Guardian Forces, you summoned grisly, sometimes horrifying demons and deities (personae) from several global pantheons to fight on your behalf. The plot was dark and moody, centred around a magical serial killer that people summoned by calling their own cellphone number and giving him the name of the person they wanted dead. Rather than lanky J-rocker types with $400 haircuts, your party members were these slender, fey creatures with angular faces and slanted eyes like cats. It was blasphemous and perhaps a little anarchic, and compared with the usual Chosen One Saves the World, really more my style.Shin Megami Tensei
—whom I've heard abbreviated as MegaTen or SMT—is a long-running series of RPGs developed by Atlus which all dwell on summoning aspects of the human subconscious manifested as demons and deities. Set in a variety of modern or post-apocalyptic settings, the stories ranged from fairly basic—just get me in the dungeon I need to grind for the next 250 hours—to rather more dramatic affairs. Usually, you kind of saved the world from itself, and SMT isn't shy about pointing out how much we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes, you killed Satan and led the demonic hordes of hell personally to Heaven's doorstep. The Persona
spin-off series typically focuses on telling individual character stories within an overarching plot. Being one of the last stalwarts of the turn-based RPG, any Persona
game is also eagerly anticipated in our household, except for those aberrant dancing games Sega (the current owner of Atlus) makes with Persona
characters. (Surely all those monies earned from selling hundreds of costume packs can fund another mainline SMT dungeon crawler by now?)Persona 2
is an oddity among the Persona
s in that it's the only one to date that is part of a duology. To make things even stranger, Eternal Punishment
is the second part of the duology and was the only part available in English for twelve years after its release, until Persona 2: Innocent Sin
was remastered for the PSP in 2011. Being late in general, I only completed playing Innocent Sin
two days ago, thereby taking two decades to figuring out some of the more confusing references in Eternal Punishment
like, what do these games' names even mean? (They turned out to be very, very relevant.)
It helped some that at the same time I was playing Innocent Sin
, we were tag-teaming Persona 5 Royal
. (We thought we would casually replay a new version of Persona 5
with some added flourishes. Instead, we dumped over 250 hours into it.) This gave me a good perspective on how much the series has changed over time and how much it hasn't.
The first three Persona
games all occur in the same universe, while the worlds of Persona 3, 4
appear to be separate, even if vague callbacks are made here and there. The teenage characters from the first game return as adults in Persona 2
as NPCs and playable characters. They are active participants in the plot and you interact with them throughout the game. I'm saying this now because that made the callbacks in Persona 5
to the earlier games (and particularly Persona 2
) somewhat more wistful. It'd be great if Atlus returned to some form of world continuity, but I'm not really holding my breath.
That said, one of the unchanging aspects of Persona
is that the games have stayed grindy albeit in different ways. Eternal Punishment,
was the game that taught me raising your characters ten levels per dungeon ensured the mobs in the next dungeon would be tender and the boss a pushover. In older age, I've had to revise that to five level gains per dungeon with Hard mode right out of the box. Your mobs will still be fairly pliant, and the boss tedious from all that HP but not punishing. Comparatively speaking, the PSP remaster for Innocent Sin
clearly had some re-balancing done with the numbers. I didn't actually need to grind past the first two dungeons, and that's plain weird. Every single dungeon, and there are a ridiculous number of them, is obnoxiously huge. If you're the type of person who likes filling in the whole map, you'll have no trouble being ten levels over without even needing to walk in circles. I beat the final boss at level 74 with full legendary weapons using a hodge podge of not-so-ultimate summons. The newer games definitely have shorter and more balanced dungeons. They're grindy too, but usually you're at the end just when you're about to lose your mind. In Innocent Sin
, I got to what I thought was the second last dungeon and found out I really had five more dungeons plus the final one for the end boss. I then spent every one of the last six dungeons and two optional ones turning to my spouse in a sleep-deprived haze asking, "When is it going to stop?"
Fight mechanics in Persona 2
will still be the pinnacle of the whole series. From Persona 3
and up, the games used a more conventional turn-based system, but back in Persona 2
, you could control the turn order as it happened, switching out actions to match things on the fly. Say you set up 3 characters to do a collaborative attack, but during the first turn, one of the enemies downed a character you set with an instant kill. Before those 3 collaborating characters would move, you could bring up the turn of 1 of the remaining 2 characters (your party always has the same 5 characters and all of them would fight—there are no reserves) to revive the downed character, and in that way save your collaborative attack. In fact, Persona 2
depended on these sort of collaborative attacks, called Fusion Spells. Fusion Spells are triggered by chaining spells in a particular order. For example, Agi > Aqua > Magna chains into Hydro Boost, a medium water-based attack on a single target. Before you could use a Fusion Spell, you had to unlock it, and discovering what spells to combine in the proper order was virtually its own mini-game. This is the whole reason why Persona 2
allowed you to titrate turn order so finely. In any situation, the more Fusion Spells you pulled off, the more likely your persona would grow in strength, mutate into other persona or learn unexpected new skills—and the faster everything would die. You want things to die fast, because if you thought SP management in the later games was torture, Persona 2
will just seem masochistic. The only upside is that you recover SP while you walk around in dungeons upfront and levelling instantly fills up your HP/SP gauge—no namby pamby S-links to raise here.
The Contact system for persona you met on the field was way more complex. Unlike later games, you summoned persona in the Velvet Room by trading in specific numbers of Tarot cards from each arcana. So apart from talking to persona to get items or money, which remains to this day, you also had to talk to persona to get cards corresponding to their arcana. Each persona had a combination of three possible personality types and each of your characters had four approaches to communication. Characters could also work together as a group to communicate. Depending on your approach, who you chose to speak and the persona's personality, they could react with Anger, Interest, Happiness or Fright. Triggering three reactions of the same mood would conclude that conversation. Depending on which reactions you triggered, you could form pacts with that persona (giving you the option of asking for items, money and information), start a fight or trigger status effects.
On top of that, there were these little bonuses you would get for having persona from the same pantheon together in the same fight. If you had Odin on your team meeting Fenrir on the field, for example, Odin would lament about Fenrir breaking free of his chains and Fenrir would retort that he hates Odin for locking him up. While these little conversations were rare, if you like mythology, it was great motivation to learn each persona's back story. Personae from the same pantheon could also cast extra powerful, exclusive Fusion Spells together, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma or Genbu, Suzaku, Byakko and Seiryuu. These are not things that made it into the later games, and I highly doubt we'll ever see them again, but imagine the depth they could add!
It was ridiculously charming to look up from the Vita and see the same attacks you could make in 1999 show up in Persona 5
in 2020. SMT uses a largely unchanging spell list across all its games sort of the way Final Fantasy
does. Kali in Persona 2
still casts Deathbound (a high damage physical attack to multiple targets) the same Deathbound she does in Persona 5
, and your Agi/Agilao/Agidyne progression still looks the same regardless of when your game was made. Battle-related but not quite is that Persona 5
also features remixes of the pharmacy (i.e. the potion shop) theme song that appeared in Persona 1
. You can hear it if you visit the 777 convenience store or Big Bang Burger in-game. It was surreal enough that when Seth walked into 777, he made me go to the Satomi Tadashi store (its Persona 2
equivalent) specifically so we could compare the tracks.
Another theme that has remained largely unchanged? The Velvet Room theme. Now, they used the modern track for the Innocent Sin
PSP remaster, but you can hear what it sounded like in 1999 if you play the original PSOne version of Eternal Punishment
. The difference is visceral regardless of which version you hear for one specific reason. Back in Persona 2
, the Velvet Room setup had more people than just Igor and a perky female assistant. Oh, no, the Velvet Room actually comprised four people: Igor, the Demon Painter, Nameless and Belladona. Nameless is the Velvet Room's blind pianist and Belladona is the singer—yes, that harmonic wail that sends chills down your back every time you step in once had a body attached to it. The beautiful piano track that backs her singing also feels more real when you watch Nameless actually play it in front of you. Your whole party would go into the Velvet Room with you, not just your silent protagonist as with Persona 3
onwards, giving you perspectives on what they see. If you're wondering, Yousuke in Persona 5
is a reference to the Demon Painter, who paints copies of Tarot cards you need on demand. The Demon Painter doesn't grow daikon radish shoots to supplement his meagre diet, but was instead a master painter in the real world who abandoned life to paint the human subconscious.
The thing that makes Persona 2: Innocent Sin
and by extension Eternal Punishment
the best games in the whole series for me though is undeniably the plot. They really don't write plots like these anymore. Some of that is changing trends, I'll give them that, and some of it is clearly creating tighter, more focused stories. Yet nothing in the modern Persona
s holds a candle to just how weird Persona 2
is. Innocent Sin
, in a nutshell, is about five childhood friends who drift apart after four of them believed they murdered the fifth, finding each other again and reconciling the various aspects of their psyche, whether these are parts they like or not. The latter trait is another hallmark of each Persona
game from past to present—the human subconscious goes awry when people refuse to acknowledge they simultaneously have the capacity to make horrible mistakes as well as do great good. The journey each character takes to reach their full potential is what drives the story. There's Tatsuya, your "silent protagonist" who would rather keep quiet than be forced to make a decision he'll regret; Michel, the fat kid-turned-visual kei rocker who while superficially narcissistic, might actually be the genuinely good character in the party and definitely the one who takes responsibility for mistakes first; Lisa, the rebellious, fully Caucasian child of an American couple who fell in love with Japan so hard they became naturalised citizens (still no mean feat in 2020)—unlike her parents, she's spent her whole life being picked on for being Japanese but "not right" and living with the assumptions people have about things foreigners should know; Jun, the effeminate boy from a home so broken he makes up his own family out of rumours and curls up in a ball on the floor at the mere notion of his real parents; and Maya, the unbelievably optimistic mother hen type who seems like the most easily likeable but least interesting character in the game until you realise why she's the main character in Eternal Punishment.
In Persona 2
, people discover that rumours can really come true if enough people believe it is true. Specifically in Innocent Sin
, a character called the Joker would grant your innermost wishes if you summoned him by played the Persona game. Trusting the general public to make responsible wishes and not constantly raise the stakes is quickly shown to be a wash. Conspiracy theories about Hitler finding the Spear of Longinus and faking his suicide become real, living celebrities who disappeared from public life are rumoured to have died and turn into restless spirits. Eventually, fake Mayan prophecies about humans being the bio-engineered children of aliens come true, people are hanging out in the public park waiting for extraterrestrials to hasten their evolution into higher beings and the Nazis are raining WWII plane mechs from the sky. Yes, it's all very mad, but it also captures a moment in time where even if none of these things happened, the basic kernel of why people would think that way was widespread. That year was 1999, not unintentionally the year when Persona 2
This is one of the aspects of Persona 2
that gains the most context if you were alive in the years running up to the third millennium. We can laugh at the doomsday/motivational cults in the game, but these sorts of cults really existed in the run-up to the year 2000. Only four years before Innocent Sin
came out, the Aum Shinrikyo caused the Tokyo subway sarin attack
that killed thirteen people and injured upwards of 1,000. By the same token, optimism was high that humanity would achieve all manner of goals by 2000, from world peace to sexual equality. Imagine what happened when your New Year resolution failed on a year everyone else was calling momentous and assuredly life-changing. As humanity's collective fear of the future reached a superstitious fervour, the charlatans and New Age gurus circled around them like vultures in Innocent Sin
, but these guys weren't pulled out of thin air. For some of us, the world really ended, even if it wasn't in an explosion caused by the alignment of the stars.Persona 2: Innocent Sin
, really, works because it literally and figuratively answers, "What happens if we get left behind?"
Spoiler note: Persona 5 Royal
references the same question, in the ultimate callback to Persona 2
, but I found its answer somewhat more lacking.
For me, the relevancy of Persona 2
ultimately leads to a greater good. You see, I married that boy I commiserated about the game with all those years ago. The game holds an important place in our hearts because it was one more building block in our friendship. We still play SMT games together, Atlus still needs to release Shin Megami Tensei V
and we need another Persona
game where all the characters are working age adults. But until these things come to pass, we'll keep passing each other the controller and thinking fondly about what this added to our lives.