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In The Beginning…
The self. The true self that exists within all of this, this is the idea that Persona was founded on. Using a setting that we could all relate to and characters that were compelling in their own right, Atlus and its talented team of developers set out to delve into the inner depths of man and reveal our own inner workings whether they be unpleasant or revolting. Beginning as just a simple experiment meant to bring in a new demographic to their hardcore franchise, Persona became something oh so much more. A defining title that brought the Shin Megami Tensei name to the global stage and, in turn, and iteration that proved to be even more successful than its inspiration, there was no doubt there were big things in store for this budding series. But where to go from here? How far into the depths of humanity would they reach? Truly, it was right down to the very soul.
A Simple Rumor
Beginning development immediately after the roaring success that was the original, Persona 2 from the very start was meant to improve on every single aspect from the gameplay to the story, ripping out anything unnecessary or convoluted. Efforts were also to be made to separate Persona further from the Shin Megami Tensei brand. The Megami Ibunroku or Revelations subtitle was dropped as the series was no longer considered just a simple spin off title but its own unique creation. For the developers involved in this new project, most if not everyone would join in on this massive undertaking. Director/Producer Koji Okada, character designer Kazuma Kaneko, and writer Tadashi Satomi continued to work together as the series dynamic trio, further honing in on the series themes. Predominantly, their focal point would the growth of teenagers as individuals, overcoming their own personal struggles and coming to accept themselves and, in turn, their Personas. Another key element would be the power of the rumor mill, and how something as simple as a tall tale could have massive ramifications on the entire world. This all stemmed from the idea of Kotodama, a Japanese belief that our own words have the power to change both the physical and spiritual world. The Rumor System would be their defining gameplay mechanic; however, it wouldn’t just affect how you played but the narrative as well, one that was propelled by such rumors.
You play as Tatsuya Suou, a speechless protagonist with a bit of personality this time. A loner and delinquent, Tatsuya lives a somewhat normal life at the Seven Sisters High School in the seaside town of Sumaru until he receives a letter of challenge from a rival gang leader whose kidnapped one of his fellow students. Taking the heroic route, him and his unlikely friend Lisa head off to stop them only to find out it was all a ruse by fellow delinquent Eikichi just to get him to finally join his metal band. But a scuffle soon ensues, and Eikichi unleashes his awakened Persona on the two, forcing them to awaken their own Personas to fight back. Knocking each other out during the brawl, the three soon reawaken to encounter Philemon, their guide throughout this ordeal. Rumors are becoming reality, an unknown force is coming for the Persona users, and they are the only ones that can save their hometown from a perilous fate. Returning to the real world, and wanting to make sure it all wasn’t a dream, they decide to try and summon Joker, a rumored being that is said to grant any wish. Their wish is granted and Joker appears, however, he’s out for blood and wants to kill the protagonist and his friend’s due to some previous sin they committed. Somehow, they escape unscathed and now have a clear goal, to unravel the mysteries of their past, investigate the rumors that are changing reality itself, and somehow save everyone in the process.
Persona 2’s story was much more character driven then the original’s, and Kazuma Kaneko’s designs were meant to further emphasize that fact. Each character was given a specific quirk, accessory, and inner philosophy to help make them standout yet fit in with one another as their own motley crew. On the surface, Lisa Silvermann seems like an ordinary Caucasian student who must have transferred to the school. However, she’s a native that can only speak Japanese, is bullied because of this and her appearance, and is being forced to become the traditional Japanese woman by her parents. Eikichi Mishina, a character made out to be a narcisstic, self-centered metal band wannabe actually has low self-esteem and acts completely different at home. The first playable adult character in the series, Maya Amano, is a cheerful and optimistic writer, one whose optimism is odd in the face of the games events. Yukino Mayuzumi returns from the original Persona and the final character, Jun Kurosu, is that of an enigma. Defined by his ambiguity, on the outside he seems like a manipulative, antisocial, person who will do anything to achieve his goals yet he sincerely cares for his friends and will do anything for them, no matter the cost. Showing a façade of themselves whilst hiding their true nature from the world, this is how Kaneko designed his characters to be. However, he wasn’t the only one coming up with these designs. He also had an apprentice of sorts, one Shigenori Soejima. Starting off as a movie editor and colorist for Revelations: Persona, Kaneko had plucked him off the project and took him under his wing, letting him work on the designs for the secondary characters and some of the many demons and Personas. While his work was minor on this title his impact on the future of the franchise would be… tremendous.
Coming Into It’s Own
But as the characters were being improved upon the depths of the gameplay were refined as well. Attempting to shed the majority of the gameplay aspects of the Megami Tensei series even more so than the original Persona did, the franchise’s first person based exploration was thrown out entirely in favor of an overhead view that made exploring the town and dungeons much more manageable. The grid based combat gave way to a more fluid system where everyone attacks on the same turn rather than being restricted by their placement on the battlefield. Party members can also be aligned together to unleash a Fusion Spell where multiple Personas are summoned to unleash a deadly attack. Otherwise battling demons and traversing the world was mostly the same, with every improvement based on fan feedback from the previous title taken into account. It was Persona… just done better. Though, what truly made Persona 2 standout from its predecessor was the Rumor System. The rumor mill made into gameplay mechanic, in game if you hear certain rumors from NPC’s you can then spread them via a certain agency causing some real tangible effects on the world. Peculiar item shops will appear, powerful monsters can be fought, and other objects needed to progress through the story can be found. The power of rumors was a running theme throughout the title, how they can distort reality and change our perception of those around us, for better or worse, so making it the defining feature of the game just seemed right.
The sound department was a whole other story though. With their figurehead Shoji Meguro off composing for Atlus’s next supposed big hit, the first person hack’n’slash Maken X, the task of crafting the sequels soundtrack was left to Kenichi Tsuchiya, Toshiko Tasaki, and Masaki Kurokawa. Tsuchiya in particular had only done minor sound work on the original Persona, so, as the only veteran from the past game, he had some big shoes to fill when it came to replacing Meguro. A tough problem he had to tackle for himself was just getting used to the PlayStation’s CD-based system, a major problem for someone who had a better understanding of cartridge based formats than anything else. Regardless, him and the rest of his team pushed forward determined to outdo the original Persona’s with their own soundtrack laced in with electronica and other elements uncommon to other RPG’s. And they weren’t done just yet as, for one of the first times in Megami Tensei history, actual voice acting and a proper opening were included. This added more personality to the characters then simple lines of text ever could and made the game go ever slightly in the direction of anime, a route that would change the series in the far-flung future.
There’s no better time than the present though as upon its release on June 24th, 1999, the newly retitled Persona 2: Innocent Sin was hailed both far and wide as both a critical and financial success. Selling more than 270,000 copies in its first year alone, Innocent Sin was a knockout title for Atlus. Praised for its dark and involving tale that broke genre trends and hit close to home while still being a joy to play, it was no wonder why fans were clamoring for the sequel. However, that could only be said of fans in Atlus’s home country of Japan. The many new Megami Tensei devotees that had come to adore the series over in America were robbed of the chance, as the decision was made to not localize Innocent Sin at all. Partially due to the backlash they had received after the many alterations they had made to Revelations: Persona’s story, resulting in multiple allegations of censorship and cultural ineptitude, the true reason was because they feared how the public would react to the multiple uses of religious and Nazi imagery. The fact that the ultimate villain of the game was Adolf Hitler wasn’t helping either. For several years there was some hope that Innocent Sin would be localized, however, that would only be possible due to another games success.
The rumor. It was an intriguing concept for Atlus to tackle as a running theme. The heart of human soul can become just as distorted as a simple rumor leading to many possibilities and gameplay concepts. However, Persona 2: Innocent Sin was much more than this. An utterly woeful and enriching experience with characters that felt all too real, instead of having the narrative forced on them it was driven by them making the storytelling just that much more engrossing. Each character was unique, original, and compelling in their own right. Discovering their tragic pasts and unraveling their true nature, this is what made Persona distinct from the rest; with the unusual battle system and demons just being a bonus. However, this wasn’t the end of the adventures at the Seven Sisters High School. This narrative was only halfway complete. And its finale was about to blow everyone away.
Kazuma Kaneko Artwork