Persona 2: Innocent Sin PSP (1999, 2011)

We all had to deal with schoolyard rumors and gossip as adolescents; whether directed at us or friends, it was usually never a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a world where these hurtful rumors are coming true, from the mundane to the utterly ridiculous. This is the world of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Originally released way back in 1999, this particular entry of the Persona franchise actually never left Japan back then, while the second part of this two part series, Eternal Punishment, did. Many reasons have been cited for why this exclusion originally occurred, most notably a homosexual relationship within the game and the inclusion of Adolf Hitler as a major villain. Thankfully for all “Megaten” fans with a PSP, there is now finally a legal way to play this game.

Fans of Revelations: Persona, and its later PSP port, will find that the game is vaguely similar in many ways, except for a huge facelift. First and foremost, gone are the first person dungeons, replaced by a familiar isometric over-the-head view made standard by many a Japanese RPG. This sounds like a minor change, but it makes the dungeons slightly less monotonous and confusing, especially in areas like a school building where all walls look the same. Other improvements include the ability to select between three difficulty levels, the ability to save almost anywhere, and a far more streamlined battle system.

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The battle system is of the tried and true “random encounter” variety from yesteryear. Everything is turn-based, except the player is given almost complete control over character positioning, turn order, and other commands, including auto-battle. This comes in handy in two major ways. Firstly, when one is trying to obtain new “fusion attacks”, one needs to be able to re-order various spells as they need to be performed in a very specific order. The second example is when you see that the turn order is going to lead to a character dying (e.g. they are poisoned), all you have to do is open a menu and switch them around. I really enjoyed this, as the completely random nature of newer Persona games drives me up the wall even though I love the series.

All of the main characters are equipped with an initial Persona, a sort of multi-dimensional being that gives its user the ability to use magic. Aside from leveling up the actual characters in the game, one can also level up these Personae (Personas?) to learn new spells and abilities. If you tire of the “factory” models, you can always hunt for more. Of course, the legendary “contact system” is here in full force for franchise veterans.

For those new to the series, this system allows for players to communicate with the demons they are fighting. When on the “contact” screen a player has to negotiate with the target demon. One can ask for money, healing, items, or even a “pact” that allows for the player to summon that demon as their new Persona. Think of something similar to Pokémon (SMT did this first though), except on more of an intellectual field. The player has to figure out which character would be the best to speak to the demon, and what they need to say; say the wrong thing and you can provoke an extra attack from the monster rather than a shower of goodies.

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The story of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin is initially fairly confusing, but rewards people for “hanging in there”. The game opens with the silent protagonist, Tatsuya, getting into trouble at Seven Sisters High School with the new principal. One can see that something is definitely wrong immediately as the comically evil-looking principal (complete with a scar over his eye) has apparently mysteriously won over the student body to the point where he gets cheered by passers-by and has had a statue built in his own honor. This coupled with a sudden rash of disfigured students has led to rumors of curses, demons, possessions, and other occult happenings. Tatsuya and his rag-tag group of friends (including his female companion Lisa, and visual-kei musician and overall comic relief character, Michael) assume that the urban legend of a person called “The Joker” who grants wishes must be true. It is said that if one calls their own number on their cellphone, they can summon him and get their greatest wish.

Without spoiling too much, it is revealed that these rumors are in fact coming true, and this plays a very significant role in the actual game. In most games, talking with non-player characters (NPCs) doesn’t get you very far. In this game, one can actually come across rumors in dialog, which, with the help of a certain detective agency and a nominal fee, can ultimately come true. Early on in the game one such rumor pops up in which a local Ramen shop is said to be a front for a black-market munitions shop. This is obviously nonsense… until you pay off the detectives to help spread the rumor. Once it hits critical mass you have access to your very first weapons shop. Players that explore every nook and cranny for rumor-mongers, gossip-peddlers, and other nosey people could end up with optional quests, optional weapons, and altered maps.

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When looking at the graphics and audio in this game it is important to realize that it’s over a decade old, and originally ran on a console far less powerful than the PSP itself. Because of this, it’s hard to see this as much more than a nostalgia title – a “lost game” in a widely popular series. That doesn’t ruin this game at all, but when comparing the presentation to other PSP RPGs, like Valkyria Chronicles 2, for example, you can really see the age. There are cleaned-up “modernized” menus and an option to use the remixed music. Fans that like to keep things retro can toggle the music option off – a huge bonus for those that hated the musical revisions in Persona PSP. Keeping the above in mind, Persona 2 does have good graphics for its time, and with a few pre-rendered cut scenes here and there, it never feels too antiquated.

I mentioned earlier that one of the major stumbling blocks of this game’s release in the West was some of the content held within. There is good news and bad news, as almost all of the game is intact, including an implied homosexual relationship (assuming the player chooses that path), and the inclusion of Hitler as a boss character. The bad news is that Hitler is simply referred to as “Fuhrer” and is seen wearing a hilarious pair of sunglasses – just as he was in the Japanese version. This has caused many to jokingly call the character “cool Hitler”.

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Assigning a value to this game can be hard as it will be loved by one generation of RPG fans, and possibly hated by the other. On one hand, the sheer length and content held within is staggering, especially compared to Persona PSP. While you could breeze through that game in no time at all, Innocent Sin could easily take 40-50 hours if you are a “completionist.” It took me a total of around 55, but bear in mind that I power leveled, talked to all NPCs and tried to do as many side quests as I could. People with less time on their hands might be able to finish it in around 25 or so, just breezing through the storyline. This is great for a handheld RPG, and makes it feel more like the real deal than other, sparser handheld RPGs out there.
All in all, Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a strong choice for any PSP RPG fan, and with PSP entering its twilight moments, this could very well be one of the system’s last hurrahs. The game shows its age with dated conventions such as mindless grinding, random encounters, and muddy graphics, but makes up for it in spades in both the storyline and gameplay departments. Fans of the newer Persona games will want to play it, as it is definitely the “missing link” between the old school mentality of Perosna PSP and the newer Personas (3 and 4 especially). So was the long wait worth it? Yes, and I loved every minute of it.

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Niche Games Can do Well if Companies Take Time to Market Them Correctly

Note: Close to a decade ago, I worked for a gaming website called Gamrfeed, sadly the site folded and was absorbed back into it’s parent website VGchartz a long time ago. When I started working at my current job in 2011, I sadly did not have time to continue producing articles on the schedule that was required, so I had to drop it. I was really proud of some of the work I did on there, and do not want it to disappear into the ether as most websites do after a while. I’ve been posting a few of these “rescued articles” recently, especially ones I think still matter or that I’m proud of. Since this article is from early 2011, the references are incredibly out of date, but that should not stand in the way of the information presented.

I wrote this as a commentary on the trend of publishers not releasing what could be considered “niche games” in the US market for a myriad of reasons and basically blaming the fans when asked about it. I was really hot about this issue at the time, as companies like Namco, Konami, Capcom, and pretty much any other Japanese gaming company started this really ugly trend of cancelling games then blaming fans for not doing free PR work or “not being excited enough”. Honestly this seems to have gotten somewhat worse as time has gone by as most “AAA games” have shifted from being “games” and are now almost all open-world monstrosities that are designed to pump money from you. Case and point, this slide from an Ubisoft press conference: 

 


The “Games as a Service” dilemma might be a solid topic for a future article, but without further ado, lets step back into 2011 and see what made me rage out then.


We have been told for years and years now that niche games (which usually mean games from Japan) do not sell in this current market. This has been, on countless occasions, the primary reason for the endless sequels, spin-offs, and clones that we see in place of refreshing new IPs. I have always held the opinion that, if given a fair shot, many of these games could sell very well if marketed well, courted to the press, and handled better than many games are handled. The age old argument seems to be that “weird Japanese games” should never be released over here, as they will fail miserably. Some seem to forget occasions where this was proven to be total bunk, like with the EXTREMELY weird game Katamari Damacy and now an equally bizarre game – Catherine.

If one had to actually explain the premise of Catherine to a non-gamer or the dreaded “casual gamer” I would imagine that the person in question would resemble either a total loon, or somebody on a prohibited substance. In a recent VGchartz review, the plot was laid as as such: “Every night after Vincent leaves the bar he grows horns and enters a nightmare world in which he and some sheep constantly climb a tower of blocks in an attempt to reach the top before the bottom falls out from under them.” For the layman, a premise like this seems destined for the bargain bin amongst copies of Wet and Brink; but that’s the funny thing about Catherine – it’s actually doing well.

After just one week out in the Americas, the game has racked up a total sales of nearly 300,000 units worldwide, and with a reported 200,000 copies released to stores (the largest release Atlus USA has ever enjoyed) I think we can safely see that a game like an erotic action/puzzle game can sell well if handled correctly.

 

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News reports later backed this revelation Catherine had shipped 200k copies”:

“Yesterday, Atlus told IGN that Catherine has been the company’s biggest launch title ever. “[It] has exceeded our highest expectations,” said Tim Pivnicny, VP of Sales and Marketing at Atlus. “It released last week to tremendous critical acclaim and fan response, bolstered by the release of a demo a couple weeks prior, and continues to generate discussion among fans for its mature themes, engrossing subject matter, and frantic, challenging gameplay.”

So how did this happen? How did a game where a man is slowly being turned into a sheep and has to climb a tower do so well? Quick answer – it was marketed correctly.

Let’s face it, Atlus games have a very loyal built in fanbase all over the world, and while some games sort of fizzled out like, Growlanser V, they have had a number of modest hits including the Persona series. The reason that their games do well is a hard question to answer, but I feel that it can be broken down into a quick little formula that they have obviously mastered. First and foremost Atlus USA seems to be one of the only companies in America that sets realistic goals for games. Rather than expecting everything to be a million seller, then getting mad when they have extra stock and nobody buying them, Atlus makes small runs of every game based on predictions from pre-orders. This usually means that their games almost always sell out.

Another thing that Atlus always does well is that they treat any release like an event, like it is something special. Rather than throwing the game to the wolves in such a way that indicates that the parent company really could care less for a quirky foreign game, Atlus does it right. They set realistic goals, run pre-orders, and use viral marketing to build hype. Atlus USA have a good relationship with their fans, and utilize them to help hype games, but not in a way that totally burdens them with it, as a lot of the bigger companies do.

When fans spoke out about Catherine originally not getting released in the U.S., the fans spoke up and it worked. Nobody ever said “you better hype this or we won’t release anything else”, they said “okay here it is”. Now that the fans were happy and willing to help out, it was time to win over the press. Remember all the E3 press the game got, even if the game itself wasn’t being talked about, all patrons of the convention had “Catherine” branded on their lanyards, leaving many to look into the game if they hadn’t done so. Magazines started talking about it, game websites, everybody.

It really shouldn’t be a huge surprise that Catherine is doing well, but many are treating it as such. This is most likely because we live in an era when any game that does not sell millions of units is considered a huge flop. If anything, it is the small publishing houses that get it right in these situations: they don’t try to act like they are as big as EA or Activision, but cater to their more intimate audience. Through Pre-sell bonuses, viral marketing, word-of-mouth, and pure old fasioned sexual innuendo, Atlus seem to have struck gold here. Let’s hope it keeps happening.


End Note: It’s funny to look back on this and see me talk about the “modest hit Persona” considering how huge Persona 5 was last year – despite that Atlus (now owned by Sega) is still great at what they do, and many other Japanese publishers have not changed course – especially Konami because F%$# Konami.

Two new Final Fantasy VII Remake images Revealed at Monaco Anime Game International Conference!

THIS IS NOT A DRILL!

Okay, that’s a bit over the top, but we finally have a glimpse of gameplay footage of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake. These were apparently revealed today at a convention called The Monaco Anime Game International Conference (MAGIC). As you can see from the images below, the initial bombing raid is in full force as members of AVALANCHE infiltrate the Sector 1 reactor of Shinra Electric Power Company. It’s hard to tell 100%, but the game appears to be running on some version of the Final Fantasy XV engine which really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Here’s hoping E3 gives us a new trailer or something this year.

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Kingdom Hearts 3 was also showing off some new screens

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Is the Valkyria Chronicles Franchise Dead in the West?

LONG Before I even decided to get a PlayStation 3, I would check the various recommendation threads and other such things on a lot of gaming forums to see what games were seen as the “killer apps” that I should definitely play. I was honestly sort of cranky with Sony after the PS3 launch, pricing especially. I needed something that stood out, a game that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and one game, more than any other, was constantly touted as being not only one of the most underrated games on the PS3, but one of the best RPGs out there on any system. That game was the first Valkyria Chronicles. I finally got the system, and immediately snagged a copy of it.

I was taken aback by how mature the game was, and no I don’t mean “blood and guts and boobs” mature like the many games that misuse the term today, but an honest mature game done in such a way that most folks of the teenage persuasion, except maybe anime fans, would probably scoff at it. Yes the game deals with war, but in concentrates on the heroics and struggles with fighting rather than the bleak horrors of any battlefield.

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The art style alone is worth the purchase

For those that haven’t heard of the series, all of the games follow a fictitious war that somewhat closely resembles World War II if you squint really hard and drop some pixie dust on it. In this fantasy world, a small country called Gallia suddenly comes under attack from a huge land grabbing conglomerate of nations dubbed the East Europan Imperial Alliance. This is a shock because these Nazi analogues (if you equate them to our terms) are at war with another federation of countries that dub themselves the Atlantic Federation, and there is no real reason for such an invasion to occur (other than energy reserves to fuel the war). The game places you in the shoes of a rag-tag group of militia members that are suddenly forced to repel the most powerful army on earth on the verge of world conquest. This is of course the stage for a game that breathed an icy breath of fresh air into a somewhat played out genre – the strategy RPG.

The immediate thing that struck me about both games in the series that I’ve played is that they have some huge balls, and exist as a true asset to the RPG genre, especially in how they portray war. For years we have been playing hundreds of World War II games, and very few of them have actually managed to mention the holocaust or the Jewish people for fear of getting the game banned in some random countries. Here, however, we have a game that revolves around a group of people called the Darcsens that have literally been blamed for just about every bad thing in the world for hundreds of years, and are the targets of ethnic cleansing campaigns (in Valkyria Chronicles 2 most notably) and even forced to work in labor camps. The fact that any series had the cajones to even attempt to have a storyline closely mirroring this sort of world event makes SEGA go up in my books quite a bit.

Racism is somewhat unsettling in the game. Darcsens are seen as unholy inferir people to many people in the game, even protagonist characters.
Racism is somewhat unsettling in the game. Darcsens are seen as unholy inferior people to many in the game, even protagonist characters. In my experience, race politics are rarely seen in JRPGs.

Flash forward just a few years and it seems that a series with such promise, critical acclaim, big sales in Japan, and a cult following in America should be running strong; sadly this is not the case. Valkyria Chronicles may already be dead, especially in the west. A few years back news rang out about the possible release of the third Valkyria Chronicles game in America specifically. SEGA West had been pretty tight lipped about it, and its no-show at E3 that year was amongst about a dozen or so games that seemed absent from localization plans. game journalists apparently talked to some of the SEGA reps at E3 and asked if the new Valkyria Chronicles and Phantasy Star games would be heading to the west and the news wasn’t good.

Valkyria Chronicles III (or pretty much any other Japanese PSP game that year) never came to the west. This was largely because the PSP was on life support when the game released. You see, in their grand wisdom, Sega decided to make a quick buck by churning the games out far too quickly on a completely other system as before (more on that later). Valkyria Chronicles II, a direct sequel to the first PS3 game, was confusingly a now handheld title. Granted, at the time the PSP had a userbase of more than 50 million users (a lot more than the PS3 at the time), but how many outside of Japan would buy it? How many had the first game? Series Producer Shuntaro Tanaka told Famitsu that the second game was being developed for the PSP instead of the PS3, in order “to allow a broader spectrum of users to discover and enjoy what makes Valkyria special.” Tanaka added that the series could return to consoles in the future, though.

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There are rumors that SEGA decided to release the games on the PSP in order to capitalize on the TV anime that was running, using it to hock a host of toys and such that were hot on the market. Moving a flagship title for any series across platforms is a tough decision, and especially ludicrous when we have to realize that Valkyria Chronicles II was, not shockingly, only the second game in the series. Usually, handheld spinoff games come well into the lifespan of a series, ala Final Fantasy and it’s numerous side-games. While it did decently well in Japan, the sales were still under that of the first game, but the real story is the American Market. VGchartz has the game listed at an estimated 80k for the American Market. That’s basically an estimated eight times less than what the first game obtained in the same region.

Here are some graphs to speak for themselves, these are old screen-grabs I took when I first published this article but they still stand:

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Please note the scaling difference between the two graphs.

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I’m not going to jump on the anti-piracy bandwagon, but when you have a system that is cheap and easy to develop for, but is plagued with piracy and doesn’t perform well in all areas versus a system that does a bit better in all areas, and isn’t hit hard (until recently) by any sort of hackers, I wonder why you’d choose the former. SEGA obviously wanted a quick buck rather than letting a franchise grow a bit more naturally, and it’s hurt the series pretty bad. Since its release the third game in series had barely cracked 160k units in sales, a far cry from the previous games.

Sadly, Japanese gaming companies really hit a rut about five years ago, and honestly they are still there, they don’t take chances and seemingly have regressed back into a Japan-only mindset that pretty much guarantees failure. Putting anything on the PSP during that time, or the Vita currently, pretty much guarantees a niche game that few will play. But why is this happening? Take, for example, words by Keiji Inafune, the once prominent mind behind many Capcom classics such as Mega Man and Dead Rising:

Keiji Inafune
Keiji Inafune

“The mainstream industry in Japan is like a large tree that’s just begun to wilt. It’s still standing strong, it hasn’t collapsed just yet, but it’s not doing all that well,” Inafune told The Verge at BitSummit, a Kyoto indie-games festival in its second year. Inafune himself went independent in 2010, leaving giant developer Capcom to start his own studio called Comcept. He believes that indie games are the most exciting thing happening within the Japanese industry. “Indies have just sprouted above the ground. There’s still this monolithic large tree over the industry, but indies have popped up. Whether or not the big tree will fall, whether or not the indie scene will grow into a tree itself, I don’t know.”

Inafune is just one of many big name studio guys leaving “wilting trees”, perhaps the most prominent was Hideo Kojima and his epic battles with Konami leading up to the release of the last Metal Gear game. He now works for Sony and Konami is making cellphone and pachinko games.

I wish more of these big Japanese companies with American publishing arms would look at companies like Atlus (owned by SEGA now) and XSeed for how to treat localizations. XSeed, for example, has released a few games in the Record of Agarest War series digitally, that way they could obtain a cheap license and keep costs down. These smaller publishers also set realistic goals for sales of these games, instead of assuming that a niche strategy RPG will be a huge blockbuster, NIS and Atlus both learned a ton about the market, and learned how to market, publicize, and keep costs down on a ton of games like La Pucelle Tactics, Disgaea, and even Phantom Brave. They don’t always sell crazily well, but they have rabid followings that keep buying the games, and keeping them going.

A somewhat new game in the series.
A somewhat new game in the series.

So, where do we stand now? well, there might be a glimmer of hope shining through. While the third installment is still the last game in the series so far, many fans are hoping that a recent HD remaster of Valkyria Chronicles and a new spinoff game will re-ignite interest in the series. The spinoff, Valkyria Revolution, is planned to be released by SEGA in Japan on January 19, 2017, and in North America in early 2017. It is also planned to be released by Deep Silver in Europe in early 2017 as well. For the Western releases, an Xbox One version will also be available.

This shows a big change for SEGA in that they seem to be switching back to home consoles for games like this, and are trusting the west to support more niche games. Namco-Bandai recently did a similar thing and finally got the Tales series back on track over here, so who knows… As for Valkyria Chronicles III? I guess there is always hope that SEGA could do a PSP Remake edition for the PS4, but if they think the game won’t sell well, where is the incentive? Even a digital release with original dialog would be good, but I’m not holding my breath.

If Valkyria Revolution bombs, the fans are not to blame – a decade of poor and largely short-sighted business decisions are. If it does happen, only one thing comes to mind – Sorry SEGA, but you guys ruined your own franchise.

Valkyria Revolution looks promising!
Valkyria Revolution looks promising!

Disclaimer: A version of this article was originally produced for a now-defunct video game website that I worked for in the past. I have decided to rescue some of this stuff so it doesn’t disappear from the internet forever. If you enjoy this, let me know and I might just do more!

 


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