Back at the beach, Baofu points out that they may have killed Joker, but the larger problem is Tatsuzou, the elder Sudou, who was on the phone talking about Joker before the killings even restarted. Unfortunately, Katsuya wants to call recent events in to the precinct, and the two get into a fight that leads to the party splitting up. Maya agrees to stay on the hunt for Tatsuzou, but Baofu isn’t even ready with the next step, and says she should check in at work while he gets ready. Meanwhile, Jun (still lingering) is curious about Tatsuya but not about to follow the four of us, and stays behind at the beach, for all we could use a fifth party member. So now we only have one party member, and you can probably imagine why we got it into our heads to put off any upgrades and grinding. Again: I understand where the problem started, but in time…
Maya goes to check in at work, only to find her boss in a meeting with a Wang Long astrologer named Chizuru. Nothing really important happens in this scene (even when Mizuno demands you give her a report, Maya just… doesn’t?), and the plot really gets going when you leave the office to find the entire office watching a pre-recorded interview with who else but Chizuru. The host asks Chizuru what she thinks of the Joker (this being a recording, not that the public-at-large knows Joker is dead anyways). Chizuro responds that Wang Long has a term called “Joka” for when people are going through particularly poor times (“filled with Kegare,” I’m not sure if that’s important or not). In her mind, then, there isn’t just one Joker, but any number of people going through “Joka.” She then decides that this means that they’re all serial killers, which seems like a dramatic leap in logic! Unfortunately, this starts a rumour that everyone who ever called Joker to make a hit is now, themselves, a supernatural, hands-on, would-be murderer dubbed “Joker!”
Meanwhile in the police department, Shimazu is in a meeting with the Chief of Police, Togashi, and also the Mafioso with a scar that Baofu saw at the sanitarium. Katsuya comes in, and the Mafioso stays silent (you see what I mean about it being a problem that Baofu never described the fellow to Katsuya) as Shimazu chews Katsuya out for his constant reports of unprovable, supernatural activity. The biggest problem is the fact that Katsuya claims to have found murder victims at the sanitarium, but the sanitarium has since burned down off-screen (Baoful later confirms this was someone trying to cover up the crimes), making Katsuya’s newest report seem like an outright lie. Just then, a man rushes in with news of more Joker murders, presumably caused by the Jokers Chizuru just (inadvertently?) created. Katsuya is finally sent on leave when he refuses to shut up, and is ordered to get out.
The Mafioso, who had been quiet until now, remarks that Katsuya is a “good cop, not like you two.” Shimazu has a laugh at this, and gives the Mafioso a list of everyone who called the Joker, a list he apparently has pre-compiled, complaining about “Shinjo” somehow being involved in this. He orders the Mafioso to check them all, and the man notes Ulala’s name on the list (remember, we already know that she called the Joker thinking it wasn’t real). Shimazu says to leave her, presumably knowing that her inevitable transformation into a Joker is going to… delay the party somewhat. Just a bit. Say… “the vast majority of our remaining playtime in this session.” We get a scene of Ulala hearing the rumour, and we return to Maya.
Maya meets up with Baofu, and convinces him that they have to get Katsuya if they’re going to continue their investigation. We headed to the police station, where Katusya finally got it into his head that he can’t rely on his fellow cops, and even admits that he’d rather turn in his badge than leave this alone. At this point, Ulala calls in, already in the middle of transforming into a Joker, and now the party knows most of what we know.
Katsuya asks who Ulala would have wanted dead – again, Kyle and I had already worked this out, though we couldn’t remember when or why. At this point, Maya had a flashback to the Innocent Sin universe, remembering Ulala’s fiancé from that world, Makimura. She tells them the truth about the information, but since Ulala has frequently mentioned her trouble with men in the past, everyone admits that this supernatural flashback might be more than coincidence in this universe, too. Baofu mentions a rumour that the ramen shop owner that we turned into a weapons dealer in Innocent Sin has a second rumour saying she runs a professional missing persons (“manhunting”) service, so suggests we start there. While in the new region, we stumbled on Michel and Kozy from P2IS in the middle of band practice, though they didn’t have anything interesting to say.
It turns out the rumour about a person-finding service hasn’t supernaturally manifested, but there was no need to put it into effect (yet), as it just so happens that the ramen shop owner makes an intuitive guess and we stumble on Makimura all the same. The con artist was in the middle of charming another woman into a scam, but the party showed up to ruin it while also getting him to come with them, as “protection” from Joker. Now let’s go drag him to our friend Ulala, who’s been transformed into Joker! We’re the heroes.
Ulala was at GOLD gym when she called in, and we arrived on site to find that she had locked everyone out of her favourite workroom, and that no one seemed to have any other keys. We would have to explore the now-demon-infested gym to find another copy of the key. The dungeon was 100% identical to the Innocent Sin original, save that you have to access the women’s staff change room instead of the men’s. There, we found a peeper stealing panties, and it’s possible to report him to Katsuya, though Kyle didn’t realize this. Not that anything happens from doing so. The peeper just so happens to have the key, and that’s the whole of it.
Great. Now it’s time for disaster.
For the record, we had already had a few disastrous encounters with the enemies on our way to the boss, including one game over. Still, we hadn’t bothered to grind, what with our missing party member and other factors, but we acknowledged that a grinding session was probably inevitable… hopefully after we got Ulala back, we thought. I’d better describe the situation with the boss before I explain our problems, though. We went into the gym, where Ulala revealed she was transformed into “a Joker,” with a weird porcelain face. She also loudly announces that the person she had tried to kill with the curse is none other than Maya! Again, Kyle and I had worked this out at some point, Ulala’s mixed feelings towards Maya had been evident for a while. Worse, she now had the Joker Persona that Sudou had earlier, which had “grown” into a new form, to use Katsuya’s word. If you listen carefully to Ulala’s battle quotes, she also mentions “voices,” like Sudou did. We got into a battle, and were totally screwed. Nothing in our entire arsenal of abilities and weapons could do more than 10 damage to her, except for Katsuya’s guns, which did 20 at best. She was weak against Earth attacks, but the only one in the party who ever had any Earth attacks was her! She had nearly a 1000 HP. We literally could not win.
It took nearly four hours to resolve this situation, and by the end of it, we were pissed. It started small. We were initially ready to blame ourselves, since we had put off fixing the problems with our party until we had reunited all four members, but as time went on and we retried the boss fight, we just could not beat it, and it was looking more and more like there was only one or two ways to ever win it, which is ridiculous design. The lynchpin of the problem is Ulala’s Old Maid technique, previously used by Sudou and now by Ulala, which causes a random, unspecified party member to become a “bomb” of sorts that goes off on their next action, doing group damage to everyone else in the party instead of their intended action. This technique is infamous, so there are guides out there for how to deal with it (Defending during the corrupted character’s turn cancels the effect), but it wasn’t the move itself that was the problem. As I told Kyle later: “We could upgrade our armour at this point, but that’s not what’s killing us. What’s killing us is that we can’t kill her fast enough.” You see, after Ulala went into her wounded sprite at around 600 damage, she picks up her use of Old Maid, and when she gets even closer to death (after losing 750 HP, I think?) she not stop using Old Maid, ever. Ever. And I need to stress that that’s not hyperbole. She did not stop, ever. It was the only move she used on every single turn for the rest of the fight. No one on the internet describes this behaviour (not unlike our experience with Celia Charming Ramza without fail in FFT), but it happened to us every single time we got her past that HP level. The game just got up and said, “Hey, screw you for playing well in the past and getting here at a low level! You’re not allowed to play until you play ‘properly!’ Fuck you for enjoying our game the ‘wrong’ way!”
Unless we could deal ~250 damage in a single hit, or could deal 250 damage in a suicide run against Old Maid, we would not be able to win. Grind or die, and also use a specific combinations of moves or die, specifically an Earth combo attack, and I remind you that combo attacks aren’t even documented in-game until you stumble over them. And all this in a mainstream RPG from 2000. Bull. Crap. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Kyle likes to replay fights over and over until he clears them, but at one point in the process I had to say, “Don’t refight her again. If we win, it won’t be because we did it, it will be because the RNG screwed up somehow,” and I’m not sure RNG was even a factor by the time we were done. This isn’t like an action game where you get more skilled at the game over time. It would be grinding or nothing, and that’s not a test of anything but patience with shitty video games. It was pure Wizardry horsecrap straight out of 1983, where if you aren’t doing the right thing at the right time, you just lose (Wizardry 4 is the worst example, but it’s an infamously delayed game ultimately released in ’86, so I’m going to use the date of Wizardry 3. Wizardry 2-4 are full of so many poor design decisions that frankly even an ’83 stamp doesn’t emphasize the breadth of its problems, and 4 is the worst).
I don’t think we’d been this legitimately angry at bad game design since Persona 1’s two garbage endgame scenarios, and I’m still kind of angry now, as I first draft this the next day? Although that may be because I stop playing games that tick me off far earlier than this? If it hadn’t been for the Marathon, I probably wouldn’t have gotten dug this far into the pit. Things are not looking good for Eternal Punishment, and I think I can already say that Innocent Sin is going to come off as the best game in the 90s trilogy for simply not having such hardcore problems as the other two. At least EP has yet to dive off the board with narrative bullshit like P1, and at least it “only” took four hours of walking in circles to correct the gameplay problem, unlike P1’s “several days,” but fuuuuuuck this game.
One thing that helped relive the tension was some narrative catharsis that showed up after the boss fight. Ulala takes full responsibility for her actions after the fight is done, even though they weren’t what she intended to have happened. She admit her ugly feelings towards Maya and also that she regrets them, and most importantly, repeat that she thought the “Joker curse” was a gag even now that she has no reason to lie, and that she was never trying to actually kill Maya. It was all very well done and mature, especially in contrast to contemporaries, cough cough. Impressed.
That’s enough summary, so let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of those four hours. Like I just said, we started off thinking the problems with this fight were our own, and initially worked to correct them. I’m not particularly angry for this first stretch, it really was our fault. First off, we’d need decent Personas. Wanting something to do other than mindless grinding, I took the party to Cuss High, which serves as this game’s “old enemies bonus dungeon,” like the Factory in P2IS. You start on the surface and go into the bomb shelter, where the map disappears and you have to find copies of paper maps to fill it in. Like the Factory, there is also plot, which confirms this really is a WWII bomb shelter, not a Cold War shelter like I suggested might have been a possibility in P2IS (since it mentions active bombings, something that thankfully didn’t happen in Japan during the Cold War). We began to discover letters from a girl named Sachiko, as well as clues that would clearly factor into a puzzle later in the dungeon. In any event, we had only unlocked one room in the bomb shelter, so there wasn’t much to do, but we gathered as many cards as we could.
(A girl named Sachiko brings to mind Corpse Party and its Sachiko and bomb shelter. I guess the name Sachiko is an “old person’s name” in contemporary Japan, something that would belong to a child from the 1940s and 50s? Then again, the connection might be more direct. Sachiko from Corpse Party was only named in the remake, and the sequel, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows makes a lot of huff about wounds from a past life showing up as you recognize the déjà vu between the two lives, and you’ll remember Ulala saying that Maya had a bruise like that back at the sanitarium! Maybe Corpse Party was inspired by P2?)
At first, we didn’t go for the best possible Personas. Our plan was still to beat Ulala, reunite the party, and only then do the majority of our grinding. To this end, we grabbed a mid-level Earth Persona, Robin Goodfellow, and went straight back to getting our asses handed to us by Ulala. At this point, we tried to follow a strategy from what seems to be this game’s only walkthrough with any boss-fighting advice (Yushiro’s), which suggested that we use the Earth-type combo attack I described earlier. Unfortunately, the walkthrough’s phrasing made it sound like we could only do so with the mid-level versions of the three spells involved in the combo – an Earth, Fire and a Water spell – and so we went on the long trail to find each. The walkthrough also recommend three specific Personas, so we decided to get them, as well, figuring “Why not?” Our first stumbling block was in not realizing that we already had the summoning item required to summon one of the Personas, and went around GOLD gym looking for something that was sitting comfortably in our pocket. Again, our fault. Our next problem was trying to get an Aques spell card, the mid-level aqua spell. Unfortunately, as we discovered after a period of subpar grinding at Cuss High before finally checking a walkthrough, you literally cannot befriend the demon that gives it as a Pact reward unless you have Ulala in the party. Fucking… I just… Thankfully, we gave the combo move a try using the base-level spells, and it turns out it still works, even though it’s weaker. Thank god. We were considering another Persona that did have the mid-level water spell, but it came out okay.
At this point, we had already done the bulk of the fixes, so it was time for traditional sit-down-and-snore grinding, mostly for Rank Ups to unlock the mid-level spells on the two Personas that did have the mid-level abilities. The other Persona even Mutated and gained a mid-level water ability of its very own, and all the better. As the walkthrough had suggested, this – plus the levels we had gained in the interim – were enough to humiliate Ulala. In summary: I will cop to our poor use of card-gathering and Personas before now, but the fact that Old Maid pinned us down into a guaranteed game over just because we weren’t able to land a 200+ hit on Ulala would have screwed us either way. Even if we had been doing our Personas right, the odds of us having a mid-level Water, Earth and Fire spell of our own accord, on the three party members we didn’t know would be the only ones on-hand during this sequence, at a point in the game when you’re still primarily using base-level spells even on level-appropriate Personas, is almost zero (the Persona that had to gain a mid-level spell through Mutation was the strongest one in the party!). I blame the game, and if tries to pull anything like this again, we might very well walk out of our own accord, just like the SQQ. Fuck 90’s Persona.
Like I said, Ulala apologises, explains her feelings and repeats that she didn’t know she was calling a real hit. Speaking of irredeemable people, Makimura outright tries to provoke Katsuya into killing Ulala so that he won’t have to go to jail. Jesus Christ, and the party just lets this guy go with his word that he’ll pay back his victims? I’m starting to suspect these might not be professional human beings. Okay, okay, Katsuya has him by the throat at first, and Baofu slugs him, and since Katsuya is also on official leave and can’t do more than a citizen’s arrest and would probably get in trouble with his corrupt bosses for even that… but they let him go free! At least this guy is supposed to be a slimeball, and we’re clearly never going to be inviting him into the party, Final Fantasy VII, but seriously, they let him go even though they know he’s a big money scam artist who literally wants their friend dead?
At one point during this scene, you have to have Maya announce her impression of Ulala, and if you defend Ulala, Maya’s starter Persona, Maia, gains the ability to Mutate in such a way that Igor will late upgrade it into its Prime form (called “Custom” in this translation, for linguistic reasons that don’t carry over in the slightest. Ed. We continued to call it “Prime” for the rest of the game).
At this point, it’s time to deal with the Joker Persona in Ulala’s head. The party takes Ulala to Igor in the Velvet Room, who is able to remove the Persona, though he cautions that it’s not an alien entity: like most Personas, it’s just an aspect of Ulala’s personality that Ulala will have to confront for the rest of her life. Honestly, the game is handling this really well.
At this point, everyone is surprised when Maya’s cell phone rings. I would too, considering we’re in an extradimensional space representative of our own inner minds! Does your brain get cell service? It’s Anna, who got her cell phone number from Kismet, and she’s got bad news: her friend Noriko turned into a Joker, and she now suspects that Noriko was behind Sudou’s murders of Hanya and the man who hit Anna with his car. But after that, things got weird, and Anna reports that Joker Noriko was kidnapped by someone, and that other Jokerized people have also been kidnapped. Luckily, she also knows that they’ve been taken to Club Zodiac, so it’s time to arrange a rescue operation.