Soul Hackers 2 Review
Developer: ATLUS | Publisher: ATLUS/SEGA | Genre: JRPG |
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5 | Reviewed on: PS5
Soul Hackers 2 is, just like many other ATLUS JRPGs, a game of two distinct halves, and the disparity between these halves is clearer than ever. On the one hand, uninspired dungeon designs lifted straight from the mid-2000s will undoubtedly mire the experience for many fans who have seen the improvements made in this respect across other ATLUS titles in the past few years. On the other hand, however, everything else about Soul Hackers 2 shines brightly, often exceeding expectations to create a memorable and at times emotional JRPG that condenses itself into an approachable 40-50 hour playthrough without losing any of its soul.
The main cast of characters are well written and have great emotional depth, and the gritty atmospheric world of near-future Tokyo is filled with mature, interesting and at times philosophical stories worth paying attention to. Additionally, the art style is consistently pleasing to the eye, while the music — composed by MONACA, the team behind NieR: Automata’s sublime soundtrack — always fits the mood it sets out to achieve with great success. Its combat is simple to begin with, but gradually increases in complexity throughout as more skills and upgrades become available and teammates start to specialise in certain damage types.
In many respects, Soul Hackers 2 aims to be seen not as a mere mimicry of ATLUS’ more mainstream Persona and Shin Megami Tensei titles, but instead as a third pillar standing alongside them equally as proud of its own achievements. While Persona seeks to create the ultimate student life experience while commentating on contemporary society, and SMT focuses much more heavily on grand philosophical themes in an age-old battle between order and chaos, Soul Hackers 2 opts to explore human souls on an individual level, asking interesting questions about what makes us human and how we can come to understand each-other better. It is when viewed through this lens that ATLUS’ latest JRPG hits the mark far more than it misses.
The best way to approach Soul Hackers 2’s combat is to forget everything you know about other ATLUS games and start from scratch. Battles are split between Player Turns and Enemy Turns, with each individual having only one action by default unless special skills are used later in the game. Striking enemy weaknesses with one of the game’s non-Almighty elemental types (Physical, Gun, Fire, Ice, Electricity, Force and Ruin) will do bonus damage and add a demon to the Stack, which is a brand new mechanic in which demons accumulate in a Stack throughout each Player Turn. At the end of Player Turn, all the demons in the Stack are unleashed on enemies to deal bonus damage based on how big the Stack is, in what is called a Sabbath attack. Learning to make good use of Stacks and Sabbaths is the key to victory.
Each of these mechanics increase in complexity throughout the course of the game, such as certain demons learning Sabbath-related skills called Tandem Skills which are randomly activated in combat to, for example, do bonus damage in the Sabbath or heal allies in proportion to damage dealt. Given the limited number of demon skill slots, this adds an extra layer of strategic decision making to combat, as certain Tandem Skills can be quite powerful by applying poison to enemies or leeching MP from foes. Elemental attacks can be boosted quite considerably using accessories bought in shops or gifted from demons, which can either boost damage output or reduce MP costs for certain elemental types. These new mechanics are easy to understand while still encouraging late-game optimisation, making Soul Hackers 2 an approachable yet strategic experience.
As the game progresses, each of the four party members begins to gain access to skills and upgrades which can considerably boost their effectiveness with certain damage types. The two male characters can have their Gun skills boosted, for example, while the two female characters have equivalent upgrades for their Physical skills. Optimising each party member for the elements that they specialise in can become vital in the second half of the game, as each character also has affinities to certain elements which can be upgraded to equip better, stronger accessories to boost said elements. Therefore, while anyone can theoretically use any demon, it is far more effective to give each party member demons which represent their favourite damage types.
Keeping demons around is quite beneficial in Soul Hackers 2, as once a demon learns all of its skills, it is guaranteed to give a gift which can range from accessories to powerful items, with the rarity of these gifts increasing as the game progresses. Ideally, a demon should not be discarded or used in fusion until it has given a gift, since this is the primary way to accumulate large numbers of accessories which can eventually be transformed into stronger ones via an NPC merchant in the city. The primary method of acquiring demons is either through fusion or by negotiating with allied demons who are automatically dispersed throughout each dungeon for recon purposes. Demon negotiation is quite straightforward — If you are a high enough level and can fulfil the requirement (giving money, items, HP or MP), the demon will be satisfied. There are no guessing games unlike other ATLUS titles, which is a much appreciated way to streamline the gameplay.
City of the Future, Dungeons of the Past
The mid-21st century Tokyo overworld setting of Soul Hackers 2 is, while mostly segmented into small locations with little to explore, nonetheless teeming with life and atmosphere. From the overworld map, players can visit a variety of locations ranging from NPC merchants to any of the unlocked dungeons and the Safehouse which grants free HP and MP recovery at any time. Turning off the in-game loading screen tips in the menu is vital here, as it skips the artificially inflated loading times and makes the entire overworld experience considerably smoother and faster.
Each overworld location is a small snippet of life in futuristic Tokyo, with plenty of NPCs to talk to who give interesting and fascinating background information that helps to create a more immersive setting. The primary purpose of these locations are the NPC merchants who provide everything that a Devil Summoner could want, ranging from useful items and meals that give party-wide buffs in combat to numerous upgrades to the Devil Summoners’ weapons — known as COMPs. Some of these merchants can be quite expensive at first, such as the largely unnecessary accessories merchant, but others are critically important such as the aforementioned COMP technician. Overall, it feels like some of these merchants are more useful in fleshing out the setting and contributing to the lore than they are in providing consistently useful items, but this is likely a consequence of playing on Normal difficulty and therefore not having to use every merchant to its fullest potential.
The star of the show is the Cirque de Goumaden, a colourful and vibrant place to summon and fuse demons in much the same way that any other ATLUS JRPG allows. In fact, there have once again been multiple quality of life improvements to make demon fusing that much more straightforward, including the unbelievably useful Compendium Fusion system debuted in Shin Megami Tensei V which allows players to see recipes including any demon they have ever collected. This is an absolute life-saver that prevents the copious amount of internet searching required to fuse every demon in every game prior to SMTV, and its inclusion is beyond welcome. Additionally, brand-new filters have been added to allow for searching for demon recipes with specific damage types, which is incredibly handy when looking for something quite specific. Unfortunately, summoning demons from the Compendium is often prohibitively expensive due to a imbalanced in-game economy.
Things take a turn for the worse when examining the dungeon designs in Soul Hackers 2. Fans of the broader Shin Megami Tensei franchise will feel right at home in this game’s endless winding corridors and rooms separated by doors, but it is a real shame that little attempt has been made to add variety to this structure. There are a couple of puzzle dungeons which are quite fun to figure out, but a lot of the exploring simply involves walking fairly slowly while the occasional enemy spawns nearby to give chase. Thankfully, combat can be selectively ignored by swiping at approaching enemies to knock them down, giving the option to ambush or walk past. Moreover, an ability in the mid-game allows for a much faster walking speed, so the dungeon crawling experience can become quite fast paced and thus more enjoyable. That being said, it does feel as though these are bandages over the core of the issue, which is a severely limited dungeon variety.
There can be no doubt that Soul Hackers 2 was built on a smaller budget than its mainline Shin Megami Tensei and Persona counterparts, and the dungeon designs are a consequence of this, but all things considered it does not ruin the experience. It becomes a matter of expectation — if you go into this game hoping for Persona 5’s Palaces or Shin Megami Tensei V’s sprawling open areas, you are going to be highly disappointed and with good reason. If, however, Soul Hackers 2 is viewed as the reinvention of a spin-off franchise that keeps some of the archaic design of older ATLUS titles while experimenting in other areas, the experience becomes a much more positive one. Soul Hackers 2 is a big step in the right direction, but it still needs to shed some of the baggage of the past to truly shine.
Lark of the Covenants
The main story centres around two sentient AI constructs, protagonist Ringo and her friend Figue, who have been sent to Earth by a super-intelligent computer called Aion which observes life at a distance but rarely intervenes directly, to deal with a severe threat to the world which Aion has foreseen in its calculations. Armed with Devil Summoner capabilities as well as the unique ability to Soul Hack, which allows one to peer into the soul of the deceased and bring them back to life by restoring their will to live, Ringo and Figue must track down a variety of humans all connected to mysterious Covenants, which are supernatural parasites that give their hosts powers. Legend has it that when all five Covenants coalesce into a single host, an unknowable Lovecraftian being named the Great One will be summoned to destroy all life on Earth, and various Devil Summoner factions are fighting to either prevent or encourage this cataclysmic event.
Ringo and Figue meet a variety of recently deceased Devil Summoners caught in the midst of this war, and use their Soul Hacking powers to resurrect them by delving into their souls and talking to them about their regrets in life. This immediately gives an emotional core to Soul Hackers 2 that continues to grow and flourish as the game progresses, as in the very first meetings with each of the other party members, we can already see what is driving them forward in their second lease of life. Arrow needs to settle things with his dear friend Kaburagi, while Milady seeks to uncover a mysterious truth. The suave suit-wearing freelancer Saizo, on the other hand, regrets how things panned out with his girlfriend Ash, and wishes he could have a second chance. All of these characters keep cropping up in the story, and the excellent foundation laid in the opening hours allows for some tense emotional moments later down the line.
Relationships with each party member can be raised by engaging in hangouts at the bar in Shinsando, and these drinking sessions really help to flesh out the personalities of the main cast. There are genuinely hilarious moments of witty dialogue in some of these encounters, and as things begin to wrap up in the story, it’s hard not to feel deeply attached to this goofy band of misfits who barely get along at the best of times. Arrow is the least interesting personality-wise, but Milady and Saizo are both incredibly captivating and steal every dramatic scene that they are in. The English voice acting is fantastic, perfectly encapsulating what makes each of these characters great, and while the plot is at times predictable, its execution is emotionally satisfying and memorable.
Additionally, a wide variety of side quests given out at Club Cretaceous in Karakucho can occasionally culminate in their own unique substories that are just as memorable as the main plot. Retrieving a broken watch for an old man in the subway who is clinging onto the past, for example, turned a simple fetch quest into something with a poignant message. Likewise, saving a man from killing himself by resolving a misunderstanding had the same effect. There are some comical side quests too, such as helping a movie star deal with a mischievous mascot. Not all of these quests are particularly worthwhile, with some amounting to “kill X number of enemies”, but the silver lining to this is that these enemies are automatically highlighted in dungeons, significantly streamlining the process. None of the side quests were too much of a chore — even the ones in the tedious Soul Matrix can be done while you are naturally progressing through it, which is a huge relief.
Conclusion: Soul Hackers 2 Is The Start of Something New
In 1997, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers released, and to this day it maintains a niche audience. Having not played the original, it is nevertheless abundantly clear that Soul Hackers 2 has changed a considerable amount of the experience in an attempt to modernise it and become more marketable to the much larger audience of the mainline SMT and Persona games. Operating on a small budget that has had severe consequences on the game’s dungeon designs and overworld structure, Soul Hackers 2 recognises these drawbacks and instead puts all of its effort into creating a world and characters worth caring about. This is the biggest success of Soul Hackers 2, and for this reason it deserves its place amongst the ATLUS titans.
I sincerely hope that there is eventually a ‘Soul Hackers 3’, because the foundation laid here is incredibly solid and worth exploring further. Even without purchasing any of the day-one DLC content, which adds an additional set of substories as well as more demons to fuse, Soul Hackers 2 feels like a finished product that is the result of passion for this particular branch of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. Having shed both of its other titles, Soul Hackers 2 attempts to carry the legacy of the original into the present day while making meaningful changes that can allow more people than ever to fall in love with the world and themes of Soul Hackers, despite the pressure of unfavourable comparisons to other ATLUS titles.
Across its 40-50 hour runtime, Soul Hackers 2 introduced me to a world I’ve quickly fallen in love with, filled with charismatic characters who are simply doing their best to survive in a stagnating society. Its gameplay is easy to pick up without losing any late-game optimisation, and the visuals and soundtrack give a distinct feel that sets it apart from other ATLUS titles in recent memory. While the outdated and sometimes tedious dungeon layouts prevent Soul Hackers 2 from reaching its full potential, the rest of the game more than makes up for this, creating a mature and philosophical cyberpunk adventure that tackles love, betrayal, regret, and most importantly of all, what it means to have a soul.