From the start, Soul Hackers 2 makes it clear that it’s not interested in wasting time. Within the first two hours of booting up Atlus’ latest JRPG, you’ll have all the core members of your party, learn about the focal points of the story, and understand nearly every major mechanic in the game. It’s a refreshing and stark contrast to the “slow-burn” type of gameplay that JRPGs are known for, and a very different approach to what fans of Shin Megami Tensei’s biggest series might be used to. It’s clear, then, that Soul Hackers 2’s goal is to forge a new SMT sub-series with a different approach to gameplay, a goal in which it largely succeeds.
In the future, humanity is stuck in a rut: technological and social progress has stalled, and the human race faces a kind of global boredom. Beneath the outer fabric of society, however, groups of gifted humans who can communicate with the supernatural world work underground as “Devil Summoners”. Some, like the Yatagarasu organization, intend to use their powers to protect humanity, while the nefarious Ghost Society aims for global destruction. In the midst of this conflict, Aion, a sentient AI born from the collective knowledge of the digital web, forms two physical “agents”, Ringo and Fugue, sending them on a mission to rescue the world from certain destruction.
Soul Hackers 2, despite its name and numbering, only has a few elements in common with the original Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers, namely a cyberpunk-influenced worldview, a group of villains called the Phantom Society, a character belonging to to the Kuzunoha family, and the concept of interacting with the souls of the dead through “hacking”. Ringo and Fugue are dismayed to immediately discover that most of the people Aion has tasked them to protect have recently passed away, so Ringo brings them back to life via the “Soul Hack”. This intertwines their souls with their digital life force and binds her to them throughout the course of the game, both in the story and in-game.
From the start, Soul Hackers 2 exudes style. Ringo and his three main companions, the diligent and devoted agent of Yatagarasu Arrow, the femme fatale Milady of the Phantom Society, and the freelance summoner Devil Summoner Saizo, inspired by old-fashioned mafia gangsters, have striking character designs and personalities that make them immediately memorable and attractive. The main characters and main NPCs are designed by famous Japanese manga artist and illustrator Shirow Miwa, who imbues the designs with strikingly sharp and colorful style and grace that feel right at home in the underground cyberpunk city lit up with fairy lights. neon they inhabit.
The slick feel of the visual design carries over to fast and intuitive turn-based combat. Each character equips a summoned demon on their COMP weapon, which determines their combat skill set and resistance/weakness set, similar to how the titular Personas work in that series. Instead of stunning or gaining extra turns when an enemy weakness is hit, you put one of your demons on the “stack” instead. At the end of the player’s turn, stacked demons perform a massive attack called a sabbath, dealing extra damage and potentially triggering other effects against all enemies on the field. While this new system tones down the strategy a bit compared to other SMT titles (there’s no downside to having your party’s weaknesses hit other than taking extra damage), it makes combat move much faster. The core gameplay element of the demon negotiation series has been moved away from battle, and there’s even a one-button shortcut to targeting an enemy’s known weakness to really simplify things.
It’s clear that Soul Hackers 2’s goal is to forge a new SMT sub-series with a different approach to gameplay, a goal it largely accomplishes.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a strategy involved. Ringo has special command abilities that he can call upon to perform actions such as changing a party member’s equipped demon or consolidating all accumulated damage into a single target. Party members have unique abilities and affinities that can be tweaked by upgrading your weapon COMP and equipping upgrade items called Mistiques. Finally, there are numerous combat upgrades that are unlocked by progressing through the main and secondary narratives, all of which can help turn the tide of combat in your favor.
Soul Hackers 2’s progression is divided into sequences that advance the main story and a myriad of optional side quests. The central macguffins of Soul Hackers 2 are the Covenants, a kind of life energy that, when gathered and consolidated, can summon a Great One to remake the world. Much of the main story will be spent hunting down these Covenants and their owners in simple dungeon/boss/story cutscenes. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the side quests and optional areas in Soul Hackers 2 are half the game, and a player would miss out on a lot of content if they skip them.
Ringo, now attached to the souls of her teammates, interacts with them in the form of points throughout the game. This happens not only through mandatory story events, but also by completing optional quests done at a club, chatting with party members at the bar over drinks, and eating at the team’s shelter HQ. As Ringo’s bonds with her teammates deepen, she opens her “Soul Matrix”, a dungeon area representing her psyche that can be explored. The further Ringo digs into each member’s soul matrix, the more useful abilities for exploration and combat open up to her, not to mention the usual loot and experience you’d expect from dungeon crawling.
But for a representation of a person’s inner psyche, the Soul Matrix is visually underwhelming: it’s mostly glowing cubes as far as the eye can see. This is a persistent issue in the Soul Hackers 2 dungeons as despite the game’s amazing art design for characters, enemies, and town hangouts, the dungeons are terribly drab. All the glitzy city streets and wacky devil summoner hangouts give way to dull, dimly lit mazes with little visual interest. That wouldn’t be so bad if they were fun to explore, but for the most part that’s not the case.
The rewards are random in each dungeon: you send your army of demons out to reconnoiter, and when you find them, you can get anything from some cheap restorers to a new ally or that key item you really need to progress. As a result, dungeons are designed to have certain places where your demons can spawn, usually in corridors or rooms with no exits. The lack of an engaging design that invites players to explore and potentially discover secrets and rewards makes running feel more tedious than it should, and even the addition of occasional puzzle elements (including everyone’s favorite, the teleporter) doesn’t help much. When compared to the amazingly designed palaces of Persona 5 or the apocalyptic wastelands of Shin Megami Tensei V, landscapes that tell untold stories through their visuals and structure, the weakness of Soul Hackers 2’s dungeons is even more apparent.
What compounds this problem is the uneven difficulty. Because optional side quests are such a big part of Soul Hackers 2, the game can only guess what levels, abilities, and demons you have at any given time. Numerous upgrades and areas are blocked by the story, but even so, players can still get many additional levels and abilities under their belt by diligently completing side quests and Soul Matrices as they appear. As a result, you often feel over-leveled (for having done too much outside of the main story) or underpowered (for having done too little). It never hits that satisfying sweet spot of feeling “good” in terms of challenge. Even bosses, which are expected to be significant difficulty spikes, can suffer from the effects of this to some degree. My experience was on the default difficulty (Normal), so if you want a persistent challenge, you may want to increase the setting.
On the whole, though, Soul Hackers 2 is a pretty satisfying experience. Character interactions and slick art help it stand out from the pack, and fast, fluid combat makes even some of the dungeons more annoying (I don’t want to see another abandoned subway for a while). very a long time) feel less bothered. Soul Hackers, as a series, has a lot of potential to further grow into its own unique experience in the way that Persona has. Soul Hackers 2, despite its flaws, is off to a very promising start.