Review – Soul Hackers 2
One of the greatest appeals of the Shin Megami Tensei series is how the game is able to take its core ideals and implement them across a variety of settings, storylines, and concepts. Sure, the main games swing wildly between different backdrops, effortlessly going from semi-modern Tokyo (Nocturne), to feudal Europe (IV), and back to Tokyo (okay, they really like Tokyo). But it’s when the concept of the pantheon of demons decides to venture elsewhere that things get weird and interesting. Strange Journey made the oldschool dungeon crawler work in a retro future space odyssey. Devil Survivor brought Jack Frost and Pixie into a SRPG setting, with surprising results. And Persona time and again reminds you that summoning demons isn’t as important as maintaining your social status, or whatever the hell was going on in Persona 4. It’s a versatility that I don’t even see in games like Final Fantasy or Fire Emblem. It’s always exciting to see how it works the next time Atlus takes a swing with the franchise.
With Soul Hackers 2, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. As the original was a Sega Saturn release and then ported to the 3DS nearly fifteen years later, there was a bit of retro simplicity to Soul Hackers that was charming. The central ideas were very cookie cutter: find demons, summon demons, fight with a demon team. The entire crux of the first game was the storyline, which was one of those great “evil corporation seeks to control the masses through awesome online world” ideas, but then also got a generous amount of “holy shit I can hack into someone’s soul” nonsense that made it wildly appealing.
Soul Hackers was a great 3DS game, allowing players to experience some quality voice acting and excellent dungeon exploration, while keeping the ball rolling on the already successful publishing of Shin Megami Tensei games for both DS and 3DS. I enjoyed being able to focus on the baser ideas that made the gameplay engaging while actively channeling my inner child (the Dragonlance dungeon crawlers were my bread and butter growing up). Still, a decent story, great demon summoning, and interesting mechanics. Solid.
Soul Hackers 2 is a wild and exciting departure from this original plan, with the two only tenuously related by the title and concept of soul hacking, and even that is fairly different. Aion is the new vision of data and information for the future. Omniscient, infinite, and absolutely neutral, Aion oversees and witnesses all that is happening, and it sees something truly dark coming: a being that seeks to destroy the world. Aion wills into being two avatars: Ringo and Figue, who are set to control and participate in the events unfolding.
They find the existence of The Covenant, five balls of energy that inhabit people and give them extraordinary powers. If all five pieces were to converge into a single person, they would be able to control the future of everything. Ringo immediately aligns with two people, Arrow and Milady, who come from opposite factions of Demon Summoners, as well as Saizo, a freelancer/mercenary Demon Summoner. Ringo is able to quell their differences because each was recently killed, and Ringo resurrected them with soul hacking. Working against the clock to find the additional Covenant pieces, the group must find them before Iron Mask, the mysterious antagonist, finds them first.
When it comes to gameplay, Soul Hackers 2 is equal parts recognizable and inscrutable. At the very basement level, you have the demon summoning and skill building that comes with almost every game. You stumble onto new demons and have to usually sacrifice something in order for them to join you (HP, money, dignity) and each has an elemental side to them that is used in determining battle orientation. This is so second nature at this point that people who’ve played another Shin Megami Tensei game may bash their controllers in frustration at needing to be instructed for yet another time on how a fire demon is weak against ice.
Yet that’s also where things take off and fly in wild new directions. Your combat party is the Demon Summoners themselves, and each is only allowed to take on a single demon at a time as a sort of familiar, which aids them with magic and stat bonuses as they level up together. Stumbling upon weaknesses means being able to create Sabbath, which is a stackable finisher that comes at the end of a round.
Sabbath greatly increases with each stack, meaning that being able to successfully land four weakness attacks equals a MASSIVE damage package that hits every enemy and isn’t affected by defense modifiers. This is incredibly helpful in both normal battles and the new Risky Battles, where you have the option to encounter enemies that are above your pay grade. Remember how awesome it was to accidentally get murdered by a level 74 mob when you were just starting Xenoblade Chronicles 2? No? Well, this is only sort of like that in a.) the mobs will chase you but b.) the level difference isn’t usually that extreme. Usually.
The developers behind Soul Hackers 2 really, really didn’t want players to lose heart during deep dungeon dives, which as a result, can sometimes make the dungeons feel very unbalanced. The demons that you’ve successfully made contracts with now populate the dungeons as visible NPCS that you can talk to. Talking to them triggers random gifts, up to and including new equipment, but mostly much-appreciated healing and crafting items. They also will heal you and, on multiple occasions, be the conduit to bring in new demons with whom to make pacts.
Besides being flavor text and healing factors, talking to demons also instantly dismisses any mobs that were chasing you (except Risky Battles). This means you can continually run from enemies and then quickly talk to a rabbit to alleviate all chances of combat. While this tool was very useful (particularly in the sprawling Soul Matrix), it was, inarguably, cheap. I liked it, I was delighted in using it, my daughter and I got a good laugh that enemies respected not interrupting conversations, but that doesn’t lessen the cheapness of the feeling.
Speaking of the Soul Matrix (yes, I know how ridiculous this sounds), relationships are now a pivotal part of Soul Hackers 2, though thankfully, not to the Persona levels. Since Ringo had to Soul Hack the three Demon Summoners in order to keep them alive, their souls and her existence are now wrapped up, and you occasionally need to dive into their souls to do some clean up. This is the Soul Matrix, a labyrinthian maze of seemingly endless dungeon crawling.
The Soul Matrix will only allow you to go so deep depending on your relationship with the Summoner, which is improved through conversational branches and choices. The game lays out how your words will affect the relationships, so you can purposely and directly build bridges with whomever you like best. The Soul Matrix is also the only way to develop certain passive and important skills for the Summoners, so make some good decisions early on and try not to be a dick to anyone too often.
There are mechanical aspects in Soul Hackers 2 that felt like the developers also knew their game might be a little too verbose for some. I myself was a bit put off initially because I had to play for almost thirty-five minutes before I even entered my first combat, and it was still hours more before all the other goodies (sidequests, demon fusing, COMP upgrading) came into play. Subsequently, the options to fast forward and skip entire chunks of the game are constantly available, which acts as a double edged sword.
On the one hand, when you see the same minute long animation every time you activate a Sabbath during battle, it saves you hours in no time flat to just pass over Ringo’s dope animation. On the other hand, since there are moments of just silent posing and facial expressions, an impatient player may fast forward and accidentally miss a couple of lines of dialogue in the process, leaving them befuddled as to why Figue is now an owl who acts as a combat sensor everywhere you go. Don’t worry, it’s just another QoL addition to help players not be as pissed off when they get attacked from the back by angry demons. You’ll still be pissed, but now you can be pissed at an owl for not turning red fast enough.
But, before you start to think I’m nonstop dumping on Soul Hackers 2 for what it’s doing wrong, let me take a sincere moment to talk about what it’s doing right. Straight up, I am deeply and truly in love with the visuals and audio of this game. Taking everything that’s been cool about Shin Megami Tensei for years and all the 90s retrowave aesthetic from the original Soul Hackers, and combining it with the next generational hardware have given brand new dimension and personality to the game from top to bottom.
Our protagonists all have distinctive personalities that are conveyed in body language, minute facial expressions, and actual moving portraits during dialogue scenes. The demons look amazing, not just cute but powerful, from the unsettlingly curvy Dormarth to the colorful, imposing Dionysus. There’s an element of presence that I hadn’t seen in my handheld experiences before, and I saw and felt the importance of being able to Demon Summon on the big screen. I honestly couldn’t believe how much it changes the feeling of power when Loki goes from a relatively good size on the small screen to an absolute beast on the television.
Also, those mechanical elements I mentioned earlier that move the game along so quickly are incredibly helpful during the long and grinding road to get from point A to point B. Being able to hit the auto-attack button and simply let my summoners blitz through weaker enemies is essential to not just moving the game along, but also my mana. Also, coming to grips with the idea of not being able to do a dungeon wholly in one run makes it a lot easier to utilize the portals back to the entrance for easy exits and trips to the different stores, which are also fast travel points on the main map itself.
While players can get bogged down in Soul Hackers 2 for any number of reasons, it’s definitely not because the game’s layout is obtuse. On the contrary, the streamlining between getting from point A to point B is only hampered by the fact that I’m still rocking an Xbox One X and not a Series X/S (I am now accepting console donations). The load times, while present, are not inconvenient or boring, and also gives Soul Hackers 2 a chance to remind you of what the hell you’re doing at any given time.
Most importantly, the story and the characters are highly engrossing and kept me coming back for more. The entire aspect of an AI network trying to emulate a persona based off of information and algorithms is fascinating, and then the lead that we see is sarcastic and aloof says everything I need to know about how humanity is interpreted by others. Arrow and Milady have amazing camradaire, even if they publicly are at war with one another, and Saizo’s genuine affection for Ash and the fallout that comes from the story progression is something to behold.
If there isn’t a Soul Hackers 2 OVA or short series in the works, I feel it’s a wildly missed opportunity by Atlas to not showcase the fantastic job done in voice actor selection and also solid writing. I couldn’t tell you the name of most of the characters that I’ve enjoyed in the past Shin Megami Tensei runs that weren’t demons, but the idea of a snarky AI named Ringo with leg tattoos that turn into swords will sit with me for a good, long while.
This might not be the most adventurous of the Shin Megami Tensei games, especially since after Shin Megami Tensei V lived up to the hype, it was a tough band to beat. Yet, Soul Hackers 2 delivers everything I needed in a tidy package. I got a banger soundtrack with gorgeous visuals. I got a good approach to a 3D world with 2D limitations as far as dungeon design. I got to summon demons, fuse them together, upgrade my computer gun and get a pair of earrings from a rabbit as a bribe because it was singing in public. I had a blast and I have a lot of additional sidequests to still explore in order to make my characters even more powerful. I think I have some additional endings to discover, and here’s the great part: I don’t know that for certain, but I feel confident that it’s the case. Soul Hackers 2 was the sequel I never imagined, and it’s also not the direct sequel I would have anticipated. It is, ironically, spiritual, and it sits proudly in the court of Shin Megami Tensei. Not as a game to be judged, but as one of the presiding judges itself.
Beautifully done color palette and layout, the visuals of Soul Hackers 2 are beyond reproach.
Plenty of action and side questing with fast travel mechanics to help make the grind a bit more enjoyable.
I could listen to Ringo quip about for days on end, even without subtitles.
Not just a great Shin Megami Tensei game, but a solid series entry that could be a good vector for anyone looking to give demon summoning a try.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Soul Hackers 2 is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
Reviewed on Xbox One.
A copy of Soul Hackers 2 was provided by the publisher.