2022 is the time that I was fully converted to playing action and FPS games. Playing Elden Ring for over a hundred hours, trying out Apex because vtubers convinced me it was fun, casting kamehamahas in Fortnite, playing Gundam Evolution because you love the series, then going back to Apex because Gundam Evolution was awful. With that occupying a chunk of my gaming for the year, being asked to buckle down and play Soul Hackers 2 was a bit of a curveball. I do have a fondness and respect for the jRPGs that ATLUS makes.
That being said, turn based games rarely makes it to public prominence because it’s just not as quickly satisfying or flashy as action-based ones. I mean, sure Persona 5 made it but it did a lot more than be a good jRPG to make it there, it’s the exception. Even with how much I will scream to the heavens to play 13 Sentinels, it probably won’t make the same notoriety (play it).
The abrupt swapping between combat and conversation can kill the momentum quite often, and in effect kill the momentum that the game is trying to build up with you. It really is a slow boil, before you can even begin to care about the heroes and villains duking it out on screen, you’re going to need some stakes setup first. But if you let it simmer for long enough and get the timing of swapping between these at just the right pacing, man it’s like perfect steamed rice.
Unfortunately, Soul Hackers doesn’t quite nail this timing. It starts with the heat much too weak and pumps it up real quick to catch up. Which, if you know how to cook rice, you know this is more or less the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. Not that it’s a terrible game, but in both aspects of storytelling and gameplay, they both fall flat. It’s still a decent jRPG in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t think decent should be the quality we hold ATLUS to specially after seeing the Persona series. If you want to know more and my reasoning behind this statement, well, read on.
Production (3 / 5)
If there’s anything I’d praise Soul Hackers 2 for, it’s going to have to be the character designs. Figue and Ringo are literally created in front of you and are tasked with saving the world, and truthfully, they’re already winning if being easy on the eyes was the leading criteria. The other characters aren’t quite as adventurous on the design side, so for the remaining three protagonists, Saizo was the only one that appealed to me. Arrow looks so generic that he’s probably the actual protagonist of the story, and Milady (yes, that’s her actual name, take that fedora off) doesn’t really appeal to me, but hey maybe it works for others.
While they took care to detail the faces of the characters to a great degree, the body models have a noticeable drop in quality to the point that you can see some of the edges of the polygons if you look closely enough. The way they animate and act during cutscenes does feature the best of how they looked, but I also thought “Man I wish the battles would look this cool” as they jumped about, dodged bullets and clashed blades. But hey, you get what you get for turn-based combat.
Locales and town locations are attractive enough to look at and enjoy, but that sentiment doesn’t carry through dungeon areas. While the city has what I would consider as a passable set design with some glowing lights and has people walking about, dungeon areas are mostly barebone minimum of what a dungeon should have. Narrow walkways, doors, and mazing paths that can be a dead end or show some demons to help you out. Either way, there’s not much to see or find, a shipping yard will look like a shipping yard, and the same can be said for alleyways and train lines. It’s for this reason that it’s relatively easy to get disoriented or lost because there aren’t even notable landmarks to help you orient yourself around them. The worst offender of this would be the Axis dungeon, which is the area you will mostly return to for grinding out character links and levels. The area is literally just a bunch of floating floors that have flights of stairs connecting between them. Might have been nice to have some little touches around the corners or paths that would help you identify the space with the character it’s oriented to, as it’s part of exploring their memories, lore-wise.
When it comes to the audio experience, Soul Hackers 2 gets a lot correct. It’s no surprise that the voices from an ATLUS game are pretty amazing, the characters are portrayed well and their intonations sound no less than natural. It’s pretty amazing how they were able to translate the scenes and scripts in a way that I don’t feel much was lost in translation. The music is definitely a bop and is one of the things that is able to keep me going through the slog of repeatedly killing similar enemy formations again and again when grinding for crafting materials. Honestly, even though there’s not a lot of variation with the music (unless you buy DLC) they all feel well-crafted and I don’t mind listening to on-loop.
The visual experience is pretty minimal when it comes to the UI of the game but despite the lack of flair. It does inherit some of the stylization choices of Persona 5. Particularly with how it tries to keep the turn-based combat interesting in whatever way it can. Soul Hackers 2 does have commendable facets when it comes to the presentation, but overall, it generally feels generic more often than not. I had to put down Soul Hackers 2 after around 40 hours of play as I need to move on to the next title and catch up on my backlog, but I’m more than sure I’ve experienced enough of this game to tell you what playing it will be like, and I think playing it any more might just make me dislike it further.
Mechanics (4 / 5)
Turn-based combat is just about as expected, where your team and the enemy team take turns in doing actions together. It’s a bit different from how it plays out if you’ve played a persona game before, but ultimately it won’t be that different if you’ve experienced anything from the SMT series before. But instead of knocking down the enemy for extra actions and eventually producing an all-attack, the all-out attack is already going to happen at the end of the player’s turn. Where the strength of the big final attack is dependent on how well you exploited the enemy’s weakness during that turn.
Another thing that set apart Soul Hackers 2 is the level of customization you can give to each character. I was used to the idea that only the protagonist can do the neat trick of swapping out what demon they’re carrying. But in this title, that can be anyone during a turn. No longer are they bound to using just one demon that limits how useful they are, they can now have the elemental affinity that you want based on what demons you have available. That also means they are affected by the stats of the demon they carry as well, so if you want them to be useful, you have to make sure their levels are up to snuff.
In addition to the slightly different system, you can’t perform a soft stun lock on enemies since they can’t be knocked down. But, if you plan what you are doing appropriately, you still get to the point where you wipe them out in one turn anyway. Really, it’s not that huge of an adjustment to play through. One neat thing about the game is how it makes use of the demons you have on hand as entities that assist you along the way, they either help find random loot, heal you, or even help you find new allies to recruit. It makes exploring a map more worthwhile, as you have no idea what sort of things they’ll find for you once you enter the dungeon.
Playing through the battles is something that isn’t really all that complicated, but the lack of variation or interesting content to go through is actually what kills my motivation to play through the game.
Content (2 / 5)
Pacing is one of the most sensitive things to tweak and balance when it comes to a linear RPG game. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was done well for Soul Hackers 2. It first starts with a rather long-winded setup to figure out who you are and what you play, and how you’re supposed to be involved with someone else’s story. It tries its best to give you an in-medias-res introduction to the game but you have to be ready to do some Metal Gear Solid levels of sitting through cutscenes to finally get to a point where you can actually play the game. To be fair this is sort of par for the course for ATLUS RPGs, you get the same length of introduction for their other titles, even Persona.
Then when it finally gets through to the point that you can visit places and do side quests, it doesn’t hold back. It makes you feel like there’s so much to do from the get-go that it can get overwhelming. Buy this, find that, defeat boss, farm that, all this with the bare minimum of window dressing of story to get you going. It doesn’t take long for you to realize just how much of this content is just repeatable, and the action starts to feel a little old quite fast. This is too bad since the grinding is where you’ll find the crafting materials necessary to upgrade equipment and further enhance the abilities of your team.
The main character you play, Ringo, doesn’t seem to fit her role as heroine. She’s closer to Vaan of Final Fantasy 12 that plays more of a facilitator or observer of a story rather than actively taking part in it. The completely plain-looking Arrow feels like a better match for the protagonist role and the story seems to agree. It makes me wish I was playing from Arrow’s perspective instead, but there is value in having Ringo play bar therapist as she’s the best character to talk with the other characters about their thoughts and feelings.
It’s also a little rough to say that this was much of a story, we’re mostly going through flashbacks of what seem like characters who are at the end of their journey and we’re the game is mostly a wild chase for the dragon balls. This is sort of where you see writers seem to fall flat with stories when it doesn’t involve a high school. The lack of a common meeting point for all walks of life to interact with or the activities they get involved in the process of going through school, which ultimately leads to character development, leaves them with nothing to work with. Of course, you can make interesting character stories without relying on the high school setting, but this seems to be out of the comfort zone for ATLUS’ writing team. Ringo sort of fits the role of an entity slowly learning about humans, but most of the interesting story bits are hidden behind long dungeon dives and repeated side-quest objectives. You’ll want to get to them if you want to unlock the full potential of each member, but the game’s difficulty doesn’t really call for it especially if you have a strong enough demon roster.
The demon roster returns much like a Pokemon game, where you choose to recruit new and more powerful demons or simply summon through the usual way you find them through the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series. That is, sacrificing other demons to get them to your side, much like a game of Yugi-Oh! And it’s probably the best way to do it so that they’d also gain extra skills and well, this is the only way to attain the more special and higher tier demons in the game.
If anything at all is high tier about the content, I’d have to say that it’s the localization of the game, the translation is top-notch, to the point that it was able to translate the lines of a rapper’s dialogue and still produce lines that rhyme as he responded to the people talking to him.
Features (3 / 5)
Soul Hackers 2 actually does a lot of things that help you save time, and I’m talking more than just skipping through cutscenes. There would be field skills that your members can learn that can make encounters easier to avoid or more lucrative. There are ways to skip battles entirely by simply knocking enemies down in the dungeon map and leaving them to think about what they’ve done in life. You can also speed up the combat speed or just allow the game to automatically attack enemies for you. It even helps tries to help you keep track of what sort of demons you already have on record when you’re recruiting. So in a sense, it’s trying to keep smoothening the pain points and rigidity that turn-based RPGs tend to have by nature.
Then comes the DLC, where it’s possible for you to not only have more music tracks to give the much-needed variety to the BGM department but also give the option to make grinding for levels and money much easier. On top of this, you can get access to the more powerful demons from the get-go. A lot of ‘let’s make the game more convenient to play’ options right there. However, I think it did go too far. It’s come to the point that everything is a foregone conclusion. I’ve actively chosen to avoid using the stronger demons and level-cap myself just to keep the battles somewhat interesting. I do believe that by giving the player so much from the get-go, they managed to trivialize the playthrough.
One other issue I had with the game is the efficiency, even on an SSD on my PC it somehow has to keep loading these really basic-looking town locations and dungeons whenever I end up accidentally hitting the pause button that would warp me out into the city map for quick travel. This wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was an inconvenience against the game trying to make this as smooth an experience as possible.
Soul Hackers 2 tries its hardest to be a more mature story as opposed to what its more popular titles are like. Unfortunately, it ends up with bland characters who are already at the end of their respective stories and are just trying to resolve the problem right in front of them. The game had an opportunity to write much more complex and nuanced characters, but it seems to forget that these are people who are already supposed to be full-fledged adults.
It also leaves some crumbs here and there for the world-building of Soul Hackers, where being a Devil Summoner seems to be a profession one can actually get into, but again, leaves that idea alone after playing with it for a bit.
It introduces some big ideas as well, increased levels of customization that expand to the entire cast, dungeons that are not procedurally generated, repeatable quests, and multiple endings based on how you develop your connections. They’re great ideas, really. But this game acts like a kid out of college, trying to apply their big ideas but losing sight of how to keep it a great game. It gave me a lot of new tools to play with, but little reason to engage with it. The characters or the story didn’t feel solid enough to keep me engaged, and the world itself kept trying to push me to do the next thing without really trying to get me to like where I am first.
Soul Hackers 2 is a shiny new update to the Shin Megami Tensei Formula but needs a few more pages to fill out and be a game I can recommend.
Soul Hackers 2 on the PC scores a 3 / 5. Available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox X/S, and PC.