Soul Hackers 2 Review: A Digital Delight
The Shin Megami Tensei series has produced quite a few spinoff series over the year (with SMT almost falling into spinoff territory itself). From the long-running, wildly popular Persona , to lesser-known ones like Devil Survivor, ATLUS has a pretty long track record of taking their iconic demon-centric RPG in multiple directions at once. Personally, I think it’s great—I love , and having as many options as we do has always made me happy. On the other hand, it feels like we have so many SMT games (not that I’m complaining) that it can be easy to lose track of individual titles, or even entire series—and that’s where Devil Summoner comes in.
The Devil Summoner series is surprisingly old—with the first DS game being released all the way back in 1995 (it’s also the only one that never left Japan)—and is fairly unique as far as SMT spinoffs go. For starters, the series has always favored a futuristic sci-fi setting for its games, and was among the first to not do the whole “doomed world” schtick that the series is well-known for. It also, however, is unique in terms of gameplay. The series made a radical shift after two games—switching from traditional turn-based combat to something more action-oriented—and, because of that, has never had as solid an identity as other spinoffs. It’s been over a decade since the last Devil Summoner game came out, though—surely it finally managed to form some kind of identity with Soul Hackers 2, right? In my personal opinion, no—but that didn’t stop it from me having an absolute blast with it!
Touching Down from Eternity
Soul Hackers follows the story of protagonist Ringo and her cohort Figue—two digital entities created and subsequently turned human by a godlike machine known as “Aion”—as they rush to prevent the Phantom Society from enacting a plan which would spell certain doom for the entirety of the world. In order to accomplish this, they’ve been ordered to protect two specific people—a Devil Summoner Named Arrow, and a scientist named Yasuhiro Onda. Given the fact that these two are borderline deities, this task was supposed to be relatively simple. And it probably would have been, except for one small detail—they both got to their VIPs a little too late to do any actual protecting. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a problem this time around. While Figue just kind of cut her losses with Onda, Ringo took it upon herself to save Arrow from his untimely demise she was supposed to prevent by performing a Soul Hack (which is exactly what it sounds like)—thus breathing new life into the young Devil Summoner and setting into motion a dangerous and exciting chain of events which would show the two agents of Aion what it truly means to “be human.”
I’m going, to be honest with you—I could probably spend the rest of the review talking about this game’s story, although probably not for the reasons you’d think. The story of Soul Hackers 2 itself, while solid, isn’t anything that breaks new grounds. Despite the main character being part of a previously uninvolved third party, it still very much embodies the “Law/Yatagarasu vs. Chaos/Phantom Society” archetype that Devil Summoner is known for. But the way it goes about telling its story is truly something else. Soul Hackers 2‘s small, four-person party (plus Figue) is arguably one of most well-written groups that ATLUS has put out in quite some time (possibly ever)—and, yes, I’ve played the Persona series.
A lot of what makes Soul Hackers 2‘s story feel so unique has to do with Ringo, the game’s protagonist. While I don’t have anything wrong with blank slate protags (I don’t think I would have made it very far in the series if I did), I can appreciate a character with their own personality. And Ringo has a lot of personality. Given that this is something that ATLUS almost never does with protags in the series, this absolutely had the potential to go wrong and feel horribly out-of-place. But, like, it didn’t. At all. Soul Hackers 2 has a very specific story to tell, and, in this case, a pre-defined protagonist feels like a natural fit. On top of this, Ringo doesn’t feel like the type of character who would take center stage in a game within the SMT universe (although that’s probably largely due to the fact that she used to be a part of a literal deus ex machina.) While characters with rigid personalities probably wouldn’t be the best fit for most other titles within this series, the way Ringo’s character has been written for this game makes her feel like a natural fit. Add this to the fact the rest of her crew has an equal amount of depth and uniqueness put into them, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a setup for a killer narrative.
While only kinda-sorta related to the game’s story, I’ve also got to take a minute to applaud the audio and visual design for Soul Hackers 2. I might get some flack for this, but I’m going to go ahead and say it, anyway—Soul Hackers 2 is probably the most stylish game that ATLUS has ever released. Every part of the futuristic, borderline-dystopian world that you explore within this game is every bit as beautiful as it is dreary, and its soundtrack continuously enhances every part of the game’s immersive experience. Normally, I’m not someone who goes bonkers over graphical presentation, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the number of times I caught myself thinking, “this game looks so good!”
Exploring Their World
In spite of the game’s progress with its abilities to tell a story and immerse the player within said story’s world, Soul Hackers 2‘s gameplay is surprisingly reserved. Rather than doing anything new fancy, the game once again relies on 3D dungeon-crawling action to get players from point A from point B. To its credit, the dungeon crawling in Soul Hackers 2 does have a uniqueness of its own. It really felt like the devs went out of their way to make the locations you explore—like cargo bays, subway tunnels, and decrepit towers—feel less like traditional dungeons and more like the areas they’re supposed to resemble. Sure, there’s still a bit of video game logic here and there (which is 100% okay), but that kind of immersion makes trekking through dungeons a lot more enjoyable for me. The only real exception to this rule are the Soul Matrix dungeons, but I’m willing to give those a pass, seeing as what they’re physical manifestations of intertwined human souls (more on that later, though).
What really helps Soul Hackers 2‘s dungeons stand out from the rest of its ilk—for better and for worse—is a brand-new mechanic known as “Demon Recon.” Keeping in line with the whole “making dungeons feel realistic” thing, there are absolutely no treasure chests in the entirety of this game. Nor are there any gathering points. You, as the player, cannot collect anything while out and about. Your demons, on the other hand, are really good at finding stuff—and that’s just what they do in this game! Rather than hanging out in your COMP, your demons will randomly spawn around the locations you’re exploring in order to give you items, fork over any cash that they found, and can even heal your party! All good stuff, yeah? Unfortunately, your demons are also responsible for recruiting demons. As in, you can’t recruit demons during battle and instead need to rely on map spawns. Given that fusion is available (and has some amazing QoL improvements added in), it’s not enough to break the experience for me. I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t terribly happy about being unable to do the recruiting myself, though.
What Lies in the Heart of Man
So far, we’ve gone over the fact that Soul Hackers 2 has a great story, and mostly great dungeon-crawling. But what else does it have? If you said Persona mechanics, you’re absolutely right! And, no, I promise I’m not one of those people who thinks every MegaTen game is Persona because Persona 5 was the first game I ever played in the series. I mean honest-to-goodness (modern) Persona mechanics. Functioning as a simplified version Persona 3 – 5‘s Social Link/Confidant system, Soul Hackers 2 has something called “Soul Levels.” Soul Levels are numerical representations of Ringo’s bonds with the rest of her party (minus Figue). Raising a character’s Soul Level is as easy as giving specific answers throughout the story or grabbing a drink with them at the local bar. Unlike with Persona, higher Soul Levels don’t directly equate to any kind of ability or reward. Instead, they slowly unlock parts of something called the “Soul Matrix”—a set of dungeons that provide additional details on each party member and are also the key to unlocking a boatload of crucial passive abilities.
Aside from the fact that the dungeons aren’t randomly generated, the Soul Matrix can basically be looked as something akin to Mementos (albeit a more optional one). While it’s not actually required that you get to the bottom of every character’s respective dungeon, not doing so is definitely ill-advised for a number of reasons. It also makes for a nice break between story beats. The bulk of Soul Hackers 2 is very linear, with there being little else to do outside of sidequests in terms of optional content—the fact that there exists a gigantic set of optional dungeons really helps stretch things out in terms of gameplay length. They also look pretty—so there’s that, too, I guess.
A Real COMP-tastrophe
Have you ever wanted to play a Persona game where every character is the Wild Card? Well, they did that back in 2014 with Persona Q. But maybe you wanted to play a Persona game like that that wasn’t specifically modeled after Etrian Odyssey? If so, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what Soul Hackers 2 has in store for you. Due to certain story-related reasons, every character in your party—all of whom are Devil Summoners—can no longer summon demons. All of them except Ringo, anyway—and her method of demon summoning is a bit unorthodox. Rather than actually calling demons out, Ringo’s summoning acts as more of an enhancement—allowing each character to equip a demon to their COMP. These demons, then, dictate things like available skills, strengths and weaknesses, and what bonus stats will be applied (characters do have base stats, but they’re pretty trash without a demon equipped). So, yeah… Soul Hackers 2 uses Persona battle mechanics. I can’t say that I was expecting that one, but, well, here we are!
To be fair, Soul Hackers 2 doesn’t entirely copy combat mechanics from Persona titles. And a lot of said difference can be attributed to the game’s new Sabbath mechanic. Considering the game’s source material regarding combat mechanics, it shouldn’t be that surprising to hear that the Press Turn Icon system doesn’t exist. Instead, hitting an enemy’s weakness will build up something called a “Stack.” At the end of each turn, all of your stacks will automatically be combined, unleashing what basically amounts to an All-Out Attack. What makes Sabbaths different, however, is the fact that they’re much more malleable than AOA’s. Since each Stack requires its own demon, you can eventually get to the point where you can unleash your entire stock of 10+ demons at once. You’re also able to add demon skills onto your Sabbaths, which can do cool things like heal your Party or mess with your opponents’ stats.
Phew, we’ve come a long way in this review! Don’t worry, though—we’re almost at the end. There’s only one more thing that I’d like to address, and that is the fact that is Soul Hackers 2‘s decision to simplify the element system. I can understand not adding Nuclear or Psi and I’m totally okay with you not putting in three different kinds of physical attack elements (Phys and Gun is more than enough). But who’s decision was it to remove Dark and Light from this game? Don’t get me wrong—the new “Ruin” element is super nifty. I genuine love that status-inducing attacks like Lullaby and Poison Gas can deal damage. But Light and Darkness are so integral to this series. It still blows my mind that they would remove them. It’s legitimately a bad idea, and it honestly detracts from the game. Also, throw all of that time you spent memorizing demon strengths and weaknesses out the door—the removal of two of the game’s core elements meant that a lot of demons got their elemental affinities redesigned.
Anything but Soulless
Soul Hackers 2 made some interesting decisions—some of which I don’t totally agree with. But, even with whatever grievances I might have, I can’t deny that the game was ultimately both incredibly fun and well put-together. Devil Summoner might not carry the same weight as other spinoff series within the MegaTen universe, but Soul Hackers 2 is one heck of a ride from start to finish.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 5 (Reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PC ; Publisher: ATLUS ; Developer: ATLUS ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 26, 2022 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A Soul Hackers 2 code was provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.