Soul Hackers 2 is the sequel to a convoluted series of Shin Megami Tensei spin-offs, specifically the “Devil Summoner” subseries. The original Soul Hackers was released on Sega Saturn in 1997, and didn’t see a release outside Japan until 2012 when it was remade for the Nintendo 3DS. For a sequel to arrive on as unlikely a platform as Xbox feels almost impossible, but I’m happy to report that Soul Hackers 2 might be Atlus‘ strongest game in recent years, thanks to its consistency, writing and scale.
Soul Hackers 2 is an intimate and sincere story about a group of rejects of society, victims of a dog-eat-dog world, coming together as found family under the shared goal of stopping the end of the world. Its base premise isn’t particularly novel, but that’s because the game’s focus is on its characters and their motivations.
While the main plot springs from an AI hive mind that sends forth two AI constructs, Ringo and Figue, sisters of sorts, to act as its eyes and ears on a mission to stop the apocalypse, the game’s real core lies in the character studies of the people who make up your main party and their respective relationships. Thanks to Ringo’s ability to “soul hack” (hey, title drop!), she forever changes the lives of young Summoners. Reaching into the depths of their souls brings them back from death, but their fates are interlinked.
The party quickly develops a strong bond and understanding of each other. That includes Arrow, a serious but kind Summoner of Yatagarasu, Milady, the right hand of Iron Mask, the leader of the Phantom Society and numero uno bad guy, and Saizo, freelance Summoner, garbage fedora guy and number one best shark boy. Their relationships with each other as well as Ringo and Figue, truly come alive thanks to the work of renowned manga artist Shirow Miwa, who imbues the character portraits with lively and playful expressions.
This sequel also marks several big departures to some of the formulas that have defined Atlus games for two decades: Ringo, our main playable character, isn’t just the rare female protagonist in an Atlus game, she actually comes with a set identity, personality and voice, an uncommon sight in a mainline Megami Tensei game. Condensed together, these elements make Soul Hacker 2 a better game, giving us a protagonist that oozes personality.
Each character is a likeable person in a bad situation, trying to make the best out of a miraculous second chance. Their opposing views are constantly clashing, and Soul Hackers 2 poses some thoughtful questions about modern society and the gaps in opportunity and equality that capitalism entails yet is never entitled to shallow and unfulfilling answers. Soul Hackers 2 opts instead to have these lingering questions cultivate a shared camaraderie between the party, one which eclipses that of any Atlus game in recent years. It reminded me strongly of older Atlus titles I fell in love with.
Hangout Events reinforce Soul Hackers 2’s emphasis on camaraderie. These are scenes in which one or more characters interact with Ringo at the bar and just a few additional instances where Ringo’s personality shines bright. These lighter moments reward you with character progression, both narrative ly and mechanically. It is unfortunate that you can’t also crack open a cold one with the demons themselves, denying you an opportunity to toss back a few with your boy Mothman.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of Soul Hackers 2 is a bit of a throwback, for better and for worse. Combat is everything and fortunately, it is easy to pick and understand. You’ll recruit demons, level them up and fuse them into even stronger demons. You’ll find yourself constantly changing your roster and making use of elemental weaknesses to exploit the enemy and gain the upper hand. The loop is simple: recruit demons, crawl through dungeons, complete objectives and grow your characters (both main and side), fuse demons, rinse and repeat. Simple as that.
What makes the combat shines is how it combines the best bits of previous Atlus games. Seriously, Soul Hackers 2 plays almost exactly how I would want a Persona 2 remake to play (please Atlus remake the Persona 2 duology in the style of Soul Hackers 2). Gone are the days where you are a single human with an entire party of demons, instead you manage four Summoners with their own strengths and unique abilities that you unlock by defeating demons and using materials to upgrade your equipment. By equipping your demons to each Summoner, you create powerful combinations and quickly switch them on the fly to exploit the enemy weaknesses.
Soul Hackers 2 lets you dictate the flow of combat with its two big ideas: the Sabbath and Commander skills. By exploiting weaknesses, you add demons to a Stack and at the end of your turn they deliver a powerful attack. Sabbath skills give your Stacks an edge and as you progress, you’ll unlock more ways to make them bigger and increase their benefits, which include item drops, healing, adding extra damage or inflicting status ailments. Commander skills give you the ability to drip feed some familiar mechanics from other Megami Tensai games such as on the fly customization of characters and abilities and swapping out demons when needed.
Status ailments are overhauled in Soul Hackers 2. Similar to the Holy and Curse type of attacks in other recent Megami Tensei entries, the newly introduced “Ruin” affinity serves to tag status ailment moves, dealing weak damage but with a high chance of inflicting very useful ailments. Poisoning an entire group of enemies is not only an option, but also desirable, given how much damage it deals to mobs and how many you will find in regular battles. Alternatively, you might want to use that high chance of paralyzing an enemy to save you from an ugly game over. And a personal favorite, the “Bomb” ailment returns for the first time since the original Soul Hackers. Guard your party members from damage when they are under this spell or… well, you can imagine how things might go.
The weakest aspect of Soul Hackers 2 is its level design and pacing. It is unfortunately extremely slow and uninspired. While the dungeons are not outright ugly, they are simply different corridors leading you to items or enemies, which exacerbates the slow gameplay loop. This combination makes the game feel dated, and the fact that the game lets you unlock a spell that buffs your walking speed seems like a tacit acknowledgment of this problem.
Soul Hackers is fairly short for an RPG, clocking about 20 to 30 hours if you stick to the main story and approaching 40 to 50 if you want to go for 100% completion. From a developer that has frequently released RPGs that surpass the 100-hour mark, each with multiple entangled plot elements, vast casts of characters and lots of different arcs and mini-systems baked in, Soul Hackers 2 can feel slow, small, underwhelming and clichéd on its surface. But if you persevere, you will find it a humble and consistent game, one that is experimental, flawed even, but intimate.
It’s also worthwhile to note that Soul Hackers 2 manages to avoid any of the homophobic and transphobic content that has typified previous Atlus JRPGs. Yes, the bar is buried so far under that this is hardly worthy of praise, but queer JRPG fans have become accustomed to receiving gut punches from Atlus, that it’s remarkable to not be made to feel like crap for existing. What is disappointing is the carving out of critical content as paid DLC, such as The Lost Numbers expansion that withholds important insight into the main story and the Bonus Demons DLC that carries some flagship demons. It absolutely sucks, and I wish Atlus would stop with this.
Despite its flaws, Soul Hackers 2 is humble and consistent, with a better sense of the game it wants to be: experimental, flawed, yet intimate. I would dare say that it might be the best Atlus game in recent years in terms of consistency, writing and scale. It is not a genre-defining blockbuster. It doesn’t offer anything as bombastic as Persona 5 and SMT V try to deliver. It doesn’t intend to nor needs to. Soul Hackers 2 knows its own soul, and it is a better game for it.
This game was reviewed on an Xbox One using review code provided by SEGA.
Soul Hackers 2 Review
ABOUT THE SCORE
A wonderful, memorable experience. Any flaws in this game are easily outshined by moments of excellence.
The Combat is MegaTen at its best, addictive, agile and fun.
Characters are all likeable, no one note characters present.
Gorgeous music and beautiful character designs.
Some classic demons and story content locked as Day One DLC.