Developed by Atlus
Directed by Eiji Ishida & Mitsuru Hirata
Reviewed on Playstation 5
I will clear the air first by telling you I am not going to call Soul Hackers 2 “Persona without the soul” or say how it fixes “Atlus’ Persona problem”, because that’s the kind of thing that hack game journalists say when they only know one Atlus game and can’t be bothered to appraise a game for its own merits. Soul Hackers 2 is not my second Shin Megami Tensei game, so I will save us the trouble of needlessly comparing it to Persona.
That’s not to say I won’t compare it to any Persona or Megaten games, but that it will be a lot more tactful than acting like Persona 5 invented JRPGs in 2016, in addition to inventing jazz and anime. I’m not playing Soul Hackers because of its relation to any other games in the series I’ve enjoyed, but for a much simpler reason; a sequel to a 1997 Sega Saturn game in 2022 is a heck of an elevator pitch.
So, when I first saw the trailer, my initial reaction was, “glad to see Atlus trying out a new IP.” Then I saw the title, overcame my moderate confusion, and realized I had to try this out. We’ve gotten some crazy sequels in recent years crawling out of development hell, but I don’t care about Kingdom Hearts 3 or whatever dumb number we’re on now, this has Jack Frost in it!
I love it when creative teams reach for weird ideas, and dusting off your series that was a one-off 25 years ago in an SMT subseries that hasn’t gotten a new entry in over a decade certainly piqued my interest. I’ll just have to grit my teeth and ignore the fact that there are no social links, so let’s talk about Soul Hackers 2.
If you have any passing familiarity with Shin Megami Tensei as a franchise, I don’t think I need to tell you that the world is about to end. What separates Soul Hackers from its sister series is that the world hasn’t already ended, it’s not going to be saved by teenagers with attitude, and the world is a cyberpunk dystopian nightmare. Move over, high school kids, the 20-somethings with existential depression are in charge now.
The world is dominated by gluttonous corporations, while the working class scratches out a meager living in a desperate attempt to survive. You will find the subtle social commentary in the time-out corner. The demons of folklore and mythology that have hidden in the shadows are the tools of Devil Summoners, soldiers in a war between the apocalyptic Phantom Society and the equally shady but not as blatantly evil Yatagarasu.
Aion, the supercomputer charged with impassively observing the progress of humanity, is forced to break protocol in response to the imminent end of the world. The AI designs two corporeal forms, Ringo and Figue, meant to blend in with the humans and save two humans who will be instrumental to preventing the apocalypse. Spoilers: they both fail.
But Ringo packed her Gameshark in her Nintendo DS that day, and entered a quick cheat code that allows her to save her target, a Devil Summoner named Arrow. The soul hack brings him back to life, while inextricably linking the two, both personally and in the demons they use in battle. You could almost say they form a contract, like ‘I am thou, and thou art I’. No? Still not comparing it to Persona? Ugh, fine.
Ringo decides to keep making friends with dead people, and two soul hacks later, you have your JRPG party with the straight-laced guy, the tough girl, the laid-back guy, and the sassy girl. Hey, if it ain’t broke…
As much as I can try to avoid mentioning other Megaten games, I also can’t really talk about the gameplay without doing that to some extent. They all feature fundamentally the same system of recruiting demons to your side through negotiations, wielding their elemental powers to exploit enemy weaknesses, and when you hit all the weaknesses, you get to do a big wham bam thank you ma’am move. It’s Pokémon but with your sleep paralysis demons.
While Shin Megami Tensei has the player battling alongside their demons and Persona has each of the players wielding a different JoJo Stand while the protagonist gets all the cool demons, Soul Hackers 2 is slightly different. Unlike SMT, there are three other playable characters fighting, and unlike Persona, you can mix and match all of the demons you have with the characters in your party.
As you progress through the game, you begin unlocking new abilities to spice up the basic gameplay loop of “target enemy weakness as many times as you can, perform a sabbath to do big damage”. These Commander Skills let you switch demons on the fly or up the damage done by your sabbath attack, just to name the first two, and honestly do wonders to improve the combat.
The combat can get rather repetitive, and the dungeons are uninspired and lazily designed, so the game really forces the player to mix it up just to stay engaged. I frequently find myself taking breaks from the dungeon crawling just to break up the monotony before throwing myself back in for another floor or area.
And that’s where we come to the problem I have with Soul Hackers, or rather, with Shin Megami Tensei overall. Yep, the obligatory part where I say it doesn’t have the “heart” of Persona.
The reason I and so many others have mocked this line of thinking is because it’s in bad faith. Comparing Persona and SMT doesn’t make any sense. In this game, you get to rebel against the system while hanging out with your friends! In that game, you…venture across the blighted hellscape that remains of your world to attain godhood. Forget apples and oranges, this is apples and vehicular manslaughter.
One is not inherently better than the other; they are attempting to tell different stories, and it’s dishonest as a critic to say one lacks “heart” because of it. I might personally prefer the social sim elements of Persona, but I can understand why many people would take an epic post-apocalyptic narrative over dating Makoto. I mean, they’re wrong, but I can at least empathize.
So when I say Soul Hackers 2 should be more like Persona, I don’t mean in the visual novel or dating sim elements. I actually quite like the social system the game employs where Ringo’s dialogue can ingratiate her to her friends, but you have to spread it evenly to progress in the game. What Soul Hackers 2 could learn from Persona is that it needs more variety.
The dungeon-crawling is dreadfully boring, and you wind up fighting the enemies along the way just to break up the monotony. They’re all designed the same, which is to say not a lot; they barely branch out and there’s rarely any reason to avoid the critical path. There’s no puzzles, you just lightly jog everywhere so traversal is tedious, and they’re visually bland.
Soul Hackers is about a 20-hour game if you’re looking to hurry up and get it over with, but I’d say settle in for 30 minimum, because you’ll be scrounging for side content just to avoid returning to the Shipping District for the fifth time in an hour. Atlus, you don’t have to do what Persona did, I’d rather you not, but please, you could have done something outside of dungeons, battles, and upgrades.
This turned out to be a surprisingly negative review, because make no mistake, I really like Soul Hackers 2. It’s just that I have a lot less to say about the character design, the writing, and the unique ideas it brings to Megaten, and you can’t get around poor dungeon design in a dungeon-crawler.
I like the game, I’m glad I bought it, and would like to support any more weird additions to SMT because I don’t want Atlus to drop everything and just push Persona. These games are weird and creative and number among my favorite JRPG experiences, but I also want them to get better.
Soul Hackers shouldn’t take everything from its contemporaries, but I think just a little more time in the oven to polish the side content and dungeon design would have made a world of difference.
So, I will give Soul Hackers 2 a score of Boring Pleasing, with a note written in red pen telling Atlus that this isn’t their best work, and I know they can do better, see me after class. Now is the time where you can call me a fool and no better than the hack journalists I decried earlier, because I actually wound up comparing it to Persona a lot.
The best place to do that is down below in the comments where I read every single one and cry myself to sleep, and a close second is Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where the harassment feels just a bit more personal. Until next time, thanks for reading.
|Pleasing||Soul Hackers 2|