Soul Hackers 2 is a JRPG by time-honoured published Atlus. Its art style and combat might seem familiar to you, and there’s a good reason why.
Old-school Shin Megami fans can skip this next part as you likely know what Soul Hackers, demons, and fusion are. For those that don’t know, Soul Hackers 2 is a sequel to Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, a 1997 title that released on PlayStation and Nintendo DS years later. Devil Summoners was a spin-off series to the Shin Megami Tensei games that got Atlus its fame. These games all share core themes, including the same demons cropping up in each title, and the same elemental abilities and combat mechanics. Each game builds on the last and adds something new. Soul Hackers 2 is no different.
We meet Ringo and Figue, two agents born of Aion - humanity’s knowledge rolled into a timeless hivemind being. You control Ringo, who is equipped with the ability to Devil Summon (channel demons in combat) and also hack the souls of others. You and Figure are both sent to Earth to rescue three key subjects: Arrow, Milady, and Saizo; three Devil Summoners working in different factions.
Keep an Aion things
Your soul hacking ability is handy for these subjects, as they’ve all fallen short of fate and must be resurrected through Ringo’s soul hacks. From there, they owe you one, so join you on your journey to secure the five Covenants and protect the world from certain doom. You know, just an average day in the life of an AI Devil Summoner.
Ringo meets her companions very quickly, literally within a couple of hours of playing. There’s Arrow, the well-meaning member of the Yatagarasu, then Milady (pronounced mill-addy), a stone-cold woman with a fiery soul working for the Phantom Society, and finally Saizo - a freelance Devil Summoner who fell at the hands of his now ex-girlfriend.
Your party members come equipped with a basic demon, and a COMP - their weapon of choice. You can’t change their weapon but can upgrade it with stat amplifiers and affinity buffs. Oh, affinities are the elements in the game, like fire, ice, and electricity to name a few.
Soul Hackers 2 thrusts you into a bright, neon city location, set in futuristic Japan, where Devil Summoners roam free among the populace. The first couple of dungeons, however, take place in the city’s empty subway system and have Ringo running down long corridors chasing Demon Shadows.
The combat scenes are your classic Shin Megami turn-based elemental-targeting fights. Each demon, and human character, has weaknesses to the affinities or physical attacks, and every time you successfully hit an enemy’s weakness, you gain a stack that produces a hefty Sabbath attack from Ringo at the end of a turn. Party members can use any demon, so you can equip whichever you like, but pay attention to the character’s strengths and work with them.
While in the dungeons, demons in your roster can quite handily perform Demon Recon now and find items or other demons for you within dungeons. Some can also heal you, which is very helpful as it doesn’t waste your party’s MP.
This all sounds fascinating, though the dungeons only really have one purpose: fight demons while locating the boss and then fight some more. I get it, that’s the whole basis of the SMT franchise, but the dungeons have little to no puzzles and even less decor. There’s sometimes a locked door or a staircase, but essentially you’re just running down corridors as Ringo. There’s no sprint button either.
This unfortunately rings true for the Soul Matrix, too. This is an optional, extra set of dungeons that is accessible through Aion. You can learn more about characters’ stories, or grind for demons, money, and XP. The levels are rather bland, as they are made up of cubic flooring that goes on and on, with nothing in terms of scenery except occasional demon shadows to fight.
It’s demon time
I did find that the Soul Matrix was the most reliable place to forge contracts with and recruit new demons. They are integral to your performance and ability to take down enemies. Demon Recon and fusion are the only way to get demons in Soul Hackers; you can’t negotiate with them during a battle.
You can’t just stick with a Pixie and your other beginner demons though. No, you need to take a trip to the best place in Soul Hackers: the Cirque du Goumaden. This glitzy big top is hosted by Victor, a character back again from previous Devil Summoner games, this time as a ringleader. He provides the ability to fuse demons and will ask for nothing but money for the privilege.
Demon fusion is surprisingly easy. Choose the first subject from Ringo’s roster, then based on the available fusion options, select the second. You can then proceed to create the new demon, and pick skills it will inherit from the two ‘parents’. I spent entirely too long fusing demons, my compendium is still nowhere near filled, and Ringo’s wallet is very empty.
There are more than 300 demons in Soul Hackers 2, made up of recurring demons from previous games, and around 30 new additions. Jack Frost, the Atlus mascot, makes a return: with flavoured options! I didn’t manage to make a full fruity frosty team, but I did get a few, like the refreshing Lemon Frost.
Blinded by the lights
Soul Hackers implemented a couple of neat changes, which made playing it more enjoyable. For one, the mini-map is transparent, and you can move it around the screen to wherever you like. It's a feature I want to see in more games, honestly.
Every time you come up against an enemy, there is a handy little table in front of them that shows their weaknesses and defence, if you’ve worked them out previously. This worked super well for my scatterbrain as you can be sure I’m immediately forgetting which demon is weak to which affinity.
The soundtrack features compositions by Keiichi Okabe of NieR fame, and you can really tell which boss battle songs are his. The music and visual style are two of the best things about the game. The cutscenes are well animated, and the voice acting is superbly done and suits each character. Each character’s design is interesting and fits their personality to perfection.
Missing a Persona-l touch
It pains me to say it, but Atlus slipped up on a couple of things with Soul Hackers 2. The main, and most controversial issue, is the day-one DLC. Atlus announced that packs of paid DLC would be available featuring costumes, demons, and a new story arc. This left a very bad taste in a lot of players’ mouths, myself included. This game costs £49.99, why should people immediately have to fork out more for another story arc with a new character? At least release it a few months down the line to let the game settle for a bit. The worst part is a pack of eight demons that costs nine pounds and ninety-nine pence. These demons can not be fused unless you buy the DLC, and are strong, end-game picks that have been omitted and paywalled for some reason. Satan himself would be displeased, but you need to purchase DLC in order to see that.
Moving on, Soul Hackers 2 tries to be accessible, but the title alone holds it back. Soul Hackers could be a good entrance into the Shin Megami world - it's almost a Persona-lite as it is a good few hours shorter, and strips out some of the content. There are some key elements missing, though, like social bonds and truly being able to get to know each character. Sure, you can head to a bar and drink with your party members for a while, but there’s no interaction, and this is the only place you can really talk to them. Or should I say, watch Ringo talk to them.
It seems like Atlus aimed for two different audiences with Soul Hackers 2. The game is billed as a sequel to a game that was a sequel in itself, and ‘Soul Hackers’ wasn’t even its title, just the subtitle. This suggests it is aimed at long-standing SMT fans, but then the game is filled with tutorials and hints at every turn. Sure, there’s a hard mode, but the game is so simplified compared to other SMT games. Any fans of the franchise will likely know all of the mechanics inside and out. It’s hard to recommend this game over Shin Megami Tensei V, or Persona 5. There are no returning characters from Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers either - aside from the name, the only connection is the original game’s costumes you can get as DLC.
I had a couple of gripes with the gameplay, too. Despite the voice acting and delightful art, there were some awkwardly quiet scenes, especially character introductions or inside the Soul Matrix when going through memories. There was no ambient noise and tranquil music, and it felt a little awkward.
The combat can drag, too, until you get strong moves that can wipe a handful of demons in one turn. You’ll face between three and five demons, usually the same kind, that will all have move animations that you can’t skip. You can skip cutscenes and fast-forward conversations, but you’ve gotta sit through every battle animation every time. When there are five bug-infested teddy bears all casting a sleep spell on you, it gets old very quickly.
All in all, I did have a good time with Soul Hackers 2. I’m a huge fan of the lore of the series, the weird and wonderful demon designs, and the element-based combat. The game looks nice with its bright and shiny locations and loveable characters, but it felt a bit empty at times. The story took around 30 hours to finish, with optional side quests and grinding to do on the side. Or, if you’re me, hours of demon collecting.
I don’t think Soul hackers 2 shouldn't be billed as a sequel, and I believe the ‘2’ will harm the game’s success. It could have easily been called just Soul Hackers. The game is an accessible entry point into one of the longest-running franchises, but it is let down by the DLC debacle and its own title.