Soul Hackers 2
The Soul Hackers franchise is yet another spinoff, but “Soul Hackers 2” lacks the grandiose nature of the latest mainline entries in Atlus’s flagship franchises. Its smaller scale results in a more focused and streamlined experience. While “Soul Hackers 2” isn’t nearly as difficult as the Shin Megami Tensei series is known to be, it still offers a challenge as enemies can hit quite hard even on the easiest difficulty. And there are just enough traces of Persona’s influence, mainly through the social sim aspects, that fans of the series and more casual players will love as well.
You play as Ringo, a digital agent of the supercomputer Aion, who builds her a physical body and sends her along with another agent, Figue, on a journey to stop the apocalypse. Aion’s predictive programming foretells that the deaths of three people — Saizo, Arrow and Milady — will lead to the end of the world, but when Ringo sets out to save them, she arrives too late. Through her Soul Hack ability, which allows her to bind her spirit with others, she’s able to effectively bring them back to life. All three are Devil Summoners, meaning they can forge contracts with demons and fight alongside them, and they join Ringo to gather the five Covenants, forms of energy that each bear incredible power. The Covenants play a crucial part in the planet’s impending doom, as whoever obtains all of them can summon the Great Will, a mysterious and powerful entity.
What makes Ringo stand out is that she’s a fully voiced character with her own personality, a departure from the silent protagonists that Persona and Shin Megami Tensei utilize. Ringo has a playful and sarcastic side to her, quipping with other characters during conversations, which makes her funny and entertaining. As a supercomputer stuck inside a limited physical body, she also has an inquisitive nature about the human race, and she learns how humans behave through her conversations with her companions. It’s through these dialogues that “Soul Hackers 2” channels part of Persona’s DNA.
Similar to Persona’s Social Links and Confidant social simulation systems, Ringo can chat up Arrow, Saizo and Milady during Hangouts to learn more about them and discuss their pet preferences (dogs vs. cats), what kind of alcohol they like and other various topics. These conversations take place around a cool cyberpunk outdoor bar with pink cherry blossom petals blowing in the wind and jazz guitar music playing in the background. The game’s soundtrack, composed by MONACA, is superb — splashes of electronic music and whimsical chanting vocals wash over its world, along with riffing electric guitars for its intense boss battles. It really helps soak the player in the game’s sci-fi setting.
Through Hangouts, players can earn Soul Points toward the three characters. The higher the level, the deeper Ringo can venture into each of their respective Soul Matrix, which are optional dungeons players (similar to “Persona 5’s” Mementos dungeon) can go through to unlock additional abilities for the characters in battle.
As for dungeon design, the ones in “Soul Hackers 2” feel as if “Shin Megami Tensei V” didn’t transition to an open world. The dungeons in “Soul Hackers 2” consist of very narrow corridors, much like a traditional dungeon-crawling experience you’d see in another Atlus franchise, Etrian Odyssey or even older Shin Megami Tensei games. There’s a map in the bottom right corner that automatically fills out as you explore the dungeon like a maze.
The first “Soul Hackers” game was in a first-person perspective, while “Soul Hackers 2” uses a third-person camera. While I appreciate the attempt to invoke the same sense of exploration, the camera is entirely too close to Ringo’s backside, which oftentimes makes it difficult to see what’s in front of her. Thankfully, Atlus confirmed that a day one patch will give console players the option to zoom out.
Another issue is the bland decor of the dungeons themselves. Whether you’re in the underground subway dungeon or the shipping district, many of the dungeons look very same-y with few distinct background features. These are the complete opposite of “Persona 5′s” elaborately designed Palaces crafted around a specific villain and theme. It wasn’t until the final dungeon in “Soul Hackers 2” that I felt it had an interesting layout and some actual color instead of just dark tones everywhere.
The battle system attempts a few changes from the Press Turn mechanic the Shin Megami Tensei series is known for. “Soul Hackers 2” has the Stack system, in which every time you strike an enemy’s elemental weakness, a counter at the top right of the screen increases. At the end of your team’s turn, Ringo summons a Sabbath with her crew of demons, which is basically just like Persona’s All-Out-Attack, to deal explosive bonus damage to all enemies. The higher your Stack, the stronger the Sabbath.
Stacking is an incredibly satisfying and fun system that feels like you’re at a casino trying to — ahem — stack as many chips as you can before going all out with a bang; it’s enough of a difference from the Press Turn formula that it feels unique. I also love the silhouettes of the demons gathering around the enemies when a Stack is initiated, as if they’re preparing for Ringo’s order to strike. A sickly, haunting green aura swirls and envelopes the entire battlefield — it becomes more and more opaque as the Stack increases.
Without Persona’s calendar system or “Shin Megami Tensei V’s” open world, the structure of “Soul Hackers 2” feels confined. It’s also a substantially shorter game (by JRPG standards, at any rate) than other Atlus titles, with my first playthrough ending at 30 hours. There are plenty of side quests to tackle too that will add to your playtime, and they provide good worldbuilding. For example, one has you tracking down several rogue Devil Summoners that use their abilities for nefarious purposes, such as murdering other innocent humans. Devil Summoners possess incredible power, what if it was misused?
There’s a lot to like about “Soul Hackers 2.″ Ringo’s upbeat personality makes her a phenomenal protagonist, along with both the engaging combat and fun characters keeping players absorbed within the minute-to-minute gameplay loop. Sure, “Soul Hackers 2” will be unfairly compared to Atlus’s crown jewel, Persona, but the game definitely stands on its own two feet.
George Yang is a freelance writer covering video games and culture. His work has appeared in Polygon, USGamer, the Hollywood Reporter and more. You can follow him on Twitter @yinyangfooey.