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October 2022

Soul Hackers 2

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: Aug. 26, 2022


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PS5 Review - 'Soul Hackers 2'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 18, 2022 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

Soul Hackers 2 inherits the essence of Devil Summoner: Soul Hacker, while evolving the game concept with a more defined art style, addictive RPG gameplay and next-level storytelling.

Buy Soul Hackers 2

The world in Soul Hackers 2 is a '90s-era vision of the future, both futuristic and retro. It's also a depressing decaying dystopia where humanity seems in an eternal rut. Aion, a secret but borderline omnipotent computer hivemind, watches in secret. Aion's non-interference clause is put to the test when it discovers that the apocalypse is coming.

To head off the apocalypse, Aion creates two human terminals: Ringo and Figure. Together, the two venture into the human world and quickly become entwined with a small group of unfortunate individuals who were killed before their time. Through the power of Soul Hacking, Ringo can save the victims, and together, they set out to figure out what is causing the apocalypse and how to stop it.

I enjoyed SH2's story, and the characters are a fun group and have a good rapport. Having a voiced protagonist with her own personality does wonders for the cast dynamic and allows the group to mesh better. Despite not being short, the plot feels short. There's little in the way of needless filler, and by the end of the game, I felt like I was waiting for more. The cast goes a long way to making the game enjoyable, and it's nice to have a group that can stand on its own merits.

The combat system in SH2 is interesting because it more closely resembles an old-school standard JRPG than the turn-based approach in recent games. While the core concepts are largely similar, elemental strengths and weaknesses no longer cause you to gain or lose turns. This means enemies can attack more often, and you'll get to attack less, which is a significant change in tactics from other titles.

Likewise, you don't directly summon demons in battle. Instead, each character functions like a Persona protagonist in that any demon you recruit can be equipped onto any character to grant them the demon's abilities and elemental strengths and weaknesses. Unlike Persona, you have a limited ability to swap one character per turn, and it locks out certain other skills until your next turn; it makes the choice more challenging.

This lends itself to a different gameplay approach. Defensive or support abilities become much more powerful. Status effects are always powerful in SMT games but rarely as much as in SH2, where they can be devastating. You might not be able to lock down enemies by hitting their elemental weakness anymore, but you can take them out of the fight by removing their abilities. High-power combat abilities are good, but glass cannon builds are riskier because if you can't nuke an enemy in one turn, they can unleash hell on you.

Elemental weaknesses play into the Sabbath system. Every time your characters hit an elemental weakness, they get one stack, and one of your demons is summoned to the field as a ghostly shadow. At the end of the turn, any summoned demons join to unleash a powerful attack that damages all enemies, similar to an All-Out Attack in Persona.

The Sabbath system rapidly becomes more complex as the game progresses. Characters get the ability to earn multiple stacks by completing certain conditions, ranging from hitting with a specific element to inflicting status ailments. Demons learn special skills that have a chance of activating during Sabbath, and they can do things like heal the entire party, drain MP, and put the enemy to sleep. Since the summoned demons also come from your stock, even the guys on the sidelines can help.

Stacks can be further augmented by Ringo's Command skills. These special skills have no cost and can be used at any time during your turn as long as Ringo is alive and not suffering from a status effect. These include the ability to swap demons mid-combat, increasing the number of stacks you gain, giving characters an extra turn, focusing the Sabbath on a single enemy for extra damage, and various other skills. However, you can only use one a turn, and once it is used, that skill goes on cooldown for a set number of turns. The cooldown is low enough that you'll use these regularly, but proper timing can change everything.

SH2 characters can fill any role, but you need to consider their respective strengths and weaknesses. Each character has a unique set of skills and elemental affinities, and while these can be upgraded to shore up weaknesses, some characters are just going to be better at certain things. No character is shoehorned into one role, and you can often justify swapping strengths and weaknesses based on battle. For example, Saizo is your best Wind-elemental damage user but also has the highest affinity for healing magic and a high MP bar. Arrow can be a gun-focused powerhouse, an ice mage, or a rocking support mage. Despite characters being good at something, nobody is bad at anything. Higher affinity means you can equip better items, which means lower MP costs, stronger effects, or other bonuses.

By the end of the game, your characters get absurdly powerful in distinct ways. Saizo can inflict Faint on enemies with any gun attack. Since Faint makes enemies lose their next turn, this means he can go into many fights, and with one attack, force half the enemy team to lose their next turn. Milady can replace her regular melee attack with a powerful Almighty attack that has no cost and drains MP from enemies. In addition to all her other features, Ringo can become a melee powerhouse with a built-in Pierce and tons of damage buffs.

In addition, each character also has a Soul Matrix, which is a dungeon that exists in the character's mind. These dungeons are sort of like Tartarus without the randomness, each one consisting of several floors with boss fights scattered throughout. As you advance, you'll learn more about each character and unlock bonuses. Milady can gain the ability to instantly kill an enemy who another character leaves weak, while Saizo can get a chance to instantly nullify any physical attack. To progress in the Soul Matrix, you need to befriend characters.

This isn't a Persona-style Social Link. Instead, when a dialogue choice comes up during the game, you'll see an exact numerical example of how much it will improve a character's opinion of you. You'll want to spread out these choices because hyper-focusing on one character won't work in your favor. You can also go to the bar and drink with your friends to raise your Soul Level with them — but only if you unlock a topic of discussion by meeting certain conditions. The boosts are small, but they add up, and you'll want to aim for 100 points on each character to see their entire plot. The Soul Matrixes expand beyond that, though, if you want to get more bonuses.

One area where SH2 shines is in its boss fights. The game is quite good about trying to give bosses more interesting gameplay mechanics. There's one boss who can be easily damaged after he uses a powerful move that makes him vulnerable to the element he just used. There's another who relies on summoning demons and buffing them up while they protect him from harm. Another is immune to all damage, so you need to prep with Almighty attacks or piercing attacks to hurt them. They don't get too complex, but they are interesting enough to stand out.

One thing that holds back SH2 is the rather lackluster dungeon design. The game only has a small handful of designs for dungeons, and it uses most of them more than once, so things feel very similar. The game introduces gameplay mechanics to make the dungeons more interesting, but it feels like it's holding back by not meshing various mechanics in interesting ways. They're not bad, but they're not particularly exceptional.

The real issue is the Soul Matrix. It is where you'll be spending the majority of the game, and it's basically an infinite expanse of cubes with little to no memorable design elements and boring music. This becomes especially noteworthy in the later areas, which are comprised almost exclusively of teleport mazes. They're not the worst teleport mazes I've ever encountered and usually predictable. It can be exhausting to have a significant portion of the game consist of what amounts to wandering around identical areas and hoping that this red teleporter takes you to the goal. Technically, it's not much different than something like Strange Journey or its ilk, but it stands out a lot more in 3D. A small aesthetic change, such as each Matrix reflecting the character it is tied to, would go a long way to making it feel less mind-numbing.

If I had to sum up SH2, it reminds me of the PS2 era of the franchise in both good and bad ways. It doesn't fit into the comfortable mold, and it does some interesting things, but you can also feel its constraints. If you told me that it was a gussied-up port of a forgotten classic title, I wouldn't be surprised. I'm not sure this is necessarily a criticism, as some of my favorite games in the franchise were from the PS2 era, but it feels "old school" instead of something like Persona 5 or even Shin Megami Tensei V.

SH2 looks fairly nice, except for the lackluster dungeons. It uses better versions of the Shin Megami Tensei V models, which scale very nicely. Probably the take-it-or-leave-it aspect of the visuals is the fact that they go all-in on garish cyberpunk aesthetics, especially Ringo, who wears an LED coat that constantly flickers and brilliant makeup that may not work for everyone.

The voice acting is excellent, with most of the actors nailing the characters, and they really help to sell the tale. Unfortunately, the soundtrack didn't stand out, but a good portion of that is that the Soul Matrix music (the majority of what you'll hear) is plodding and dull.

Overall, Soul Hackers 2 is a good — but not great — entry into the franchise. I had quite a lot of fun with it, and I think the cast is one of my favorites in the SMT games, but it has a "low-budget" feel that is difficult to escape, and the Soul Matrix concept feels lackluster. It has a good combat system, fun character customization, and everything I'd expect from a SMT spin-off. For some fans, I'd imagine that the change from the franchise norm will feel refreshing.

Score: 8.0/10

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