The latest Shin Megami Tensei spin-off has been given a Persona style makeover but what exactly is Soul Hackers 2 a sequel to?
If you’re wondering whatever happened to the first Soul Hackers, it was released 25 years ago on the Sega Saturn and never outside of Japan. There was a 3DS remaster back in 2012, which did eventually make it to Europe, but even for the convoluted Shin Megami Tensei series this is a deep cut. The good news is that the game’s history doesn’t really matter and you can happily treat Soul Hackers 2 as a standalone game. Although its not quite as unique as that makes it sound…
The original Soul Hackers was part of the Devil Summoner sub-franchise, one of the many spin-offs from Megami Tensei (MegaTen to its friends) that also includes Persona. There’s little consistency about what constitutes a Devil Summoner title and so far it’s included the two Soul Hackers games, the two Raidou Kuzunoha titles (which are action games rather than being turn-based), and the first entry, which was inspired by noir detective fiction.
In gameplay terms, Soul Hackers is the most straightforward of all the titles, with its main gimmick being story-based, as it’s set in the mid-21st century rather than the modern day. But while the details are different, the central plot, of two factions of devil summoners fighting with and against downloadable demons in order to prevent the destruction of all humankind, is familiar territory for MegaTen in general.
The breakout success of Persona has had the unfortunate tendency to homogenise the previously more experimental MegaTen spin-offs, and so it’s no surprise to find that Soul Hackers 2 has a very similar style of anime presentation to Persona.
The set-up is certainly unusual though, as the game begins with the introduction of Ringo and Fugue, two physical manifestations of a futuristic AI that realises it has to save the lives of a key group of humans in order to avoid the apocalypse.
Unfortunately, they act too late though, and all Ringo can do is ‘soul hack’ them, turning the dead humans into half ghost and half digital entity. That gives her strategic control during battle, but there’s also a Persona style element where she tries to bond with each of them in order to open new powers and abilities.
A lot of this is optional but hanging out with your team at your safehouse is a welcome change of pace and the more you bond the more access you get to each person’s Soul Matrix dungeon, which not only unlocks more abilities and loot but gives a greater insight into their personality.
Clearly, that’s all very Persona, but the characterisation feels a lot more superficial in Soul Hackers 2, as does the storytelling, which never delves very deep in either personal terms or when it comes to the metaphysical musings for which the series used to be known.
The turn-based battles still demonstrate an obvious evolutionary link all the way back to Dragon Quest and will be very familiar to anyone that’s ever played a MegaTen game before. Even though you’re using summoned demons instead of personas it still all works in a very similar way, with each demon having their own resistances, weaknesses, and abilities. As is normal for the series you can also recruit extra demons by negotiating with them, but in Soul Hackers 2 that only happens outside of combat.
The biggest new feature is a joint attack at the end of each turn, which becomes more powerful the more enemy weakness you exploit with normal attacks. There’s also a button you can press to automatically attack an enemy’s weakness, if you’ve previously discovered it, which is handy but does give the impression that the game is trying to get the combat over with as quickly as possible, which sends decidedly mixed messages.
The other big problem is the peculiarly dull dungeon designs, in terms of both layout and aesthetics. The rest of the art design is great but for some reason all the dungeons are just boring, nondescript corridors. The Soul Matrices are especially disappointing for something that’s meant to be the representation of someone’s inner psyche.
It could be meant as a throwback to the low-tech first person sections of the original Soul Hacker or perhaps it’s another attempt to streamline the game, which does seem to be the overriding obsession. But good game design should not revolve around how quickly you can get a battle or dungeon exploration over with, but how intrinsically enjoyable it is in the first place.
The whole of Soul Hackers 2 feels like Atlus heard people complaining that previous MegaTen games have been too slowly paced – and it’s certainly true that most of them take a long time to get going – and overcompensated. While there’s a lot less time wasting in Souls Hackers 2 it comes at the expense of most of the things that make the series interesting, with the plot, combat, and exploration all feeling disappointingly shallow.
We’ve always been fans of MegaTen but in recent years it’s become clear it’s in need of a major revamp, primarily in terms of the combat but everything else as well, from its pacing to its difficulty (here, it’s all over the place, veering from peculiarly easy to frustratingly hard for no obvious reason).
Unfortunately, the success of Persona seems to have postponed the chances of that ever happening and this is the latest in a long line of entries that is prevented from offering any real innovation because of fear of deviating from the series’ one mainstream hit. It’s a shame, as with some tweaks this could have been something special. As it is, it’s just another overly familiar entry in a franchise that’s been holding itself back for far too long.
Soul Hackers 2 review summary
In Short: A frustrating mix of the best and worst of Persona results in a disappointing Shin Megami Tensei spin-off that prioritises streamlined gameplay over innovation.
Pros: The game looks and sounds good, with some great character designs. The combat is fast and accessible, and unusually fast-paced for the series.
Cons: The combat lacks depth and so does the plot and characters. Off-puttingly dull dungeon designs and a haphazard difficultly curve.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Release Date: 26th August 2022
Age Rating: 16
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