Enter the soul matrix.
I’ve always been a fan of JRPGs but in more recent years I’ve found myself diving in to series I’ve spent little or no time with and especially after Persona 5 Royal skyrocketed up my list of favorite games of all-time, I couldn’t wait for Atlus’ next demon summoning RPG, Soul Hackers 2. Having never played the first game, I went in with tempered expectations because not every game can be a genre defining title and when you look at the last few years of JRPGs there’s been no shortage of benchmarks established by the likes of Persona 5 Royal, Dragon Quest XI, Undertale, and Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Even though Soul Hackers 2 may not climb to the peaks that those titles all did for me, it was still an engaging experience with an enjoyable gameplay loop that continued to feed my soul and desire to jump back in, despite some of it’s shortcomings.
In Soul Hackers 2 you play as Ringo, an agent of Aion, who teams up with Figue, another agent, and a group of Devil Summoners in order to save the world from destruction. The team of Summoners includes Arrow an agent of Yatagarasu, Milady an agent of the Phantom Society, and the freelance Summoner Saizo. You meet these characters early on in the game and shortly thereafter they help form your party for the remainder of the game. That’s not to say other pivotal characters don’t show up, but aside from the demons you form contracts with your party remains focused around these unlikely teammates. While I appreciated the formation of your group being at the forefront of your quest as opposed to most games as you gradually form these bonds, the only downside was this feeling that the characters were initially being rushed into the story. Although the gang does grow together over the course of the game, I didn’t feel emotionally invested in the characters motivations and relationships from the jump.
It was a relief to see that as someone who never played Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers that the exposition and plot of Soul Hackers 2 never felt like it failed to establish the world around me nor did it seem like there were characters or story beats that felt flat not having played the previous entry. Not to mention, with having to explain the world and establishing the context around everything going on, the beginning of the game somehow felt streamlined but not rushed or bloated while defining aspects of this fictionalized version of Japan. (I will refrain from tackling any major plot points in this review, but we will have a dedicated spoilercast for Soul Hackers 2 closer to launch/shortly after launch on the Pass The Controller Podcast).
The core of the game has Ringo and the gang going in-between different soul matrices and dungeons around Japan, with other non-combat areas littered throughout in the form of shops, places to upgrade your gear, fuse together new demons, and further the bond between the cast by triggering conversations at key meet-up areas. Most of the time I didn’t find myself exploring these few hub areas after the first visit other than to go to exactly where I wanted to be because the NPCs never seemed to provide anything of value to me unless it was for a side quest. Needed to upgrade my COMP? I would just fast travel to that storefront instead of traveling to the main area on the overworld map.
Aside from tackling optional tasks, the main gameplay loop of bouncing back and forth between the Axis, upgrading my gear, fusing demons, and then tackling the next physical world area ignited an urge to continue exploring and battling while simultaneously not ever feeling obtuse. Sometimes, RPGs can have too many systems revolving around your adventure that you can easily become encumbered but in Soul Hackers 2 they felt balanced and mostly inoffensive. Having multiple angles for character progression with an experience bar seemingly always bursting or encountering new demon contracts to collect and fuse, the serotonin checkbox in my brain would constantly be getting ticked, energizing me to search dungeons for more items for future upgrades and fusion fodder.
The combat in Soul Hackers 2 is one of the shimmering examples of what this sequel has going for it. If you’ve played other Atlus games you may notice similar mechanics or ideas, and though the battle system doesn’t necessarily reinvent turn-based combat it delivers a concise and snappy set of tools that have some additional layers folded into the mix allowing you to carefully plan your course of action and be rewarded for it. Aside from normal elemental matchups, Soul Hackers 2 combat has a “stacking” system that allows you to perform an additional end of turn attack called a Sabbath if you attack enemies weaknesses in a given turn. Properly utilizing this system felt crucial to successful encounters, especially late game and during boss bouts. Although at some point you will start skipping the animation that triggers when you initiate a Sabbath, the feeling of successfully stacking as many demons as possible into that bonus attack always left me feeling like a strategic virtuoso at the end of a turn.
While I enjoyed the gameplay loop and making forward progress in the narrative, the dungeons themselves ultimately fell short a majority of the time. Narrow corridors and branching paths that sometimes included a puzzle aspect that, aside from maybe one or two areas, felt like it was simply pick a route and maybe you chose correct, or maybe you’ll have to take a one-way exit backwards to retread or just backtrack altogether to try alternate paths. When you compare it to some of its contemporaries, the level design here seems unfortunately rather rudimentary. This isn’t to say I need comprehensive puzzles or elaborate set pieces at the turn of every corner, but the additional elements that would present themselves, especially in the back half of the game, were more of a headache than a heartthrob.
A slow simmer to start, Soul Hackers’ story eventually bubbles up burgeoning bonds after forcefully slapping together the Devil Summoners. These eventual earned relationships and meaningful insights into the cast’s motivations, help elevate the systems sizzling in that cast iron. Leveling up all aspects of the Summoners, fusing demons, and furthering the social links all hum harmoniously with their incremental advancements delivering constant feedback all layered over crunchy combat you’ll devour want return for more. Soul Hackers 2 not only delivers a perfect entry point for RPG newcomers, but also a concise cocktail able to satiate seasoned souls. Even after finishing up my first playthrough, I am tempted to plunge deeper into the soul matrices and maybe finish out the soul links.
Soul Hackers 2 launches on August 26th, 2022 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows 10/11, and Steam. We reviewed Soul Hackers 2 on Xbox Series X with a code provided by the publisher.
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