Soul Hackers 2 Review – Psyche Saviors

    Title: Soul Hackers 2
    Developer: Atlus
    Release Date: August 26, 2022
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Atlus
    Genre: Turn-Based JRPG

Atlus’s announcement of Soul Hackers 2 caught the vast majority of franchise fans off guard, as its previous entry was largely overlooked compared to its brethren. Still, while intrigue was undoubtedly present, Soul Hackers 2’s exact identity was difficult for many to pinpoint due to its presentation style and hazy Western marketing. Even after a few trailers, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Regardless, the game has finally been released, and I was pleasantly surprised to receive an overwhelmingly positive experience that is a definite must-play for those not shackled by prior series presumptions.

Soul Hackers 2 follows the protagonist Ringo, an artificial humanoid created by a technological marvel known as Aion. She, alongside another humanoid creation named Figue, are tasked with averting the world’s destruction by initially having to save the lives of two individuals. However, this task gradually becomes more contrived, as unforeseen developments eventually lead to the creation of a party that Ringo leads for the sake of obtaining the Covenants. These distinctly colored visualizations of capability are contained within select people, and if one manages to acquire all five of them, they can summon an all-powerful entity supposedly able to reshape the world to one’s liking.

Unlike most other Megami Tensei entries, narrative and conversation are integral facets of Soul Hackers 2. Of course, combat and dungeon exploration are still the major aspects, but the story is a genuine driving force that propels this title to grand heights. Tense stakes permeate every noteworthy moment of progression, emphasizing the presented eventuality Ringo and her friends aim to dispel.

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Further, despite the stakes being worldly and all-encompassing, the clever utilization of such a compact cast helps make the experience feel more personal. Each member has believable motivations for pursuing their collective goal, which also simultaneously differ enough for their own plights to shine. A delicate effort is struck where this cast, whose backgrounds and personalities couldn’t be more different, manage to unite and keep their motivations aloft for the entirety of the game. The standalone nature of the story is terrific, too, since no one will have to research or play the previous entry to understand the intricacies of this one.

Moreover, the playable characters, Ringo, Arrow, Milady, and Saizo, alongside the supportive Figue, all receive relatively equalized focus, with their characterizations boasting terrific dynamics and introspection. For example, Ringo is a non-silent protagonist, immediately providing this entry with a standout identity when compared to most other Megami Tensei titles. And aside from the main story, she can interact with party members at a Bar in the Shinsando region known as Heidrun, where brief scenes occur between her and members of the party. These instances of banter excellently showcase more granular parts of the characters’ identities and hone in on previously established traits. A fantastic tonal balance is struck involving humor and drama, with Ringo being the primary supplier of the former.

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On a gameplay level, these Bar conversations enhance Soul Levels, which are numeric representations of affinity that dictate Ringo’s bond with the party members. Choices are also present throughout the required narrative, and the title transparently communicates who receives heightened Soul Levels before finalizing a decision. This design implementation caters to those simply seeking to either follow their heart or solely pursue gameplay benefits.

Speaking of the latter, Soul Levels serve to unlock gates found within the Soul Matrix, a hub area comprising mental dungeons depicting Milady’s, Arrow’s, and Saizo’s memories. Delving deeper into these labyrinths requires Ringo’s bonds with them to have reached particular levels, so the dialogue options directly affect gameplay progress.

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This point rings especially true when considering how each playable member receives new skills when exploring, some of which can drastically turn the tides in the realms of combative efficacy and welcoming convenience. For instance, one of Milady’s skills that can be learned in the Soul Matrix temporarily increases walking speed on the map, which is quite honestly a godsend when farming items, grinding, or doing whatever else.

Admittedly, I found the coloration and encompassed puzzle design across these collectively 15 floors to grow old after a while. Greater effort with differentiating their aesthetics based on the party member dungeon you were traversing would have been appreciated. Honestly speaking, these dungeons are probably where one will pay only half attention to the game in favor of listening to podcasts or the like due to their lengthy, grindy nature. Still, they shouldn’t look identical and contain the same puzzle types.

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Demons, an inherent facet of the game, are found via reconnaissance and fusion, both of which are elementary tasks. The former is essentially a passive mechanic that automatically happens whenever entering a dungeon. The party’s Demons, the true key players of combat here, explore the vicinity and can provide numerous benefits when found and interacted with. For instance, rare materials for upgrading can be found, and other Demons can often be recruited. Each party member will also equip a demon, which ultimately determines their skillsets and elemental affinities.

Additionally, unlike other Megami Tensei entries, acquiring Demons is far less rng-centric. While the Demons that appear to recruit are random, fulfilling their demands always results in them joining you. They can not run away after you hand over what they desire either, so there’s a serene lack of frustration present here that acted as a legitimate game-changer for me.

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My primary turn-off in a decent chunk of the other Megami Tensei entries I’ve played has been rooted in how Demon recruitment is more of a dice roll than anything else due to how they can still flee after being provided items and also having dialogue responses that don’t matter. Those aspects have always weakened my motivation to complete the Compendium and even play as a whole.

Thankfully, Soul Hackers 2 ditches those design choices in favor of a drastically more gratifying, well-meaning approach that was consistently addicting to wholeheartedly embrace. Fusion is also present to fill out your Demon roster with several search criteria allowing for transpicuous conclusions. Further, demons that act as fusion materials but aren’t present in your active party can be summoned from the Compendium if registered and at a cost for rapid no-nonsense activity.

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However, it quickly becomes evident that Demons all only share a few generalized personality traits, as shown by their dialogue. Now, since negotiation is solely dependent on request fulfillment rather than dialogue options, the lack of personality types isn’t a practical issue. Still, it does sap the potential identity several of these Demons could have otherwise had. Expecting each creature to speak and act uniquely would maybe be too much to ask, but at least a few more types of lines when speaking to them would have gone a long way in helping their arrivals be distinct.

Regarding combat, Soul Hackers 2 will definitely cater to those inexperienced with more complicated turn-based games, as this direction is relatively standard. Typical turn-based traits are present here, such as status effects, turn speed, buffs, debuffs, and more. Nothing in actual combat really requires much of a breakdown aside from the Stacking system, which takes effect when striking enemy weaknesses and the like. A counter on the screen’s top right counts how many Stacks have resulted per the players’ turns, and once their actions have concluded, a Sabbath takes place where all foes suffer intense damage.

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Well, it’s only intense if the Stack count is notably high. Lower numbers merely equate to meager damage unless you’re facing lower-leveled enemies. Some Demons even learn skills that can be manually triggered during Sabbaths, such as absorbing health or dealing increased damage. Despite this mechanic’s simplicity, it continually provides satisfying feats to reach. Each character’s weapon, their COMP, can also be upgraded at a Smith, where various stat increases and abilities can be learned. Most of the materials for these enhancements are usually obtained via standard progression, so COMP upgrading can be perceived as a rewarding stream of benefits for simply playing the game. The gradual power scale derived from COMP empowerment is appreciative, as it makes each step forward feel like a notable breakthrough.

The overworld also deserves mention, though one of its only practical purposes arises from housing various vendors. From the numerous meals one can purchase to temporarily heighten stats to the consumables that can restore health and inflict harm, there are countless items to spend currency on. Still, the Compendium is probably where much of your money will go if you’re yearning to be as up-to-date with Demons as possible. Requests can also be obtained, primarily from the town, and they comprise straightforward busywork that is usually transparent though still requires active exploration. I mostly enjoyed the Quests since they were typically varied enough and not that out of the way to feel sufficient.

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Unfortunately, when navigating, Figue can be somewhat annoying. She has constant voice lines for whenever an enemy spots Ringo and starts chasing her, as well as if they’re even in the vicinity. Her lines can rapidly overlap, especially in the more minuscule rooms where spawning and despawning can occur in the blink of an eye. I do sincerely hope that a patch addresses the frequency of Figue’s navigation lines since I can easily see many players being turned off by it. Speaking of patches, a launch one will let players adjust the camera during exploration, so it isn’t as zoomed in onto Ringo’s backside. To be honest, I quickly grew used to the camera angle, and it never really bothered me, but alteration options will be present for those more vexed by it.

When it comes to configuration, the PlayStation 5 version, and presumably the Xbox Series X|S iterations, have Performance and Graphical modes. Considering this is turn-based, the latter option should be what you go with if possible since this title does not highly benefit from frame-perfect inputs. The preemptive strikes on the overworld are rather generous. Plus, some dungeons and particular town areas look gorgeous, so I recommend sticking with the increased graphical fidelity if possible.

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Veteran Megami Tensei fans more accustomed to the previous hardcore titles likely won’t find much enjoyment with this entry, as the difficulty is rather approachable, even on Hard. Unfortunately, since DLC was not granted prior to release, I can’t comment on how the Very Hard mode operates, but it’s worth looking into if you’re truly yearning for a beefy challenge.

Soul Hackers 2 excels at telling a captivating narrative with stellar characterization, dialogue, and English voicework with on-the-mark delivery. Further, its addictive gameplay loop and rewarding combat systems are consistently refreshing. Even when accounting for how the Soul Matrix dungeons lack aesthetical and puzzle evolution, they don’t significantly hamper the experience.

Regardless of potential differences in taste, I can confidently assert that Soul Hackers 2 weaves a magnificent tale of sincere humane understanding where strife, love, and belief wondrously coalesce. It isn’t afraid to agonize its cast to produce respective, varying levels of catharsis, ultimately crafting a courageous title at the apex of Atlus’ catalog.

Score:
9/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.