Over the years, the Shin Megami Tensei franchise had released several fantastic RPGs. The mixture of weirdness, style, depth, and narrative is an impressive combo, and one fan has grown to love it. Naturally, with any major franchise, the desire for spinoffs is high, each needing to find its voice. Persona absolutely accomplished that, arguably to the point where it eclipses the leading franchise. With Soul Hackers 2, the series tries to add its style to a relatively robust system. Given the history, it’s certainly possible, but with so many things that can go wrong, does it stick to landing?
Soul Hackers 2 starts with a brief prologue that introduces the cast of characters. Each follows the general loop of going to a location, finding out they’re dead, reviving them, and then confronting the person who did it that also has some kind of relationship with these characters. From there, the narrative splits into two distinct but not exactly different paths.
At the forefront is the conflict between players and Phantom Society, led by the mysterious Iron Mask. He, like a lot of RPG antagonists, wants to summon a mysterious force that will bring about the end. Naturally, he needs to be stopped before his plan comes together.
Between these segments are “optional” locations that give some background information on each of the characters. These sections, while supplemental, add a lot of background to the narrative. Out of the three, I would say Saizo has the most interesting journey, though each character has at least one stand-out moment.
Stack Attacks Look So Cool
Naturally, there are good and bad elements to this system. While it allows players a much deeper narrative, like found in Persona, with most of this being entirely optional, these sections are primarily needed to aid in leveling, along with the unlock mechanic being rather cumbersome. Instead of allowing players to experience these sections at the same rate as the story, players unlock them by doing optional events and giving specific statements during key story moments. So, even if you wanted to provide the answer relating to Arrow, it might be more advantageous to go with Milady due to the points it awards.
In addition to sometimes guiding narrative choices, it makes the experience feel somewhat bloated. Many of the optional things are time sinks, especially the further in the narrative you get. This stems from a couple of design choices, which are somewhat divisive.
So Many Ways to Get Lost
The images above show two different character dungeon maps. Each and every exclamation point teleports you to a separate section, though in later maps, the icon rarely indicated the actual direction. As a result, these sections feel rather tedious. Often one unit will send you backward, so it’s just a series of trying every portal until one eventually proves correct. It isn’t uncommon to spend just an hour or two doing that, with time increasing with the number of encounters you choose to do.
Similar things apply to the quests as well. Most of these involve some form of exploring a location for something. It might be a boss, sometimes it’s an NPC, a few times it’s something random, but whatever it is, there isn’t much guidance on its location. Typically they take place in the weird rooms you’ll likely find exploring the location the first time, with some of them requiring a fair amount of exploration to finally locate whatever the item is. They’re not bad per se, it just feels like the choice is there to pad time. Kind of like how some story sections require exploring an air duct since enemies will attack, and there is no way to avoid these encounters besides moving to the exit faster.
Truly Interesting Demon Designs
Interestingly enough, none of these things ruin Soul Hackers 2; they’re just part of a long series of great choices contrasted by inferior ones. This is probably best understood by looking at the gameplay itself.
Exploration is typical for a game in this genre. You control Ringo, randomly enemies and demons will spawn, which can be confronted for a battle or engaged for a reward (ally demon, HP/MP replenished, some kind of item, etc.). Attacking the generic enemy will knock it over and, if engaged, has a chance of giving players an early attack. Missing or just engaging normally can also have the opposite effect. Despite the generic design, any battle with an enemy needed for a quest will get a special icon, along with a color indicating the type of battle it will be.
During combat, I would say Soul Hackers 2 shines. While I don’t mention it in every RPG review, most games are straightforward. Generally speaking, you can finish them with enough power without much thought. Much like a child playing Pokemon, there isn’t much you can’t do with four attacks and six powerful monsters. This is not the case with Soul Hackers 2.
Unlike many games, Soul Hackers 2 makes the most of its affinity system by adding various effects. Depending on the demon, any of the eight attack types will have a different impact. These include being immune to it, reflecting the attack back, taking standard damage, and it being a weakness, with the best and worst, healing. These rules apply to both sides, so enemies will target the wrong person and give a free heal, and there is even a trophy/achievement for killing an enemy with reflect damage.
From here, enemy arrangements are intelligent and unforgiving. It’s extremely common to pair demons weak to one element with another that heals or reflects that same element. Given players need to figure this out anytime they encounter a new demon, it can be a frustrating rollercoaster of high damage and big heals.
Players must also be aware of these elements when changing their summons. Even if you find a more powerful demon, the range and variety of attacks will often beat minor stat differences. As a result, it makes fusion an invaluable resource, as certain demons can gain skills from the demons used to create it, making for some powerful allies. Unfortunately, long-term, this makes any demon found in the wild rather underwhelming until they’re leveled and fused into something more powerful.
Like everything else in Soul Hackers 2, this gets somewhat frustrating when bosses and other notable enemies are engaged. While these encounters start by ensuring you’re prepared, they often involve mechanics and elements you couldn’t possibly prepare for. Some of these include having a skill that allows them two actions every turn, additional protections, last-second summons with their cheap moves, and most optional bosses instantly killing everyone if they’re not defeated within a certain number of turns (typically like five). While some players will enjoy the challenge, which admittedly forced me to get creative, use buffs/debuffs and create a plan of attack, it’s never fun stepping into a fight you can’t win.
Soul Hackers 2 Review Verdict
In so many ways, my experience with Soul Hackers 2 is a battle of perfect ideas contrasted with relatively poor ones. The narrative is pretty interesting, though there are so many optional things between it you could spend hours exploring before making any progress. Fights are engaging, with the stack mechanic being a fascinating addition (specific attacks, conditions, skills, or a weakness create a stack, which allows various demons to perform an AoE attack after your turn), though many optional bosses simply feel cheap. Fusing demons allows for more diversity and some truly impressive allies, though it removes the thrill of recruiting a demon and blocks specific upgrade paths due to incompatible skills. Levels are big, with a lot to see, with many later levels feeling like a tedious time sink. It’s a hard battle, one that rewards certain players and alienates other players.
[Editor’s Note: Soul Hackers 2 was reviewed on PlayStation 5, and a copy was provided to us for review purposes.]