Review | Soul Hackers 2
"Turn-based JRPGs are on the right track to return their former glory (which they never lost, if you ask me). Atlus knows how to create good combat systems, and they certainly know who to hire for English voice-overs, alongside with creative assembly behind the music. "
I'm having issues with calculating years from previous games in some franchise. For example, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers was released in 1997., and that was… 25 years ago. It’s just wonderful how some games started more than 2 decades ago. It’s definitely a good thing knowing and witnessing the rebirth of some series, especially when we talk about turn-based JRPG genre.
After playing Persona 5 I’ve told to myself that not a single Atlus game will go unnoticed. I’m really glad that I’ve picked up Soul Hackers 2 - a direct sequel to mentioned title, released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on 26th of August. You don’t have to play the first game in order to understand the story here; don’t worry, you can grasp the story here as a standalone package. Having that said, let’s dig in.
Welcome to Soul Hacking - a new discipline in a not so distant future. I wish someone hacks my soul so I can go on a journey. Maybe in Soul Hackers 3 Atlus?
I enjoy a good turn-based JRPG, that’s not a secret. I even enjoy lousy turn-based JRPGs. Turn-based RPG as a genre had a really rough past period. Most of the games tried action-oriented approach instead of turn-based, calling the latter archaic, ancient and whatnot. I strongly disagree on that thesis, I think turn-based games with a lot of RPG mechanics tend to be much more complicated than the action-based games in terms of using your brain. I love to calculate my attributes, customize skills, and equip different combinations that will boost me in a certain direction… A good turn-based game needs to perfect all of the mentioned and make it scalable so the player can enjoy usually 40+ hour games. It’s not easy, and it’s complicated to provide both challenge and enjoyment without the frustration.
Soul Hackers 2 is a brilliant representation of the genre in all of its aspect, minus the dungeon design. The game follows two artificially created “Aion” beings Ringo and Figue, who descend into the human world from their birthplace in the data stream of information, in order to avert a cataclysmic event that they predict will doom humanity. They lack emotions and certain human factors, but that is something that will brand this journey altogether. Hackers possess special abilities, one of which is the soul hacking (awesome stuff!).
Story takes place in the 21st century and is set during a war between the Yatagarasu and the Phantom Society, two opposing factions of Devil Summoners (which are basically humans with skills to call demons in their aid). Both sides are a bit radical, and of course you will find yourself in the middle of it, the reason being that the artificial intelligence “Aion” predicts the end of the world as we know it. I’m fully satisfied with the main story, I believe it’s strong, well-written, and acted on a high quality scale. I was never bored, nor did I notice any pacing issues. You can just do the story and spend around 25 hours, it will not disappoint you for sure.
Teammates are a strong base for a successful game, in terms of them being not irritating. They aren't, at all, and they like to eat (well, who doesn't when you see a table full of food). Explore their Soul Matrix and get to know them, it's worth it.
The whole idea with demon summoning and soul hacking is put in the right place. Ringo, Figue, Arrow, Milady and Saizo (main cast) is one of the most loving party I’ve had the honour of controlling. I must give praises to awesome English voiceovers, Atlus just proves that their games have one of the best voiceovers in gaming industry. Their games such as Catherine, Persona 5 – they are really satisfying to listen to.
I love the worlds in Atlus games. They represent some kind of alternate reality where you have Tokyo (not here though!), but it’s much different. Here we have Karakucho (Kamarucho anyone?!), and it is just lovely. I have to say that I miss more towns, more locations. Every town is unique, NPCs have good scripts, but when you finish the tutorial part of the game, you’ve mostly unlocked everything. It’s not a big problem as the main focus is on the characters and the plot, and you have a Safehouse where the team cooks, talks, sleeps… Most of the time you will spend there, and digging through your teammates souls (not literally, but yes, literally).
Remember that you can soul hack? When Ringo hacks someone’s soul, she establish a strong soul connection, both through someone’s soul and mind. If she can cling onto something in someone’s soul, she can even revive a person. That is how you form your party, and that is how the Soul Matrix dungeon is presented to us. Soul Matrix is a place where Aion stores all the information about the world, giving you the access to your teammate’s soul dungeons where you can learn more about them, unlock more passive support battle skills, map skills and much more. I absolutely loved the team. The dungeons on the other hand… Worst aspect of the whole game, especially 5 floors of the Soul Matrix. They are basic linear dungeons, unnecessarily confusing after the third floor. You can’t even complete the whole dungeon in your first playthrough, so the NG+ run means you have to do them all over again (but you can carry over the map, whoa, what a waste of bonus). Terrible idea, terrible, since they are the most boring dungeons I’ve witnessed in a long time. Also, by the time you enter the last floor you will be so strong, making exploration worthless, and fights too easy. Beating Soul Matrix comes after everything else, and by that time there are no more challenges for you. I wish there were 4 floors, that way you could’ve do them during one playthrough.
Do you see the difference in details when you look at town design, and the dungeon design? I guess I can be happy becaouse we even got some dungeons where we can freely move, but they are just lame. If it wasn't for the combat, I would grade the game less.
It’s not that only the optional dungeons are bad, the main ones also are. They are mediocre at best. I can’t honestly remember any reason to re-visit them other than hunting for some demons to join your rooster, or if some request requires you too. When I was playing the game for the second time I loved the additional hangout events with your party, I even watched some scenes again, but the dungeons are a downside.
So, what’s here actually good then? The combat. Oh. My. God. The Combat. It’s still not SMT V quality, but it’s close, and a bit different. Everything evolves around your rooster of demons. They all have their weaknesses and strong elements, and that you need to use in a combat. When it’s your turn you need to make sure to inflict as much weakness strikes you can. That way you accumulate Soul points, which ultimately triggers a Sabbath special attack at the end of your turn. That is something new, and really freakin’ great. The more points you add up, the bigger damage boost you do. For example, you know you can only deplete part of the enemy’s HP, but you can stack soul points and Sabbath attack will finish them. Also, higher level demons comes with Sabbath special skills that can trigger, so you can heal or make more damage. That leaves so much space on your combat approach, you can risk it, you can play defensive; it’s on you, and the combat never felt dull in 62 hours I put in the game. Let me also just praise the HUD in a combat – so natural, so easy to use. Great design.
Another thing to point out are the Commander skills and COMP upgrades. Commander skills are special skills that Ringo can unlock and use in a combat. But, once you use the commander skill, you can’t for another few turns. For example, you can boost your Sabbath points, but once you spend that commander skill you must wait another 5 turns for it to reactivate. There are passive and active skills that you can unlock and use, and they give just enough tactics to an already fun, intelligent combat system. Completing floors in Soul Matrix dungeon can also add different support stacks to Sabbath points. And maybe the best reason to go through Soul Matrix is the fast run map skill. That is something this game miss a lot, considering you have to replay the game if you want to unlock everything, and if you remember the bad dungeon design… They should’ve added the fast run as a default method for a new game plus.
Boss fights are awesome, you can't just rush through. You need to think about what to do, when and how. It's all basic stuff for turn-based combat, and I love it here. There is not a single thing I would change, maybe just add more end-game challenges.
Upgrading your COMP (your weapons, and equipment slots) is a must. By defeating demons and talking to your demon allies in dungeons (they scout the place!) you earn materials needed for unlocking COMP upgrades. ATK + is good, but also unlocking more slots for augments will come in handy. There are also piercing skills that will ignore enemy absorbing the type of attack you end up using against.
Augment skills are filled with gifts you get from learning all skills for your demons. Since there are like 100 different demons to fuse, there are a lot of augment gifts you can get. These are good to enhance power of your elements, decrease MP needed to use them and something similar. There is even an exchange store where you can trade Mistiques to get different ones you maybe need more. Alongside with equipment that raise basic character attributes and grants certain buffs, the rest you gain by equipping demons to fight alongside of you.
Finally, they’ve added a Search function while fusing. Usually you have no idea when you fuse demons which one you will get, so you have to click and check. Since you can fuse demons on almost every level you gain, Search function which will offer you all combinations to get a certain demon is a welcome quality improvement. There will be a lot of calculations which skills to transfer to a new demon, but that is the beauty of Atlus games. It feels so good, yet I miss more new demons, I’ve seen them almost all in their past games already. And the idea to lock the best ones behind a paid DLC, alongside with some optional quests is not something I support (and they say these are the best quests in the game…).
Although mostly simple to its core, the micromanagment in this game fits. You can't overpower yourself easily, but every chunk of an upgrade will help a bit. Sometimes you just need to upgrade your demons to gain stronger skills or elements you maybe miss for some battles
Lastly, the side content. Request are fetchy, but they offer good writing. Some topics are hard-core, some are funny, but they all add to the overall vibe of the game. Divine requests in Soul Matrix on the other hand… Makes no sense, but I did liked the Target monster that will offer a certain challenge. Also, doing this opens up your characters further, and since I loved the cast, this was a cool touch.
You can also spend time on Hangout Events. They are like a bonding scenes where you learn more about your allies, gain soul points for Soul Matrix, and just relax. And yeah! Cooking. I forgot about cooking. Cooking provides different boosts, the best one being increasing the appearance rate of Risky enemies (Rare enemies gives money, Risky both money and a lot of EXP). Simple, but fun. If only game had more locations and better dungeon design, maybe they could’ve put this in a better use.
If you want you can play the game in graphics or performance mode, but they all work almost the same (stable and awesome). On the technical side the game shines brightly, I had 0 issues, 0 bugs, and the whole journey felt natural. The only problem was the camera distance, but they’ve fixed that on day 1. And the difficulty of the game can be modified whenever you want. Play on Normal, it’s the best experience. Hard is not much harder, honestly.
Loved the cast, loved the villains, love their stories, loved the plot, loved the different endings, love the themes that Atlus pulls in their games, love everything of this format and I really hope their next game will come soon, I just love what they do.
To sum things up: If you prefer exploration and dungeon design in front of combat and story; this game may not be for you. If you enjoy fusing demons, transferring skills, micromanaging your rooster in a turn-based combat delight, you love bonding with characters, read their stories and enjoy awesome music; this game is for you. I miss turn-based games with strong impact, and this one offered exactly that. If only they did more with the dungeons, that part drags the whole game down, and my final grade is a representation of that, plus a little bonus because it’s not often that we get such a good package of everything (apart from the dungeons). See you out there hackers!
"A great turn-based JRPG with a terrible dungeon design"
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