Soul Hackers was not a subseries in the Shin Megami Tensei pantheon I was expecting to come back, yet here we are. While the upcoming sequel bears the namesake of the decades-old sci-fi RPG spinoff, Soul Hackers 2 works with a clean slate. The only thing I’d expect is for it to usher in that same mix of high-tech cyberpunk and supernatural devil summoning for a new era with SMT’s signature style.
Soul Hackers 2 immediately jumped to the top of my most anticipated games list upon its announcement — anything in the SMT lineage gets me genuinely hyped up. And so, I’ve been playing the game on PlayStation 5 ahead of its August 26 release, but after about eight hours in, I’m not quite sold on it yet. To put it plainly, Soul Hackers 2 comes across as a by-the-numbers, textbook-style RPG at its core.
The Setup of Soul Hackers 2
Ringo, who’s the physical embodiment of the powerful omniscient AI called Aion, takes center stage. She has a companion named Figue, and they’re both cool-looking anime girls created to prevent an apocalypse seen in Aion’s premonition. There’s a shady dude hunting specific people who contain a “covenant” in their soul, and these are assumed to be necessary to initiate the apocalypse.
Very quickly you assemble a party of four with characters who have various stakes in the struggle, all of whom were brought back to life by Ringo’s “soul hacking” ability. When that person gets resurrected, Ringo peers into their thoughts and feelings leading up to the moment they died. It’s as if they have a moment of clarity and reflection, affecting their outlook as they get a literal second chance at life. It gives them a renewed will to fight as Ringo bestows her vision unto them.
(If you’re an SMT diehard familiar with the Devil Summoner subseries, you’ll be treated to some neat references and lore continuity along the way as well. If not, you’ll be fine since prior knowledge is not essential.)
Getting the Soul Hacked Out
That all sounds pretty damn cool, on paper. The problem I’m finding is that Soul Hackers 2 doesn’t take the time to earn these emotional plays. Too soon does it jump the gun, trying to win my heart before giving me reasons to care. I get what these moments are going for, but when they’re presented in a very matter-of-fact way and without taking the time to develop personality, it undersells its premise.
There’s still time for them to win me over, but I can’t help but feel the story and characters have already shown their hands. While I can appreciate the expedited process of getting me into the mix of things, it rushed to establish a formula for the story to play out, forgoing some all-important build up.
I am seeing snippets of its potential, however. There are some light social elements where you catch up with party members over a drink to ponder life and the state of the world. With Soul Hackers 2 taking place in a world reflective of our own with adult characters at the forefront, the mature tone of these conversations is something I’ve been yearning to see in an Atlus RPG. These haven’t been particularly nuanced so far, but acknowledging the follies of a world beholden to rampant capitalism, societal stagnation, crime, technology, and devil summoning creates an intriguing context.
Maybe Soul Hackers 2 is on the cusp of something great. I do like Ringo as a lead, and I can see signs of something interesting beneath the surface of the game’s characters in the early hours. I’d hope that’s the case as its narrative develops. However, there’s another aspect of the game compounding its early shortcomings – a limited sense of exploration.
Making the Least of the Soul Hackers World
Some of the environments that make up this neo-Tokyo are visually stunning. Bright neon lights flood the backdrops in the few hub locations you visit, and the vivid colors across the cityscape leave you eager to take part in this game world. The cyberpunk aesthetic mixed with SMT demons openly roaming around the world makes for a striking contrast. And I keep imagining the possibilities of what could be within this alluring rendition of the bustling city. But it’s only a tease.
There just isn’t much in these hub areas aside from shops and a few NPCs for sidequests, they’re simply small areas to walk along, accessed in an overworld map menu. This leaves a lot to be desired, especially when one of these first locations is the in-world stand-in for Shinjuku’s Kabukicho, a lively and seedy red-light district.
Your intro to this area pans over the iconic red sign and the storefront of a Don Quijote. But when you’re start moving around in this area, you quickly realize it funnels you along one narrow sidewalk with a few shops. This is indicative of the rest of the game’s areas; a veneer of an expansive city without much to offer. That feeling extends to the dungeon crawling aspect, too.
When it comes down to the dungeon crawling, Soul Hackers 2 has come up short so far. An empty shipyard is the first area you fight through, and it works as a prologue, establishing characters and setting up the story. I wasn’t too concerned with this being rather barebones as it was just the start of the game.
But the next opportunity to go dungeon crawling is in what’s called the Soul Matrix, which are segmented dungeon floors in an alternate dimension to represent a character’s subconscious. Think of it as Mementos from Persona 5 but a lot less interesting. The Soul Matrix is largely made up of barren mazes in an uninspired cyberscape. Enemies pop up along the path at random as digitized anomalies who become demons in battle. And you just keep trucking along the right path until you get to a miniboss.
Conceptually, the Soul Matrix is fascinating. The more you advance in the story and build social reputation with a character, the more you can uncover about them in their Soul Matrix. It could’ve been some fun gameplay filler, too, if not for the blandness of its design and formula.
Shin Megami Tensei Combat Remains Sweet
One thing that remains solid and consistent is that sweet, familiar turn-based combat system. Soul Hackers 2 uses the foundation of demon collecting, elemental affinities, and strategically using turns to exploit weaknesses and gain the upper hand on your enemies. The puzzle-like nature of SMT-style combat still has its hooks in me.
Rather than trying to set up all-out attacks or rack up extra turns, you build up what are simply called Stacks by hitting enemy weaknesses. At the end of your turn, Ringo initiates a Sabbath attack to lay down extra damage depending on the number of Stacks you accumulated. This system encourages you to be aggressive and tweaks just enough to create a new wrinkle in a time-tested formula.
Those familiar SMT demons fill up the compendium and the system of demon fusion returns as well. The demonic take on Pokemon-like collection and progression hasn’t lost its luster. With each character being a devil summoner, you pair each of them with a demon to dictates their abilities in combat. You can further build your party with buffs and perks by upgrading their COMP, their weapon that allows them to summon demons in the first place. As an RPG nerd, I still find these kinds of systems enjoyable and comfortable, especially in challenging fights against imposing bosses.
The thing I find lacking is the way you obtain new demons outside of fusion. As you explore dungeons, you’ll find your own demons hanging out in various spots. You just have to be lucky that one of them offers the services of a new demon when talking to them in the dungeon. You won’t find demon negotiations in combat, which is mildly disappointing.
After 8 Hours In, I’m Still Looking for Its Soul
Overall, Soul Hackers 2 is a scaled-down version of an RPG within the Atlus framework. Its dungeon-crawling, storytelling, and worldbuilding are all missing the spirit that makes SMT truly unique and the Devil Summoner branch stand out. In contrast to other Atlus games, Soul Hackers 2 feels generic so far, and I’m having a hard time picking up what it’s putting down.
I often think about why other Atlus joints hit me so hard and leave impactful first impressions. Their ability to draw me in with its atmosphere, attitude, and style create memorable experiences. They invite curiosity from the jump with intriguing mysteries, distinct characterizations, or worlds you just want to explore. And many of those games pull you in with a badass, iconic moment to sell you on a wild premise.
Persona 3’s first summoning with an Evoker, Persona 5’s casino heist opening, making the deal with Dagda in SMT IV: Apocalypse, fighting Nuwa the first time in SMT V – I remember all these moments vividly, because that’s when they grabbed me and never let me go. I can’t really point to anything in Soul Hackers 2 like that quite yet, and the game has already shown its cards.
I’ve played plenty of games where I have to do the old “it gets good after X hours” caveat when recommending it; some of my all-time favorites included. Hell, just last year, I wasn’t sure if I liked SMT V until about the eight hour mark, and now I’m out here telling everyone it fucking rips. I hope Soul Hackers 2 is another case like that. Because through my early hours with the game, I see a lot of potential to revive the sci-fi branch of SMT, and I’d like to see it fulfilled.
I’m not going to write it off after only playing through what’s presumably a fraction of the game, but I am waiting for that moment that boldly grabs me to tell me I’m in for a wild ride. I’ll have more to say as we get closer to the full release of Soul Hackers 2 on PS4/PS5, Xbox consoles, and PC on August 26, 2022.