During the preview phase of Soul Hackers 2, I wrote about how the first eight hours struggled to capture my attention. I saw potential in its world and characters but was left unimpressed by the generic narrative setup, limited exploration, and bland dungeons. And I’m unhappy to report that after about 25 hours, my sentiments have not changed. In fact, the disappointment has only grown.
As a Shin Megami Tensei and Persona diehard, I really want to like Soul Hackers 2. Revisiting the cyberpunk-style take on SMT’s devil summoning foundation after all these years seemed like a slam dunk, on paper. Coming hot off bangers like Persona 5 Royal and Shin Megami Tensei V, you’d have every reason to believe Atlus had another one on deck.
To put it plainly, Soul Hackers 2’s woefully uninspired level design and shallow storytelling have riddled the experience, leaving an unremarkable impression. It has tried so hard to establish a personality without laying the necessary groundwork to draw you in. And with a story that comes off like a first draft that didn’t have time to get punched up, its characters and premise suffer as a result.
Even if the core SMT-style combat system is still solid with its own fun twists, it’s not enough to carry all the weight. I’d argue that it’s always been about the things surrounding combat that have elevated SMT games beyond the sea of RPGs out there. Unfortunately, that’s what Soul Hackers 2 is sorely lacking.
Dungeons are Draggin’
I’ve gotten quite tired of trudging my way through empty corridors, subway tunnels, and hallways for the sake of dungeon crawling and progression. It’s perplexing how barren and plainly designed these environments are for a game that wants to convince you of its personality and style. The dazzling neon-lit backdrops of its few hub areas are a façade, because you spend a large majority of your time jogging along soulless mazes that have nothing to say about its world.
Take the Soul Matrix, for example. It’s an ever-growing series of dungeon floors that represent the psyche of the main characters. As you get further in the story and earn better social standing with them, the more it opens up. This would be cool if each floor didn’t look like it was built inside a PlayStation 2 boot up screen and made up with those blocks representing memory card space. After nine floors of tedious exploration for a snippet of basic character backstory, I dread the thought of having to keep doing this.
But alas, the main story eventually sends you to the Soul Matrix without a neat gimmick or design change to mix things up. After slogging through subway tunnels and an abandoned office building for the main story, my disappointment was immeasurable. It’s like a skeleton of something that could’ve been great, but that’s all it really is – a skeleton.
The SMT games of yore, which may be dated by today’s standards, featured distinct and deranged atmospheres that drew you into their respective worlds. In the ruins of a post-apocalyptic world, the state of humanity and the dread of demonic oppression weighed heavily on you. The very design of these environments were part and parcel of each game’s world-building and struck you without having to say much. Soul Hackers 2 is devoid of these core concepts. The spirit just isn’t there.
Through each floor of the Soul Matrix and main story dungeon, the same simple background tracks keep playing, too. I can at least wish for some jams to help me carry on, but it’s yet another way in which Soul Hackers 2 has let me down. Considering the pedigree of Keiichi Okabe (composer for the NieR games) and the storied history of Atlus Sound Team, the few decent parts of the soundtrack still leave much to be desired.
A Story Without Soul
In my aforementioned preview, I mentioned not being hooked by the story’s initial setup and the characters’ first impressions. But the idea of adult characters navigating the schemes of a devil-summoning underworld is intriguing. Ringo as a fully-voiced protagonist who looks cool as hell gave me some faith. And a few of the Social Link-style conversations you can have with characters over a beer at the rooftop bar showed promise with a touch of maturity or nuance.
This deep into the game, however, its attempts at evoking emotions often feel forced. The cliched tragic backstories are glossed over and the unearned drama thereafter sells character motivations short. Soul Hackers 2’s elementary writing style is lacking weight, consequence, and a sense of earnestness.
Dialogue is too concerned with you missing the big idea that it has to have characters talk to themselves or often over-explain things through dull exchanges, even in seemingly critical moments. But what’s most offending is that the core conflict for each character has been rather unconvincing. The game doesn’t spend the time or effort developing these conflicts, and oddly resolves them shortly after just barely scratching the surface.
Like, why is everyone’s former best friend or partner trying to kill them? Because that’s the way the world works or because they’re working for “the other side,” apparently. Soul Hackers 2 is constantly trying to tell rather than show, yet it does a lot of talking without saying much at all.
The broader conflict at hand has to do with these color-coded “covenants,” the game’s set of MacGuffins. Devil summoners are fighting over these things, and the story’s only context is that they live inside people’s souls and whoever collects them all can destroy the world. The covenants don’t necessarily carry any meaning in and of themselves, and seem to only exist to conveniently carry the plot along. And it’s just silly hearing these characters trying to explain covenants and their nonsensical intricacies to one another. A few lines of dialogue have cheeky, self-aware pokes that almost makes it feel as if the game knows it’s trying too hard.
I don’t really know what it is these characters are fighting for. Yes, I understand the fate of the world is at stake because the big bad guy wants to destroy it, yet I can’t help constantly asking myself: but why, though? I’m not convinced these characters know either.
Where Does This Leave Soul Hackers 2?
Every Atlus RPG has its hook. Mainline SMT has its dark, post-apocalypse and broad philosophical strokes. Persona has its unforgettable stories, characters, and music. If you want to give Etrian Odyssey a shout, talk about some good old-school dungeon crawling. What does Soul Hackers 2 have? I don’t know, but the cyberpunk/sci-fi twist alone isn’t enough.
There are games that I love that take time to open up and realize its full potential. But even those games show signs of greatness in the early goings. I’m struggling to find redeeming qualities in Soul Hackers 2 after 25 hours. And that’s plenty of time for a game to make its mark.
Am I going to see this game through? Yeah, I’ll finish it. If anything, I’m driven by the curiosity of whether or not it can turn the corner before the conclusion. However, when I’m consistently seeing signs of an uninspired RPG hour after hour, I’d say that my faith is wearing thin.