A rap battle is the last thing you’d expect to see happen in a JRPG.
Yet there I was in an abandoned shipyard spitting straight fire as an artificial being clad in the coolest jacket in the universe, complete with pulsing neon panels and a fur-lined hood.
Moments like this are when Soul Hackers 2 shines brightest, spotlighting its unique characters like protagonist Ringo. Her obsession with experiencing human culture makes her inquisitive but prone to jumping headfirst into danger. She has an earnest nature that is so charming you can’t help but fall in love. Yet as the story progresses, these high points become few and far between, leaving only the fond memory of telling an enemy to “take the L”.
The latest JRPG from Persona developer Atlus, Soul Hackers 2 is a sequel to the 25-year-old game Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. To differentiate itself from the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series that share much of the same DNA, Soul Hackers 2 trims too many systems leaving only a bare-bones experience. While the game world is dripping in cyberpunk style, and the characters are a breath of fresh air in an Atlus game, the lack of diversity in gameplay leaves Soul Hackers 2 feeling eerily empty.
All grown up
This is not a Persona game. There are no high schools or school uniforms in sight. In its place are bars that serve alcohol! Soul Hackers 2 is a game about adults, with an entire cast who never once have to worry about taking an exam.
You play as Ringo, an agent of the artificial intelligence hivemind Aion, sent into the human world to investigate visions of the world’s impending doom. Teaming up with Devil Summoners, members of an underground world locked in a war as old as Earth itself, your job is to prevent the apocalypse at the hands of the man in the iron mask.
Every character in Soul Hackers 2 has the potential to be great, but the opportunities given to the player to engage with Arrow, Saizo, Milady, and Figue are lackluster. Social links, the system in Persona that allows the player to effectively go on dates with their party members, have been taken away. Ringo can still go to the local bar to hang out with a character of her choosing, and while these little scenes allow room for the characters and their relationships to grow, there’s no meaningful gameplay reward involved.
You just sort of chill for a bit.
The investigation into the apocalypse and the attempts to stop it are serviceable enough to keep players moving through the game’s speedy runtime of under 25 hours. But story twists are far too predictable, and you never get the chance to fully explore what defines the identity of each character. The saving grace is Ringo, who breaks the SMT tradition of silent protagonists to extortionary effect. She is filled with personality that acts as the Soul Hackers 2’s glimmering piece of hope.
No meat on the bone
The moment-to-moment combat of Soul Hackers 2 will be familiar to anyone who has played a modern SMT or Persona game. Apart from small tweaks, Soul Hackers 2 essentially implements the Press Turn system. The key to battle is the use of the stacking mechanic, which effectively works like Persona 5’s all-out attacks. By exploiting enemy weaknesses, Ringo can execute a powerful attack at the end of every turn that scales based on how many times an enemy’s weakness was hit correctly. Yet this is where Soul Hackers 2 begins to simplify things in hopes of making the game easier for newcomers: enemy demons can also exploit weaknesses but are not capable of executing stack attacks at the end of their round.
Negotiation with enemies has also been stripped of Soul Hackers 2. In its place is a mechanic through which your demons will recruit other demons in dungeons as you explore. Like SMT and Persona collecting demons allows the player to fuse them into more powerful demons. But these tweaks make gameplay simplistic from moment to moment. The need to strategize and equip party members with the most optimal accessories and demons falls to the side in favor of pure leveling and exploiting weaknesses.
While there is something satisfying about pulling off a high stack attack that wipes out enemies in one move, this quickly becomes mindless fair when grinding through Soul Hackers 2’s few dungeons. Most of your time will be spent in a shipping yard, office building, abandoned subway, or the game’s Soul Matrixes. These digital representations of your party members' minds are optional dungeons that allow you to earn more upgrades and insights into their personal stories. These dungeons lack diverse design and become so monotonous that they all blend into one homogonous blob
A cloud constantly hangs over Soul Hackers 2: every Atlus game that came before it. By billing this title as a sequel to Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, there is an expectation that it will contain some elements from the game. Beyond a loose reference to certain organizations and a general cyberpunk aesthetic, the ties between Soul Hackers 2 and the original are basically nonexistent. The original Soul Hackers was incredibly prescient in its story of tech corporations manipulating and abusing the power they held over people, as well as a game that contained interesting riffs on the demon management systems of SMT.
Soul Hackers 2 may also act as a great entry point into Atlus RPGs for the uninitiated. With its shortened playtime and streamlined gameplay systems, it offers itself up as a gateway in for anyone who heard how good Persona 5 is but couldn’t bear the idea of spending 100+ hours on a game. But in this attempt to make a lean product with no fat, Atlus has cut off more than was necessary. Long-time SMT fans may find it lacking. Yet newcomers might also be turned off by this game’s repetitive grind.
The market for a shorter Persona experience is there; Not everyone has the time to sink so much time into a single game. Even for fans of the franchise, the idea of experiencing everything Persona offers in the span of a couple of weekends sounds like heaven in a world where an array of games demand our attention. But Soul Hackers 2’s attempt to deliver a palatable streamlined experience for anyone and everyone should have taken more time to do some soul searching.
Soul Hackers 2 will release on August 26th, 2022, for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.