Welcome to Save State, where we hack your soul but only with your consent. In the last couple weeks, I stumbled upon a much newer release than we usually talk about in this column called Soul Hackers 2. The first game was one I had purchased on the 3DS eShop many a year ago, and I enjoyed it immensely as I do anything with the Devil Survivor title from Atlus. While I had a Sega Saturn as a kid, I was woefully unequipped to understand Japanese, so I never played the first Soul Hackers until it was localized on the 3DS. Considering it takes very little to make me excited about the most Japanese of games, I dived into Soul Hackers 2 headfirst, ready to soak up the cyberpunk atmosphere.
Soul Hackers 2 starts off pretty solemnly- a kind of all-knowing superintelligence creates a body to help save humanity. In this anime cyberpunk storyline, the superintelligence god manifests into a physical body in the form of two anime girls, Ringo and Figue. The visual design of Soul Hackers 2 is extremely striking and will likely make an immediate impact on the player as you watch Ringo and Figue rush to save some people related to some kind of Minority Report style future disaster, only to discover that the people they needed to protect were already dead.
So, Ringo hacks the souls of the dead people she comes across, literally brings them back to life, and somehow finds herself in control of the demon summoning powers of her new compatriots. Soul Hackers 2 takes the name Soul Hacker very, very seriously this time around. Ringo is one of the best examples of a funny, sarcastic central character. Arrow and Milady’s rivalry and camaraderie make them immediately endearing, and Saizo, who is more aloof than the other characters, at first, eventually breaks out of his façade as the game continues.
The three people Ringo saves from death join her in preventing the upcoming disaster, and the player is able to take all the various demons you can negotiate into joining you and divvy them up across the team as you desire. While this does afford a good amount of customization, it seems almost sad that the demons for which the Shin Megami Tensei series is so well known are now basically just weapon and job slots on each character. You can freely customize demons by negotiating to add new ones to your team, or, once you’re done with them, you can fuse them into new beings, providing new power and options at your disposal.
For the most part, players of Soul Hackers 2 will take control of Ringo and company, listening to dialogue, completing side quests, and venturing through various simple dungeons to fight bosses, find items, or defeat certain numbers of varying demons. The Soul Matrix, a dungeon that Ringo explores to learn more about each party member, is probably closer in relation to something like Tartarus or Mementos from Persona 3 and 5, respectively. For the most part, if you’ve played any other JRPG, you’re well equipped to understand what’s expected from you in Soul Hackers 2.
The combat system is usually where Shin Megami Tensei games lose a lot of people, but Soul Hackers 2 dramatically simplified things, likely to bring in new fans. As mentioned previously, each of the four characters in Ringo’s group can wield a single demon at a time, which determines what attacks you have access to and what elements you’re weak to. In previous MegaTen games, like Nocturne or V, the Press Turn system ensured exploitable weaknesses could quickly lead to your entire team being swept by the enemies getting free turns, but Soul Hackers 2 doesn’t utilize the Press Turn system at all.
Instead, striking a weakness against an enemy will leave a shadow of your demon that will give you free damage at the end of your turn via the Sabbath attack mechanic. Sabbath is a dramatically simplified version of Demon Co-Op from SMT: Strange Journey. Effectively, hitting a weakness builds up a Sabbath stock, and at end of turn Ringo automatically expends those stocks and deals extra damage to your foes. Sabbath makes Soul Hackers 2 a lot more welcoming for newer JRPG players, because making a single mistake probably won’t create the downward spiral that more seasoned MegaTen players have likely experienced while playing something like Nocturne. Besides that, there are features you unlock as you progress through the game that will allow you to further optimize your damage, so more experienced players will still be able to use the Commander Skills to clear battles quickly and efficiently.
I’ve always felt that Persona 5’s palaces were quite long in the tooth, and if you felt the same, you might enjoy Soul Hackers 2’s more brisk romps through cyberpunk settings. You’ll still spend a considerable amount of your time in this game dungeoneering, but the dungeons themselves are more straightforward lacking a lot of the puzzles you’d find in something like Tokyo Mirage Sessions. The locations you traipse through in Soul Hackers 2 are a lot shorter in comparison, thank goodness, given Ringo’s slow move speed!
The visuals of Soul Hackers 2 are beautifully designed and gorgeously lit. The character models and environments all have a hyper-stylized, neon cyberpunk aesthetic that is sold to the player quite soundly, and the soundtrack is a great match for the graphics. The expressive use of color palette and well-designed characters makes for a lot of enjoyment from beginning to end. This is one of the best looking games Atlus has produced, at least from an art and visual design standpoint.
Unlike what many Shin Megami Tensei players would expect, demon negotiations aren’t done in-battle with the prospective recruit. Instead, in Soul Hackers 2, Ringo sends out some of her demons to scout the dungeon, and those aforementioned demons will pop up here and there as you explore. When you come upon the scouts, they’ll offer you items, restore your health, or maybe even show a demon open to being recruited. This usually puts acquisition of new demons as something in the background, which isn’t all that bad, but there were occasions when I wanted to get a specific demon from a specific dungeon and the scouts kept showing me demons I already had, wasting the opportunity due to poor RNG.
If there was any one thing I could have made the developers change by default, though, it would have been to increase Ringo’s move speed by at least 50% before shipping the game. There is an ability you get later in the game to make her move faster while exploring, but for some strange reason, it’s a skill you need to activate from the menu. The movement boosting ability isn’t a passive that’s just active all the time because it’s a skill that costs 10MP (which is practically nothing), which means, should you unlock it, you’ll be spending quite a lot of time in menus re-activating this ability.
Speaking of Ringo’s movement, there is one funny design flaw in the PC port of Soul Hackers 2, created directly by the way in which the developers tied Ringo’s movement speed to frame rate. Having your frame rate set to Unlimited in settings will produce weird situations where Ringo moves as if she’s playing exclusively in ice stages in a 3D platformer. You’ll accelerate extremely slowly, and then slide to a very unnatural stop after multiple seconds- it’s patently awful, so make sure you cap your frame rate at 60 to avoid this problem. Beyond that issue, however, the PC port of Soul Hackers run like butter, and even runs well on a Steam Deck, should that information be of importance to you.
All that being said, though, Soul Hackers 2 is a great time. It’s a lot more of a typical JRPG than what else you’d see in the MegaTen pantheon, which makes this game significantly more approachable for newcomers to the series.
So, if you thought Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne or V were just too difficult to complete, Soul Hackers 2 might be right at your speed. If you’re an experienced MegaTen veteran, however, I’d definitely recommend starting Soul Hackers 2 on hard mode, because I found my team at very little risk in normal mode for basically my entire playthrough. Soul Hackers 2 seems to be a title that, by virtue of how streamlined it is, will be a lot more appealing to those looking for an above average JRPG in a striking visual style.
That said, I think it’s about time to hack the soul of this column, because this week’s entry is all sorts of done. Join us again in a couple weeks where I may let you in on the ingredients for my secret sauce.