fter spending a not-so-insignificant time running around a nondescript, absolutely monotonous dungeon in Soul Hackers 2, furiously slashing through mobs in order to find not one, but three damn key cards, a single thought crossed through my mind: If I see one more office door, I’m going to scream.
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That’s what you should prepare yourself for if you play Soul Hackers 2: endless dark subways, office complexes that feel like corporate purgatory, and way too much time spent in these less-than-inspiring corridors. But in spite of such disappointing level design, Soul Hackers 2 has, well, a soul. Its story-telling ambition serves as a beating heart–gluten that holds together the game’s thin combat encounters and creates something worth playing.
Though Soul Hackers can be played standalone, it is a game best understood in conversation with its predecessor. Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers was made in 1995 and the setting is in modern day with a futuristic online world called Paradigm X–a portal very much similar to what current corporate conceptions of metaverse are. Characters in Soul Hackers can log into Paradigm X, a virtual space, to participate in forums, go to a VR art museum, and do all sorts of social activities together online.
1995 was a very different time from now. The internet was in its infancy then, and a buoyant optimism about what the internet–and technology–could do for the good of society still existed.
Now in 2022, attitudes towards technology and the internet are arguably more pessimistic. Techno-optimism is gauche. Online spaces aren’t a utopia of bringing people together. Soul Hackers 2 was clearly made in this new era of ambivalence.
The very first moments of Soul Hackers 2 tells players its set in the 21st century where AI has taken a lot of jobs, and humans live under difficult economic conditions. The game’s tone isn’t grim, but it’s uncertain. Various characters voice their hesitancy and doubts about their situations and the future.
Our main combat crew consists of Ringo, a human manifestation of an all-powerful AI called Aion, and three humans who are very different–Yatagarasu’s Arrow, Phantom Thieves’ Milady (pronounced “melody” and not “my lady”), and freelance Summoner Saizo. Another Aion agent, Figue, is also integral, but serves as more of support in the form of research and a very cute reconnaissance owl called Mimi. Arrow, Milady, and Saizo all have something called a Covenant–a mysterious energy-like substance that brings them together. The four characters use something called a COMP, a device used to summon demons.
Notably, in contrast with Devil Summoner‘s combat system, Soul Hackers 2‘s permanent rotation consists of the four main cast members, instead of the demons collected along the way. Demons come into the picture through proxy: Ringo and the crew can take on the attacks of demons they equip. Uniquely, Ringo also has an attack called Sabbath. If characters use attacks that enemies are weak to, Sabbath stacks will build, and at the end of turn, Ringo will unleash a major attack by all the demons in the stack. This rewards players for knowing the weaknesses of demons and using strategies (instead of brute-forcing through some dungeons with unbalanced teams, as, ahem, some players like me sometimes do).
It’s just enough like Devil Summoner‘s combat system, but with additional tweaks here and there. The usual demon fusing (with the ever-dramatic Victor), demon registering, and demon befriending elements are still present. In fact, it’s much easier to convince demons to join your team via introduction by demons already on your team. In my run, I don’t think I had any demons turn me down after I gave them what they wanted–a little disappointing, since demons screwing over players in SMT games, while annoying, is a highlight.
It’s clear the devs made efforts to reduce grinding through repetitive dungeon encounters. They created requests players can take on in-between main storyline objectives. The Soul Matrix where players can wander through the dungeons of Saizo, Arrow, and Milady’s souls is also a place to level-up.
However, despite these efforts, the tiring feeling of grind and repetitive battles still persists–mainly driven by lacklustre dungeon designs. There are three different soul matrices, but they all look pretty similar to each other–at least on the first floor–a disappointing fact, since three different people could have three different dungeon designs. Some dungeons in the main storyline also contain little puzzles that I won’t spoil, and there’s one in particular that is a giant pain to solve while encounters are getting triggered constantly. You could use Ringo’s sword to slash enemies and avoid battles that way–if you’re just trying to get somewhere specific in the dungeon–but that also gets old fast.
While the combat is similar to Devil Summoner‘s system but with maybe a neater bow on top, stacks, and some COMP upgrades–the story is the highlight of the game.
For having a world set in a cyberpunk, somewhat futuristic, and slightly apocalyptic setting, Soul Hackers 2 is surprisingly anachronistic in design. Our core crew wears a hodgepodge of influences and signals from bygone eras. Ringo dresses in Victorian era-inspired booties, Saizo looks like he stepped straight out of some bad mafia film from the 70’s, and Milady is hmm…hard to place historically with her frilly gothic shoes, frilly suit, and ultra-pink tights.
At first glance, it’s confusing and not cohesive. But when going through the story, you understand the character’s clothing as a reflection of the world the characters live in. Nothing is new. Society is stagnant. Everything is nostalgia repackaged–hence Victorian boots existing in the same era as Arrow’s streetwear getup.
But in spite of such dormancy, buds will still push through the soil. Where is the human soul? What’s it made of? What’s it worth? Can a soul be made? The search for Covenants by our main character cast–the very thing that brings together Ringo and the crew–is a metaphor, a query, and examination of those questions.
The execution of this query is choppy, rushed, and the main cast’s efforts to deal with their regrets isn’t told in a tidy way. In fact, a lot of confrontations with their pasts end in a confusing, anti-climatic way–especially Arrow’s major scene. But that feels right for this story: Nobody’s resolving anything in any manner of neatness. What’s left is just confusion over whether their decisions were right or wrong.
I appreciate Soul Hackers asking ambitious questions, and even the story’s hastily told nature feels more like an intentional feature and not an exercise in bad writing. But the vehicle it’s told in doesn’t quite hold up. A rich exploration into what this 21st century world looks and feels like through more inspiring side quests and creatively designed dungeons could’ve made Soul Hackers 2 truly great.
Soul Hackers 2 launches on August 25 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5 and PC. This review was played on PC.
Soul Hackers 2 is ambitious and it presents a series of thoughtful questions, but it’s told through the vehicle of endless crawls through dungeons with lacklustre designs that aren’t exactly a joy to explore.
- Turn-based dungeon-crawling experience we’re used to from Shin Megami Tensei games, with twists on combat that’s satisfying
- Ambitious, thoughtful storyline with an engaging core cast of characters
- Dungeon designs aren’t that inspiring
- Side quests don’t add much colour to the world and are quite shallow