Jumping Jack Frost
I’m a simple man: I see a Shin Megami Tensei game, and I’m interested in it. Although the cadence has been off and on for various subseries, Atlus managed to muster up Soul Hackers 2, which is a follow-up to the 1997 original — and the first Devil Summoner game in roughly 14 years.
It’s a good thing Devil Summoner doesn’t miss.
Despite going with a setup that could be considered confusing in some other works, Soul Hackers 2 is surprisingly frank and forthcoming with its narrative conceit.
As an organic avatar named Ringo, your job is to save humanity at the whim of Aion, an AI. Aion has determined that it needs two key people to survive to prevent an impending cataclysmic event, which is where you come in. Using a demi-god-like ability called a “soul hack,” you can save a portion of someone’s soul, and cheat death. The kicker is that doing this too often can mess with the fabric of reality. Again, all of this is easy to follow, conveyed naturally through dialogue, and there’s even reminder story text on loading screens (as well as chat logs in case you accidentally skipped a cutscene or forgot what just happened).
Soul Hackers 2 takes a bit to get going in earnest, but until then, you’re quickly united with new summoners that become core party members. You slowly learn the details of Aion’s aims and the real world alongside your buddies; including the wrinkle of needing to locate covenants (powers that, when gathered, can cause destruction). The vibe is still very much occult (with demons galore) and cyberpunk, but there’s also an air of mystery and espionage to the day-to-day critical path events. It helps that in true SMT fashion, the cast doesn’t take itself too seriously. Although there are moments of stoic heroism, things can get goofy and relaxed, all backed by lovely (dual audio) voice acting.
The neon-adorned city is another character too (which can be viewed in a performance-based 60 FPS or 4K visual toggle). There’s bars, shops, quest-givers, demon fusion stops, all the stuff you’ve come to expect from an Atlus RPG. All of that slowly opens up as you explore more of the city, which fits the crescendoing nature of the narrative that you’re discovering with Ringo and her crew. From there you can choose if you want to start going on sidequests — usually in areas you’ve already been, with a heavy focus on returning to explored dungeons — or keep going with the story.
Speaking of dungeons, they’re mostly straightforward, and a few of them do blend together. It’s decidedly “hallway-based,” and player choice typically distills down to “enter the door you need to go into/walk to the dead-end and get an item.” This isn’t unique to Soul Hackers 2, but going into two “underground” locations nearly in a row didn’t feel great.
This feeling is accentuated by “Soul Matrix” dungeons, which allow you to delve further into the psyche of each party member and learn more about them — garnering rewards and progression in the process. It’s mostly the same-looking location, but the more you progress with the story, the farther you can go and the more you can do. There are teleport waypoints in every dungeon (and an early-access spell where you can instantly leave a dungeon), so it’s not like they’re insurmountable challenges per se, so much as time-consuming.
Whenever I would feel down, a character moment would pop up in the middle of a dungeon and make me smile again. Or I’d do something really cool in battle, or figure out a new tactic, and soldier through. As an Atlus staple, a lot of the foundation of the game is held up by the cast, and the way they interact (especially at the bar, where you have most of the game’s heart-to-hearts).
One fun little mechanic of exploration though is “demon recon,” where you’ll send demons out into the map upon entering it. Coming across them could grant a health bonus, a gift in the form of an item, or an encounter that lets you potentially recruit a new demon. It can get rote over time, but I appreciate the attempt to mix things up, and finding new demon party members is always exciting.
Combat is menu-based, with teams (usually the player first) taking full turns, and each member acting — then the other team gets a full turn. It can lead to some nasty dogpiling either way, so you need to plan ahead for it, pay attention to your synergies/weaknesses, and heal up/defend/buff accordingly.
Soul Hackers 2 has a similar weakness system as other SMT games, but this time your bonus is linked to a “Sabbath” super-like ability that’s triggered by consecutive weakness hits per turn. More weakness hits equal more damage when the Sabbath is unleashed. In other words, if you hit any enemy with any weakness four times (for your standard party of four), you’ll get a Sabbath rating of four, and that does more area-of-effect (AOE) damage once your turn is done. You can skip the Sabbath animation and it’s fun to try and run the numbers up, especially when you account for strategic play like keeping an enemy low without finishing them off, allowing the Sabbath to do it for you.
One thing you do need to keep in mind with Soul Hackers 2 is that it generally does ask players to pay attention to their loadouts. Not only does your elemental kit matter (heading into a fight with no enemy weakness access can be killer), but your equipment generally should stay up to date, as should your item synergies (like boosting the element of choice for that summoner). Progression-wise, it behooves you to max out a demon, get a gift once it’s maxed, then try something new. It’s a very simple and effective loop, topped off by demon fusing and purchasing, where you can try out new mechanics and upgrade bit by bit. Even on normal mode, things can get dicey if you’re under-level and ill-equipped.
At one point when I noticed my party wasn’t as powerful as I’d liked, I spent around 20 minutes in various shops, upgrading my stats and abilities, and fusing demons. I noticed an immediate difference, as fusing allowed me to unlock more area-of-effect abilities to wipe out groups of enemies, while maintaining options for boss fights with a greater variety of weakness access. Roughly 10 hours in you’ll unlock “commander abilities,” which are like sparingly used supers that Ringo can trigger for the party. It’s really satisfying to see all these little puzzle pieces fall into place, and in true SMT fashion, there’s a lot of customization involved.
But unlike a lot of past games, getting stuck doesn’t spell disaster; nor should you ever need to quit in frustration (I’m looking at you, old-school Nocturne players). Easy mode is incredibly forgiving to the point where you can continue an unlimited amount of times in combat (like, pick right back up inside of the current fight without a game over screen), and can be toggled on at any time. Coupled with saving anywhere and fast travel, the big quality-of-life stuff is standard.
I wandered into Soul Hackers 2 expecting a general sense of quality from Atlus, and ended up getting sucked into its world. While dungeon design can feel samey at times, it’s not enough to distract from the flashiness of the game as a whole. As usual, Atlus really nails the details; it was fun to hang out with this crew and see where things went.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]