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Saturday, June 17, 2023

Soul Hackers 2

Soul Hackers 2 is a mostly in-name-only sequel to the first with an entirely different locale, mythology and art style, incorporating a few elements from later games into the legacy Megami Tensei dungeon crawling experience.  But does it prove to be a worthy title for the long-lived franchise, or is Soul Hackers 2 just a hybrid game without a home?

Devil Summoner is one of many offshoots of the core Shin Megami Tensei series, with loosely-connected stories that have elements of detective fiction in them.  One of these was Soul Hackers, a Saturn and Playstation title which added a cyberpunk element to the mix; following a small hacker group named "the Spookies", it had the player investigating the Algon Soft corporation to discover their true motives, untangling a complex plot involving the series' usual mainstay of demon summoning using modern technology.

I mention this because Soul Hackers 2, despite ostensibly being a sequel to that game, has little connection to it in terms of its story.  While it takes place in a more futuristic setting, the title in fact refers to something completely different - a story element involving the game's protagonist, Ringo, literally "hacking" someone's soul to save them from death.  A few series elements do appear (the Kuzunoha family and the Devil Summoners, now two feuding rival factions), but it largely exhumes the cyberpunk feel of the original in favor of something distinctly more fantastical.  Ringo herself is part of this, being an avatar of a god-like entity named Aion which manifested in cyberspace who seeks to prevent a world-ending catastrophe. If you think I'm spoiling something telling you this, I'm really not; this is all laid out in the opening minutes of the game, and Ringo herself makes no secret of it either.  I did actually like this turn, though, as it's a nice contrast to the usual boring "amnesiac hero with a greater destiny" trope, or just relegating the supernatural character to a secondary role as they did in the first Soul Hackers.  Being part of an entity that's essentially the sum of all of humanity's knowledge pays off too; as there's very little anyone does that's surprising to her, Ringo retains a rather sardonic tone and dry delivery in reaction to almost anything, which you can probably guess appeals to me.

The game shares a good portion of its development team (and two co-producers) with Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, which is particularly evident in its combat system.  Characters have a lot of mid-battle banter and frequent voice lines, and the overall presentation is quite similar, with a lot of dynamic camera angles and some flashy visual effects for bigger attacks.  The environments also have a rather loud aesthetic, with a lot of neon colors and bright lights and some enjoyably garish character designs throughout.  Basically the whole game looks like a bright, showy city street even in its calmer moments.

In terms of gameplay the game does share more common ground with its predecessor and, indeed, the larger Shin Megami Tensei franchise, mostly being a dungeon crawling experience with turn based combat and a focus on recruiting demon allies.  It does borrow a few elements from later entries, though - one can attack foes before combat begins with a well-placed sword strike to stun them, allowing the player to slip past them or attack while they're downed to get a free hit; not unlike a similar mechanic in Shin Megami Tensei's IV and V.  Slightly similar to the All-Out attacks from Persona is a new element called "Sabbaths"; striking enemies' elemental weaknesses builds up Stacks, which at the end of each round result in a "Sabbath" - an extra, non-elemental bit of damage to all enemies, doing more damage the more Stacks you racked up that round.  As the game goes on you'll unlock more ways to build up Stacks in a single round, allowing you to really rack up the damage.  Combat does tend to get a bit repetitious, especially since the Sabbath has a pretty lengthy animation each time it occurs, but thankfully you can skip it at the press of a button.  One can also speed up animations in general by pressing the touchpad on the controller, greatly speeding up mundane battles.

Something else slightly similar to the Persona games is the character development aspect.  As story scenes play out you'll frequently have the option to choose between several options, boosting your affinity with one of your teammates depending on your choice.  Once this reaches certain plateaus you can enter a dungeon called the "Soul Matrix" and progress past tier-locked gates to battle bosses and earn upgrades for your team, as well as getting some more scenes delving into their backstory.  It's a bit more impersonal as it's not building a direct bond between your protagonist and their allies as it was in the Persona games (at least, not in the same sense), but it's an interesting new take that shows off each character's personalities and life philosophies, which are surprisingly nuanced, complex and often incompatible with one another, showing that they're all very different people working toward a common goal.  Still, they're a very well written bunch, and proof that Atlus can still come up with some complex three-dimensional personalities, which is something Persona 5 really fell short on in my opinion.

Party management remains a large element of the series, and that definitely doesn't change here.  You have four party members to control, and each has four key pieces of equipment to utilize - a weapon, an accessory which serves as a combination armor, status-blocker and stat booster, a Mistique to grant bonuses to certain skills, and a recruited Demon, which determines their usable skills and has a heavy influence on their stat spread.  (There is also a fifth slot for an Outfit, which are purely cosmetic and mostly DLC bonuses.)  Demons are of course recruited as the party traverses dungeons, though unlike most Shin Megami Tensei games, it's not done through battle this time - instead your currently equipped demons "scout" other demons in the dungeon and give you opportunities to recruit them; usually by paying a fee of items, money or hit points.  While each character can only have one equipped at a time, you do have a pool of demons to keep in reserve, which you can swap at any time outside of battle.  Of course, you do eventually earn the ability to fuse demons together to create new, more powerful ones which can carry on some skills from their 'parents' as part of another franchise staple.  Enemies will also drop crafting ingredients, which can be utilized to upgrade each character's abilities through "COMP Upgrades" or traded for rare items.

Something I've frequently criticized about the modern Shin Megami Tensei games is their day-one DLC models; in particular their affinity for gameplay loop destroying "bonus items" that basically just give you as many free levels, vendor trash items and stat boosts as you want, completely trivializing the experience (paired with making money/XP gains slower than previous games so that you're tempted to buy it...).  That still exists here (as a paid pack, no less), and as usual I'd recommend passing it up even if you're just in for the story, as it's not a particularly tough game even on the Normal difficulty setting.  Another unsavory thing is having a bonus story arc DLC on its launch day at an extra $10 charge, which is a rather sleazy practice in general.  Having several series-iconic demons and character costumes based on characters from other franchise games as separate paid packs is even worse, as they provide little or no actual gameplay benefit despite their inflated price.  Basically the only DLC pack that's worth it in any objective sense is the story addon (which is honestly a pretty damn good substory), and when it seems like something they just stripped off the disc at the last minute to sell separately for more money atop a $70 game, you can't help but feel ripped off anyway.  It's an ongoing frustration I've had with the company ever since the Sega buyout, and sadly I doubt it's going to stop anytime soon.

Soul Hackers 2 got a somewhat middling critical reception and wasn't a particularly strong seller for Atlus and Sega - it doesn't have the stylistic flair or heavy character development focus of something like Persona, and its rather monotonous dungeon designs and battles don't stand out much in an era where RPGs have evolved to contain downright brilliant puzzles and combat quirks.  I can't imagine the scummy DLC model does it any favors either, as I'm far from the only person to complain about it. But I think if you can set all that aside and look at the game for what it is - a "back-to-basics" Shin Megami Tensei title focused on the series' fundamentals of dungeon crawling and party management, with a few light elements of newer titles blended in - you've got an enjoyable experience.  It's got some fun, surprisingly nuanced characters, a pretty heavy and solemn mood, and some inspired (and often quite funny) dialog atop rather pedestrian dungeon crawler/party management gameplay.  It may not set any new standards for the franchise or the genre as a whole, but its stronger elements certainly make it worth a try at least; especially since you can pick up physical copies for pretty cheap at the time of this writing.

Developer: Atlus, Artdink (PC/XBox One Ports)
Publisher: Sega
Released: 2022
Platforms: Playstation 4, Playstation 5, PC, XBox One, XBox Series
Recommended Version: All version seem to be more or less the same.