Soul Hackers 2 Review | A bare-bones Persona without the compelling narrative
Very few companies get an automatic buy from me. Inspiring such a level of trust from consumers isn't an easy task for developers but thanks to an extensive list of quality titles Atlus is one company that has earned that trust from me and many other players. So naturally, when i saw a game with a strong Persona influence with that Atlus label, I was on board from day one. In some ways it delivered, but in others it didn't. Frankly, if you came here interested by the Persona/SMT elements, its ability to impress or bother you will likely depend heavily on which of those elements you came seeking.
The first thing I thought to myself while reading the story segments of this game is "what does any of this mean". It was also the second, third and fifteenth thing i thought too. I'll admit, I haven't played the first Soul Hackers and came in fairly blind so maybe it's my own fault but I personally found this game very unaccommodating to new players. Aion, Summoners, Phantom, Covenant, Demons, COMP, Great One, Yatagarasu. These are all terms you will immediately be confronted with in a way that seems to assume you know full well what any of it means.
Eventually you can figure out the meaning of all the names and various lingo that are pushed on you from the context they’re used in but it begs the everlasting question of whether it was really that hard to just add a bit of extra dialogue here and there to explain? It could be chalked off pretty easily with the excuse that it’s a sequel that requires knowledge of its predecessor but outside of the rocky introductions there really wasn’t anything else too complex or outlandish that could create a need for leaving new players uninitiated. It kind of just felt like an odd writing choice really.
An animated universe of good and mediocre
The animation shows some variation depending on what you’re looking at in Soul Hackers 2 and different comments could be made of each variety. The demons of the game will look very familiar to any Persona or SMT fan as they are the same recruitable monsters that you can find in either of those titles. Familiar Demons/Personas return such as Jack Frost or Pixie but in Soul Hackers 2 they’ve received a more modern polish as well as a bit more characterisation through some limited voice acting. The new models aren’t exactly state of the art or anything but nonetheless I was impressed by the quality of them, having not personally seen a new iteration of them since 2016’s Persona 5. It was really satisfying to see smoother animation as well as a bit more individual characterisation for the demons and some (limited) voice acting. This is something I would love to see more of going forward with Atlus.
The scenery of the game was also fairly impressive. While it obviously might not compare to a larger scaled AAA+ game, the various shops and streets were lovingly crafted to create a suitably interesting atmosphere that made navigating the town a pleasant task. If I had one complaint as far as the animation goes, I would have liked to see the character models take on a different art style. While they’re used effectively and not quite low budget, it’s an art style that you’d usually only see in a low budget game. I won’t sit here and say they’re bad necessarily, it just left a want for something a little less generic than what we got.
Lazy dungeon designs
In every game that failed to be legendary there’s always one particular aspect you can point to and say “that really dragged the quality down”. The dungeons of Soul Hackers 2 are easily the element that would qualify for this statement as they are the biggest degradation of overall quality.
While the dungeons aren’t procedurally generated as they are in games like Persona 4 or Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, one could be forgiven for thinking they are because of the complete lack of variation in the maps you’ll be navigating. All of the dungeons in the game are completely similar in the way that they all just involve walking down bland pathways with completely uninteresting scenery fighting endlessly spawning enemies until the dungeon is complete.
There might be a bit of variation thrown in at times; sometimes you have to backtrack the whole dungeon looking for keycards, sometimes you have to repeatedly map out teleporter destinations to make your way forward, but even these variations just serve to increase the repetitious nature of the game as they simply act as shallow reasons to make you explore the same bland hallways you’ve already explored. By the time I was exploring my third main dungeon I was so sick of the meaningless grind that I was just begging for it to finish faster so I could just return to other parts of the game. I can honestly say i would be surprised to see any review that speaks positively of these dungeons.
The familiar battle system
Whenever Atlus delivers a game that even slightly follows their most popular formula I always see the same thing; reviewers comparing it to Persona, and readers complaining that reviewers are just comparing it to Persona. I’ve tried to avoid making comparisons despite the numerous similarities for this clear attempt at a Persona clone but when it comes to the combat system of Soul Hackers 2, it’s hard not to.
Any Persona fan playing this won’t even need the tutorials in the game because the battle sequences are almost identical to that of the Persona series. The skill names are the same, the demons are the same, the afflictions are the same. It’s all just the same. Of course there are minor differences such as all party members being able to change Demons instead of only the protagonist or the introduction of various Commander Skills that can perform specific beneficial functions in battle, but at its essence it's pretty much identical.
There’s nothing truly groundbreaking about the combat system of this title. That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m a big fan of the phrase “if it isn’t broken why fix it” which is something that definitely applies here. This turn-based combat system is a beloved part of many of Atlus’ games for a reason, so if it’s still working, is there really any need to be groundbreaking? That’s something that can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. If you love the combat system and itch for more then you will likely love Soul Hackers 2. If you have grown tired of it and want to see what else Atlus has to offer then you may find yourself feeling disappointed in this game as it’s probably the biggest draw.
A story that goes through the motions
In my experience most games can fall into two categories. Sometimes, the developers start with a story and work game elements in to suit that story, and some other times, they start with the game elements and put together a story that could suit that. Soul Hackers 2 is a game that feels like it falls into the latter category. From the very beginning it felt like everything was streamlined to fit the mould of the type of game they wanted to release. It’s as if they started with the understanding that they wanted a game that included elements like the familiar battle system, recruiting allies, dungeons and an overworld and worked backwards from that goal to create something that could make sense of it all without just being another Persona.
I’ve personally always been of the opinion that if the author of a story doesn’t have a story they want to convey then the narrative will suffer. A story will always benefit hugely from an inspired writer looking to bring their vision to life. Soul Hackers 2 is a game with a story that feels uninspired. It goes through the motions of a story that pieces together the various elements of the game but at no time did I find myself invested in the characters, the developments or in any way excited to see what happens next.
I won’t call it bad. In fact, I’m sure many will speak positively of it, but the best I can manage to say is that it’s good enough. It will do the job and tie the game together. It has many familiar elements that could keep some players invested. But for me, I couldn’t bring myself to care about characters that were so rushingly introduced to establish the party, I couldn’t care about a world where the lore was brushed over, and I couldn’t care about the apparent danger they were facing. I wanted to, I really wanted to, but it just felt so surface level. Around half way through the game I honestly found myself regularly staring at that skip button in temptation.
So if you’ve come to this game hoping for some stellar story-telling in the vein of the Persona series you will probably find yourself feeling let down. If you keep your expectations reasonable and don’t consider story-telling a priority in games then you likely won’t have any complaints. It’s a story that works. It does the job. Just don’t expect to be up late at night reliving the highlights in your head.
A difficulty of your choosing
Something I really appreciate in a game is one that’s adaptable in difficulty. Sometimes I love a challenge, sometimes I like to sit back and enjoy the story. Soul Hacker 2 is one that shines as far as its difficulty adaptability goes. It will be whatever you want it to be. If you want an intricate challenge that will have you obsessively learning the system and clawing through every possible advantage in battle you can get your hands on for a satisfying win then the hard difficulty will deliver. If all you want is to turn your brain off and enjoy a simpler side of things then easy difficulty will give death no penalty by allowing you to endlessly continue from failure. You can literally play the whole game without any training, learning, or care in the world, though it’ll probably take you a while. You can even change between the two throughout the game as you see fit which I personally took advantage of when I grew tired of the bland dungeons.
Soul Hackers 2 is a game that you could either look at with appreciation or disappointment depending on what sort of expectations you hold. If you come into this game looking for the combat system present in previous Atlus titles like Persona or SMT then you will likely find a game that satisfies your expectations quite well, although probably a little bit sour on the bland dungeons. But if you’ve come here with the expectations of an interesting story and lovable characters, this may be one to grab on a discount as it doesn’t do much to explore new territory or break new grounds. Overall, it was a fairly enjoyable title and not one I’d recommend you skip necessarily, but also not one that I could incite any sort of hype over. If nothing else, it’s a game that will scratch that Atlus itch.