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Soul Hackers 2 (PS5)

Soul Hackers 2 (PS5) - Review

by Thomas Froehlicher , posted on 05 October 2022 / 2,505 Views

Given Atlus' recent history, Soul Hackers 2 can't avoid comparison with Persona 5. Soon after Soul Hackers 2 was released, I glimpsed a few mild opinions here and there, and wondered if such comparisons impacted peoples' perceptions. It's certainly tough to release so soon after such a monumental work as Persona 5, but that doesn't mean this recent, albeit smaller, production cannot shine in its own right.

The story in Soul Hackers 2 is certainly one thing that could put some people off, although it has one of the most epic introductions in recent memory, in which you see your future teammates driven to a tragic death. No one can deny the strong Valkyrie Profile vibes there, and just like in Enix's epic, Soul Hackers 2's main protagonist, Ringo, uses her powers to retrieve each victim's soul and put them back on their feet like nothing has happened. Ringo is no Valkyrie, but she does have a divine status of her own - she's an Aion, a vastly superior intellectual entity belonging to the Axis, an immaterial realm watching over the entire world. A world that, they believe, is about to end. It's a situation dire enough for Ringo to adopt an inconvenient human form and begin investigating.

Yet, after this arguably stunning start, nothing really happens for some 20 hours or so, and when it does the storytelling is quite sparse and slow. The big reveals, and the major scenes, come with the biggest fights; at that point I had already clocked 25 hours. Your allies' background stories come in incredibly tiny bits in the Soul Matrix, a sprawling dungeon in the Axis that represents their subconscious. You have to roam for hours on ever-identical paths to get a glimpse of these characters' destinies. It's definitely touching, though, as tireless explorers are rewarded with beautiful side-stories. Arrow is a double agent forced into a deadly duel against an old friend. Saizo, a freelance summoner killed by his loved one, has the most heartbreaking backstory. Milady is the mysterious girlfriend of Iron Mask, who happens to be your worst nemesis.

Arrogant, cruel, but highly present later in the game, Iron Mask is the main driver of Soul Hackers 2's narrative in the second half. Every fight or scene he's in is truly epic, and that's not to mention the striking reveals about his true identity. He's the perfect example of the antagonist you're burning to defeat, which is something I believe is quite important. Crafting the ideal villain isn't easy, but Atlus managed to do it once again here. Although there's not a lot of text or dialogue, Soul Hackers 2 is also a well-directed game. The excellent soundtrack really helps in that respect; seeing the characters' past with certain music themes made key scenes even more deeply emotional. Thanks to some intense sequences, and the moving fate of the party members to their demise and beyond, I think that Soul Hackers 2 is a memorable narrative experience, although Atlus could surely have crafted better pacing in the first half.

The gameplay in Soul Hackers 2 is all about recruiting and managing demons. Yes, I know, we've seen this before in Persona 5. But here, the stakes are different because every party member can equip any demon. In Persona 5, only Joker could have several personas, while his team had fixed tailor-made movesets for all types of players. Additionally, in Soul Hackers 2 victory highly depends on how well you choose and breed your demon pool. Demons can be recruited in dungeons or created by merging two existing ones. The latter is critically important, since created demons can inherit moves from the base demons. In battle, finding and striking enemy elemental weaknesses is key. So diverse movesets are more efficient, especially if you manage to cram some good healing skills and master both offense and defense. There are dozens of different demons in Soul Hackers 2, and plenty of cool or powerful-looking ones. 

Demon management remains a vast and compelling feature, but trickier than in Persona 5 since you have no safety net. Here you have to do everything from scratch. If you do it wrong, you lose. It gives a deeper taste of team building and is a different way of delivering a challenge. Disappointingly, however, most demons are taken from previous Atlus games - precious few are really brand new. Like Pokemon (which Soul Hackers 2's battle system is similar to in theory), Atlus ought to provide larger new generations of demons in order to maintain excitement. The lack of ability to reinforce demons is also underwhelming, because it de facto disqualifies every demon acquired in the first half from the endgame. Persona 5, by contrast, did allow you to ensure early personas kept up with the rest. 

Challenging is certainly the word to describe Soul Hackers 2's fearsome bosses. Major opponents are seriously tough, capable of wiping out your party quickly. They'll play several times in one turn and can summon demonic allies on the top of that. They're also experts in inflicting sleep, paralysis, and poison, among other detrimental states. For complex fights, Soul Hackers 2 provides complex rules: each time you strike an enemy weakness, one of your demons is added to what is called the Sabbath. At the end of every turn, all the demons stacked in this way strike the whole opposing party. The more weaknesses you find and strike, the higher the damage at the end of the turn. 

You have four characters, but the stack can be higher thanks to numerous skills you can unlock. For example, Saizo can add two demons to the stack when hitting a wind weakness, while Ringo has access to Commander Skills, one of which doubles each stack! Those particular skills are of very limited use though, so you need carefully plan and find the small opening which will result in the maximum impact. There's great tactical merit in Soul Hackers 2's battle and growth systems. It's all the more enjoyable that the level of challenge has been perfectly calibrated to make the most out of them.

While combat in Soul Hackers 2 is delightful in terms of strategy, it's not especially spectacular. Beside the Sabbath animation, in which all the stacked demons appear and attack together (which is nice), there are no special moves to make battles visually stimulating. The party casts common-looking magic or basic strike attacks.

On the plus side, the zoom effect on characters before their turns showcases very nice camera work (it's similar to Atelier Sophie 2 from earlier this year). The facial expressions shown by Ringo and the others are also pretty fun to see, making not only battles but the whole game experience more lively. That's one area where Soul Hackers 2 comes out ahead of Persona 5; there's been sizeable and appreciable graphical progress. I was also surprised by the amount of voiceovers during battles; characters frequently comment on others' potential actions or current status, and there are so many different lines that it ends up being genuinely fun to hear their remarks. In short, Soul Hackers 2 lacks a bit of that extravagance historically linked to JRPGs, but remains fun enough to keep you going for 40 or 50 hours.

 In general, Atlus has kept to a fairly cool Persona-esque aesthetic for shops, the city, and secondary characters. The music is equally pleasant and takes from a variety of different genres, including classical and pop. That said, it's much less elaborate than Persona 5; all of the shops, facilities, and related NPCs are 2D artworks, and the city isn't big or impressive at all. You could even see it one big giant interactive menu, as it's even pointless walking between the different places. The Cirque de Goumaden (the demon-managing location) and the Smith take up a lot of your time. The latter can improve your party's weapons with lots of essential passive skills, which is even more value added to the strategic side of the game. Fine-tuning weapons and demons is quite addictive and a large part of my enjoyment of Soul Hackers 2.

However, the same can't be said about the dungeons. Soul Hackers 2 has amongst the most boring and unappealing dungeons in all recent JPRGs. You visit grey and dark underground tunnels, somber wharves, or austere abandoned buildings. All of these locations are terrible and depressing, especially when you think about the superb design of Persona 5's Palaces. Atlus's latest work also fades in comparison with its glorious predecessor in terms of side quests. I can't remember more than one or two that piqued my interest. Even the rewards are meaningless and you don't especially need them to grind. 

There's no denying that Soul Hackers 2 does suffer from its image as "the small project after Persona 5". Atlus delivers equally great characters, solid storytelling, mostly attractive design, and compelling battle and progression systems here, but the content is clearly lighter, the world much less elaborate, and the pacing a bit awkward. That doesn't mean Persona fans, or JRPG fans in general, shouldn't be excited for Soul Hackers 2 though - I think they should, because it has a lot of solid original qualities of its own. Even if it's not on the same level as one particular legendary JRPG, Soul Hackers can still be, and certainly is, a very good JRPG.

After graduating from a French business school, Thomas felt an irresistible force drawing him to study Japanese, which eventually led him to Japanese Profeciency Test level 1 in 2012. During the day, Thomas is a normal account manager. But at night he becomes Ryuzaki57, an extreme otaku gamer hungry for Japanese games (preferably with pretty girls in the main role). His knowledge now allows him to import games at Japanese release for unthinkable prices, and then tell everyone about them. You may also find him on French video games media. Feel free to contact on twitter at @Ryuz4ki57

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This review is based on a retail copy of Soul Hackers 2 for the PS5

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The Fury (on 10 October 2022)

Thank you for this write up. The comparisons to Persona were always going to happen but to keep the style and feel to maybe appeal to the new Persona audience. It certainly had a style and replicating that might help this game.

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