What I'm Playing - No. 172
Welcome back to another weekly wrap-up of the games I’ve been playing over the past week!
Click a title to skip to that section. Games contained within this post:
Soul Hackers 2 (PS5)
Sometime in the future, the vast sea of humanity’s data has given rise to a sentient digital hivemind called Aion. Aion exists as an observer of humanity, learning from watching the world but never interfering in it directly. However, when Aion calculates an impending apocalypse, it is forced to take action. Aion creates two agents to intervene directly with the human world: Ringo, and Figue. Their mission: stop the apocalypse, and save the world.
Soul Hackers 2 is a 2022 JRPG from Atlus. I played it on PS5, but it’s also available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC. It’s a spin-off of the Megami Tensei series, and serves as a loose sequel to Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, which originally released in 1997 for the Sega Saturn and was ported to the Nintendo 3DS and released in English for the first time in 2013. You don’t need to have played that first game to enjoy Soul Hackers 2 though. In terms of overall feel, I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle between Persona and Shin Megami Tensei. You fight with a team of human party members in battle, but there’s a heavier focus on gameplay rather than story. The presentation is also very stylish, like the smooth transitions to battles where Ringo brandishes her sword and sweeps across the screen.
Though the story takes a backseat compared to the gameplay, it is still quite good. In the beginning, Ringo starts by trying to track down a few key individuals who will be important in preventing the end of the world: Arrow, Milady, and Saizo. However, by the time Ringo catches up to each of them, they’re already dead. She doesn’t let that stop her though, and uses a power called Soul Hacking to bring each of them back to life. Alongside her three new allies, Ringo begins to investigate how they can prevent the impending apocalypse. It’s a good setup to the story, and while the plot is pretty basic for a while afterward, it becomes much more interesting around the halfway point.
One of my favorite parts of the gameplay was the turn-based combat. Though it doesn’t use the Press Turn or One More systems from SMT or Persona, it’s still really fun. Instead, battles use the Sabbath system, where hitting enemy weaknesses adds to the Stack. The higher Stack you have the more bonus damage you’ll do with an extra attack from your demons at the end of your turn. Unlike in SMT, there’s really not much of a penalty when an enemy attacks your weakness; the attack deals more damage than usual, but that’s it. It’s definitely a more straightforward battle system than SMT, but it still encourages you to hit enemy weaknesses, which I’ve always enjoyed in these games. There’s also a lot of party banter during battles. Your teammates will have something to say about pretty much everything you do. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this chattiness in the beginning, but it really grew on me, and I like how it allows the characters’ personalities to shine during battle. Seeing the demons was also really cool. They look great, and while I was familiar with most of them from other MegaTen games, there were a few I’d never heard of before, like Turbo Granny.
Recruiting demons uses a very simplified version of the negotiation system from SMT. You also don’t recruit them during battle; instead, you send your current demons out to perform Demon Recon when you enter each dungeon. Then you’ll find them standing around the dungeon waiting for you, and they’ll give you items, heal you, or give you a chance to recruit a new demon. The recruitment process consists of just a single request from the demon, usually for money or an item, and if you’re able to give it to them, they’ll join you. Brief as these negotiations are, it was still nice to see them included in some capacity because it’s always amusing to see what some demons will say.
You equip demons you’ve recruited to Ringo and the rest of your party to change their resistances, attacks, and stat bonuses. Interestingly, you can’t switch demons during battle at the beginning of the game. I was really confused by this at first, and thought it was maybe an effort to add strategy, like encouraging you to always have a balanced party of demons equipped so you don’t get blind-sided by an enemy with resistances you aren’t prepared for. But once you unlock the Commander Skill “Conversion” around the time of the 2nd main story dungeon, you’re able to change demons during battle, but you can only change one party member’s demon per turn at first, although later on you get the “Master Conversion” skill which allows you to change the whole party’s demons at once.
Demon fusion is also present, and functions very similarly to how it does in Persona and SMT. You take two demons and fuse them together to create a new demon that inherits some of the skills of the demons that went into it. At first, you only have four skill slots for your demons, which felt really restrictive and I always struggled to decide which skills to keep during fusion when I had more than four options. Later on you can unlock Summoner Skills for Ringo that give you a fifth skill slot on your demons, and then eventually a sixth skill slot. Having five skill slots available was much nicer, but even with six skill slots it’s still fewer than I’m used to having from other MegaTen games. In any case, I always enjoy the fusion mechanics in these games. Trying to fuse strong demons is always a lot of fun, especially when you’re able to create a demon that has no weaknesses by having it inherit the right passive skills. There’s also a good number of demons in the game, and I like to try to fuse as many as possible, so it was fun coming back to see what new demons I could fuse whenever I leveled up.
Soul Hackers 2 also looks and sounds great. The soundtrack is really good, ranging from crunchy guitar tracks to smooth electric piano ones. Character sprites and models look fantastic. The characters are cel-shaded, but some textures have a slight water color look, which looks really nice and keeps them from looking flat. The character sprites that appear during dialogue also have a lot of different expressions, and they’ll change mid-sentence to fit the emotion of the scene too. It’s a really nice touch, and helps breath more life into these characters. There’s a sprite of Ringo where she’s smirking, and it is the absolute best.
A large part of the gameplay is the dungeon crawling, which reminds me a bit of Shin Megami Tensei IV. There’s no random encounters, which I appreciated. Instead, enemies appear as distorted figures as you explore, and will chase you for a while if they see you, starting a battle if they catch you. You can either run or hit them with your sword to knock them down, causing them to despawn after a few seconds, or giving you a chance at free bonus damage at the start of battle if you run into them while they’re knocked down. The dungeons are pretty basic, but occasionally feature small puzzles/gimmicks. It doesn’t hold your hand to solve them either, there’s no forced dialog from companions guiding you toward the solution. It’s all up to the player to figure out how to proceed by exploring carefully and examining the map when needed. I really like this hands-off approach, it feels very true to SMT.
There’s two separate dungeon crawling experiences here: the main story dungeons, and the Soul Matrix. The Soul Matrix is optional for the most part, and serves as a secondary dungeon you can explore at your own pace, though you will get blocked off at certain points based on main story progress. The main story dungeons are pretty short compared to the Soul Matrix. The Soul Matrix is split into three separate dungeons, one for each member of your party besides Ringo, and each one has five floors, each of which is rather long. Making your way through the Soul Matrix can be a little tiring due to all this, especially since the floors and dungeons all look the same. It would have been nice if the floors had something to differentiate them visually, or maybe something to differentiate dungeons by character. In any case, since you are free to tackle the Soul Matrix at your own pace, I tried to do it in small bursts so I didn’t get burnt out on it, and it was fun when I managed to stick to this routine. I wouldn’t have minded if the story dungeons had been longer and the Soul Matrix shorter though.
The final dungeon also could have been a little longer. The parts that were there were cool, and when I started it I thought to myself, “this is the best dungeon in the game,” but I was a little underwhelmed when I reached the end of it. I wish it had been longer and featured more mini-bosses along the way. It had a few bosses in the middle, and these were really cool, but I wouldn’t have minded some more mini-bosses along the way. You know, pit me against a few cool high level demons or something, like Saturnus or a few of the archangels. The final dungeon just didn’t have the impact that I’ve come to expect from final dungeons in MegaTen games. It pales in comparison to final dungeons in other spin-off games like Digital Devil Saga.
Without spoiling the story, I will say there are multiple endings here. In general, the Soul Matrix is optional, though the main story does take you there a little bit. However, if you want to get one of the endings, you need to have cleared floors 1 through 4 of everyone’s Soul Matrix dungeons. Progressing through the dungeons requires you to meet certain Soul Level thresholds with that character. Soul Level is a concept introduced early on, where you gain points towards a character’s Soul Level based on your dialogue choices in some of the cutscenes. It shows you exactly whose Soul Level will increase and by how much when you’re making the choices, which helps you keep their Soul Levels balanced. In order to clear the floors needed for this ending, you need to have at least 100 Soul Level with each character. You can do this in your first playthrough if you’re careful about your dialogue choices, and I was pretty careful, but I still ended up 1 point short with Arrow. He was stuck on 99 Soul Level when I first finished the game, and it was only after that I learned about the multiple endings. I loaded up my last save before the end of the game, and started scrambling to figure out how to get that last Soul Level point. My save file was already past all the dialogue choices that give Soul Level points, so I needed another option. Throughout the game, after meeting certain conditions you unlock Hangout Events with your party members and you can meet them for drinks at the bar for a short conversation with them, and usually a Soul Level point or two. These usually unlock after completing specific side quests, and you’ll meet your party and have a short scene talking about that quest. Luckily, I was able to unlock one of these Hangout Events for my whole party by completing a side quest I’d missed. With that, Arrow reached 100 Soul Level, I was able to complete the 4th floor of his Soul Matrix dungeon, finish the game again, and get the ending I was shooting for. That might all sound a little tedious, but I actually enjoyed figuring it out, and I enjoyed this ending a lot more, personally.
The English voice cast again featured several familiar voices. This is another game where Cup of Tea productions handled the English voice acting. Megan Taylor Harvey, who voiced Hanabi in Scarlet Nexus, voices Ringo in this game and she does a fantastic job. There’s also several other voice actors I’ve heard in previous games (see below for a few examples), and listening to them bring these characters to life in English was wonderful.
- Erica Mendez
- Figue (Soul Hackers 2)
- Bernadetta (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Kasane (Scarlet Nexus)
- Zach Aguilar
- Arrow (Soul Hackers 2)
- Male Byleth (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Luka (Scarlet Nexus)
- Erica Lindbeck
- Milady (Soul Hackers 2)
- Shionne (Tales of Arise)
- Futaba (Persona 5)
- Griffin Puatu
- Saizo (Soul Hackers 2)
- Dohalim (Tales of Arise)
- Edward Bosco
- Raven (Soul Hackers 2)
- Machias (The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel)
- Chris Hackney
- Kaburagi (Soul Hackers 2)
- Dimitri (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Yuito (Scarlet Nexus)
- Kira Buckland
- Ash (Soul Hackers 2)
- Kirumi (Danganronpa V3)
- Ryouko (13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim)
- Patrick Seitz
- Victor (Soul Hackers 2)
- Jeritza (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Laura Post
- Flamma (Soul Hackers 2)
- Catherine (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
- Kasumi (Persona 5 Royal)
A few random tips if you’re playing Soul Hackers 2 yourself: first, increase the text speed. “Default” is way too slow, the voice lines will often outpace the text appearing on screen, and this was really annoying in the opening of the game! I increased the text speed as soon as I had access to the options menu after starting the game, and it feels much better set to “Fast” speed. Also, you’ll want to change the setting for loading screen tips. With loading screen tips set to the default “Auto Advance” setting, the game artifically increases the loading time so you have time to read the tip on-screen. Luckily, you can turn the tips off or set them to require a button press to advance. Both settings remove the artificially inflated load time, and this can drastically improve loading times depending on the platform you’re playing on which really improves the experience.
Despite my complaints, I had a lot of fun playing Soul Hackers 2. It’s not a perfect game and there’s a number of things that could be improved, but it also has elements and moments that are really great. If you’ve already played and enjoyed a bunch of other games in the MegaTen franchise, then I’d definitely recommend Soul Hackers 2. Or, if you’re a diehard RPG fan, then Soul Hackers 2 is also worth a shot. I hope Atlus makes more spin-offs like this, they used to make a lot more MegaTen spin-offs during the PS2 era, like the Raidou and Digital Devil Saga games, and it’d be really cool if they started doing that again. Anyway, my final time for this one was 43 hours 20 minutes.