This Time, The Machines Are Saving Humanity

HIGH Characters worth caring about.

LOW Long, dull hallways for dungeons.

WTF No actual hacking minigame?

In Italian cooking, al dente is the ideal consistency of prepared pasta. Translating to “to the tooth,” it means the noodle has a slight bite or hardness that the diner will feel when they chew.

A small variation in cooking time can be the difference between a great dish and a simply edible one. I think the tendency in North American restaurants is to overcook as a safety (better over than under), losing that essential bite. However, the truth is that despite any high-quality ingredients, soggy pasta will always hold a dish back.

Soul Hackers 2 is a pasta dish that is not served al dente. While there are so many delicious ingredients in the latest JRPG from juggernaut ATLUS, its core gameplay systems have been made safe and uncomplicated — sometimes to the point of losing their bite.

The game is a surprise sequel to the 25-year-old Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers that shares the cyberpunk setting but not its plot. It’s the near future and the all-but-omniscient AI named Aion – essentially a god in the machine – has detected the catalyst to a chain of events leading to the end of the world.

In response. it creates an artificial human named Ringo, the game’s protagonist, to act as its agent in this neon-drenched cyberpunk future.

“I’m a superintelligent being born from the sea of information, and I’m here to stop the apocalypse,” she neatly summarizes to another character at one point. That mission will put her up against the Phantom Society, a group of devil summoners seeking powerful magic in the form of “Covenants” and killing anyone who gets in their way.

Ringo quickly recruits three other party members after “Soul Hacking” them back from the dead, each with their own histories, personalities and goals — united by circumstance more than outlook.

It is these characters and relationships that drive the emotional core of Soul Hackers 2, and easily its strongest suit. Ringo’s genuine curiosity and sparkling wit shines through dialogue that explores interesting themes of regret, choice, and what it means to be human.

A good portion of the campaign involves traversing “mind mazes” dedicated to each of the three main party members. In these dungeons, defeating a boss unlocks not only an additional trait useful in the turn-based battles, but a viewing of a life-defining memory. These moments are elevated by a haunting melody that stands out amid a competent (but largely forgettable) soundtrack.

New areas within each mind maze are unlocked by increasing Ringo’s “soul level” with each individual party member, either through “hangout” dialogues unlocked at a bar, or by making dialogue choices through the main story.

Besides the main party, the player will also be managing a roster of demons in line with the Devil Summoner series which Soul Hackers is a spin-off from. Demons have their own elemental strengths, weaknesses and abilities for use in combat, which each party member will take on when equipped with one.

In terms of mechanics, Soul Hackers 2 seems to have been made with simplicity in mind. There is no overworld to explore and no daily activity mechanics as in some other Atlus titles, but merely some small areas to find the appropriate accoutrement of necessaries – shops, quest givers, etc. – and dungeons to fight through.

On entering a dungeon, Ringo initiates “demon recon” so that as players traverse the map, they will run into demons from their roster who will offer money, new demons to recruit, or other items. There are almost zero environmental objects to explore or interact with.

Instead of a more complex series of areas to work through, Soul Hackers 2 has winding hallways without much to see or do beyond basic traversal puzzles and demon manifestations — abstract polygonal creatures — that will initiate combat upon collision.

While the environments are dull, the combat system is where Soul Hackers 2 really lacks. The turn-based combat’s defining feature is the “Sabbath” system. When a party member’s attack hits a weakness — using fire on an ice creature, for instance — it adds to the Sabbath count. Once all party members have had their go, the count is used to determine extra damage dealt by a bonus Sabbath attack (and sometimes additional status effects) before switching to the enemy’s turn.

The problem? It’s all reward and no risk.

The Shin Megami Tensei series has used the “press turn” system of combat in its last few iterations, and it’s a nuanced battle system with risk and reward because hitting weaknesses or resistances can add or subtract moves for both the enemy and the player. Soul Hackers 2 plays like a lighter, more accessible hybrid of this signature system that is left less than al dente due to its oversimplification. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t necessarily write off the experience.

Despite the lackluster mechanics and dull dungeon design, Soul Hackers 2 still has plenty of sheen in its presentation and characters. Ringo is an intriguing protagonist surrounded by a roster of dynamic characters who will keep the player invested as they struggle to save this colorful, neon world. If nothing else, it will serve as a welcome primer to Atlus newcomers, or a welcome draught for those looking to slake their thirst after going through more accomplished ATLUS titles.

Rating: 7 out of 10

— Stephen Cook

Disclosures: This game is developed by ATLUS and published by SEGA. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4, PS5 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Strong Language and Violence. The official description reads: This is a role-playing game in which players help Ringo and Figure, two AI constructs, save humanity from an evil villain. Players explore city districts, interact with characters, and engage in turn-based combat with demons and devil summoners. Players use swords, pistols, machine guns, and demonic abilities (e.g., magic spells) to battle enemies. Battles are accompanied by screen-shaking effects, cries of pain, and colorful bursts of light. The game contains additional instances of violence and blood: dead characters lying in pools of blood; a man impaled through the chest; a dismembered arm on the ground. Some female monsters/demons are depicted with partially exposed breasts, and one creature has a phallic-shaped head and torso. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the game.                       

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. (See examples above.) The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized.  There are no audio cues needed for successful gameplay. This title is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls. This game does not offer a controller map diagram, but movement is on the left stick. Camera is the right stick. Attacking while in a dungeon uses the Square button on a PlayStation controller. Combat selections are made using buttons that are detailed while in the battle display.

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