Twenty years after the release of the original game, Soul Hackers, a sub-series of the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) franchise, offers a second episode to everyone’s surprise. Meanwhile, the SMT saga has gained visibility in the West thanks to the popularity of Persona 5. What inspires Soul Hackers 2 to reproduce the success of its elder?
- A colorful cyberpunk world in the grip of the apocalypse
- An Agreed Scenario for Shin Megami Tensei
- Effective fights for a dated level design
Released in 1997 on Saturn, it can’t be said that Soul Hackers is the most famous title in the Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) franchise. At that time, in addition to a launch reserved for Japan, the saga was not really known outside of the Japanese archipelago. So inevitably, it took sixteen years for Soul Hackers to resurface with a port to 3DS, this time available worldwide. Despite that, it is with the release of Persona 4, but especially Persona 5 that Shin Megami Tensei has come to be recognized in the West as one of the must-have J-RPG sagas.
And if you don’t know this franchise, we remind you that Shin Megami Tensei are turn-based role-playing games in which you face demons from folklore around the world that you can recruit and merge in order to constantly strengthen your team. Faced with the success of Persona 5 Royal, Atlus decided to release more and more episodes of its flagship license worldwide. After Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne HD Remaster, we were treated to a new numbered opus with Shin Megami Tensei V, exclusive to the Switch. Now it’s Soul Hackers’ turn to take center stage with a direct sequel, Soul Hackers 2, inspired by Persona in many ways.
A colorful cyberpunk world in the grip of the apocalypse
In Soul Hackers 2, Humanity has reached such an advanced level of technology that it has stopped evolving. In the shadows, a new life form called Aion has been created from the sea of abstract, information-saturated data that makes up today’s society. As an entity that goes beyond understanding, Aion observes the history of Humanity but also its future that it is able to predict. When the end of the world seems inevitable, this transcendent collective decides to create two beings with a physical body, Ringo and Figue, so that they can infiltrate among humans and prevent the catastrophe. During his mission, Ringo, the heroine that we play, meets Arrow, Milady and Saizo who will help him recover the five Covenants which, once united, allow him to invoke the Supreme Being who make any wish come true. Obviously, if this falls into the wrong hands, it could end up causing the destruction of the world, as the Ghost Society wants to build a new society by reducing the current one to ruins.
More than his scenario, the great strength of Soul Hackers 2 lies above all in its universe and its graphics. We discover a cyberpunk world with anime aesthetics and flashy colors in a neon style that give a real identity to the title. This can even be felt in the designs of the main characters, which shine with their originality, but also in the artwork of the merchants’ menus, which are very successful and reminiscent of Persona 5. It is therefore quite pleasant to explore the streets of this futuristic Tokyo. colorful that also benefits from a cel-shaded style with inked effects that look particularly good. The iconic demons of Shin Megami Tensei that we find from one game to another also benefit from this graphic facelift to the delight of fans of the saga.
If visually the title holds up thanks to its artistic direction, we note all the same that his technique is quite simple, with quite basic textures and environments when we look in detail, which are camouflaged by its very anime side. In terms of exploration, we are not in an open world, but rather we move using a map that allows us to go to different places in the city that take the form of small areas, as in the old games of the series. Another point of detail, we also regret that the title has so many small loads here and there on its PS5 version, whereas with the console’s SSD, everything should appear instantly if everything could have been optimized specifically for the next gen machines.
An Agreed Scenario for Shin Megami Tensei
If you’re a fan of Shin Megami Tensei, these end-of-the-world themes to recreate a new society may seem quite familiar to you and for once, Soul Hackers 2 is not particularly original in this area. Something to remember Shin Megami Tensei V which was quite similar in this aspect. However, if the scenario is not the greatest strength of the universe of Soul Hackers 2, the latter can still count on its characters to capture the interest of the player. Each member of the team has a past and interesting motivations that can be discovered in particular in the soul matrix, a kind of dungeon that allows you to relive their memories and get closer to them.
One of the first inspirations of Persona 5 that we find in Soul Hackers 2, it is precisely the possibility of interacting with its partners to become closer. So, certain dialogue choices will make one of your teammates happy, while you can go for a drink with one of them in an effort to get their Soul Resonance up. The higher this gauge, the more you will be able to explore the Soul Matrix and unlock doors that only open if you are close enough to your companions.
Effective fights for a dated level design
Beyond walking through the streets of this futuristic Tokyo to buy items and equipment, the heart of Soul Hackers 2 is above all to explore dungeons to defeat groups of demons and progress through the story. In terms of combat, the title takes advantage of the classic mechanics of Shin Megami Tensei that have proven themselves for all these years. Thus, the clashes take place on a turn-by-turn basis and each member of your team is able to use the abilities of the demon assigned to him. The goal is then to find the enemy’s weak point and exploit it as much as possible to create a conjuration, a group assault that is triggered at the end of the player’s turn. This assault grows in power the more attacks you make that match your opponent’s weak point.
Outside of combat, you can recruit demons and then equip them to one of your characters so that he can use his skills. However, while in most Shin Megami Tensei you had to negotiate with them in the middle of a fight before they joined you, now it’s your own demons who will look for them in the dungeons and you just have to accept whether or not to give in to their whims so that they join you. And to become more powerful, instead of leveling up your creatures, it is more interesting to merge them into a circus provided for this purpose, typical functionality of SMTs. Finally, you can also improve your characters’ COMPs in shops, a sort of device that allows them to use the powers of demons. In general, you should always walk around town to shop and buy equipment that increases the defense of your allies or recover healing items. To finish with customization, our heroes can also recover their own skills thanks to their COMP, but also by progressing in their soul matrix.
Soul Hackers 2 therefore takes advantage of the solid combat system of the Shin Megami Tensei series to offer effective confrontations that require strategy. This is all the more true since Ringo, our heroine, has access to very practical skills, such as being able to change demons in combat or strengthen conjurations, which offers additional tactical options. Unfortunately, some choices make the experience more complicated than it was in other games in the franchise. In Persona 5 or Shin Megami Tensei V, being able to negotiate with demons made it possible to have enough to merge to create the ideal creature to defeat a boss for example. Here, since you can’t recruit so easily, you sometimes find yourself stuck if you don’t have the right demons. Fortunately, it is always possible to modify the difficulty at any time to circumvent this problem.
Beyond that, the biggest problem with the title is above all the layout of its dungeons which are only a succession of corridors filled with enemies that struggle to be exciting. We therefore follow the straight paths until we reach our objective, crossing tons of enemies on the way and our own demons who can heal you or bring back objects. Additionally, exploration takes place in often simple and mundane environments that contrast with Tokyo’s colorful and flashy art direction. Something to remind Shin Megami Tensei III who also suffered from the same problem, except that the empty appearance of his decorations were in line with his post-apocalyptic atmosphere and the feeling of loneliness provided. We are therefore quite far from the Palaces of Persona 5 which shone with their originality and their visual identity and we are rather closer to the Memento, the randomly generated dungeon which is used to garner experience.
- Beautifully colored cyberpunk anime aesthetic
- The effectiveness of the combat system a la Shin Megami Tensei
- Friendly characters with original designs
- Insipid dungeons that are only a succession of corridors
- A deja vu story for fans of the saga
- Technically quite simple and poorly optimized on PS5
Behind its colorful neon lights, Soul Hackers 2 remains an “old-school” role-playing game that strays from more recent titles in its franchise like Persona 5 Royal or Shin Megami Tensei V. Beyond its cyberpunk anime aesthetic, the Atlus’ game relies on an ever-effective and time-tested SMT-like combat system, but also on its friendly cast of characters who stand out for their original designs. Unfortunately, the experience is served by an ultimately quite simple story, some technical shortcomings, but above all by its far too basic and repetitive dungeons which struggle to stimulate the player. A title that has something to please experienced role-playing game enthusiasts.
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