Time to get this out of the way because I know you are all thinking it — Soul Hackers 2 is an honorary Valkyrie Profile game. Two Valkyries, Ringo and Figue, and their einherjar (or friends as they like to call them) attempt to stop Ragnarök. This premise was already enough to get me interested in the game, but Soul Hackers 2 is also an Atlus RPG with a slick presentation style that shows off incredibly well. When the game was announced, I had a feeling that it was made for me, but does the final product live up to my excitement?
Soul Hackers 2 is an odd sell. It’s the sequel to a 1997 RPG, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers — Devil Summoner being a subseries of the Megami Tensei franchise, which spans 35 years and many games, including all but the first Persona title. The thing to know about Soul Hackers, and why this new game boasts the title Soul Hackers 2 despite the story having nothing to do with its prequel, is the cyberpunk setting. Both games take place in the neon glow of the near future.
So it should come as no surprise that advanced technology is at the centre of Soul Hackers 2’s story. A technological singularity occurs away from human eyes, and the superintelligence Aion is born. This AI sees itself as a silent observer of human existence until it uses its access to all data in the world and its unparalleled predictive powers to glimpse the future. Unfortunately, Aion concludes that the world is about to end. So it does what any godlike being would do: it creates a pair of chosen ones, including the main character Ringo, to prevent the apocalypse.
Along the way, Ringo and her sister Figue use the power of Soul Hacking to revive humans tied to the Covenants, five fragments of a pact made by humanity with an elder god that happens to be the key to destroying the world. These humans become Ringo and Figue’s allies and are bound to Ringo by the Soul Hack, which ties into a few of Soul Hackers 2’s gameplay systems.
For one, due to their bond with Ringo, your party members can no longer summon demons like they once did. Instead, their COMPs — devices used in demon summoning — can now link with demons. Said demons are the main form of character customization in Soul Hackers 2, as they grant their wielders up to six skills and large stat increases.
Like the recent Shin Megami Tensei V, you can recruit new demons from dungeons. Rather than negotiating with them during battle, however, you obtain them via a new system: Demon Recon. Whenever you enter a dungeon, you send off your demons to scout. Battling demons increases the chance of finding one of your demons waiting around a corner with a potential new companion. All the new demon asks in exchange for their cooperation is a little (or a lot) of your HP, MP, or some specific items. Strangely, unlike other Megami Tensei games, you cannot fail at this negotiation. Give the demon what they want, and they will join you. Demon Recon also replaces treasure chests or similar mechanics in other games, as your demons might offer you items and money rather than new recruits.
Demon fusion is still present in Soul Hackers 2, and it’s undeniably important. This time around, fusing your demons requires you to speak with Victor, whose domain is a circus tent. It is easy to search for a specific fusion with the filters Victor offers, and you will likely always have cash on hand to summon registered demons if you need them for a given fusion. Aside from normal fusions where you slap two demons together and choose the combination of skills you want, there are also special fusions you can unlock that require more than two demons. In other Megami Tensei games, there is often a chance a fusion can go awry and result in something unexpected, but that isn’t the case here. It’s a stripped-down and streamlined system that works well but loses some of the occult vibes of previous games.
Demon summoning isn’t the only way to spend your money in Soul Hackers 2. There are a bunch of shops scattered throughout the various city environments from which you can buy items, meals, and accessories as well as upgrade your COMPs. You can eat meals at your safehouse to receive a bonus (such as HP/MP regeneration or bonus EXP) the next time you explore a dungeon. Meanwhile, upgrading your COMPs is another critical way to customize your characters. With money and materials obtained from demons and dungeons, you can add effects to your COMPs like bonus damage from certain types of attacks or increased drop rates.
The final piece of the character customization pie is the Soul Matrix, where your party members can obtain new skills. Each character’s Soul Matrix is a sprawling optional dungeon with gates that block your progress. These gates can be unlocked by increasing Soul Bonds with your companions as you hang out with them or agree with them during cutscenes. Every time you unlock a gate, you’re offered a choice of several skills that the character can use no matter what demon they have equipped. Sadly, the dungeons are nothing exciting, they all look the same, and any level of a Soul Matrix (say the fourth floor) shares mechanics across characters. So you must complete three large dungeons (with the only difference being their layouts) if you want to optimize your party.
The story dungeons are better. They don’t overstay their welcome, they have fun gimmicks, and each feels quite different from the others. There are one- and two-way teleporters, walls that close behind you, and new sections that open when you come at them from a different direction. The kind of stuff dungeon-crawling fans enjoy. The dungeons do start to get old once you return to them repeatedly to complete requests, however, but this optional content does a respectable job of adding some flavour to the world and its characters. Even though request objectives tend to either be fight this or fetch that, their rewards often don’t feel worth it (except for new fusion options or increased inventory at a shop).
Soul Hackers 2’s combat has a lot of elements that will feel familiar to anyone who has played other Megami Tensei games. The types of damage include the classic melee, ranged, ice, fire, force, and electricity — no light or dark here — and then there’s ruin damage, which is caused by skills that apply status effects like poison. Every demon has weaknesses and resistances to a selection of these damage types. You want to strike these weaknesses, but the reason why has changed.
In most Megami Tensei or Persona titles, targeting weaknesses rewards you with extra turns, and the systems are fair — your opponents can gain turns this way too. But in Soul Hackers 2, gaining turns has been replaced with the Sabbath. Whenever you hit a weakness with an attack, it adds to your Stack for that round. The number of points an attack adds to the Stack can be increased through character skills, and by the end of the game, you can regularly get it to ten or higher. The greater the value of the Stack at the end of the round, the more damage your demons cause to all enemies when Ringo sends them on a Sabbath.
Ringo also gains access to Commander Skills, which have several restrictions on their use (one per round and they take time to charge up) but don’t take a character’s turn to use. These skills include things like giving extra Stacks or changing demons mid-battle. Your enemies can’t use Sabbaths or Commander Skills, unlike in other Megami Tensei titles, so these mechanics grant you a huge advantage over your opponents and make battles feel simply unfair. Aside from some optional content, the game rarely puts up a fight that can meet the player’s massive suite of skills and advantages.
You might be noticing a trend among my complaints, and it’s true — Soul Hackers 2 lacks teeth. There is a lot that has been removed or simplified from other Megami Tensei games, perhaps to make this title more accessible to newcomers. But as a result, much has been lost. The choices you make don’t matter — you will get the same amount of Soul Bond in the end, the demon will still join you or fuse into what you expect, and you will always have a tremendous advantage over your enemies. There is rarely anything surprising about the gameplay, which lacks randomness, or the story, which struggles to say anything profound and has no powerful twists or turns. Events often give the impression that something big is about to be revealed, but this promise is never fulfilled. Even the character customization holds your hand: both COMP upgrades and character skills push each character in a specific direction which makes them better off using demons with complementary skills.
Despite my complaints, there’s still much to enjoy in Soul Hackers 2. It’s an incredibly polished game and runs like a dream. Even the PC version is a great port with all the options you could want. Keiichi Okabe’s (of Tekken, Drakengard, and Nier fame) studio, Monaca is behind the soundtrack, and it is an absolute joy that will be entering my listening rotation. To match the stellar music, the aesthetics are gorgeous, from the menus to the cities and dungeons to the character designs. Ringo has one of my favourite character designs in years, a feat which extends to her personality as well. The members of the main cast are great; I love spending time with them and watching their relationships grow. It’s also a nice change of pace to have them all be adults. (Well technically, Ringo has only just been born, but she is brought into existence as an adult and is part of a superintelligence.)
My opinion of Soul Hackers 2 was in constant flux during my playthrough. I never especially disliked the game, but I often flipped between enjoyment and disappointment within mere minutes. That feeling of disappointment is what remains in the end. I am not sure if Soul Hackers 2 is exciting enough to hold new fans through to the end, and it isn’t mechanically competent enough to fully grab the attention of a series veteran like myself. But there is still the visual flair, musical swagger, plethora of rad demons, and bonds of friendship you forge along the way to make it an enticing package.