‘Soul Hackers 2’ Is a Bland and Boring Shin Megami Tensei Game

Soul Hackers 2” tries to be accessible, but loses the best parts of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise in the process.
Ringo, the protagonist of Soul Hackers 2, stands amid a crowd of demons, all of whom sit in a multicolored void.
Screenshot by Atlus.

Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers 2 does not feel like a Shin Megami Tensei game. This could be a compliment, but it isn’t. It could mean that Soul Hackers 2 breaks new ground and drives the series forward, but it doesn’t. It could mean that Soul Hackers 2 is a brave and experimental, but misguided take on one of my favorite series, but it isn’t. It is just a mediocre, turn-based RPG with recognizable demons and a competent fusion system. I wish it was anything more.

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In it, you play as Ringo, an android created by an omniscient AI, whose mission is to prevent the coming apocalypse. To do this, you fight your way across a sprawling cyberpunk city with three recently resurrected, charming devil summoners beside you. If this sounds like a compelling pitch, it is. The game just fails to live up to it in every way.

The Shin Megami Tensei series has used the “Press Turn” battle system (and variations on it), since the release of SMT III: Nocturne. The press turn battle system gives each member of your party one action; if you target an enemy’s weakness or pass the turn, you gain an additional action. This means that, if you build a party which can consistently target enemy weaknesses, you can generate a lot of extra actions. If you target one of an enemy’s resistances or miss, you lose two actions. The enemy has access to this exact same system, though some bosses change or ignore mechanics set up earlier in the game, creating complex puzzle battles which force you to vary your team composition and exploit the game’s system as much as possible—after all, Shin Megami Tensei is a game about killing gods. Gods don’t play by the rules, they make them.

Soul Hackers 2 abandons the press turn battle system in favor of something reminiscent of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey’s Co-Op attacks. When you hit an enemy’s weakness, you generate a stack. Those stacks determine the strength of your “Sabbath,” which is an unblockable attack that triggers at the end of your turn. Some demons can acquire unique sabbath skills, which trigger an additional effect, like a party-wide heal during the sabbath. The system used in Soul Hackers 2 is a simpler version of Co-Op Attacks, which saw demons of the same alignment execute followup attacks when you struck the enemy’s weakness, encouraging you to build your party with demons of a similar alignment.

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In Soul Hackers 2, enemies do not have access to the Sabbath system, because it is unique to the player character, Ringo. This means that there are no interesting decisions about using Sabbath attacks beyond “what bonus ability to do you use with this attack.” The correct decision is always to hit as many weaknesses as possible to earn the maximum number of stacks. The complex party building that has defined the series is suddenly trivial.

This simplicity could allow the game to be more accessible to series newcomers, and it likely is. However, it also makes the game off-puttingly generic and repetitive, as well as a poor introduction to other Shin Megami Tensei games, which play by a different ruleset and ask players to approach problems in different, more interesting ways. Soul Hackers 2 never does that. It is not an easy game; it is a boring one.

Shin Megami Tensei is, in the public discourse, a notoriously difficult series. As far as RPGs go, it will push you harder than anything else. However, I have always argued that the series isn’t actually that difficult. It doesn't require perfect decision making or execution. It doesn’t even demand a significant amount of grinding from its players. It only asks that you pay attention.

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne’s most notorious boss is Matador, an early game boss who is the first real stumbling block for new players. Matador has no weaknesses and terrifying abilities: a strong party-wide physical attack, a weak party-wide Force attack, and Dekunda, which removes all of his debuffs. At first glance, this is a near impossible challenge, one that cannot be defeated through exploiting the Press Turn battle system.

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However, every time you debuff Matador, he will spend one of his two actions per turn to cast Dekunda, removing that debuff. This effectively reduces him to a single action. With that extra time, you can buff your own team, which Matador cannot do anything about. Eventually, you become strong enough to overpower the boss without needing to hit any of his weaknesses. To defeat Matador, you have to learn the utility of buffs and debuffs, and build a team around them. It's a different strategy than players have likely used to that point in the game, but one that's essential for its remainder. Nocturne is an unkind, but effective teacher.

Milady, a protagonist of Soul Hackers 2, attacks a bloody man with her two thrusting daggers.

Screenshot by Atlus.

It is this rude but effective teaching that makes up the first half of virtually all Shin Megami Tensei games. You come across a boss, they demand you learn how to use a specific set of tools, and then you defeat them. The next boss will challenge you to use a new tool; so on and so forth. In the second half of the game, bosses become intricate puzzles in which you are asked to use all of these tools simultaneously. Soul Hackers 2 attempts to fit this mold, but the tools it provides are not interesting enough to sustain this design.

For instance, one of the most important tools you have is your set of commander skills. 

Commander skills are unique abilities that Ringo can activate during fights to turn the tides of battle. They allow you to do things like change demons on the fly (a basic mechanic in previous games in the series), or grant you a bonus stack when hitting an enemy’s weakness until the end of the turn. That latter commander skill is an example of how quickly the game hands you extremely powerful tools, which have no negative consequences for their use. In an early boss fight, I managed to hit a whopping 13 stacks by targeting enemy weaknesses while that skill was active, which all but wiped out the health bars of the boss’ allies with little effort. If that ability is off its six-turn cooldown, you should be using it. There is no trade-off or downside, nor a compelling alternative strategy. That dull logic of that non-decision holds true for a lot of Soul Hackers 2’s major mechanics. In this case it’s doubly grating because gaining additional commander skills comes down to grinding enemies for rare drops, something that no other game in the series asks of you.

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In addition to all of these design qualms, Soul Hackers 2 undercuts its own narrative at every turn, despite having strong premises for its characters and story. They all end up being so much less than the sum of their parts.

The characters of Soul Hackers 2 sit around a table eating a large dinner.

Screenshot by Atlus.

I’ll use one of those three characters, Arrow, as an example. Arrow’s character premise is stellar. He was an orphan who, alongside his best friend, declared that he would work for a truly better world. However, the two of them come to wildly different conclusions about how to achieve that better world. Both men are utterly committed to their respective visions. Both men are willing to kill, or be killed by, the other, because either way, someone’s idea of a better world comes to fruition. This brilliant tension defines Arrow’s character and could have been threaded through the entire game. Instead, it is resolved within the first ten hours of the game in spectacularly anti-climatic fashion.

The game then goes on to retroactively fill in the blanks of Arrow’s life, revealing this genuinely compelling narrative hours after it was resolved, by having you dive into his memories. These sequences are well written, but totally optional. Completing them unlocks additional perks for your characters, which only further tip the game’s balance in your favor. It is a terrible way to tell a good story.

Soul Hackers 2 obviously want to be a more human story than other SMT games. It lets you customize your characters’ abilities, hang out with them, and make them dinners. But it will not give them the space to develop and change in recognizably human ways. This human element feels like another way to onboard people to this odd series, but its incomprehensible pacing undermines this effort.

If Soul Hackers 2 was designed to be approachable, then I suppose it is successful. It is more approachable than other games in the series. But it's also so shallow that it doesn't prepare people for other Shin Megami Tensei games. All it did was make me want to play the 30 years of better games that preceded it.