I couldn’t have been more excited when Atlus announced, of all things, a sequel to Soul Hackers. Sega had said it was one of their ‘brands’ that they planned to leverage in a meeting, but I sure didn’t think anything would come of it, especially not in form of an avant-garde live action… thing.
Still, there was a good amount to be intrigued by. Another cyberpunk game by modern Atlus? Then… gameplay showed up, and excitement was doused significantly.
The end result looked much less like Soul Hackers and more like #TMS, and anyone familiar with that game knows that’s less cause for excitement and more for worry. Still, I wasn’t about to let that scare me off. I had to try the game on general principle, so I did, day 1 and all. Where do I even start? Soul Hackers 2, right from the jump, surprised me with how many narrative threads it pulls from the classic games, even the Raidou games.
The Phantom Society are introduced as the key antagonists, the Yatagarasu are still running around trying to stop them, and the protagonists are caught in between the two in a fight for the future of the world. The core plot is, by the numbers, everything you’d want from an SH sequel. The introduction is definitely one of the more stylish parts of the game, feeling like a stylistic throwback to classic openings like the all-timer, Digital Devil Saga 2’s Alive.
Sadly, it’s all downhill from here. As the opening shows, the supporting cast are all victims of the Phantom Society’s schemes, and are revived by the protagonist, Ringo, to aid an AI system with saving the world from an apocalyptic scheme. As most reviews state, there’s nothing wrong with the cast. Arrow, Kaizo, and Milady(pronounced more like “Melody”) are all interesting, fully fleshed out characters, with interesting backstories and solid voice acting.
Unfortunately, the protagonist is probably the least interesting one. She has great banter with the cast, and her voice actress has a lot of fun with the role, but there’s never more to her than happy-go-lucky AI helps everyone stop the Phantom Society. Her partner, Figue, definitely gets the lion’s share of a character arc. She also has a much cooler design than Ringo, to the point that I wish she was the main character.
The direction her plot takes is also part of the problem, but we’ll get to that later(involving major spoilers). Let’s get the core negative out of the way: Soul Hackers 2 is super lazy. It feels like it was a low budget game, and it probably was, given how miraculous the game’s existence is. That’s no excuse, though. If they had gone for a smaller scale game instead of something full 3D, they could have made this into something that was more faithful to the original game in depth and variety, and also a more fleshed out game in its own right.
First, let’s look at just a handful of the dungeon variety in Soul Hackers 1:
Off the top of my head, Soul Hackers 1’s dungeons include a warehouse, a port side dock, a hotel, a corporate headquarters, an airport, a supermarket, an art museum, a virtual reality world, and a haunted mansion.
Soul Hackers 2’s dungeons include, in ALL, a virtual reality world, an abandoned building, a portside dock, reskinned subway tunnels, and the final dungeon. That’s literally it.
Soul Hackers 2’s dungeons are a boring slog, and the music is set to match. You only hear three-four tracks repeated ad nauseum, and they get super old, super fast, as opposed to Soul Hackers 1, which had a ton of variety, all of which was fantastic.
As per usual, the protagonist is a Devil Summoner, and has a wide variety of demons are her beck and call… but unlike the previous three games, the demons you accumulate are neither party members nor companions. For all intents and purposes, they’re just Personas, and function accordingly. You can change them on the fly during battle, and each has different weaknesses & skills associated with them. They also occasionally appear on the field to give out items and healing opportunities, but since quests revolve around finding key items, this quickly turns into more of a chore than using them in creative ways a la the Raidou games.
Oh, and demon negotiation? Utterly gone. Now your demons just act as a middleman for random demons and you can decide if you want them or not. If you do, they ask for one thing, then join. No questioning, no bartering, that’s all there is to it.
And good luck if you’re trying to find a specific one, you’d be better off ponying up for the fee to fuse them at the Gouma-Den. Credit given where credit due, Soul Hackers 2 does get a lot of the references right. Just about everyone you’d expect to show up in some capacity is there, right down to Victor and his ever-changing Gouma-Den(no Mary, sorry), and even Madame Ginko.
I can say a lot of things about Soul Hackers 2, but I can’t say it was done by people who didn’t know about the original game and how to pay homage to it. It was just with a lackluster budget and no creative drive to make anything that truly lived up to its legacy. Even the city is well fleshed out, and has some genuinely cool visuals and NPCs.
Don’t expect to get much in the way of exploration, though.
You get three tiny hubs around these shops, and apart from that, the city is just a vague backdrop, which doesn’t get to have much life. I’m not saying it should have been like Kamurocho in Yakuza, but…
Actually, yes, that is what I want. It’s something, but it could have been much, much more. (See also: the dungeons, but again, it’s clearly low budget, so that wasn’t gonna happen.) Which brings us back around to the story. Soul Hackers 2 has a decent rogue’s gallery of villains, and to its credit, they get to have a bigger role in the plot than some of those in SH1(some of whom literally appear only in a single scene!).
(Don’t let this image fool you. You NEVER fight them all at once. Cowards.)
Iron Mask and Ash are the definite highlights. They’re charismatic, memorable, have solid ties to your party(both are literally exes of separate characters), and even manage to be a little threatening. Iron Mask and Ash are not to be taken lightly, and can easily wreck an unprepared team. I can’t mention them without going into an extremely problematic element of Milady and Iron Mask’s backstory, though, so spoilers ahoy.
Iron Mask saved Milady’s life as a child, and so naturally, she winds up looking up to him and idolizing him as her savior. And later on? They become lovers.
If that strikes as you as all kinds of messed up, guess what? You’re right.
Does anyone call this out? Nope, and I doubt Atlus even thought about the ramifications of such a plot twist. It would’ve been nice for Ringo to chime in, but nah, she’s more supportive than anything.
Then… there’s Figue. At the zero hour, after Iron Mask is finally defeated, the weight of killing him becomes too much for her to bear, and she decides to take up his cause for little-to-no good reason.
EVIL FIGUE(ooh, scary) actually has a pretty badass design, but other than that, her inclusion makes no sense, which I guess is as good a cherry on top of Soul Hackers 2’s screwy narrative cake as any. Then the game ends, everyone goes their separate ways, happily ever after.
Soul Hackers 2 is an uneven mess, and I’m being nice. The gameplay is fun, but it lacks the depth and core aspects of the classic SMT games. The characters are cool, but the plot takes them nowhere special. The music and dungeons are generic drek. The classic Devil Summoner games, and even the Raidou games to an extent, felt like the passion of a small, devout team knowing what they wanted to accomplish, and did everything they could to make a fully fleshed out game within limited means. This feels like the exact opposite.
This was a few individuals who were tasked with making a sequel because it was considered to drive potential for brand recognition and profit, so they scraped together whatever they were given, and tried to make the most of it, while throwing classic fans a bone whenever they could, while also trying to keep it approachable for new fans, and creating an end result that isn’t anything special for any demographic.
But they nailed Victor, so… there’s that.
As much as I liked SH2, I agree that it felt like a budget title from minute one of booting up the game. Which sucks because I really wanted to love it. I liked the characters, the style, the non-dungeon locations, and even the gameplay kinda came together by the last stretch of the story.
It just lacks… life, which even the music fails to deliver. It’s only been a few months since I played it but I already forgot how it sounds outside of the party banter in battle. Even TMS delivered on that front, at least for me.
Also, thanks for pointing out the creepiness of Milady hooking up with Iron Mask. I remember getting weirded out by it for a while but I figured I was missing something so I let it go.
Well, let’s wait and see.
I think the “debate” has already begun.