The classic Japanese role-playing game lives on in all its turn-based glory through Atlus, the company that gave us the Shin Megami Tensei franchise and Persona and the highly underrated Tokyo Mirage Sessions.
And now Atlus is back with another JRPG in Soul Hackers 2. And here, Atlus aims to evolve and streamline its classic JRPG formula. The resulting game play faster than you’re used to (once it gets going, of course), even though at times it almost feels too streamlined. Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had here, and the story holds your attention. This is also one of the most visually arresting JRPGs you’ll ever play, which only sweetens your enjoyment even more.
First, you have to get into the game, of course. And here, Atlus seems to take a step back. Before you even pick up the controller, you’ll sit through a lengthy cutscene, and then after you’ve barely taken a few steps into a warehousing area, there’s another cutscene. It feels like an eternity before you’re even playing the game, although the explication you learn in these early moments is also critical.
In broad strokes, an ultra-intelligent AI called Aion creates a human-looking construct known as Ringo, and another construct known as Figue. Both constructs must help save the world from the Iron Mask, who’s collecting five “covenants.” In Thanos-like fashion, the Iron Mask wants to collect those covenants so he can summon a Great One and destroy the world.
Give Atlus credit for laying all this out at the outset, since none of it is particularly surprising. The true magic of Soul Hackers storytelling comes instead in how Ringo interacts with eventual human teammates. Ringo isn’t human after all, but as the game goes on, Ringo (and Figue, another construct) learn more about what it means to be human, about emotions, and about how we humans deal with failure.
There’s subtle social commentary in here about many things, from how we dress ourselves to how we understand relationships, and it’s a treat to watch Ringo get to know Arrow and Milady early on. Both are brought back from the dead via Ringo’s ability to “hack” their souls, and eventually, this allows the story to muse about what it means to truly be “alive.”
It’s the blend of relationships and story that carry Soul Hackers 2, in part because certain portions of the game’s mechanics seem vanilla compared to what Atlus has delivered in the past. The Shin Megami Tensei games have largely revolved around characters “summoning” demons to aid them in battle, and Persona 5 elevated things by letting you really hone in on enemy weaknesses, earning chances to maintain control whenever you could do that (although enemies could do the same).
Much of that winds up heavily simplified in Soul Hackers 2. When you hit an enemy weakness, you stack an attack in what’s called the “Sabbath,” a moment after your turn where all your stacked attacks will hit your enemies. It’s visually dazzling, but lacks the impact of a Persona 5 brawl. It also never really evolves as the game wears on. Level design is similar. Areas are broad and boxy but don’t really leave you excited to explore; I definitely played this game in linear fashion.
But I was dazzled by the visuals and voice acting. Both in-game visuals and cutscenes seem stripped right from an anime, and the world has a distinct look. It’s part-cyberpunk, part-demonic, with a washed-out neon aesthetic that never gets old. You can get anywhere from 60-75 hours out of Soul Hackers 2, and you’ll never tire of looking at the action.
You won’t grow bored of the game, either, because of that terrific story, and the cutscenes that drive it. With Soul Hackers 2, Atlus is building on the success of Persona and Shin Megami Tensei, and further cementing its position as the dominant force in JRPGs.
Soul Hackers 2
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed on Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5
Available on Xbox platforms, PlayStation platforms, and PC – New York Daily News/Tribune News Service