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Soul Hackers 2 is a lot like Shin Megami Tensei and its increasingly popular spin-off series Persona. It has the enjoyable turn-based combat, demons we've all come to know and love, and vast dungeons to explore. It also tells a fairly entertaining story complete with a spin on social links, character interactions, and hangout spots. The problem is Soul Hackers 2 does virtually all of this worse. It's a good game, but it can't hold a candle to the Atlus greats.

As an entry in a series with just one other instalment from the 1990s — which was remade for just the Nintendo 3DS in 2013 — the number two at the end of the game's title may understandably have some people worried. After all, you're not going to find a GameStop shelf packed full of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers copies in the year 2022.

However, you needn't fret because Soul Hackers 2 assumes no prior knowledge whatsoever. Maybe you'll miss out on one or two minor references (we haven't played the original game either), but this is a standalone story that introduces itself as if it's a new IP where everyone is a newcomer.

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That narrative focuses on Ringo and Figue, two humanoids created by an AI named Aion. This artificial intelligence is designed to observe humanity from afar, except it must intervene when it learns the end of the world is nigh. Something known as the Great One is being called upon, and the twosome must put a stop to it by preventing objects of power called Covenants from falling into the wrong hands.

While you start the journey alone, you’ll quickly assemble a party of four, filled with oddballs and contrasting personalities. Much of the story is character-focused, detailing how the various Devil Summoner factions relate to one another and crafting plot twists around them. The motivations of the antagonist are compelling too, with cool character design making them a real focal point for the plot as it unfolds. It's a neat story typical of a JRPG, but it's unlikely to go down as a particularly memorable one.

Cutscenes remain engaging throughout and the story does enough to keep things interesting. However, they lack the intrigue of a Persona 5 plot point or the gripping nature of a Shin Megami Tensei twist. Although the narrative has its moments, it's abundantly clear Soul Hackers 2 wasn’t afforded the same sort of budget as Atlus' premier RPGs. The story suffers somewhat as a result.

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So too do the locations you're able to explore outside of dungeons. During downtime, shops can be rummaged through to source new items and equipment, side quests can be completed for bonus loot and money, and a bar can be visited to improve your Soul Level with party members. These outlets and attractions are situated on incredibly short and narrow streets that leave absolutely no room for exploration outside of the random townsfolk you can chat to.

It's almost as if the game recognises there's little point to the cobblestones outside: you can fast travel directly to every store and business once you've discovered them. There's little to do outside of combat; the only characters you can create any sort of bond with are your core party members. And even then, they're limited to simple Soul Levels that increase through dialogue responses.

Once you do get into a dungeon and rough some demons up, though, Soul Hackers 2 takes a much more positive turn. Its turn-based combat system is a lot like other Atlus RPGs: it's really fun to engage with, super stylish, and addictive to the point where you're actively searching for battles. It's all very familiar if you've played recent titles from the developer, but it has a formula that works.

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The usual selection of magical abilities and physical attacks are at your disposal. So too are items, using your turn to block, and attempting to escape the scene. Exploiting enemy weaknesses is the key to winning fights, which are discovered by experimenting and reading into the sort of skills they throw back at you. While not quite as difficult as a Shin Megami Tensei V, a number of challenging encounters await — particularly boss fights with unique abilities.

Something the game does differently from the rest is a new mechanic called Stacking. Instead of gaining an extra turn after targeting an enemy's Achilles heel, you'll build up stacks that form one almighty attack once your party members have had their go. This adds a new layer of strategy to the experience whereby you can nick stacks off a stronger enemy — even if it hardly does any damage — in order to drain the HP of every demon in front of you. Reach a high Stacking count and it's possible to wipe a full lineup of foes in one go.

With added depth, the combat system doesn't feel like a rehash of prior Atlus efforts. While it may look almost indistinguishable from the outside, Soul Hackers 2 creates its own little corner that rewards aggression and experimentation with stronger attacks down the line. Throw in some enemies that can change their elemental flaws on the fly and you've got a demonic force that keeps you on your toes.

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All of those encounters take place in dungeons, which represent far and away the worst thing about the JRPG. Some of the most uninspired, lifeless, boring locations await with recycled corridors and hallways providing an incredibly dull backdrop for the battles at hand. These areas aren't like your stylised Persona 5 Palaces; they're basic shopping malls and shipping districts without even a hint of personality.

Some new mechanics are introduced partway through to add a small hint of complexity, but all they really do is make you wander the repetitive and mind-numbing passageways of the dungeons some more. It cannot be overstated how genuinely crap they are. It's almost as if Atlus forgot about them until the last minute and then hurriedly slapped together some assets. But, of course, that's not actually the case. They were all designed like this right from the off.

Even the map used to navigate the dungeons is rubbish. Its labyrinthine nature scrawls all over the screen and manages to get in your way despite being fairly translucent on-screen. For as enjoyable combat is inside dungeons, anything else you do in them outside of the story is as dull as dishwater.

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It's quite a bizarre contrast, really, because Soul Hackers 2 retains that stylish, colourful nature of an Atlus game in its menus and pretty much anywhere outside of a dungeon. The streets — as small as they are — are alive with activity and vibes. Stylish transitions seamlessly switch you between cutscenes and gameplay, and the menus in-between are trendy and hip. It's a really cool game to look at in the right areas, and wonderful character art makes dialogue pop.

Background scenes are the true stars of the show, though. Pay a visit to any one of the stores stocking combat supplies and you'll be greeted by a flat but stylish image complete with a shopkeeper just as funky. Atlus knows what it excels at in the art department, and its latest lives up to those expectations most of the time. Why this fashionable approach wasn't carried into the dungeons will forever remain a mystery.

Conclusion

Soul Hackers 2 is a competent Atlus JRPG that will tick a lot of boxes for fans of the genre, but it falls well short of being that next breakout star from Japan. With awful dungeon design and little else to do outside of them, it falls upon the engaging combat system and interesting enough narrative to pick up the pieces. It's by no means the next must-play JRPG, but there's just enough to Soul Hackers 2 that warrants a playthrough.