Amami City pulses with a neon light that comes from deep inside itself. It’s a city of perpetual night, not because the world is ending (though it is), or any other physics or meteorological reason; it just looks cooler this way. Blocky shadows amplify the contrast of the flat vaporwave geometrics. A chillout MONACA soundtrack pulses impeccable vibes from somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, at all times. Holographic cherry blossoms float diaphanous through the air. And the people shop, and eat, and drink, and live out their cyber-saturated, oblivious lives. Floating below all of this, both metaphorically and, in some sense, actually, is a sea of data. The overflowing consequence of a fully-connected port metropolis—data, liquid tons of it—gushing into storm sewers and out to sea from an internet of things and people. That’s where Soul Hackers 2 begins, in that sea of data, with a supernatural-cybernetic lifeform called Aion that gifts human-like bodies and individuated consciousnesses to two beings of UV-reactive anime excess: Figue and Ringo.
I’ll freely admit I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to remember that “ringo” is the Japanese word for “apple.” Get it? Fig and Apple. It’s biblical. That’s what we call an Easter egg. And if that doesn’t sound like MegaTen to you, just wait till you meet the guy who gave his life for others…
But Soul Hackers 2 isn’t like the other Shin Megami Tensei games. It’s not like Persona. It’s not like the Devil Summoner games that came before it, not even the original Soul Hacker. It’s got a pedigree that goes back more than a quarter of a century to a time so distant as to no longer be comparatively helpful. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is not a relational point for its sequel, it’s a foundational one. The original Soul Hackers was born out of a time when the internet was new, and equal parts exhilarating and terrifying (depending on the people you talked to), and despite what it might seem from talking to old heads and tech utopians, the digital divide was far more colossal then. In the mid-’90s technology wasn’t ubiquitous, it was threat and promise crawling up from the storm drain like the hand on the cover of Stephen King’s It. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers was from the time before Serial Experiments Lain and The Matrix, when flip phones were cutting edge mobile technology, when Google was a plucky little company that would do no evil. It saw all this coming and it was elated and paranoid.
We’re never going back to that era. We’re never going back to what Shin Megami Tensei was. We can pour one out all day long, and trust me, I do understand the impulse to mourn, but JRPGs are just in a different space since the PS2 rode off into the distance. Like Amami City—once a corporate technology-welfare project—our conception of what a demon summoning RPG means has to change. Soul Hackers 2 is literally just called Soul Hackers 2. All the extra branding baggage has been stripped clean from the box, the title screen, the wikipedia. It’s a MegaTen game, but it isn’t. This is fundamentally a good thing, but there will be growing pains. If you look at the shifts that Persona and Shin Megami Tensei V have undergone, you’ll understand we’ve been feeling these teeth pushing through for a while now. Bone and viscera take time to shift. But Atlus has been preparing us for this, for quite some time.
The first five hours of Soul Hackers 2 are pure tutorial. It can be frustrating when you’re eager to jump right into fusing Dominion so you can cast Megidolaon on the entire world, and I was definitely skeptical until the first real dungeon. But once the game started opening up and taught me how we’re doing negotiations this time, the way its new Sabbath system works, and I made peace with the camera, the hours flew by. Soul Hackers 2 essentializes in a lot of ways what this franchise has been about: rolling through graph-paper dungeons to kwisatz haderach a whole lot of wild demons on your way to play fuck/marry/kill with God at the literal end of the world.
Once I got over myself and my foolish consistency, this truly is a much better way to live.
Let’s face it, demon negotiation is really funny and mechanically interesting the first six times you engage with it. But when you’re three floors deep in a dungeon, low on beads, have no escape items and didn’t inherit Traesto, it sucks. That time you really wanted to nab a Cerberus for your menagerie and after an hour casting maragi on Slimes to only have one spawn and you whiff on the negotiation? It sucks. Soul Hackers 2 takes the bricks out of the briefcase. Yes, you’ll have to be of equal or greater level (no one wants to work for a wimp) and they will extract a cost (sometimes giving up half your HP is a steep price when you’re deep in a dungeon and low on curatives), but the fixed point spawns your demons turn into recruitment stations and their frequent recurrence means you can always try again pretty easily. The only time I was frustrated by the demon system was when I’d managed to cruise my way to the end game about seven to 10 levels below the dungeon and I just couldn’t snag a Divine Principality without dedicating time to leveling up. But I was too busy enjoying the dungeon and the squad I’d crafted to honestly care.
The final dungeon is a dick slap. It rules. I spent 20 minutes just absolutely lost until I pulled up the map and made it huge on the screen and layered floors over each other until I saw the hallway I missed. I was howling. When I saw it, the path to the end? That is gaming. The dungeons before it aren’t slouches either. This is what I’ve been missing—Maximalist Dungeon Encounters. Trap doors and teleports, magical chutes and ladders, regimented spaces where you can see the faint traces of erased pencil, artgum crumbles, and the deep channels of graphite where the level designer had a Brick Road stroke of genius and committed deeply to one particularly brilliant fuck-you-player corridor. Atlus had been phoning its dungeons in for a while now, not really sure how to move from the past through the Final Fantasy imposed paradigm of interconnected set-piece rooms. They tried bland procgen corridors in Persona 3. Then themed puzzles and stealth sequences in Persona 5—they were terrible, miserable experiences. And Shin Megami Tensei V all but abandoned dungeons except for the Temple of Eternity which came so late after an entire game’s worth of “but the Open World is the Dungeon!” (it wasn’t). Soul Hackers 2 is a dungeoneer’s dream. The titular Soul Hacking even opens up side-quest dungeons that probe deep into the psychic damage of the main characters, and forms a floating geometric tripartite megadungeon that unlocks with social links and is just a joy to grind out levels and new demons in. Because that’s really what we’re here for—getting swole with cool demons so we can kick other, more swole demons’ asses. Soul Hackers 2 prioritizes getting swole with your demons and smooths out most of the friction, refining it to an almost clicker-like response loop.
Don’t get me wrong, I like frictive games. But I don’t have 120 hours to devote to any one game anymore. I don’t want to play a game two, three, four, or more times to “see it all.” And since I really enjoyed the surly, depressed assassin Milady (which the English voice actors are absolutely torn on pronouncing as Mill-a-dee or M’lady)—I didn’t want to have to choose hanging out with her versus lifting at the gym or feeding a giant hot dog to a tanuki in the park or going to see a movie, etc. Soul Hackers 2 isn’t a game about time management while the world ends. It’s a game about the connections we make, why we make them, and what it’s all worth in the end. Let’s face it, Yakuza doesn’t make you choose between disco dancing or going ripshit at the batting cages—why should anything else? In the end, I got to hang out with my squad exactly as much as I really wanted to. I learned a lot about them, we got crunk at the neon bar while digital sakura floated on the air. I like these kids—Arrow, Milady, and Saizo. I bought them sick threads and gave them even sicker demons so they could shred the classic Atlus embodiment of Sabina Spielrein’s “Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being.” I fed them Vitamin Pasta and mushroom pizzas back at our hideout so they would be strong and could keep low-key playing out their Law (Yatagarasu) vs Chaos (Phantom Society) vs Bro-ship (Neutrality) fake fights, while we Scooby-Doo’d our way to stopping the apocalypse. And along the way we all got skill ups and stat boosts and Soul Hackers really just incentivizes everything. Which doesn’t mean the game is a pushover. I toyed with the difficulty settings both up and down and a mismatched demon set-up will still make you work for it even on Easy (though the game will let you continue in the middle of a fight with no penalty on Easy, and for an uncommon item on Normal). It’s a balanced game that knows where to push on the player and what is needless friction. A big part of that is knowing how much time players actually have for games.
Once a month I get it in my head that there is an old game that I want to replay, or a series that I’m going to commit myself to. In the process of reviewing this game, I really thought I would revisit Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers fully. I did not. I revisited it for about an hour. Before that, I was absolutely committed to becoming a Pokémon Person for a week. And because a friend was getting deep into Phantasy Star at my urging, I thought maybe I would play through that whole series again too.
The last time I tried to play Dragon Warrior (yes, I know what I said), it lasted about three hours. I watched the hours and hours stretch out before me and I put it down. Do I have another 50 hours to grind out Persona’s Snow Queen route? No. I don’t. I got through the first two chapters of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 (which is a fantastic game) and realizing there was another 100 hours before the end, I put it down.
Even with all the side quests and demon grinding I did, Soul Hackers 2 was only 32 hours.
A 30 to 40 hour JRPG is almost unheard of at this point. And it’s breathtaking. Sure, there’s little room for walls of explanation and expository dialogue. There’s no hidden lore fragments to collect. The character side quests are straightforward to resolve and clearly telegraphed. Soul Hackers 2 tells a good anime story about rivals to friends, AI learning about humanity, and dealing with trauma, and wraps it up in some of the best dungeon crawling Atlus has put together in over a decade. It’s condensed and digestible, perfect for a modern gamer who has way too many things in her backlog. Look, I’m not unsympathetic to the brutal coarseness that got us here. I dearly love mean-spirited, immensely flawed dungeon crawlers. They are satisfying in ways current AAA games can’t touch. But we’re never going to get that from Atlus again. These were games that were marked by their insufficiency, and really only now, looking back, heralded for it. Phantasy Star 2 is only Phantasy Star 2 because its creators were still figuring out what the genre even was. Gaming, like Amami City, moves ever forward, growing over top of its history, for worse and for better.
It’s rare that I review a game and want to go back to it. Even if I love it at the time, I’m usually so wiped from the process that I need to delete it from my PlayStation and just not think about it for a good while. Besides, there are all those PS2-era and earlier games I need to go back and revisit, right? But this time, I kept Soul Hackers 2 installed. I saved my clear data for New Game +. I am eager to go clean up the requests and companion missions I left undone. I even kind of care about “the True Ending” that’s tucked away behind social links. Soul Hackers 2 is graceful and breezy enough, while still being a meaty monster-collecting dungeon crawler that I’ve been thinking about my return to Amami City the entire time I’ve been writing this review. Maybe this is the game I actually make good on that impulse.
Soul Hackers 2 was developed and published by Atlus. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PC, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.