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Soul Hackers 2: Atlus' new Persona-lite has major tech problems

An intriguing game marred by primitive visuals and baffling performance.

What's the longest you've ever waited for a video game sequel? Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers was released all the way back in 1997 on the Sega Saturn, a first-person dungeon crawler JRPG made by developer Atlus. Four console generations later we finally have a sequel - Soul Hackers 2 - though it's really a standalone game with mostly thematic connections to the original. 25 years is a long time in computer graphics, and Soul Hackers 2 has a wide variety of tech it could potentially use - but early footage didn't exactly impress. There's little here to suggest that the current wave of consoles are being taxed by this Persona-lite release - and the knock-on effect of that seems to be that the last-gen machines get some shocking ports, especially the vanilla Xbox One.

Soul Hackers 2 borrows its gameplay elements from other recent Atlus titles, so at a basic level, it's a turn-based RPG oriented around exploiting weaknesses, which is an enjoyable enough system but nothing out-of-the ordinary for RPG veterans. There are some twists, like an overkill-style mechanic that rewards strategic play, and plenty of customization. But this isn't especially novel. Elsewhere, however, this game really shines. Soul Hackers 2 is a party-oriented title that weaves multiple characters through a winding, serialised story. Interpersonal conflicts and interactions take center stage here, and a social system gamifies out-of-combat interactions, giving simple conversations actual consequences. It's more like a TV show than a movie, with a 'villain of the week'-style narrative that features multiple short story arcs that build over time.

This formula is fairly novel by industry standards but if you've played other recent Atlus RPGs - particularly Persona 5 or Tokyo Mirage Sessions - you'll know what to expect. That fortunately extends to the rest of the package as well, with a keen sense of visual style. But you can't make a video game out of artistic flourishes alone - so how does the 3D rendering hold up?

Soul Hackers 2 - the Digital Foundry tech review, in video form.

Let's start with the good stuff. On the plus side, the 3D character models are reasonably high in graphical fidelity. They feature suitably high polygon counts, have good texture work, and are smoothly cel-shaded. The character rendering itself isn't state-of-the-art, but it doesn't need to be and works perfectly well here given the visual style.

However, the environments really expose the rendering weaknesses. Eighth-gen staples like physically-based materials, global illumination and screen-space reflections seem to be entirely absent - but that's just the start. All of the environmental lighting seems to be baked, and doesn't affect shadow-casting at all. The geometry budget is quite limited, which produces chunky-looking curved surfaces. Texture resolution is questionable, and there's minimal texture variety. Cubemaps are remarkably simple and poorly aligned. Post-processing is limited as well, as the game lacks per-pixel motion blur and bokeh depth of field.

Soul Hackers 2 runs on the Unity engine without the High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP) feature set, so I didn't expect technique-level parity with advanced software. But the results here are very basic and aren't that far ahead of PS3 and Xbox 360 titles. It's particularly odd given the platform targets for this project - PS4, Xbox One, PS5, Xbox Series and PC - which are all perfectly capable of handling more ambitious assets at the very least.

Comparing Soul Hackers 2 with Atlus's last game really highlights these issues. Shin Megami Tensei 5 shipped last year on the Nintendo Switch, and shares many elements with Soul Hackers 2 - including most of the enemy models. But despite the limited hardware power inside the Switch, the rendering techniques there are much more mature and assets are generally higher-grade. Engine differences are certainly part of the picture here, but aren't the whole story.

Soul Hackers 2's basic copy-paste dungeons are one of the worst aspects of the game's visual design.

It's safe to say I'm not thrilled with the rendering makeup of Soul Hackers 2. But there's an even more conspicuous problem with the visuals in my opinion. Soul Hackers 2 has very basic environmental artwork for the most part. Dungeons consist of samey-looking corridors in barren, industrial-style environments, like shipyards and subway terminals. There's little to distinguish one room from the next with copy-and-paste corridors and flat lighting. Each dungeon might have a small handful of room designs and hallway features, which are repeated ad nauseum over the course of hours and hours of gameplay.

Thankfully there's a mini-map you can access while exploring - otherwise, it would be extremely easy to get lost. The game's city areas do look decent however. These zones are admittedly pretty small, and the rendering foibles still annoy. But if the dungeons had something closer to this level of care and attention to detail, there would be a lot less to complain about.

Image quality is, perhaps not surprisingly, behind the curve as well. There's no anti-aliasing whatsoever. The relative lack of geometry ironically helps a bit here, minimising visible aliasing in some scenes. Still, expect a shimmery presentation. Even high resolutions don't fix the problem. PS5 and Series X both offer graphics and performance modes, which are essentially the same thing, with one running at full 4K resolution with a 30fps cap, and the other at 1800p60. Xbox Series S? There's just the one option there, delivering a bizarre 2048x1152 resolution, with an unlocked frame-rate. The lack of AA doesn't help any of these versions, but Series S gets the worst deal here.

Performance mode on the PS5 is generally fine, but Series X inexplicably has problems delivering 60fps on more complex environments.

Performance-wise, the 4K30 graphics modes work as intended, with no noticeable performance drops - as you would expect from a relatively untaxing game. On PS5, the performance mode hits 60fps almost all of the time. The only exception really comes down to certain screen-filling attacks during combat - namely the 'breath' attacks that emit a high density of alpha particles. You'll often notice a brief clutch of dropped frames while these attacks are onscreen. Outside of that, however, the game locks to 60fps, and it's the better way to play.

Series X doesn't fare nearly as well with this option. The brief dips during combat return but the game really struggles in certain city areas, dropping into the 40s and 50s for extended periods. Certain cutscenes see prolonged performance dips as well. The combat issues are understandable, but the other problems don't make as much sense. Series S plays out much the same, even with its drastically reduced pixel count.

If there's a sense that Soul Hackers 2 is technologically unambitious and somewhat underperforming, it's still a big, big improvement over the last-gen versions. Starting on Xbox One S, the performance is miserable. Soul Hackers 2 tends to run between 15-35fps here, with city environments proving extremely taxing. Most cutscenes hang in the 20s, while combat fluctuates wildly. For some reason, Atlus has elected for an uncapped frame-rate which feels totally unsuitable for these frame-rates.

Perhaps the 1080p rendering resolution is partly to blame, though with these visuals it's hard to see where the bottleneck is coming from. Performance tanks further when fast-forwarding through cutscene sequences, though all the last-gen machines have issues in these segments. One X fares somewhat better. The unlocked framerate is back but performance is improved by about 5-10fps in similar gameplay, and resolution is quadrupled to a full 4K. This would work with a 30fps cap (which the game lacks), though excursions into the low-to-mid 20s are still far too common for my taste.

Xbox also struggles on last-gen machines. The One S version is extremely rough and while One X runs at 4K, performance is not great. It's the 1080p-focused PS4 and especially PS4 Pro that work out best.

PS4 is the first last-gen machine that actually manages to turn out sort of consistent performance. We can still push the machine to lows around 20fps in certain scenes but critically a 30fps framerate cap is actually in place. We're getting a 1080p resolution, just like Xbox One, but with performance lows closer to the One X and with a properly frame-paced 30fps ceiling to boot. PS4 Pro sticks at 1080p without any visual boosts over the PS4 code, but performance is very, very close to a locked 30fps, with only the challenging Karachuko city environment causing any issues. Of all the last-gen machines, this is definitely the one to go for. Atlus's decisions with Soul Hackers 2 seem very odd though. Why leave the Xbox One versions uncapped? Why run One X at 4K, and PS4 Pro at 1080p? I'm genuinely befuddled. Even though the game seems inexplicably heavy, the configuration issues on last-gen machines just make a bad situation worse.

I love the Atlus games generally but I'm of two minds about Soul Hackers 2. The game itself is very good, combining strong characters, a satisfying combat system and excellent music. It's very much in line with other Atlus titles and while it probably isn't as polished or expansive as a game like Persona 5, this is a solid game for people who like these kinds of titles. Plus, there are visual elements that hold up very well - namely the 2D artwork, animations, character models, and menus.

The graphics, however, are simply well below par. The rendering tech is primitive in just about every respect, though it's something that can be mostly overlooked once you get used to it. Even so, the dungeon assets are offensively basic, with ugly copy-pasted corridors all over the game's combat sections. The game has some troubling performance issues on many of its supported console platforms, with the Xbox One S in particular exhibiting some of the worst frame-rates I've seen in recent times. As a contemporary full-price release Soul Hackers 2 falls below just about every technical standard. But if you're otherwise interested in this title, it is worth playing - as long as you keep technological expectations in check.

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