April 16, 2013
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers (which will be referred to simply as "Soul Hackers" for the remainder of this review) takes place in the futuristic Amani City, a location where technology has rapidly advanced to the point where the government can provide free internet to all of its citizens. The increase in technology and therefore computers has lead to hacking becoming a popular pastime of the local youths, which is what the unnamed main character you play as has himself involved in.
You play as an amateur hacker who belongs to the local hacking group, "Spookies". During the game's opening you hack into a lottery for a beta testing slot on Paradigm X, a new virtual reality game that's built on Anami City's network. After replacing one of the winners with yourself, a mysterious voice reaches out to you. Disregarding it, later that day you gain access to Paradigm X, but after exploring it and attempting to leave a demon leaps towards you to attack. And guess what - that same voice from before saves you again.
After talking to the voice he explains what's going on and how there's more to the virtual world in Paradigm X than it seems. The virtual world is part of a plan by a corporation named Algon Soft, which appears to have some control over the demons, including the one who attacked you.
The main character eventually gets a hold of a GUN (gun computer) which previously belonged to someone who tried infiltrating Algon Soft's office. Unbeknownst to him, the GUN had the special demon "Nemissa" installed on it, which flies out and possesses a childhood friend of the main character named Hitomi. After learning that the GUN has the power to summon and utilize demons in battle, it's up to the Spookies to figure out Algon Soft's true motives and figure out Nemissa's origins.
Even though the game was released back in the '90s, the sci-fi and technologic nature of Soul Hacker's narrative still holds up surprisingly well today, which is helped by Atlus' wonderful localization. Except for a few overworld NPCs which were left unvoiced, everything else in the game was fully-voiced including even small details such as the local shopkeepers.
There's a few minor issues with the narrative from a technical, non-literary perspective such as an annoying beeping if you want to manually progress through the dialogue via button pressing and some in-battle lines which break outside the text box, but from a literary perspective Atlus did a wonderful job in having a mature and serious tone but with enough lightness to keep things interesting. My personal time clocked around 30-40 hours without too much backtracking, so it's safe to say there's a decent amount of content here for JRPG fans.
If you've played Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, you already have some experience with how Soul Hacker's gameplay works in and out of battle. Outside of battle Soul Hackers switches between a top-down overworld map and first-person dungeons. Being a port of a Saturn game, Soul Hackers very much has that PlayStation-era look with the overworld map being pre-rendered and the dungeons having that slightly-pixelated design to them. This isn't nearly as bad as it sounds, though, as even the base material was far beyond what was capable of the Nintendo DS' normally pixelated 3D graphics and it almost feels sharper being on a smaller screen.
Like in Strange Journey, Soul Hacker's battle system is first-person and features four open demon slots instead of three, excluding the main character, with the sixth slot being taken up by Nemissa, who has the innate ability to utilize magic. Like the mainline Shin Megami Tensei titles, battles take place by selecting your attack options, executing and waiting for the enemy to retaliate and starting the process over again.
What's unique to the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, however, is the ability to negotiate with the demons before and during battle. If you've played any of the previous mainline Shin Megami Tensei titles or either of the games in the Persona 2 duology, you'll be at home here as the same demon negotiation tactics are in play.
By responding correctly to the demons, players can get rewards ranging anywhere from tips about the area, money, items and sometimes even joining up with the player. Of course, on the flip side players who anger a demon will enrage them and make them attack in retaliation and end up giving the enemy a free turn. Thanks to this system battles become more than just mindless button mashing and it helps to allow the game to stand out from the pack, even if the choices the player needs to choose aren't always the most evident in some cases.
One change in Soul Hackers is that the demons you collect don't level up, instead being replaced with new "loyalty" system which is levelled by picking the correct command for them in battle. This ties into the negotiation system mentioned earlier as each demon has their own mood. This means a Pixie would prefer to heal or defend over attacking, while a brutish demon would prefer to launch an all-out attack against the enemy. Continually picking the wrong option will cause the demon to leave your party entirely.
Thankfully raising loyalty isn't nearly as bad as grinding levels in Soul Hackers, so being able to master this system efficiently pays off rather quickly. In addition, summoning and using demons inside dungeons costs "magnetite", a form of demon currency, so proper planning especially in the latter dungeons becomes paramount.
Going with the hacking theme, there's a number of abilities regarding the COMP that can help out some of the more inexperienced players. Shortly after acquiring the COMP, players can alter the game's difficulty, auto-map the dungeons and other miscellaneous abilities. The COMP also has the ability to install various hacking programs, such as being able to save anywhere inside a dungeon or help out with demon negotiations. It plays nicely into the hacking aspect of the game and more advanced players can turn them off if they wish, so it doesn't feel like Atlus "dumbed down" things for the more casual SMT players at all.
There are a few downsides to Soul Hackers though, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier. The dungeons, outside of some small differentiating gimmicks and palette swaps, feel very similar to one another from a functional perspective. The enemy animations also feel somewhat limited and static. Both of these are due to the era the game was released, so for older fans this likely won't be an issue but it's understandable that newer gamers might be a bit off-put by the old-school approach employed here.
Also, if you were looking for any 3D effects, you'll be disappointed here as the farthest this port goes is having the character artwork and text placed in a plane above the graphics - there's no fancy 3D rendering going on here.
As far as the music goes, this was one area where the original shined in more ways one way. The sound effect direction in Soul Hackers is quite well done and the soundtrack was remixed for the Nintendo 3DS version. If you enjoy techno and futuristic music you'll find a lot to love here.
For those who already played Soul Hackers, Atlus expanded the game's post-game dungeon with new demons and a familiar face to those who played the PS2 Devil Summoner games. There's also a SpotPass mode where players can summon new exclusive demons by exchanging information with other players or spending coins.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is similar in some aspects to Atlus' previous re-release of the original Persona on the PSP. Both have that '90s feel to them, but in Soul Hacker's case the base game itself and the modifications Atlus employed in the re-release make it a much more approachable game in every way. If you can stomach through its rough edges, of which there are a few, Soul Hackers is a game you'll want to let your Nintendo 3DS get hacked by.