Demons... now trolling the Internet.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a great game, plain and simple. Do you like RPGs? Do you like challenging strategy and engaging story? Then go buy this game, end of review.
OK fine, let’s explore this further.
Soul Hackers actually celebrates its Sweet 16 this year, having debuted on the Sega Saturn in Japan in 1997. The 3DS release marks the first time North America gets the experience.
Set in a technological future where computer terminals litter the streets instead of phone booths, Soul Hackers follows the activities of Amami City’s Spookies, a good-natured hacker group that has just gained access to the beta of AlgonSoft’s virtual city, Paradigm X. However, everything is not as it seems, with the appearance of demons and the reveal of a conspiracy involving a secret organization. The primary focus is on The Spookies, whose members contribute to the twists and turns of the narrative. The story sequences shine, showing up at all the right moments. I rarely like story-heavy games, so I appreciate the balance of good writing and the re-release’s addition of well-cast voice-overs.
Soul Hackers follows the same basic gameplay structure as other Shin Megami Tensei games, so if you’ve played any of them before, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. Similar to the others games, Soul Hackers takes place in two main settings: the city map, and various first-person grid-based dungeon-like buildings with random demon encounters that lead to turn-based battles. You can have a total of six members, people or demons, in your party, and store up to 12 demons for backup. A nice addition to the battle menu is the Auto command, which either defaults everyone’s actions to a basic attack or replays your last command set repeatedly. It’s a great tool when you need to rush through an area and get past low-level demons.
Instead of killing every demon you encounter, though, you can instead choose to talk to them. Be prepared: they’ll ask you questions back. Answer correctly, and a demon may give you a gift, leave you alone, or even join your party. You have to pay attention to their personalities and affinities, though; say something wrong and the entire demon party will attack while you’re defenseless. Another element to the mix: moon cycles. It can affect talking to demons, your own demons’ strength, and smaller things like special items.
Your demons never actually level up, a feature unique to the Devil Summoner spinoff games. Instead, they gain loyalty through your treatment of and actions toward them. Maxing out loyalty has different benefits depending on the demon’s personality, and increases the chance that your demon actually listens to your commands. This is a great alternative to the traditional grinding found in similar games, but also means you must acquire and release demons regularly to maintain a strong party. Oddly, the game doesn’t allow you to release a demon when a new one wants to join. I always had to keep one of my demon slots open just in case, so I wouldn’t miss an opportunity.
Another interesting aspect is the inclusion of Magnetite, another returning feature of the Devil Summoner games. Just like yen, it can be earned usually through battle and is required to keep your demons alive whenever they are actively summoned. These particular complexities add a distinctive strategy to the game. I had to pay close attention to the balance of my team’s magic and personalities, while also keeping an eye on my Magnetite levels and making careful decisions about whom I kept summoned.
You can also fuse demons to each other or to a sword to strengthen your team. I experimented a lot with this, which was easy to use. A lot of information is provided in the fusion menu to help you learn how to make better combinations, plus the end result is always shown as you build your fusions, so you can change your mind if the new demon isn’t the right type, or if its stats aren’t to your liking.
The overall graphic and musical design of the game is great. Characters and demons have complex and interesting designs, and each dungeon has a unique feel. The music is surprisingly eclectic, sometimes you hear an ambient jazzy tune and sometimes head-banging metal, but it always works well with your location. This is actually one of the few games I don’t mind keeping the sound on for.
I appreciate the re-release’s overall attention to speed. Movement is fast and easy to control; areas load instantly and allow for smooth exploration. Even the battles move by quickly, though you can slow them down in the options menu if you want to read every turn’s captions.
The game received a basic graphic optimization to match the 3DS hardware, but I wish more attention had been paid to updating Paradigm X. Throughout the game, everyone talks about the magic of this new virtual world, which was probably pretty amazing for 1997, but it’s the one thing that takes me out of the story. The whole area looks more basic than the game’s real world, which may have been purposeful, but when characters tell me how lost they get in it, or even how peaceful or exhilarating different areas are, I just don’t believe it. It’s a shame, since it would not have been that complex of an overhaul. Some of the character’s dialogue is pretty funny from a modern context, though, as they marvel at the idea of changing your entire online identity and even (gasp!) not being polite in forums.
Soul Hackers’ use of StreetPass is another notable addition. Nemechi is a demon that levels up based on StreetPasses and your accumulation of D-Souls (also through StreetPasses). You can use Play Coins to buy more D-Souls to level up your Nemechi, which changes in appearance based on how it’s raised. You can also buy useful demons with D-Souls, with more available as you raise your Nemechi’s level. Admittedly, I didn’t use this feature much, since I had no one to StreetPass with yet, and there is a limit to how many D-Souls you can buy and spend in a day, but the potential is promising.
It baffles me just how Soul Hackers managed to stay out of North America’s grasp for so long when it’s such a shining example of what the Shin Megami Tensei games are. The dungeons are well constructed, it gets pretty tough in areas, and story is just the right length. Steeped in heavy strategy and gameplay complexities, this game is definitely not a leisurely pick-up-and-play experience, but if you’re looking for a rewarding challenge, then welcome to Amami City.