I'm what you call an intrepid Shin Megami Tensei player. Although I've been playing JRPGs my whole life, the MegaTen series for the most part has eluded me -- you could call it my white whale.
So over the past five years, I've set out to increase my knowledge of the franchise bit by bit under the tutelage of Atlus sage Dale North. My latest conquest is Soul Hackers -- a remake of a game from 1997 that never made it outside of Japan.
Soul Hackers deals with two major themes that are usually present in SMT titles: technology, and the occult -- but with a decidedly larger focus on the former. Through its cyberpunk veneer, the game weaves its tale through a young group of hackers who call themselves "The Spookies", who range from 17-25 years old. You'll trek through the highly advanced Amami City and even visit the new virtual frontier -- the digital city Paradigm X -- to discover the dark side of Amami, its inhabitants, and an ancient, powerful evil.
There's just one major problem that happens very early into the game: your best friend Hitomi, and fellow Spookie member sorta kinda gets possessed by a demon named Nemissa -- the wild and sexual polar opposite of the reserved, shy Hitomi. You'll also embark upon a number of "vision quests" of sorts that involve a mysterious being named Redman, who takes the shape of a wolf. Yep, this game gets kind of out there sometimes, and it's all the better for it.
While the narrative is interesting, it can dip into familiar fare, especially if you're playing it for the first time 16 years later, since the allure of Amami City fades a bit when you realize you have a supercomputer in your pocket. What really makes Soul Hackers shine are the timeless characters and their interactions. Even Hitomi and Nemissa alone will be enough to carry the game, as their clashing personalities both grow over the course of the game in an endearing way. Likewise, the rest of The Spookies are just as entertaining to hang out with.
Presentation wise Soul Hackers really makes an effort to differentiate itself from other games. The soundtrack isn't one of the best in the genre, but it suits the mood of the game perfectly and I have no complaints. The cast is fully voice acted, and well acted at that, as not one actor in particular does a bad job. Soul Hackers has also aged very well visually (although it clearly does look like an old game), and the 3D effect adds a nice depth to the menus and hacking sequences.
You'll get to and fro using a reductive map, that features your character as a pawn/arrow of sorts. It's crude, but it's effective and it makes getting to new areas incredibly easy. The core of the game however will take place by way of first-person exploration -- dungeon crawler style, like some of the prior Megami Tensei games or the western Wizardry franchise.
The draw distance could stand to be enhanced for the first-person sequences, but the addition of a dual screen allows for the helpful display of the automap on the bottom screen so you should never get lost.
To compliment the old school dungeon crawling atmosphere, combat is decidedly old as well, taking place entirely within menus. You'll be choosing from all the typical options, like physical combat, magic, and items, as well as issuing direct battle tactics to all party members or letting the AI do the work. Your party will consist of the player character (PC) and Hitomi/Nemissa, with four demons taking up the other battle slots.
Speaking of demons, since the occult theme is paramount here, you're going to be dealing with more than just Nemissa. In addition to encountering demons in most of your battles throughout the game, you can also train them, fuse them, collect them as party members, and even converse with them in battle.
My first taste of the latter mechanic happened when I unassumingly choose the "Talk" option before attacking an enemy, to which he replied, "Dude! Fighting demons is so lame. I should join you instead" -- at which point I got a brand new, free party member.
After he joined my party, I chatted it up with another demon of the same type, only to have him join me after responding "dude, you know my best friend? Awesome!" Another demon talked to me about listening to music on CDs, then tried to hit me up for money, only to call me "cheap" after fishing out $100. I had a lot of fun just talking to the demonic cast in general, not even counting my overall enjoyment with combat.
While you will eventually reach your limit with these conversations, they add a goofy element to the game that I really enjoyed. Initially, pretty much every conversation you have is based on a number of variables, and the fact that it kept me guessing as to how these demons would respond really adds to the game as a whole.
But it's not all fun and games, as the demon system is pretty damn intricate and will take a bit of time to master. For instance, the lunar cycle affects special powers for some demons, forcing you to always be aware of the time of day. Every single demon also varies in terms of personalities and affiliations (lawful, neutral, chaos), which change in-combat behavior.
Demons can refuse your orders (like Pokemon if you don't have the correct badge), leave you, or cause general mayhem. Dumb demons will often forget what they're doing, and the more savvy demons will only stay with you because they're forced to, vehemently denying their loyalty if you use moves that they hate or aren't accustomed to.
Demon use costs a resource called Magnetite, which you can trade for at a special marketplace, which further complicates things. They also can't gain levels, so you will want to fuse them or replace them as you progress throughout the game. It keeps things fresh and interesting, and brings home the idea that you aren't supposed to get attached to demons.
Having said that though, Soul Hackers is one of the most accessible MegaTen games I've played. There's a lot of depth here, but if you have a background in RPGs in general, you should be fine. Plus, you could always use your COMP to not only hack the automap function, but change the difficulty of the game and have your demons ignore affiliations if you're finding yourself dying more than you'd like (you can make it more difficult as well). You can also utilize it to save anywhere if you want to circumvent one of the older aspects of the game.
Now, it does have some antiquated mechanics that will grind on people who aren't used to them. For one, you cannot save anywhere through normal gameplay, which can be a major issue if you're going on a 30 minute dungeon run only to be on the receiving end of an errant critical hit, die, and get a complete game over screen -- no continues allowed.
On that note, if your main party member dies, it's lights out and back to the title screen. It doesn't bother me personally as I tend to save quite a bit and the game accommodates for three file slots, but losing a ton of progress can be an issue when save points are few and far between in some areas.
So what's new with the 3DS version exactly? Well there's 30 extra demons -- some of which are alternate versions of ones found in the original, alongside of brand new ones. The 3DS also has improved load times, a new opening, and the ability to repurchase old demons you've fused before, to aid the collection process. There's also new content featuring two incarnations of Devil Summoner star Raidou Kuzunoha, which will no doubt please hardcore fans (although I don't want to ruin it here).
Street Pass functionality is featured, allowing you to earn Play Coins to exchange for currency to buy and summon demons (mostly the demons new to the 3DS version), as well as interact with, and evolve the adorable Nemechi, who has his own menu option. Keep in mind that Play Coins you spend will be wasted if you don't save the game afterwards (or die in the process).
Soul Hackers is not a full-on remake, and more of a re-release. But you know what? Considering how well the game holds up even today, that's ok. Soul Hackers may have a number of antiquated principles and mechanics, but none of them are unprecedented or that difficult to deal with. So long as you're willing to put up with a bit of age, you'll be diving into one of the most accessible and enjoyable Shin Megami Tensei games in the series.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers - Reviewed by Chris Carter
Charming - Not perfect, but it's easy to ignore the rough spots when faced with so many engaging design decisions and entertaining moments. A memorable game that's hard not to like and recommend to others.
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