Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers - Staff Review  

In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Scream
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Massive demon compendium
+ Absorbing narrative
+ Combat demands attention
- Perishable protagonist
- Some aspects are dated
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   The Megami Tensei series was overflowing with spinoffs even in the mid-1990s, and one of them was Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner for the Japanese Saturn. That game never saw an overseas release, not even when it was released on PSP and Atlus was prevented by Sony from letting it cross the Pacific. Sixteen years after Devil Summoner's sequel was first released on the Saturn, Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers has finally been localized for all the good Atlus fans of North America. The game has aged better than many of its contemporaries on the PlayStation, but is not necessarily the right choice for all 3DS owners looking for a good time.

   Soul Hackers is set in Amami City, a planned metropolis with a citywide internet connection superior to anything elsewhere in the world. The mute protagonist is a member of the small hacker group Spookies, a sextet with no overarching goal at the game's beginning except plumbing the depths of the 'net and delving deeply into the programming that makes it tick. The protagonist gets a purpose when an animalistic spirit named Kinap sends him through the final memories of a recently deceased ex-employee of the Amami Corporation, outwardly-benevolent corporate overseer to the metropolis. Picking up the COMP used by the man who no longer needs it, the protagonist gains the ability to force demons to do his bidding, and also releases one named Nemissa who promptly takes up residence in the body of possible girlfriend Hitomi. While the two personalities spar over who controls their body, the protagonist gets saddled with figuring out precisely what is rotten under the surface of Amami City.

   Some of the game's narrative is clearly derived from that time in the 90s when the internet was perceived as a virtual reality device in popular media, with people actually roaming the circuits of computers from a first-person perspective. This gives events a somewhat different feel than if the game were created in 2013, but the narrative is compelling enough to prevent the material from feeling dated. The personality conflict between Nemissa and Hitomi is interestingly presented, without resorting to blatant silliness to keep them distinct. The overarching tale told is also worth experiencing, showing the Shin Megami Tensei universe's ability to come up with well-written scenarios in the modern day. Atlus's localization keeps the company's standard quality, making the presentation just as appealing as the events themselves.

   The random turn-based encounters of Soul Hackers play by Shin Megami Tensei rules, which means paying attention is key. Rare is the demon that is not strong against something, and often that strength manifests itself as outright reflecting attacks of the wrong nature. The two human characters can use both melee weapons and guns, with many enemies having a weakness to one or the other that prevents simply mashing unthinkingly on the attack button. Each gains a point to be freely assigned among their six statistics upon gaining a level, and Nemissa learns new magic at set levels. Aside from a few enemies late in the game that can take a character's level down if not killed swiftly, the humans play by standard RPG rules. Due to the lack of animations in battle, commands are carried out very quickly, a definite plus given how frequently encounters like to come.

The answer is clearly to steal enough money to make it come true, but some demons just don The answer is clearly to steal enough money to make it come true, but some demons just don't bend that way.

   The rules for the demons that can occupy the other four slots in a party are quite different. They gain no experience and eventually become outmoded, while also requiring a substance called Magnetite to stay summoned, which is fortunately obtained after battle in enough quantity to make running out unlikely. Demons also have a loyalty rating that influences their likelihood of obeying instructions given in combat, as without taking a little time to alter it they may do something contrary to orders. Most of the time their loyalty is unimportant, as the fastest means of getting through random encounters is to just let demons pick an action in keeping with their personality, which will usually help make the other side dead. For the fights that do demand serious attention, having disobedience from team members is a very dangerous possibility, although enough items to cement loyalty are usually on hand to reduce that chance.

   Conversation with the demons is the primary method of recruiting them, and this is a fascinating subject with many permutations. A few demons will outright approach the player in their eagerness to join, while others get mercenary and demand goodies to achieve cooperation. Often a queried demon will in turn pose a question to the protagonist, with the response making the difference between the opposition getting a free turn to beat on the player or gaining a new recruit. The other method of gaining fresh demons is by taking two or three already in the party and fusing them, which often produces creatures extremely hard to find in the wild. Filling out the ranks of the demonic compendium is an addictive enterprise, although the paltry limit of twelve beings that can be held at one time keeps a tight limit on just how much random encounter recruitment can happen. One other caveat to the entire demon recruitment process is that only demons at the protagonist's level or below will join, with no exceptions. This often entails quite a bit of grinding if the player is dead set on garnering particular partners.

   In keeping with most earlier games in the Megami Tensei franchise, Soul Hackers is mostly a first-person affair. Except when choosing a location in Amami City to visit, the player will be moving around increasingly large dungeons, which are not a cause for concern when the 3DS allows a map to be constantly displayed, and can even show the whole thing instead of just where the player has already been. Another change for the 3DS is to allow the player to alter the difficulty at any time, though even on the low setting losing the protagonist equates to an instant Game Over. He isn't a weak character in battle, but some spells that are not technically instant death will still kill him before the player has a chance to do anything. Fortunately there is a way to save at any time, reducing the amount of time a cheap death can cost the player.

   Where Soul Hackers shows its age a bit is with out-of-battle aspects. Except during the comparatively brief Vision Quest segments, there is no way to simply heal the party in one move. Instead its members must individually have sessions with whatever acupuncture or masseuse specialists can cater to the demon population. There are five shops selling various equipment and sundries instead of one, and in the case of the two featuring equippable material their inventories simply expand instead of eliminating the outmoded stuff. The game sets a limit on items in the current inventory of ten, which can be annoying if defeated demons insist on dropping large quantities of the same thing. None of this is massively exasperating, but it does make inventory management take up more time than necessary. One item the game lacks entirely is something to take the party out of a dungeon instead of manually trudging back to the entrance, a decision that forces the player to see the same scenery often.

Disappointingly, no one addresses the possibility that Superman Disappointingly, no one addresses the possibility that Superman's dog went into this chip.

   Most of the dialogue in Soul Hackers is voiced, and Atlus did a good job producing actors who do it justice. The game's music is quite good, much of it intentionally sounding rather like 90s dance floor fodder. Each dungeon has a unique theme, and the variety of short compositions for other scenarios adds up to a soundtrack with tracks that hit the triple digits. For a game that can be finished in under thirty hours, that wide gamut of music is quite impressive.

   Visuals are somewhat more dated, though not ugly. Most of the scenery when marching through the dungeons is repeated constantly, making the map even more useful to prevent getting lost. Battle images are nice but mostly static, and it is interesting to note just how many demon illustrations are still being used by Atlus in newer Shin Megami Tensei titles — the number is not small.

   Certain questions posed along the way in the narrative demand a response from the protagonist, but the ending of the game does not greatly alter based on the replies, and there is no clear distinction among the queries to mark the series' usual standard of alignment. The demons follow a variety of alignment options and will often refuse to work with certain personalities, but Soul Hackers does not measure the protagonist in the same way. There is content available only after seeing the ending to justify further exploration of Amami City, however.

   Soul Hackers is definitely a creation of the mid 90s, but hardly a relic that is resistant to attempts in the present to play it. Shin Megami Tensei aficianados will already be interested, but anyone looking for a compelling 3DS title should at least give it consideration. Its mechanics are often less friendly than they should be, and having a supposedly instant death-proof hero get killed multiple times is unfortunately something that comes with this series' territory. When I wasn't screaming at the game for giving me another ultra-cheap Game Over, though, it was enjoyable to play and created a memorable world to explore. Considering how many games fail to do that, Soul Hackers deserves credit.

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