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EGM Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers

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Posted on April 18, 2013 AT 09:22am

Summoning the past

Part of me didn’t want to play Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers.

When the game was first released for the Saturn back in 1997, it was an awesome-looking Japanese RPG that I hoped would somehow make its way to me via an English-language version. Then, two years later, when Atlus re-released it on the PlayStation, I once again held out that hope—only to find out that the game was something Sony’s American division wasn’t interested in having available for their home console.

Time moved on; gaming platforms came and went. The words “Shin Megami Tensei” finally became something gamers outside of a select hardcore group of MegaTen loyalists recognized, and we got to a point where it would be shocking if the latest title in the franchise weren’t released here in the States—not if it were.

And yet, there sat Soul Hackers, an eternal reminder that there would just be some Shin Megami Tensei/Devil Summoner games destined to remain lost to the outside world forever. At some point, people like me just gave up hope that we’d ever see it released in English beyond a fan translation that started up for the PS1 version back in 2009.

However, as a wise man—Justin Bieber—once said, “Never say never.” A similar fate had once befallen Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and yet, in September of 2011, we finally, officially received that game in English thanks to its PSP rerelease. Prayers were whispered, hands were clenched in hope, and then, the unthinkable happened: Almost exactly one year ago, word came out that Atlus would be reworking Soul Hackers for the 3DS. Here it was—our chance to finally get the game outside of Japan.

The problem is, 15-plus years can change a lot about a game. Elements that were groundbreaking or cutting-edge at the time could now come across as out of date or cheesy. As much as I love going back to older MegaTen games, such as the original Persona, I know how tough it can be—and that’s with having first experienced them properly back in the day. With Soul Hackers, I’d be coming in totally new and without nostalgia to fall back upon, and the 2013 me has come a long way from the 1997 me in terms of what I can and cannot put up with in my games.

So, as excited as I was to finally get the chance to experience it, part of me didn’t want to play Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers.

Jumping into Soul Hackers’ Amami City, some of its elements and ideas do now come off as adorably quaint. In this sci-fi-and-cyberpunk-inspired look into the near future, we’re given a fantastical world where everybody has a computer in their home, those computers are connected together via a high-speed network, and part of that power can be used to create a virtual world where a massive amount of people can come together and interact with one another. I mean, such ideas are madness!

The thing is, Soul Hackers is another in a long line of examples of why I’ve become such a fan of Atlus’ MegaTen efforts. Once you get past those little elements where you can laugh at how silly they now seem, you’re reminded that the reason you play these games is for their story and characters. The cast of protagonists at the heart of Soul Hackers—a group of computer experts known as the Spookies—are interesting because they don’t just exist to fall into a set of stereotypical roles. They’re presented as real people living real lives, and when outside of the craziness of what happens as the story progresses, we get to learn that about them. My favorite member of the Spookies is Hitomi; she’s set up to be your classic soft-spoken female member of the group, but it isn’t long before her body is invaded by the spirit of a demon named Nemissa. Having a brash, vivacious otherworldly being as your main partner is really interesting, and the banter she has with the softer-spoken and more cautious Hitomi is always fun to read.

(As a quick note, there’s a character in Soul Hackers who’s somewhat obnoxious in his portrayal as the “effeminate gay” stereotype. While I’m not totally happy with the character, I’m also very aware of how progressive Atlus as a company has been over the years when it comes to making attempts to more legitimately portray LGBT characters. Also, the discuss of Japan’s handling of such characters in popular media also makes the conversation way more complicated than could be discussed in the midst of a review such as this.)

Soul Hackers’ storyline is also skillfully crafted. If you’ve played at least a few MegaTen games in your life, it won’t exactly be original: Strange events are going down, main character comes into the ability to befriend and summon demons, and you work to unlock a series of mysteries until you find out the truth of what’s happening in your city. The key to these games is always how that story is executed, and Soul Hackers does a really great job of continually presenting new situations to keep things moving and keep everything feeling fresh. Some elements really surprised me—such as the “Vision Quests” you go on, where you get to experience brief moments in the lives of previous Summoners—but a few other pieces of the game, such as the in-game virtual world Paradigm-X, do feel a little underdeveloped.

Give the age (and original platforms) of Soul Hackers, I went into the 3DS remake really expecting to enjoy its drama and dramatis personae, but not its gameplay. These games—and the genres they inhabit—have greatly evolved since 1997, and I was afraid that Soul Hackers wouldn’t feel as fresh as it would’ve during the era of its original release. To my surprise and delight, that actually wasn’t the case. To be fair, this is definitely a game that was made many years ago, and at times, modern-day design would allow for a better overall experience. Still, I was taken aback by how well Soul Hackers stand up not just in terms of storytelling, but also in its gameplay.

That great balance I talked about before also comes into play here. While Atlus’ MegaTen efforts are often accompanied by copious amounts of trademark dungeon-crawling, here the first-person 3D mazes aren’t the core of the games—they’re just one of many pieces that build that core. Exploration and survival are both key components of Soul Hackers, but the dungeons serve their purpose without ever being too long or exhausting. If you’re the kind of person who loves the crazy challenge of games such as Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, the dungeon-crawling here might feel almost anemic; for me, it was a nice change of pace.

That’s not to say that you won’t find plenty of challenge. I’m absolutely not one to reminisce about the “good old days” of random battles, but damn if I didn’t get a kick out of Soul Hackers’ combat. Like many a MegaTen game, your success (or failure) in battle will come down to your skill at recruiting and utilizing a menagerie of demonic friends.

I’ve always liked the idea of being able to talk to monsters instead of fighting them, ever since I was first introduced to the idea back in the original Phantasy Star. That’s become a big component of Atlus’ RPG output, and in Soul Hackers, four of your six party slots will need to be filled with those demons that you can convince to help you out. Successfully charm a demon (or pay them off), and they’ll become available as a party member. Demons can be summoned or dismissed at will, or—once they get too weak for your current adventuring—you can cart them off to be fused together to make stronger and even stranger companions.

Soul Hackers features a few twists on these common MegaTen ideas, though. Partnering with demons relies on Magnetite, a mysterious energy source that’s spent whenever calling forth, traveling with, or healing demons. Run too low on Magnetite, and you and Nemissa will be heading off into battle on your own. Another very cool aspect is COMP software, where you can purchase and install new apps for your computer that will change or modify various aspects of the game. Some of these new options will make life easier for you, while others can be absolute lifesavers—such as gaining the ability to save anywhere you like, instead of just at the game’s predetermined save points.

Even if you’ve got plenty of Magnetite reserves and a COMP full of powerful software, you’ve still got another important resource to manage: the demons themselves.

Probably the most compelling aspect of Soul Hackers is something that one might actually consider to be a gameplay element that works against the player: Each demon you recruit has a personality type, one that indicates how they do—and do not—prefer to act. For example, Kind demons don’t enjoy hurting others and would rather act as healers; Sly demons, meanwhile, will happily fry your foes with a well-placed casting of Maragi but don’t want to do anything that might get themselves up close to danger. As their master, you’re presented with one of two options: Let them decide for themselves what to do every turn or directly tell them what do to, running the risk of giving them an order that’ll drop their loyalty if they’re unhappy with the command.

Taking the route of avoiding micromanagement makes battles go faster—well, outside of specific fights that might need a finer strategy—but it also creates an intriguing atmosphere to the entirety of Soul Hackers. Associating with a wild bunch of demonic entities shouldn’t always be an easy process, and the setup really makes it feel like you’re teaming up with living, thinking beings instead of just a bunch of random AI partners. If you want that finer control, it’s there, and items exist that will help you convince your brood to do things they normally wouldn’t want to do. That’s not how I wanted to play, though—because it’s not the exciting way to play.

At the same time, my experience with Soul Hackers wasn’t what it could’ve been–and my biggest complaints came not from gameplay relics of a bygone era, but instead from things that cropped up during the process of bringing Soul Hackers back. For example, not enough was done to update the interface in ways in which the 3DS and its dual screens could make the game better. As many MegaTen games as I’ve played, I can’t always keep my tarukajas and sukundas separate in my head, so why not let me touch on the spell name on the bottom screen and get an explanation? The touchscreen is woefully underutilized, with its only real touch function being the option to bring up a menu that easily could’ve been mapped to another button. Also, this is one of the sloppiest translation efforts I’ve seen from Atlus USA in a while—the English dialogue is great, but on numerous occasions, I saw examples such as text or numbers overflowing from the boxes in which they were supposed to be contained.

Still, for a game that I was originally afraid would fail to live up to the expectations I’d created my head, I got an enormous amount of enjoyment out of Soul Hackers. Sure, it wasn’t as polished a remake of a 32-bit RPG as I’d like to have seen, but those hiccups don’t ruin what’s otherwise a great game. I’m really quite astonished that, more than 15 years later, Soul Hackers has held up as well as it does. It still won’t be for everyone—and it might be too old-fashioned in comparison to other 3DS MegaTen offerings, such as the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei IV—but not only am I happy that we finally got the chance to experience this game in English, I’m also glad that all that time spent waiting ended up being worth it.

Developer: Atlus • Publisher: Atlus • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.16.2013
8.5

While it can’t always escape the reality of being a dungeon-crawling RPG originally released in 1997, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers has stood up amazingly well to the tests of time, and it still stands as an enjoyable, engrossing experience into the near-future world of demonic warfare.

The Good After all these years, Soul Hackers still feels as fresh and new as many current-gen releases.
The Bad The work on bringing the game back could have received more effort.
The Ugly The unfortunate lack of diversity in voice actors. While I like the actors, I’ve heard them too many other times in other Shin Megami Tensei/Persona games!
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is available exclusively on the Nintendo 3DS.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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