"Soul Hackers is by no means the greatest game produced under the SMT name, but any fan of the series will certainly find it enjoyable."
Just a few months before the highly anticipated release of Shin Megami Tensei IV, we finally get the North American release of Devil Summoner Soul Hackers, a "lost" game in the franchise that was first released back in 1997 but never made it to the West. The 3DS version has some updates from the original game, but for most players in the US, this will be their first exposure to Soul Hackers at all. How well does the game hold up today? Is it a worthy entry into the SMT franchise or not? Let's find out.
The story begins in Amami City, a "model city" where everything is connected and governed by an electronic network. The protagonist and his friend Hitomi are young members of a small group of hackers called the "Spookies," and are trying to hack the protagonist's name into a list of beta testers for a new online game of sorts called Paradigm X. Paradigm X is something of a cross between virtual reality and an MMO, where players can walk around town and talk, visit virtual attractions, and even buy pets and clothing. Once in the game, however, the protagonist is contacted by the mysterious Kinap, who hints at a calamity fast approaching Amami City, and before long, the Spookies encounter an organization called the Phantom Society who seeks to use Amami City to their own ends. As you might expect from an SMT game, the protagonist finds a computer-like device that has the capability to summon demons, chosen from folklore and mythology from all around the world, and uses this ability to fight the Phantom Society in an attempt to stop their plans. The story is a satisfying mix of what happens when science, technology, spirituality, and mythology mix together and certainly offers some interesting views of how to view the Internet in this context.
How the story is told throughout Soul Hackers is also of note. While there are many dialogue scenes throughout the game, the story is also told through "Vision Quests" that the protagonist is sent on at various points. These are essentially dungeons where you play as a character from Amami City's past and learn about their lives. To make things more intriguing, actions you take in the Vision Quests have effects on the main plotline; for example, you might create a password as a character in the past and use it in the present. This method of delivery helps the plotline evolve beyond the standard SMT formula and create its own identity amongst other games in the franchise. Sadly, where the story does fail somewhat is with the supporting characters. Your allies in Spookies appear often enough, but half of their dialogue seems devoted to just exposition about what is going on rather than character development. There are a few exceptions, but overall, I did not connect with them even by the end of the game. Many of the villains are also fairly stock or not shown enough for the player to learn more about them or their motives. Despite these flaws, however, Soul Hackers does still have a strong enough narrative to make you want to play and see what happens next.
The gameplay in Soul Hackers is similar to other SMT games in that it is a first person dungeon crawler with turn based battles. This might sound a bit boring at first, and some will undoubtedly find the game dated in this respect, but those with a desire to explore the labyrinthine world of Soul Hackers will be pleased. The battles are challenging and dungeons often have at least some sort of puzzle element to them. It is not all about fighting your way through, however, as you must learn to negotiate with demons you encounter in order to get them to join your cause. This ranges from answering seemingly random questions, to intimidating them, to just giving them items that they want. It takes some practice to go through these negotiations without just having the demons attack your party, and each demon species is different, offering additional challenges.
Where the real meat of Soul Hackers' gameplay comes in is the customization of your party. There are hundreds of demons to try out, each with different abilities, personalities, and alignments. Alignments serve as a way to restrict which demons can work together and which cannot; for example, a lawful demon cannot work with a chaotic demon. The demons' personalities are related to what kind of moves each demon likes to use in combat. In a given battle you are given the option to choose the demon's action or let it "go," so that it chooses what to do. If you tell a demon that likes to attack to use a healing spell, there is a decent chance it will disobey you and just do what it wants or nothing at all. This may sound somewhat arbitrary at first, but you can mitigate these effects by increasing a demon's loyalty through the use of various items.
Demon fusion is back as well, allowing you to further customize your party by fusing higher-level demons with abilities inherited from their "parents." You can also purchase new demons through Nemechi, a system exclusive to this remake that makes use of the 3DS Streetpass and Play Coin systems. Moreover, later in the game you are given a special sword that can be fused with demons to give it special properties such as elemental damage and you can even install programs on your demon-summoning comp that have effects varying from mundane (telling you the time) to useful (allowing you to save anywhere). All of these facets combine to make the battling experience in Soul Hackers enjoyable, and you will need to adapt your party appropriately if you are to take on the challenging boss battles later in the game.
As far as graphics go, Soul Hackers is fairly standard with few uses of the 3DS' capabilities which is disappointing. While there are some 3D effects such as enemies appearing behind each other in battle and dialogue being displayed in the "foreground" while characters are in the background, it really does not make a difference in the game. There are some reasonably good-looking CGI-style cutscenes involving the computer network, but they do not occur too often. The characters look good, however, and many of the supporting characters have unique and interesting designs that help them stand out. Even the shopkeepers have unique appearances. Most of the demons appear as they did in many other SMT games, but I think this breeds a level of familiarity and does not detract from the game at all.
The music in Soul Hackers was one area that disappointed me quite a bit. Many other SMT games have great musical scores that complement the storytelling nicely, as well as battle music that is often epic, catchy, or both. Soul Hackers' music, on the other hand, can be described as just mediocre. Almost no pieces are particularly memorable, including the frequently-heard battle music. All of the music is appropriate for when it is played, meaning nothing seems out of place, but it always just seems to fade into the background. This was a big disappointment for me, given that I often look forward to the musical choices this franchise has to offer, and I think they could have given this part of the game more attention.
Where Soul Hackers saves some face in the sound department, however, is in the fact that the game is fully-voiced in English. Just about every scene and every character, including minor NPCs, are voiced, lending a sense of life to the game. The characters' voices become one of the few connections you have to some of the less-developed supporting cast. While the voice performances are not superb, the actors did a good job and none of the voices come off as annoying or overacted at all unless the situation calls for it. The one downside is that I believe these voice files are in large part why the game takes up so much memory (if bought digitally): around 14000 blocks.
There is not too much to say about the controls in Soul Hackers as they are fairly standard for this type of title. You explore the dungeons use the d-pad and make selections with the face buttons. You can also use the 3DS' circular game pad to move the map on the bottom screen around, which can help in large dungeons. The touch screen is not used really at all, which may disappoint some people, but I would rather it not be used than have the developers through in some contrived function for it.
Overall, Devil Summoner Soul Hackers is a solid entry in the SMT franchise. It is by no means the greatest game produced under the name but any fan of the series will certainly want to play through it and will find it enjoyable. The story is intriguing, the customization for your party is fun, and the dungeons can be challenging. Getting through the main story can take anywhere from 25-40 hours depending on how much you want to explore and level up before boss fights. There are plenty of extra dungeons and bosses available for those desiring a further challenge after beating the game as well. It is great that this game has finally gotten released to a wider audience, and one can only hope that with its success, more of the older Shin Megami Tensei titles (how about 1 and 2?) will be released in North America as well. Either way, Soul Hackers is a well-made game and a great entry in the growing library of RPGs for the 3DS.