Soul Hackers is a classic story of an excellent RPG that was denied a chance at the United States market. While Final Fantasy VII did open the gates of acceptance for more RPGs in America, it is sad to see that RPG fans are still this far from winning the war against the game approval boards.
While not toatlly Japanese literate, my understanding of the game is that the main hero is a member of a group of hackers called "The Spookies." I will only cover the very beginning of the game's plot here, since I don't have the time or skill to type a full storyline. The game starts off with a news announcement that Algon Soft has finished its development of "Paradigm X," an Interntet VR program. As the broadcast ends, we see the hero and his freind Hitomi hacking into Algon Soft's records, and giving themselves access to Algon. From there, the story introduces you to the hero's family, and the rest of the Spookies. The leader of the Spookies shows you the "Gun Type PC,"
or "COMP" as it is commonly refered to. He doesn't know what to do with it, and it's locked with a password that he can't crack.
The hero plugs up the COMP to a regular computer and finds that he can use it to access Paradigm X. Once there, he sees a broadcast relating to Algon's creation of Paradigm X. When he tires to leave, the action picks up. The spirit of an ancient summoner, Redman, tells you about a grave calamity that must be stopped, but nobody has the power to do so. To give you the power, he sends you on a "Vision Quest."
Vision Quests in Soul Hackers are where the Hero's soul is sent back in time to inhabit the body of someone who can shed light on the situation just before their untimely demise. In this first quest, you are Urabe. He is a summoner who breaks into Algon's net Service building to steal the Nemissa Program. Urabe has a "COMP." In fact, it is the same one Spooky showed you. Urabe uses the COMP to Summon demons that fight along side him during battle. Urabe starts at level 20, and his demons are of comperable level, so the battles here are to give the player practice more than anything else. Once Urabe uploads the Nemissa program into his COMP, he is discovered by the Phantom
Society's Summoners. He would stand and fight, but he had to delete his demons to make room for the Nemissa program. In the end, Urabe is chased down and killed. However, you are given the password for the COMP just before he dies.
Once the Hero unlocks the COMP, the Nemissa program activates and poseses Hitomi. From there on, Hitomi and Nemissa inhabit the same body. When Nemissa is active, she is very pale with white hair and black lips. Hitomi is much more normal looking. With Nemissa, and the rest of the Spookies, the hero is drawn into a plot of soul stealing via the internet, devil summoning, vision quests, and ultimately the confrontation with Manitou, a creature that feeds and learns from the souls of humans.
The game's graphics are reported to be unchanged from the Sega Saturn original. The special effects in battle are all very nice, if a bit pixelated, the battle images of the monsters lack any animation, but are drawn nicely, and the heroes are not shown visibly on screen at all. Think of games with battle screens such as Wizardry, or Might and Magic to envision how battles look. Soul hackers, though, has much better special effects, and cleaner looking sprites. The character portraits are done in a dark anime style, and are nice to look at. The game's dungeons are entirely 1st person POV, but a number of them (especially the grocery store) try to look authentically decorated.
The music is all the variety of techno that is more suited to listening as opposed to dancing, and that's good. Personally, I prefer listening techno over dance floor techno in the first place. Almost all of it is pleasureable to listen to, but the Spookies Truck music really got on my nerves with how often I had to listen to it. One interesting note about the music is that when the game reaches "Full Moon" the music changes, usually to sound more urgent or menacing. This is to reflect that on a Full Moon, monsters are in no mood to
While the game is intriguing in its other respects, the thing that truly shines here is the gameplay. The only human party members you will have are the Hero and Nemissa. Your party can accomidate six characters, though (the other four slots are filled by Demons). When you get into a fight with a demon whose alignment is in agreement with the hero's they may join you if you talk to them correctly. BTW, the Hero's alignment is Light (out of Light, Neutral, Dark) and neutral (out of Lawful, Neutral, Chaos). When traveling with Lawful demons, the hero will become Lawful, and when traveling with Chaotic demons, he will become Chaotic. Dark demons will not join you unless you have a special COMP module installed, but I'll get to that later. These
deomons travel around in your COMP until you decide to summon them. Once summoned, they will consume an ammount of magnetite. Magnetite is what allows the demons to manifest in the human world. They demand an ammount to be summoned, plus an ammount payed every step you take with them to stay with you. Magnetite can be bought, sold, found from dead demons, and traded.
Demons are nice additions to the party, but they never increase in level. When Demons become too weak to use, you can fuse them together either with the COMP or at the hotel on the sea. It's better to do it at the Hotel becasue you are allowed access to hidden fusions, and can fuse up to 3 demons at once. The COMP only allows for 2 demons in a fusion. While you cannot talk Dark demons into joining you, you can create and summon them safely in this manner. You can also sacrifice some special demons for items, but usually they aren't worth the sacrifice. You could also sacrifice them to a special sword to give the sword new attack power or elementals.
The six member party consists of three people in the front and three in the back. Note, you cannot have someone in the back row unless some other creauture is in front of them. The ranges of attack in Soul hackers are varied and fun to experiment with. One thing that is important to remember is that the only person who has to die in order for you to lose is the hero, so make sure he is well defended at all times. Don't put him in the back row all the time though, becasue he is NOT a magician; he's made for fighting. Nemissa on the other hand, is a magic user. You are allowed to allocate points to their statistics at every level up, so be sure not to leave them weak in areas that could get them killed... espeically the hero.
The sheer depth offered in Soul Hackers is amazing. It is on par with and, possibly, deeper than Persona; and that's saying a lot. Perhaps the game's depth is why it was refused an American release. In the end, I would wholeheartedly recomend Soul Hackers to anyone who liked Persona, and who doesn't mind playing an RPG in Japnaese. After all, no American will ever be able to play this truly astounding game in any other language.