(Nintendo 3DS Review) Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers

Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 8 = Excellent

The Shin Megami Tensei series has grown exponentially in recent years due in large part to the increase in popularity of the Persona line. After a lengthy detour consisting of several role-playing releases and a fighter spin-off, the main series returns with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers for 3DS. Gone are the relationship-building sequences, random dungeons, and event scenes of Persona, elements that have dominated the Shin Megami Tensei line in recent years, replaced by the more traditional mixture of first-person dungeon crawling, negotiating with demons, and a cyberpunk-themed world steeped in now-archaic futuristic what-ifs.

Despite Soul Hackers’ quasi-futuristic setting, it will be a nostalgic trip back in time for many players. That isn’t surprising when considering that the game is actually well over a decade old, originally released in 1997 for the Sega Saturn. As one of the many Japanese role-playing games that wasn’t translated into English during the 1990s, it is only now, thanks to the genre’s and Atlus’ rise in popularity, that gamers will finally get the chance to explore the demon-infested streets of Amami City.

One of the most immediately striking things about Soul Hacker is how little has changed since its original release. Whether players are navigating their stylized icon around the world map and talking with random passersby, exploring one of the dungeons (re: buildings), or watching a cinematic sequence, everything is decidedly 32-bit. Textures are plain, animations are limited, and cutscenes are littered with artifacts. Heck, even the story is dated. How well this sits with the player will largely depend on how they view the era. I happen to look back on it fondly, and as a result, many aspects that might not sit well with some players were instead quite endearing to me. That’s especially true for the story, which centers on demons spilling out into the hyper-connected city of Amami and the new state-of-the-art virtual world of Paradigm X. As one of the six members of the Spookies hacker group, players will hack into and explore facilities throughout cities both real and virtual. What makes this all so charming is that so much of what is intended to be far out and cool, from the idea of a virtual currency to the hackers’ attitudes, is now either commonplace or passé. However, I found those same elements to be incredibly effective at evoking that sense of wonder when the Internet felt like this amazing and mysterious realm where anything was possible, however crazy or marvelous.

The story, as charmingly rose-tinted as it is, is fairly basic on the whole, and is set firmly behind the game’s real focus: combat. By utilizing a gun-shaped device called the GUMP, players will be able to battle against, negotiate with, fuse together, and summon demons. These weird creatures are the rank-and-file of the player’s party, with the only two permanent characters being the protagonist and their friend Hitomi—well, Nemissa, the demon currently possessing and bickering with Hitomi. Many of the demons and the powers they wield will be familiar to fans of Persona, such as Izanami and Atlus’ mascot Jack Frost. The demons have their own attitudes and skill sets, but unlike in the other titles, they do not level during play and must be replaced by recruitment or fusion. Of course, this all presupposes that they will join the player’s party. Before each round of combat, players are given the option to chat with the demons they are up against. Their reaction varies depending on the demon and those the player has in their stable. Some demons want a gift, while others prefer to fight, tell a joke, or ask a question. If the battle is going against them, they might surrender and offer themselves up or rage in their despair and lash out. The moon also comes into play, as its alignment in the sky affects the demons in different ways, causing some to become more powerful and others to be more talkative. Getting a handle on all of this takes time, even more so than usual because of how stingy the game is with information. But wooing or creating a demon is only the first stage in a long, and hopefully fruitful, relationship.

Demons have attitudes that must be accommodated. If their preference is ignored, they not only become insubordinate but some can become downright indignant and abandon the party. Making them happy and keeping them that way is essential in planning and implementing effective strategies; letting a relationship deteriorate can have dire consequences, such as a pivotal front-liner taking a walk in the middle of a dungeon or a party falling because a disgruntled demon refused to cast a heal spell. Properly ensuring they are satisfied with their lot is all about placating them. Wild demons, for instance, are happiest when told to attack, while Kind demons appreciate being protected. The temptation to set combat to Auto is strong, especially given how the high encounter rate can bog down the turn-based system, but that can be deadly if a string of poor choices is selected. Keeping them satisfied not only makes them more compliant, but it also strengthens special Extra attacks whose potency increases with loyalty. Reactions vary greatly as well, with jokes, taunts, and questions interspersed with gibberish that needs to be translated, interested demons walking away because of their dislike for a type already in the player’s service, and some even give a gift. No one said demon wrangling would be easy.

Summoned demons represent a constant drain on the player’s resources by their consumption of an energy called Magnetite, or Mag, whenever they are in a dungeon. Mag is gained after each successful battle and is easily attainable, but it’s also heavily in demand by others, which requires that players balance how much they save for tackling dungeons plus resurrecting, healing, and restoring party members as well as exchanging for cash. Cash isn’t as attainable, and since new gear can be quite expensive, there is a persistent temptation to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate and dump a lot of Mag for Yen towards new kit. For flush players, a bank within Paradigm X offers an interest rate for depositors, but my pockets were rarely so full.

The biggest obstacle to progression won’t be Mag consumption or empty pockets, though, but demons lagging behind the rapidly increasing difficulty. The need to constantly fuse new, stronger demons is a struggle throughout the game given the random nature of the encounters and the demons’ personalities. While this approach does add an additional layer of challenge, I found it to be a time-consuming nuisance the longer I played. Continuous party shake-ups might seem like a good thing, keeping combat fresh and exciting, but I would have preferred the stability of a reliable, more persistent roster that I could grow alongside for longer periods of time.

The GUMP has several powers that alter the gameplay, some of which are new to the 3DS version. Throughout the game, new programs can be unlocked or purchased that can be installed to allow for saving anywhere, the automapping and annotating of dungeons, and increasing the chances of talking during full moons. However, a limited number of memory blocks restrict how many programs can be installed, and a further limit is imposed by the more powerful programs requiring more memory. The ability to swap software out at the team’s HQ, an RV parked in a garage, or at each dungeon’s Terminal offers a degree of customization for those who prefer to tweak as they go. The GUMP has been given increased functionality thanks to a series of optional on-the-fly hacks new to the handheld version. These are accessible at any time by touching the bottom screen and can increase or decrease the difficulty, automatically reveal a dungeon’s map, negate a demon’s alignment requirement, and unlock all demon analyses. Being something of a purist, or as close to one as I can be playing an updated re-release, I left these off; however, the amount of grinding that has to be done at times should make this a welcome addition for newer role players.

One feature I did take advantage of is the Nemechi program, which is a program that allows players to purchase special demons by using D-Souls. These are accumulated by utilizing the StreetPass feature or by trading in Play Coins, Nintendo’s currency that’s automatically earned via the system’s built-in pedometer. A Nemechi avatar that represents the program can itself be upgraded with D-Souls to add more demons for purchase. This is an interesting feature that fits in well with Atlus’ general approach of taking advantage of everything the 3DS has to offer, and I’ll freely admit to walking a few miles to add a few particularly interesting demons to my roster.

Soul Hackers was a solid role-playing game when it was released, and it remains so today. However, its design is showing its age. To use two recent Atlus-published titles as examples, the game lacks the dynamic relationship system of a Persona 4 Golden and the layered, addictive combat of an Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan. The story’s themes and premise are charming, but the actual plot plods along from conversation to conversation without ever being truly engaging. The game’s main hook, interacting with demons, is interesting but ultimately wasn’t compelling enough to keep me clutching my 3DS into the wee hours of the morning. Some lingering issues with text cropped up from time to time as well, such as words appearing outside text boxes, but I fortunately did not run into the freeze bug encountered by others. On the other hand, it’s surprising how well Soul Hackers has held up considering its 16-year-old design was only marginally altered for the re-release. All things considered, while it might not be the newest kid on the block, it still has a lot of life left in it.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is an old-style dungeon-crawler that feels like it’s from 1997 because it’s straight from 1997. Despite some age spots starting to show on its engine and design, Soul Hackers remains an enjoyable and charming adventure that will appeal to fans of old-school dungeon-crawlers and those wanting to chew the fat with some insane demons.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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