Title: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers
Release Date: April 16, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Atlus (Atlus)
ESRB Rating: “Mature” for Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes and Violence
About 16 years ago, Atlus made a Shin Megami Tensei spin-off for the Sega Saturn. Given that it wasn’t the most popular of the consoles at the time, as well as the mature nature of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, we never got the game. Instead, it lingered. It was trapped in Japan and many thought we’d never see an official release.
Then came the 3DS. Atlus pledged to support Nintendo’s newest handheld. The company decided that Soul Hackers would be a good fit, and here we are. Atlus is celebrating the game’s Sweet 16 with an updated port for North America and Japan. Fortunately, it still looks good for its age.
Demons and technology combine in an unholy fusion.
Think of Amami City as an experiment. This small town was approached by the Argon Company with an unusual proposition. The company wanted to make it the most technologically advanced city in the world, a beacon for others to follow. People were given computers. State of the art electronics are everywhere. The biggest addition, however, is Paradigm X, a virtual city just for Amami City residents.
Soul Hackers begins with our hero and his friend Hitomi at a public access terminal. He is hacking in to make sure he’s in the closed beta of Paradigm X. As he’s finishing, someone called Kinap warns him to finish and run, before he’s caught. He runs off to reunite with his fellow hackers. Our hero and Hitomi are members of Spookies, a group of hackers who investigate oddities from their mobile headquarters.
That’s when lots of crazy things start happening at once. Spookies’ leader, Spooky, finds an unusual computer-gun called a GUMP. The hero accesses Paradigm X, and almost has his soul stolen when he exits. Kinap appears as a wolf-ghost in Paradigm X, saving the hero and sending him on a spirit journey into the GUMP owner’s last moments. The hero activates the GUMP and the soul of a demon named Nemissa pops out and starts sharing Hitomi’s body. Not to mention the GUMP now recognizes the hero as its owner, making him a Demon Summoner, this providing him with the abilities necessary to investigate the shadowy Phantom Society that seems to have dark plans for Amami City. Things have gotten real.
Soul Hackers aged pretty well.
The first thing that struck me about Soul Hackers was how plausible it now seems. Back in 1997, when the game was released, there was no Second Life. We didn’t have tablets or netbooks. The idea of people being given computers and city-wide internet wasn’t imaginable. Yet Soul Hackers has the Second Life-esque Paradigm X, tablet-like GUMPs and there are cities like Philadelphia offering Municipal wireless networks, something that Amami City would certainly have. It’s striking and I think one of the reasons that Soul Hackers holds up so well. It blends the classic, supernatural Shin Megami Tensei elements we expect and enjoy, and puts it into a futuristic city that could really exist in 2013.
Presentation-wise, Soul Hackers is most similar to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona and Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. Players explore dungeons in a first person view, with an area map on the touch screen. As they explore, they accomplish objectives and often enter into random battles with demons or other Demon Summoners. These battles show only the demon opponents and are turn-based affairs.
Given the fact that the hero is a Demon Summoner, demons are a big deal in Soul Hackers. You live and die by your team, which means acquiring the best you can get is a major priority. Unlike human characters, like the hero and Nemissa, and the artificial demon Zeed, they don’t level up. Which means other methods have to be employed to have a top team. Negotiation is chief among them. When a random battle begins, players can attempt to talk with the demons. If there is a smiley face in the box showing their name, there’s a chance it could be recruited. Sometimes a nice talk will get one to join. Other times, they’ll see you’ve recruited another demon they know and will come along. Also, threatening and bribery can work. As a plus, talking to a demon that’s already been recruited can result in a gift of money or an item, and an immediate end to the battle.
There are other ways to acquire new demons in Soul Hackers. One is to fuse together existing demons. Combining two always results in a new, stronger demon. The other is Nemechi. Nemechi is something of a virtual pet that relies on StreetPass hits and Play Coins earned from walking with the 3DS. Evolving Nemechi with coins earned from StreetPass hits or walking provides access to buyable demons, which can then be recruited into the party.
Managing demons is also key. First, players must use Magnetite to pay demons. Summoning them isn’t free and this form of currency can be used to summon them to your party, pay to recruit new members and fuse creatures. Players also have to watch demons’ loyalty levels. There are certain types of personalities, like kind, sly and wild, and they will only become more loyal if a player lets them use the attacks they like. For example, a kind demon would prefer to heal, guard or buff. If a demon becomes disloyal, it won’t listen to commands and may leave the party. Choosing the “Go” command for non-boss battles lets them do as they please, and helps keep their loyalty levels in a safe zone.
It’s all pretty complicated. Not to mention, the battles can get pretty rough. Fortunately, Soul Hackers comes with built-in cheats. By tapping on the bottom screen, players can bring up a menu of cheats to enable. For example, the difficulty level of battles can be adjusted, you can choose if you only demons that match your alignment can be used and you can decide if the map for each dungeon will be automatically displayed on the touch screen or if you’ll have to explore on your own to create it. It’s a handy addition for people who want a more customized experience.
On a final note, it is to people’s benefit to play Soul Hackers twice. New Game+ is unlocked after the first run-through. Beating it again reveals an alternate ending. I haven’t seen this second ending, but an extra feature of that sort is always a positive addition to a game.
Dated, but definitely desirable
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a unique beast. It’s an intriguing part of the Shin Megami Tensei storyline, a look into the series past and offers an interesting look at how the supernatural can combine with futuristic technology. I was amazed at some of the story elements implemented, and how some of the futuristic elements introduced have actually started to appear in our reality. Yet, it’s definitely dated. You can see how the series has moved forward to become more streamlined and efficient. The presentation and some gameplay elements will probably turn some people more used to recent spin-offs like Persona 3, Persona 4 or Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey away.
Still, I wholeheartedly recommend Soul Hackers. I believe it’s an important piece of Shin Megami Tensei history. It’s a 3DS game that should be played, as it’s challenge and unusual perspective help expand the system’s library and range. So long as you’re both forgiving and tolerant when you play, you’ll enjoy exploring Amami City and Paradigm X.
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