Hack to the Future
Don’t call it a comeback…but the 3DS release of Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers takes a sort-of dated 1997 Saturn RPG and sort-of includes enough new features to make it playable in 2013. It has a good cast and interesting story, demons up the wazoo, and that classic 90s Shin Megami Tensei tone you just don’t see anymore. On the other hand, it retains a lot of clunky baggage from a bygone era that won’t pass without scrutiny these days, nor will it have wide appeal, i.e., to the Persona crowd. That said, it’s the perfect game for those who have an affinity for dungeon crawlers or crave older RPGs.
Soul Hackers’ story, about a city-wide network and the conflict that ensues from its sinister exploitation, is certainly dated, but it’s a charming kind of dated. Ditto for the cast, who are endearing without being completely overbearing; they have character without completely wearing out their archetypes, doubly effective now that the 3DS version contains full voice work. One thing is for sure, both plot and characters were penned in the Cozy Okada / Kazuma Kaneko creative superduo era that was less afraid to take narrative risks (though perhaps not as fearless as some). It’s halfway in tone between a normal Shin Megami Tensei game and all that entails, and a Persona, especially 2. In other words, it goes some unique places.
The original release of Soul Hackers was already one of the more playable Shin Megami Tensei games of the pre-Nocturne era, with easier exploration, more varied combat, and more full-featured support systems compared to its predecessors. However, because it’s still at heart a nearly two-decades-old dungeon crawler, the 3DS version offers some concessions to make things smoother, though maybe not as smooth as it could be. For starters, a small number of “hacks” can be toggled on and off at any time, such as a difficulty selector or whether or not you want to be bothered by demon alignment restrictions (hint: you don’t). There’s even a hack that goes so far as to display dungeons’ full maps on the bottom screen from the very beginning, so exploration can be made as painless as you want it. Though, as it goes for the genre, certain dungeons may still evoke frustration and cursing, and the game’s menus still have a layered clumsiness that were in dire need of some streamlining.
Soul Hackers’ combat will hold the interest of those who like solid turn-based battle systems, but don’t come in expecting something too deep. All the familiar spells and skills are here, just without the Press Turn System or a variant thereof to make it layered. Battle speed is considerably higher compared to the original, so it’s still satisfying to hit hard and often, and random battles ensure you won’t be running short of punching bags. A wrinkle to the combat is a demon loyalty system where demons will either gladly obey your commands or completely refuse, depending if the selected command matches their personality type. It’s not that difficult to pin down but absolutely maddening if a demon is being completely cantankerous, as if loyalty reaches zero, the demon will part from your company in a huff. Soul Hackers also adheres to the archaic MAG system, which is a consumable resource that is exhausted at every step in dungeons and with every summoning; it can be a headache early on but is hardly a factor later in the game, making its inclusion a matter of tradition that could have benefited from another one of those nifty hacks to diminish its importance.
Of course, most of your success in the series depends on how you manage your demon party, and Soul Hackers has them in spades with nearly 300. While negotiation is still as random as it ever was (and is), demon fusion is less complex in Soul Hackers than in modern SMT titles and the original release even included a searchable fusion index (think Devil Survivor’s), which may actually make it more enjoyable for some. The 3DS version adds a compendium feature which modernizes the process of obtaining fusion fodder, and includes a set 30 demons that can be obtained exclusively through StreetPass tags and Play Coins, which will probably drive completionists mad (speaking from experience).
The game’s 3D graphics will not impress, being largely unchanged from the Saturn version. In fact, they might turn off some, as the dungeon textures are so blurry you’d think you were drunk, and the choppiness of the framerate isn’t going to win it any favors either, though a new turbo walking speed somewhat mitigates the latter. Anything 2D in the game, from demon designs to character portraits to pre-rendered backgrounds, still holds up, however. As expected, stereoscopic 3D adds very little, but the enemy battle sprites look neat every once in a while with it cranked up. The music features some of Shoji Meguro’s earliest work, but it’s largely a collaborative effort with now ex-Atlus composer Toshiko Tasaki, and the last original effort in the series by founding SMT composer Tsukasa Masuko. Overall, it’s a bit mellower than you might be expecting, but it sets the mood just fine.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is like playing a slightly modernized Saturn game on your 3DS. Like the PSP ports of the first three Persona games, the symptoms those games suffered from were given quick and dirty bandaging rather than the full, robust treatments they needed and, similar to them, Soul Hackers is a diamond-in-the-rough that deserved more than a mere spit-shine. But to the right audience, i.e., rabid Shin Megami Tensei fans, this first-ever English release of Soul Hackers is just the meal you’re looking for to hold you over until Shin Megami Tensei IV.