domstercool's Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers (Nintendo 3DS) review

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Soul Hackers is a solid taster into sampling a blast from the past.

If there is one thing I have no shame in supporting it’s the idea of old Japanese games getting remade for current systems, especially ones that offer the chance to bring exclusive Japanese titles to the West. The idea that I am missing an entry in a series that I adore is a painful thing to think about. Just ask any Suikoden fan and you’ll hear them grumble about titles that never made it out of the Land of the Rising Sun. Having jumped into the Shin Megami Tensei games during the PS2 era, I had missed a lot of the history behind the series, so it was great to hear that Atlus were revisiting their catalogue and bringing fans the opportunity to play Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers (I’m just going to call it Soul Hackers from now on, because that’s one long title), a Sega Saturn and PlayStation title that has never seen the light of day outside of Japan until it’s arrival on the 3DS.

Soul Hackers takes place in Amami City, a metropolitan that is setting an example for urban redevelopment for the country of Japan. This once small town was revamped into a high-tech city, where technology, such as PCs and access to high-speed internet, are freely available to anyone who lives in this futuristic place. Taking a step further, the government has just rolled out closed beta invites for the citizens of Amami to participate in the upcoming virtual 3-D city named Paradigm X – think OZ from the Japanese animated movie Summer Wars and you’ll have an idea what Paradigm X is trying to be for the citizens of Amami.

The main character is a silent protagonist, named by you, who is part of a group of hackers known as “Spookies.” Using his knowledge in tinkering with software, the protagonist gets himself a beta code by replacing a genuine winner with his own name. It’s not long till the hero finds out that Paradigm X is hiding something, as the protagonist meets a spirit that shows him the final living minutes of an Amami employee. This leads to the hero gaining the ability to interact and control demons through the use of a COMP (should sound familiar for people who have played Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked), while also accidentally releasing an amnesiac demon named Nemissa, who inhabits Hitomi, a childhood friend of the main character and a member of Spookies. Nemissa has no physical body, so she lives inside Hitomi for the duration of the game. She initially overpowers Hitomi for the right to use her body, which is symbolised by Hitomi’s hair changing colour to silver when Nemissa is in control, then reverting back to brown when Hitomi is her natural self. Nemissa becomes the protagonist side-kick, helping him to solve the mystery that shrouds the city of Amami, but also adding some comedy with amusing banter between her and Hitomi.

There are some laughable moments when you think about how 90s this game feels in regards to its prediction of what an internet-powered future would be like. That’s not a knock on Atlus’ translation team; they have once again done a top job in bring the game across, but you can’t help but look back in time and think “what was this obsession with virtual reality?” Soul Hackersdoes tell a good, mature-themed story that feels very original, and this 90s vision of the future has its charm. One of the highlights of the Shin Megami Tensei series is its settings, as the present time and supernatural theme give the series a unique element in the RPG genre.

After the initial, brand new, anime opening, you might be led to believe this is a full remake of the game, but in actual fact, it’s more of a retuned port than a remake. The visuals, for the most part, are still pulled from the PlayStation era, and the sprites remain the same, but with retuned animations. Even the old full-motion video is intact, and this is clear as day when it’s playing since black boarders appear around the 3DS screen as the original resolution of the video is initiated during the video clip. The character portraits have been redrawn, but that’s the only new art you’re going to find in this 3DS release. For an added bonus, there are 30 new demons that weren’t in the original game, plus the addition of voice over work – only in English – which is mostly good. There is actually a fair amount of dialogue – even most NPC’s have a voice to be heard.

As for the game, Soul Hackers is a first-person dungeon crawler, but without the modernisation that comes with titles that still use this style of gameplay. Atlus’ own Etrian Odyssey IV is a good example of bringing the genre into the current times. Soul Hackers is a title that is essentially stuck in the late 90s, but Atlus doesn’t try to cover this up, and this is a perfectly fine release, especially on the 3DS handheld, where its purpose isn’t really to shine with outstanding graphics. As a fan of the franchise, I grasp what I can to play missing entries in a beloved series, and Atlus has delivered in bringing a game across the ocean for the fans. It could have easily not bothered to care for lovers of Shin Megami Tensei.

The Shin Megami Tensei games of old have often used the first-person perspective, so it’s no surprise that this spin off followed the same formula, even the Persona series used this for its first incarnation before moving onto the more traditional RPG gameplay. It’s very easy to adapt to, and exploring the dungeons in Soul Hackers is hassle free – movement is locked to grids, similar to Etrian Odyssey, and there is even a map on the bottom screen of the 3DS that uncovers the surroundings as you adventure around the unknown. The designs of the dungeons are straight forward, and the environments are lifeless and unexciting, which is mostly due to its original design back in 1997. As I continued to play the game, I found the visuals soon became an afterthought, as the game’s complex and interesting combat makes up for its stylish, dated visuals.

Turn-based, random battles are the mechanics used for Soul Hackers. Your squad features the main character and Nemissa as the playable humans. Battles are speedy, due to the straightforward animations. If you know you can win, then you can auto-battle, which speeds it up even more. Like typical JRPGs, humans level up from experience, gaining a skill point to put into one of six stats. What makes Soul Hackers different from the norm is the use of the Shin Megami Tensei battle system. Up to four demons can join you in battle, but unlike the humans, these demons do not get any benefits from winning a battle – there is no experience points involved, meaning they stay at their original level. You’ll eventually need to stray from your original starters and begin to hire new demons to join the fray. How do you do this? By sparking up conversations with the demons while fighting them. It’s a fascinating mechanic that has been part of Shin Megami Tensei for a long time.

All the demons have a distinctive personality, which comes across in their ambiguous dialogue, and to recruit them, you must figure out what they demand. Some demons will be willing to join you, or will offer to join you after you give them a serious butt-kicking, but some are much trickier or demanding, usually wanting an item or money – acting as a bribe – before they think about joining a “filthy” human. The harder to acquire demons will pose questions, like asking the player “which part of the human tastes the best?” or “Let’s talk about something interesting.” These random conversations will often lead to the demon getting angry and fighting, or leaving the battle because they found you boring. It’s highly unlikely you’ll figure out exactly what needs to said to on your first try. Having more powerful demons requires extra magnetite, the source of energy that lets your demons run wild in the real world. Even though this is a currency, I never felt like I was in danger of running out, since you gain so much magnetite from successfully winning battles that managing it becomes unimportant.

Hiring new demons isn’t the only way to improve your army, as you can take existing team members and fuse them to create a more powerful demon. You cannot fuse demons that are above your level (same with hiring them in battle), so expect some grinding at points in the game. Using the fuse system can be done whenever and wherever you want to, thanks to the fuse system being built into the COMP. It’s important to have a wide variety in the team, as strengths and weaknesses to elements have a huge impact in dealing good damage. Demons also have a loyalty rating, in which the lower the rating the more chance the demon will ignore your orders. Think of it similar to the Pokémon badges letting you control high-levels; it’s the same here, and, just like Pokémon, disobedience is something that rarely happens if you’ve been concentrating on your party.

Not much goes on outside of dungeons. A rendered map of the city is used to move from place to place, with a blob representing yourself as you travel on the paths that lead to key interests or other parts of the city. There is one area that is used for the game’s stores, where you can buy new equipment, heal party members or buy items. Another import area is the van where the Spookies gather. Here you can jump into the world of Paradigm X for some sight-seeing, mini-game action or answer some of the game’s Love Club questions – nothing spectacular, but the place is significant to the plot.

Soul Hackers can be a challenge game; it’s rooted in the old-school mentally of figuring things out, which means not all the mechanics are explained. Newly discovered bosses can often wipe out a party if you go in unprepared, resulting in the need to grind for experience, or at least grind for new demons to counter the strength of the boss. For this 3DS release, Atlus has added switches that make the game easier for newcomers who might not have heard of the RPG series until recently. This includes revealing all the map, changing the difficulty on the fly, ignoring demon alignments, and having all the demons analysed, which shows their strengths and weaknesses, making the fight easier for you to adapt to. All this is great news for less serious RPG players, while at the same time the people who want to experience the game in its original form still can.

With the release of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers It feels like Atlus are being the good guys by letting fans finally play the game. I hope this is a sign to come that Atlus is willing to dig deeper into its history and correct the wrong by bringing more of their catalogue to the west. While these aren’t “remakes,” they are an opening into a world of RPGs that have been locked away from English fans for too long.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a solid taster into sampling a blast from the past. It’s obviously aged a bit, which is clearly seen in this port, but the story is good and the rewarding, deep combat mechanics survive the test of time to make this a solid, satisfying RPG to play in 2013.

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