Review – Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner Soul Hackers

While Square Enix has mostly been sitting on their hands the last couple of generations, Atlus has made a huge amount of headway into the hardcore JRPG market through constant, excellent releases in their Megami Tensei metaseries. They’ve stayed mostly on handhelds this generation, probably for cost reasons, but Atlus has still been providing new and exciting experiences. Soul Hackers is not one of these. And by that, I don’t mean the quality isn’t there, but the fact that Soul Hackers is actually a 1997 Sega Saturn game (Points for anyone that remembers that system) that was ported to the PS1, and has now found its way to the west for the first time on the 3DS. We don’t have a remake on our hands, but rather an enhanced port, meaning that most of the game’s assets are still there in their Sega Saturn glory, but there is a smattering of new content, which won’t affect pretty much anyone in the west as they’ve never had a chance to play the original. Soul Hackers is an old school first person dungeon crawler, and in that way it is very similar to Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey, which was released on the Nintendo DS in 2010. However, being a game that was made sixteen years ago, the real question is whether the rather ancient mechanics still stack up to today’s market.

This cover is a pretty good test. If it interests you, you will probably like this game.
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Soul Hackers is the second game in the Devil Summoner spin off to the main SMT series. Some western fans may be familiar with the most recent Raidou games that were released on the PS2; however, Soul Hackers does not even begin to resemble either of those games, so it’s best to avoid the comparison. This game lives and dies by its cyberpunk setting, and rudimentary understanding of what hacking is. It’s all very 90s, which may be very nostalgic for some while mystifying others. The setting helps give this game its own “soul” if you don’t mind the pun. Few games embrace the cyberpunk aesthetic anymore (Let’s ignore the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, which is a little on the nose), which makes this game really stand out from the rest.

Not exactly Call of Duty dialogue.
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In this game, you take the role of a member of a hacker group called the Spookies. The game takes place in a fictional city called Amami which is an experimental city that is completely digital. People all have computers and are constantly connected in a way that we pretty much are now. As part of the grand experiment, a new virtual world is launched called Paradigm X, which seems to play exactly like Second Life minus all of the fetishes. However, your team of hackers uncover something more sinister about the whole operation, and one of your teammates ends up getting possessed by a demon. That’s about as much of a premise as I can give without spoiling anything. Suffice to say, you have a mystery that covers both the technological and the occult. The story is the highlight of this game. The characters seem real, and the interactions are good.

In this world, Lunch is both a person AND a meal.
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As mentioned above, this game is a first-person dungeon crawler, meaning that most of the game will be you wondering through large dungeons filled with random encounters. Like all games in the Megami Tensei metaseries, demon collection and fusion is a central mechanic, and you’ll be spending a lot of time negotiating with demos to join you. Unlike more recent games in the metaseries, to summon and sustain a demon in this game requires a resource called Mag, which you obtain at the end of each battle. Mag is consumed upon summoning, but is also consumed with each step, meaning that it is definitely not in your best interests to field a full party at all times. This makes the game more strategic, as you try to figure out the most cost-effective way to clear a dungeon, but it still feels like an unnecessary encumbrance. Demons in this game don’t level up, so the only way to modify them is through fusions. You will always have two human character with you though, and they do level up, which increases the level of demon you can get to join you. Your character can summon demons into battle, but is otherwise limited to physical attacks. The other character, the aforementioned possessed girl, has the benefit of a wide range of spells.

It doesn’t matter that all of this guy’s demons are about 20-25 levels too low. Nemissa will wreck this team.
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This game is not hard. While, true to SMT tradition, enemies can still one shot you with an instant death attack, sending you hours back, the truth of the matter is that few enemies should ever pose a threat to you. This is in part due to the fact that Nemissa, the demon possessing the girl, is so powerful that you’ll have a hard time not clearing out all of the enemies with her alone. This unfortunately diminishes the need for good demons most of the time, and few, if any, demons even come close to being as destructive as her. Bosses in this game are also less menacing than you would expect. Most of them are summoners as well, meaning they are as limited as your main character, and don’t have any monstrous status or instant death attack. There are exceptions, but the game is not one that requires a serious amount of thought, and any obstacle can be overcome through grinding.

This would be the difficulty exception.
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Unfortunately, sometimes the game can feel like a grind. You mostly go from dungeon to dungeon without anything in the middle, and it’s easy to lose interest sometimes, especially around the middle where the plot isn’t pushing as hard as it could be. There are also technical problems. My game has frozen four times, and from reports around the internet, this is a common issue. Freezing is especially frustrating in dungeon crawlers like this due to the loss of progress, and having to repeat sections definitely makes the game feel more like a grind. There are also the technical limitations of a 16 year old game that have to be taken into account. The menus aren’t as fluid as they should be. Nor are the graphics nearly as polished as you would expect from a modern game. It’s hard to fault the game too much for these as it isn’t like the game is actually new, but there are still some issues. That being said, the game holds up remarkably well, so much that I would have simply accepted it as a new game if I hadn’t already known that it was so old.

A question for the ages.
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There are plenty of reasons to like this game: the setting is fun and nostalgic, demon fusing and capturing is as fun now as it was in 1997, the story is engrossing and the characters are fun. However, there are definitely things holding this game back. The systems are completely manageable, but they do feel dated, and the game has its share of bugs, which is unfortunate. Overall, this game is weaker than more recent Megaten games, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t very well made. As it stands, what we have here is a good game, whose biggest fault is it exists in a series of excellent games. If you are a fan of the series, then you should absolutely pick it up, as should fans of first-person dungeon crawlers such as Etrian Odyssey. For those new to the metaseries, who are looking for a first-person dungeon crawler, I would recommend Strange Journey over this game, but this is a fair substitute if you can’t find the three year-old game.

Pros

– Good story and characterization

– Great, nostalgic setting

– Demon collection is always fun


Cons

– Technical problems

– Dated presentation
Score     7.5

Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer
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