Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers Review

This first-ever English release of Soul Hackers shows its age, but the patient player will find a deep and rewarding experience.

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The Shin Megami Tensei series has been running strong in Japan for quite some time, though it has gained a lot of traction stateside only in the last decade. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers was originally released in Japan on the Sega Saturn in 1997 and then on the PSone two years later. Now, in 2013, it is being released in English for the first time on the Nintendo 3DS. It's important to note all of this, because Soul Hackers feels as though it were plucked directly from the heyday of 32-bit and squished down into a 3DS card--for all the good and the bad that entails.

The game takes place in the fictional Amami City in Japan, an experimental, always-connected metropolis built around the latest and greatest Internet-driven technology. The newest thing Amami residents have to look forward to is the closed beta test of their city's own virtual world, Paradigm X. Your character is a member of Amami's premier hacker collective, the Spookies, and you start the game by scoring an illicit beta key to Paradigm X. But when you go to test-drive the service, you're instead met by a strange being and given a vision of a man's dying moments during a secret mission to retrieve data from a demon-infested building. Before you know it, you are in possession of that man's special demon-summoning computer--and a strange presence calling itself Nemissa is possessing your girlfriend's body. It's up to you, Nemissa, your hacker pals, and underground networks of demons and summoners to uncover the shady secrets under Amami City's shiny veneer.

Soul Hackers' aesthetic and theme are firmly rooted in the Internet of the late 1990s, a time when everyone was excited about "cyberspace" and the potential it held. Many of the thematic elements in the game--open virtual worlds, mass interaction, and even virtual currency exchange--have long since become reality on our own PCs and consoles, making the story's then-forward-looking world of Paradigm X seem dated yet highly endearing.

Unfortunately, the game tends to look like it's straight out of the 1990s as well. The first-person dungeons are basic-looking, with crude, blocky polygon models for many elements. Battle sequences offer extremely limited animations for enemies and nondescript background imagery. Prerendered CG cutscenes and attacks look primitive and artifact-laden, as though they were ripped straight from the original Soul Hackers discs. It's quite disappointing that there aren't more visual touch-ups beyond the addition of 3D. Though the late-'90s aesthetic is fun, sprucing up the animations or background models a bit would have been a nice step toward making Soul Hackers' interesting world more appealing.

At least the story and dialogue scenes still look decent, and they're fully voiced to boot. In fact, almost all of the story dialogue in Soul Hackers, major and minor, has voice acting to accompany it. It's a nice touch to the gameworld, though it does get a little weird when shopkeepers constantly ask and re-ask you what you want to do each time you visit them.

Outside of the story sequences, however, you spend most of Soul Hackers exploring the aforementioned dungeons. You traverse these stages from a first-person viewpoint, exploring to find items and clues. Oftentimes, you need to solve a puzzle or find a hidden trigger to open a door or reveal an important item. While some of these "dungeons" are typical buildings and industrial facilities, the areas in the virtual world of Paradigm X are more interesting and surreal. The layouts of these areas quickly become complex and challenging, and some of the puzzles the game presents are tricky indeed. Certain dungeons straddle the fine line between clever and annoying, because you have to deal with random encounters while you're working to figure out puzzle solutions.

It's in these dungeons that you encounter demons to both fight and recruit into your party. One of the key elements of Soul Hackers is engaging in conversations with your enemies. Depending on your responses, you might be able to resolve battles without fighting, earn items, or even convince demons to join you outright--or you might anger the demons to the point where they attack without warning. The art of persuasion is important, not only for bolstering your roster, but also for earning money, since defeated foes don't usually drop funds. You'll be terrible at conversation initially, but once you discover patterns in demon behavior and develop stats and customizations that aid in understanding, you'll be smooth-talking more often than not. You can't talk your way out of all fights, though; you need to battle and level up to be able to handle stronger foes and tame higher-echelon demons.

Demons need upkeep, too: they can exist in the world only by using a limited resource called magnetite, which constantly depletes when they're summoned. A bigger party leads to much faster magnetite depletion, so you must weigh the pros and cons of having a large entourage when exploring. Demons also have differing personality types and loyalty, which can result in their disobeying orders in battle if they don't like your commands--unless they've grown fond of you.

Demon fusion, another core element of the Shin Megami Tensei series, comes into play in some interesting ways in Soul Hackers. You can fuse two or three demons together to create a different, more-powerful creature. In addition, sometimes skills from fused demons carry over to the resulting being. Soul Hackers also lets you create and re-create a being called a "zoma," which can absorb all the skills of the demon fused with it, and requires no magnetite to be used in battle. Finally, later in the game, you have the ability to fuse a demon with a sword that the hero or Nemissa can wield, thus granting the weapon special abilities.

There's a lot of customization and party micromanagement involved in Soul Hackers, and exploring the ways all the different systems intertwine is fun. But like many games of its time, it offers precious little in the way of in-game help or tutorials, instead expecting you to either know the basics through previous experience with Shin Megami Tensei games or learn by trial and error.

There is a brief primer on demon conversation near the game's beginning, and some characters that offer services have optional text explanations available, but as far as figuring out things like attack types, what commands do, and the effects of demon loyalty, you're either on your own or flying blind until a later point in the game where mechanics are explained. The basic-looking, text-driven interface doesn't help much in this regard, either, making it somewhat difficult to access certain information at times. As with the visuals, it seems like an opportunity to improve this aspect of the game for the 3DS version was squandered.

It's not completely rough, though, because there are a few helpful elements you can use: difficulty settings and assisting features such as full area maps can be toggled by touching the bottom screen of the 3DS, and computer upgrades you can purchase and install let you add useful gameplay features, including being able to save anywhere. Finally, new to the 3DS version of the game is Nemechi, a sort of virtual pet that uses StreetPass functionality to collect currency and allow you to purchase special and powerful demons. (If your StreetPassing abilities are limited, you can thankfully use Play Coins instead.)

Soul Hackers comes with caveats: it's tough to get into initially and is far from the prettiest role-playing game on the 3DS. But once you make it past those hurdles and the game clicks, there's a lot to love in its demon collection, customization, and retro-cyberpunk setting. If you have the patience to deal with its old-school flaws, Soul Hackers will reward you with an engrossing portable RPG experience.

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The Good
Engaging demon recruitment/management systems
Challenging, creative, and sometimes surreal dungeons to explore
Customization features let you taper difficulty how you like
Extensive voice-over throughout the game
The Bad
Unintuitive interface and mechanics
Tough learning curve
7
Good
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28 comments
roosteraxe1
roosteraxe1

I just downloaded this while it was on sale in the eshop. It's got a great 90's cyber-punk feel to it. Fans of movies like Hackers and the Matrix should love it. Like most SMT games from the PS2 era and before, it does have a steep learning curve that people who haven't played SMT might be a little lost with. Still, all the basic SMT staples are there. Sometimes harsh leveling requirements, dungeon crawling, demon recuitment, battle conversations and a somewhat darker than average story. While I'd personally give this a slightly higher score, I think this score is more than fair for most gamers.

Fryboy101
Fryboy101

I've put about 3 hours into this game so far, and i am loving it. Nemissa is easily becoming one of my favorite video game characters. The combat, while dated, is still unique with the ways you can interact with the demons you fight. Hell, I was actually able to play another game inside a demon fight just by talking to the demon

alenth
alenth

This game is definitely not for everybody only for patient rpgs vets because some mechanics will be intimidating for some people unused in this genre., consider this game for the SMT fans and gamers who played the series before, The game is more a port than a remake from the original so be warned, i really like the game because i like these classic gems that offers me plenty of hours of fun with some complex mechanics, the interface needs some work though that's my only gripe, the review is fair in my opinion.

Tak666
Tak666

Soul Hackers is a game for people who played Shin Megami Tensei before, I know it's not written on the game box, or in the game description on the web, but it is.

Yes the game has some dated mechanics, like the attack from the back which shuffles your party and forces You to open the menu and reconfigurate it(and boy it gets annoying fast). But all in all I think the game deserves a bit more, when it comes to the score, I'm not saying it should be a 9, but a 7.5 or a 8 probably.

I_are_Cake
I_are_Cake

How is a steep learning curve a bad thing? 

hiphops_savior
hiphops_savior

Fair review for a remake, and for a game that didn't age as well as it should.

PinkSpider79
PinkSpider79

Lucky this wasn't reviewed by carolyn would have recieved a considerably worse score. Luigis mansion was too hard apparently. Ilmao!

cigarcat
cigarcat

And by Persona I meant SMT of course. oops.

cigarcat
cigarcat

I'm glad to see this get a decent score. I'm even more glad to know that persona fans aren't susceptible to be thwarted by reviews under 9.0.

RealFabioSooner
RealFabioSooner

Interesting; lots of the downsides in this seem pretty much identical to the beefs I have with the first two Persona games.

(Please bear in mind I'm a latecomer to the series, so I started playing Persona 1 and Persona 2: Innocent Sin on the PSP after playing Persona 3 FES and alongside Persona 4: The Golden. I am yet to play a proper SMT game; Nocturne and Digital Devil Saga for the PS2 are on their way home from Asia, and I'm almost finishing SMT: Devil Survivor on the DS.)

I am yet to finish the first Persona games, but I've sunk more than 20 hours on each and they were still easily worth the money despite their old trappings, so I'm glad I pre-ordered Soul Hackers as well. I really hope the story is at least better than the first Persona; the premise does seem more promising.

GeekyDad
GeekyDad moderator

I wouldn't necessarily say the learning curve was tough, but I agree, the interface is a bit tedious. Fair score, though.

alenth
alenth

@I_are_Cake because some people don't have the patience for it and the game doesn't help about it in some parts either (like the interface), it doesn't mean they are bad players.

MonsieurEek
MonsieurEek

@I_are_Cake The review suggests that the game expects you to understand a myriad of systems and stats it throws at you with little to no explanation for much of the game only for it to explain things later into the game than is useful. Micro-managing a ton of stuff with low information can definitely be alienating, and if the game is just gonna explain it to you eventually anyway, what's the point?

SgtStrungOut
SgtStrungOut

@I_are_Cake It is because idiot new gamers don't enjoy games that don't insult their intelligence. They only play games that are too easy because they are afraid of challenge and using their brain. Well the last part is understandable since they lack a brain and just plain suck at games.

Ddcooljoe
Ddcooljoe

@GeekyDad I'm only a few hours in myself but I feel like the learning curve is a bit steep.  I still hardly know what's going on. I had a demon walk out of my party and I still don't really know why.  I'm slowly getting the mechanics but I definitely think this game is a bit rough on newcomers to the series.

alenth
alenth

@SgtStrungOut @I_are_Cake And what if i told you that some veteran rpg gamers don't like this game mechanics because for them they feel archaic? Some people have different tastes and they prefer accesibility, that doesn't mean they are bad at playing, they simply don't have the patience, as simple as that.

hiphops_savior
hiphops_savior

@SgtStrungOut @I_are_Cake There is a difference between teaching and babying. Not many people know the difference between the two, judging by the comments above and the developers around us.

Tak666
Tak666

@MonsieurEek @BuckeyeTiba @PinkSpider79

No, if something is disgusting, than he/she is. You won't tell a girl with hydrocephaly and pimples that she's beautiful. And you won't say that a tranny with a horrid voice is not disgusting. That's the objective truth.

MonsieurEek
MonsieurEek

@saosebastiao @MonsieurEek @I_are_Cake @PinkSpider79 What a disgusting rant. You should just accept that women are distinct individuals who have opinions and appearances not pending your approval and don't exist for your pleasure. Or live your life bitter, angry, and  hateful at more than half the population for no reason.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers More Info

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  • First Released
    • 3DS
    Soul Hackers delivers a first-person, dungeon-crawling RPG experience set in a future where technology and otherworldly forces meet in a macabre fusion of cyberpunk futurism and gothic horror.
    8
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    Developed by:
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    Published by:
    ATLUS, NIS America
    Genres:
    Role-Playing
    Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
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    Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Violence