3DS game 'Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers' from Atlus.
3DS game 'Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers' from Atlus
There's one thing I need to make clear right off the bat: if you're looking for a more casual RPG title - something easy to get into without many intricacies or complications - turn back now. As you could probably guess from the title, Shin Megami Tensei: Demon Summoner: Soul Hackers is an in-depth, intricate and hardcore affair, something for RPG fans to really sink their teeth into. If you're still interested, then keep reading.
Soul Hackers is a remake of a 1997 Sega Saturn game that never made it over to North American shores. The game has been remade and updated for the Nintendo 3DS, with a better presentation and some added content, but the core mechanics of the game remain intact, for better or for worse. So how well does a 15-year-old RPG stand up to the test of time?
This game puts you in the shoes of a teenaged hacker, a member of a hacking group known as the Spookies. You operate in Amami City, a futuristic place completely connected to the Internet, where a company called Algon Soft is a major player in the city's affairs and development. During one hacking adventure, you come across a special type of computer that allows you to recruit and summon demons, making you a Summoner. As you find yourself roped into the world of Summoners, you encounter the Phantom Society, a group with a devious plot that you need to stop.
The game's story has a lighthearted tone to it for the most part, as does the rest of the game. It does occasionally delve into more serious matters, but the game strikes a good balance and manages to not feel schizophrenic. The story does take a while to get going, though, and for the first several hours you'll generally find yourself doing things just because the game told you to do so. Additionally, I found myself picking up the game to play again and forgetting where exactly I was supposed to go. The game does offer a Digest Mode that will recap what you've been up to, but it requires you to watch potentially lengthy cutscenes just to reorient yourself.
In many key ways, Soul Hackers has all of the critical RPG elements. You'll traverse dungeons, gain experience, level up your characters, purchase new weapons and armor to upgrade your stats, and more. The key element of this game, as is the case with many Shin Megami Tensei titles, is that you are able to recruit enemy demons into your party, much like in Pokémon titles. During battle, you're given the option to talk to enemy demons, and they'll often ask you questions in return. Depending on your answer, you can either incense them into attacking you, make them leave, convince you to give them things, or have them join your party. In some ways this makes recruitment feel like random chance, even moreso than in Pokémon, but it's always interesting to see what a demon has to say, and how they will react to your choices. It's a more engaging process and adds depth and strategy to your playstyle.
Filling out your party with demons is critical to your success; the two human characters you normally play as won't be able to handle most battles on their own. Each demon has certain abilities and personalities, which dictate how they will act in battle; some demons are more inclined to attack, while others tend to be healers. In battle, you can let a demon act of its own accord, or you can command it to do specific things; depending on its personality, and its loyalty to you, it may refuse to act, however. The ability to let demons do things their own way increases the pace of battle by quite a bit, and if you manage your party correctly, you can have a well-oiled machine of healers, disablers and damage dealers. Once everyone is working together in tandem, it's very satisfying.
You can't level up demons like you can your human characters, however, which is what makes Demon Fusion key to the whole process. As is common to many Shin Megami Tensei titles, you're able to take two different demons and fuse them into other, more powerful ones in order to beef up your party. The game has a handy feature to show you all possible fusion results given the demons you currently have on hand, though the interface is a bit clunky and doesn't show you stats right away. Whenever you attempt fusion, though, there's a chance that it will fail and you'll lose both of the demons involved with nothing to show for it. This is very frustrating, and can be crippling to the point of just reloading your saved game rather than trying to survive with a weaker party.
There are other things to take into account as well, which I haven't even gotten around to mentioning. Sake, battle position, and phases of the moon all have varying levels of importance to your battle strategy. As I said, the game is very complex, and it takes some time to really dive into all of the systems and get a hang of them. You also have access to many of them right off the bat, and they won't be explained until later, which can be daunting at first. Early on in the game, though, you can get away with not knowing about most of the battle mechanics, and you'll be slowly introduced to other ones as the difficulty scales up. Overall, the game does a good job of easing you into its complex systems.
When it comes to exploration, however, it's highly apparent that this game dates back fifteen years. The overworld just has you as a green pointer moving around predetermined roads, as you move from one landmark to another. The dungeons are gridlike and divided into numerous square cells, and your movement is restricted to moving right from one cell to another; you can only turn at 90 degree angles, as well. The gridlike movement is significant to the gameplay, as you end up spending some of a resource called Magnetite with each step, but it does feel like a rather archaic and outdated system in some ways. The bottom screen does conveniently act like a map, though, which you slowly uncover as you step through.
The game's presentation is fairly good, all things considered. Most of the game's dialogue has voice acting, and like all Atlus games it's of pretty high quality; the voice acting does have the strange effect of making it harder to skip through dialogue, though, which is annoying when you're dealing with really common menus like save menus. The game's music isn't particularly memorable like the music in, say, Persona 4, but it's pleasant to listen to during battles and cutscenes. There are few actual animations in the game; most of the cutscenes are just static hand-drawn figures interacting with each other, which isn't the worst in a RPG like this. The battle sprites are also hand-drawn and static, but it's a look that oddly works in this game. It feels intentionally low-quality, like a stylistic choice, and it works fairly well, especially considering that this is a portable title. One benefit to the presentation and restricted movement is that there are basically no performance issues, and the game runs smooth as silk.
The menu system is where things start to feel a little cumbersome. Any RPG that's as complex as this is going to offer the player a lot of options, and all of them are crammed into the game's pause menu. Overall, there aren't very many good ways of organizing so many options, and they did a decent job of grouping certain things together in a logical manner. In some situations, though, specifically during Demon Fusion, there are some common sense optimizations that could have been made, but weren't, and it makes things a little more frustrating than they need to be. One thing the game does right is allowing quick save nearly anytime, which makes it easier to game in short doses; you do still have the aforementioned problem of forgetting what you're doing, however.
Once you beat the game, you have the option to play again, with New Game Plus. This mode offers a greater challenge, but also offers various bonuses to let you power yourself up more, and generally take advantage of the game's offerings more readily. You also get the opportunity to see an alternate ending, which offers some replayability in itself. There is some intrinsic replayability, though, in that the game gives you enough freedom that you can play through it with several different strategies. You might be tapped out at two playthroughs, depending on the kind of gamer you are, but with as long as Atlus RPGs tend to be, you'll most likely have gotten your money's worth.
Overall, the core mechanics of Shin Megami Tensei: Demon Summoner: Soul Hackers manage to stand the test of time and still deliver a fun and involving RPG experience today. The presentation style manages to feel fairly solid when placed on a portable system, and the battle system lets you move through the game at a reasonable, satisfying pace. If you're looking for a rich, involving RPG experience, this game deserves your attention. If the 3DS can acquire more strong hardcore titles like this one, it may very well turn into everyone's must-own piece of hardware.
Version tested: 3DS
(Atlus supplied a copy of this game for review.)
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