Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers is a JRPG with a supersized J. That means you can expect this 3DS title to have winding dungeons, lots of grinding, and weird anime-style plot devices and characters. If any of that’s your bag, you’ll probably enjoy this title a lot more than I did.
This is actually a port of a Sega Saturn title from 1997 that was never before released in the U.S. My guess is they thought the game was too Japanese for the rest of the world. At that particular time they were probably right, but today there are far more fans of this genre who will see this as a long-buried gem. It’s a point in the game’s favor that even 16 years, it’s able to hold its own on a modern system.
Fantasy Vs. Reality
Etrian Odyssey IV proved that I can enjoy a JRPG. In that game’s case, I found enjoyment through exploring a world full of beautiful art. Soul Hackers doesn’t give me that; it’s a dark and mostly unattractive world that just doesn’t interest me. Sure, EO4 was set in a fantasy world while Soul Hackers is ostensibly set in a realistic one, so maybe the art has to match that. And sure, I can understand why the office building, hotel, and airport stages appear plain and empty. But when the planetarium and even Paradigm X, a virtual reality city, lack color and character, they all mesh together in your head and become the same place.
What Soul Hackers does have is a much deeper plot than most RPGs in general. Our hero lives in Amami City, which is basically the city of tomorrow. In this cyberopolis, powerful networked computers are in every home and on every street corner. This makes hacking quite the useful trade; which is why you’re a member of The Spookies, a hacker group that just stumbled upon a strange gun-shaped PC. In addition to its impractical design, this Gun PC turns you into a Summoner, capable of recruiting demons, storing them as data, and calling upon them in battle.
But go figure, some people want to use demons for evil. The Phantom Society is not happy with an outsider having a summoning PC, so they want to take our whole crew down. At the same time, an animal spirit named Kinap takes you on a series of “Vision Quests” to let you play out the final moments of other Summoners. These will help you solve the dark mystery behind the creation of Amami City and the demon who wants to devour its residents’ souls.
Dungeons & Demons
This sets you off on a series of first-person dungeon runs along with Nemissa, a demon who’s taken up residence inside your love interest. It’s pretty standard RPG stuff, with random battles and your usual assortment of attacks and spells. The battles are a little tougher than most games, however, as most demons have near-immunity to one type of attack or another. This forces you to pay attention in battle. Boss monsters especially require a bit of planning as they can usually wipe out a party member or two with a single attack. Only through proper exploitation of weaknesses and tactics (or a lot of grinding) can you take them down.
What really adds an interesting element to it all is the fact that you can choose to talk to just about any demon you battle. Depending on how your conversation goes, you might convince them to go away or even join your party. However, they are just as likely sucker punch you while you’re talking. Every type of demon has its own personality, and after a few attempts at chatting, you should get an idea of what they want to hear – even if that’s just your screams of agony.
Once you’ve collected a few demons, you can start fusing them together to unlock higher level demons. Since demons don’t gain XP, you only have to worry about raising your level along with Nemissa’s. Though collecting enough demons to fuse along the way doesn’t hurt.
While this system certainly makes encounters more interesting, I don’t feel the demons are different enough. Each just feels like a bunch of stats and a portrait. The first person view means you don’t really see your team in battle, which further distances myself from my demons. Plus, frankly, a lot of the demons just look dumb. I just wish more of them had something unique or interesting to utilize in battle, or that I could keep my favorites with me longer.
The Human Touch
The human characters were pretty hit and miss with me. Lots of them come off as gimmicky and annoying. The few serious characters grabbed my attention though, thanks in part to some impeccable voice acting that breathed an amazing level of nuance into each character.
One of my biggest detractions was just how empty the world felt. There is almost nothing of interest to look at while walking around an environment. You only know when an NPC is near because an icon pops up as you step on their square. This is especially noticeable in Paradigm X, which is supposed to be a virtual world brimming with activity. But you only see a barren walkway lined with grey buildings. Just give me a set piece that’s more interesting than my work place, or at least throw something in the dungeons other than walls and doors.
Soul Hackers was obviously not made with me in mind. Heck, it wasn’t even made with my country in mind. But I’m not sure who to recommend this title to other than people who are already fans of the Shin Megami Tensei series.