The Shin Megami Tensei franchise has been around for years, but took a while to catch on with a western audience. In 1997, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers was released for the Sega Saturn, but sadly never left Japan due to the then limited appeal in the west. Atlus have now decided to take this one out of the vault and onto the 3DS, with voice acting, improved visuals, and a bevy of new features. I personally never played too many SMT titles myself, as the mechanics of the “Megaten” series came off as a bit intimidating, but the demon collecting and narrative drew me in to giving this one a try. Does Soul Hackers prove to be a worthy remake for the 3DS, or does it’s age leave it years behind the more modern RPGs on the platform? Let’s find out.
Soul Hackers puts the player in the shoes of…yourself starting out. This doesn’t mean that you are a shallow character or just an avatar, as the player never really sees who they are due to the first person perspective. In a title all about exploration and complexity, you are see the world as the hero and this title does a good job of detailing a story around your character, with decisions you make effecting battles and the narrative itself. Now, this doesn’t mean that your decisions have too much weight as this game came before a lot of those modern ideas, but those who are looking for an RPG that gives you an up-close and personal perspective of events without much of a backstory attached are sure to find this gimmickry refreshing due to all of the dreary protagonists we have seen over the past few years for the genre.
Set in the futuristic and tech-driven Amami City, players have to use their hacking skills to take out a new threat that looks to wipe out humanity known as the Phantom Society. After your best friend Hitomi is possessed by a demon while visiting the still fresh virtual world of Paradigm X, things start to go haywire for the completely connected locale, and you and your offbeat group of hacker friends known as the “Spookies” must come together and bring peace to both locations before it is too late. It sounds a bit typical in a way, but this is one plot that knows no boundaries when it comes to twists and turns, providing a ton of incentive to stay glued to the screen as new objectives are assigned.
It’s not just the plot that really sold me on Soul Hackers, honestly. Every character in the Spookies come with their own motives, backstory, and a sense of depth – allowing you to get to know this little team you are working with as you progress forward. For instance, Hitomi is a bit of an innocent, yet grounded girl who has been thrown off balance by the demon Nemissa. Nemissa is a polar oppisite of Hitomi, so as these two battle over one body, there is a lot of entertaining dialogue sequences that unfold. Nearly every other non-playable character you come in contact with also feature a good bit of dialogue, painting a vivid picture of Amami City and the mysterious yet wondrous world of Paradigm X. Yeah, this title did come out over fifteen years ago, but the story feels relevant and genuinely interesting until the grand climax.
It’s really hard to peg one lone genre for Soul Hackers. The player’s main objective is to explore locations within Amami City via and overhead map, eventually leading to a first person dungeon crawler experience as the Spookies attempt to achieve their current goal. In many ways, this lively city features a lot of the modernized mechanics that have been brought aboard. Many districts open up as you progress, allowing the player to stock up on armor, weaponry, and healing items, while still visiting with the many residents that fill the streets. Sure, it’s mainly a visual vacation outside of the complex dungeons that await, but the map is definitely unique and gives Soul Hackers its own personal feel apart from the many other SMT series such as Etrian Odyssey.
When in the first person view while in dungeons, random encounters run rampant and demons come ready to battle at a moment’s notice. These areas, while heavy in gameplay – are the places you will see the most age from this port. I could best compare the exploration aspect of dungeons to that of Strange Journey, as the similarities are there. Each stage features numerous hallways and doors, with the map on the bottom screen slowly revealing the overall environment. Items, story points, and NPCs wait around every corner, making exploration feel unpredictable even though most dungeons are pretty straight-forward. Whether it be to find a boss, find a character, or just progress onward, there isn’t a lot of room to gripe about the archaic design from the Saturn version – as it still performs well and comes at a perfect pace with the plot.
Everything about this Devil Summoner is laced with a serious tone broken up by bits of comedy from time to time (you know, the basic JRPG from the past decade), and pure charm is injected through the negotiation phase of battles. During almost every encounter with these menacing and sometimes quirky demons, the player has an option to recruit them to their team by talking to them. I say option, but this little feature is more about coarsening foes into joining you. Usually, a demon will not be interested from the get-go, and will ask you a oddball question with multiple choice answers. Depending on the species, your selection of following dialogue will either insult or impress the enemy. If impressed – keep talking as eventually you might just score a new recruit. If insulted, most of these demons will go on the attack, and become too insulted to recruit during the battle. The conversations one will have with their opponents are humorous and sometimes thought provoking, although some encounters become a bit repetitive later on. To help eliviate this, many demons will not fight you if your party has one of the same species or if they have nothing to say about your pick of words, which cuts a lot of the fat from random encounters while making the entry points for new demons feel more meaningful.
Battles themselves in my opinion are reminiscent to those found within Dragon Quest Monsters, but have a strong layer of depth coated over them, staying true to the sometimes intimidating – yet rewarding SMT franchise. Rounds are turn-based, and the player must choose to fight with their sword, gun, or magic if applicable. Remember those demons we just spoke of? Demons can be summoned to fight alongside you for a good time – where the player selects attacks from their creature’s movepool, or allows them make their own choices with the “GO!” option. To make matters interesting, every demon you recruit come with their own loyalty level. To improve this, you will need to feed demons and partake in other activities to increase a bond, as if your demon is unhappy, you then risk the chance of your newly recruited party member leaving or flat out disobeying during battle. Every one of the over 300 species have their own little personality, so upkeep and paying attention to moods is just as important as remembering to heal and save outside of dungeons.
It sounds a bit complicated (and believe me, with the latter options to fuse demons, summon under certain requirements such as lunar cycles, and so on, the learning curve is indeed high), but there isn’t one mechanic that isn’t slowly introduced, allowing the player to get the gist of what they need to do to evolve their strategies. Soul Hackers is a well paced game and due to that slow and steady learning curve, even those new to Shin Megami Tensei will be able to wrap their head around it all in a short time.
The main HUB of Soul Hackers comes in a handy computer – attached to your gun titled the GUMP. This device can be upgraded at terminals to show enemy locations with a sonar, detail maps ahead of exploration, and fuse demons in a portable format. For those new to the more intricate design of Soul Hackers, think of it in the same manner as your Pokegear from Pokemon Heart Gold/Soul Silver. A Street Pass option has also been included for this version, adding Nemechi to your party. This demon comes off pretty average at first, but can be leveled up and improved upon as the player passes other players or spends their play coins. It isn’t the most deep aspect of the game, but for a Street Pass Feature, something most RPGs barely utilize on the platform, Soul Hackers definitely brings something unique with it.
When it comes to visuals, there is a lot to speak of as Soul Hackers has both modern and dated graphics depending on what area/situation you may be in. Coming off as new, polished, and vibrant are the character models used for the dialogue sequences, featuring portraits that have an anime-like quality to capture emotion and personality from every character involved. The city itself is also a sight to see, as buildings are well defined and detailed. I will admit, seeing little pins represent a person in this locale took a bit to get used to a first as it seemed to be a design workaround, but due to the limitations of the original product and how much content is involved, that is rather forgivable. The dungeons themselves as I mentioned come with a good deal of age, but that is to be expected. Soul Hackers does not need to be redone entirely to capture an audience in the west, as until now – we had yet to see it. If those of you out there remember the Saturn and the forced video clips that occur just to show a bit more polish as you progress onward, then you will know what expect with this title as it’s really no different. There is a great deal of character in the classics and while I imagine some may be turned off by the rough around the edges design of the dungeons, I personally found the experience to be refreshing and nostalgic of the great crawlers of the past.
As you can tell, Soul Hackers is all about personality. The soundtrack thankfully has a lot of it to offer, featuring remixed J-rock tunes that capture the atmosphere of this futuristic city. There is also a bit of jazzy beats and techno mixed in as well, with earworm inserting melodies that will accompany you on this brand new journey. New to Soul Hackers comes one feature many fear. Most translations that come with a vocal dub are…well, bad. You know, full of broken English or talent that seems to hate their jobs. That isn’t a problem for Soul Hackers. Each voice actor brings a lot to the table with these performances, and with almost every piece of dialogue fully voiced, this extra brings Amami City full circle and makes it feel alive. Sure, we have seen voice acting on portables – including the 3DS in the past, but to see a Saturn port get such a rejuvenation, well…that just makes this game even more special.
To be honest, there was so much that could have went wrong with Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers. Atlus were ambitious in adding in new voicework and new features to modernize the game, but that could have came at a high price of ruining the original experience. Thankfully, Soul Hackers’ remake finds itself at a nice balance of old and new, with an elaborate battle system that has been made more accessible and a story that features some unforgettable moments. The Nintendo 3DS, just like the DS before it is finally starting to pick up some quality RPGs, and none show that more than this fully featured port. While it does show it’s age and the mechanics are a little dated by today’s standards, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers stands as a testament of a development team finding a middle ground for appeal, recapturing a gem from generations past to share with a brand new audience. In better words – a port done right.
Capsule Computers review guidelines can be found here.