Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: NIS America Europe | Reef Entertainment
The Nineties called. They want their game back.
And they can't have it, because Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a blast from the past that still plays brilliantly sixteen years after it first released. I'm keeping it.
This clumsily-titled JRPG launched on the Sega Saturn in 1997, exclusively in Japan, and has finally made its way onto western handhelds after the best part of two decades. As a Shin Megami Tensei title, Soul Hackers helped to pioneer the strong mature storylines and nuanced characters we've come to love from the Persona series, while delivering a hilariously kitsch take on what we honestly thought the future would be like. A networked city with computers in every house (wow!) plays host to an impossible dream, a virtual town that now looks dated compared to mid-tier MMOs, a hacker's paradise ripe for mischief.
However, playing as one of these hackers, you'll soon discover that demons have infested both the real and virtual world; sparking a chain of events that leads to a huge amount of dungeon crawling and fascinating dialogue. Though Soul Hackers shows its age from the outset, a uniquely superb battle system and surreal conversation mechanic make it feel right at home in the 21st century.
Soul Hackers earnestly captures what many of us thought the internet would lead to, an dystopic purpose-built city connected by the first ever town-wide computer network. As such, it's playing host to the very first virtual reality town, Paradigm X, a social hangout that effectively just functions as some basic forums and casino games brought to life in primitive 3D. This was a big deal back then. Stop sniggering. Either way, you'll assume the role of a member of The Spookies hacker collective, who cheats his way into the game for, basically, the lulz.
Of course, this being a Mega Ten game, it turns out that a cabal of evil summoners are up to no good and both the physical and virtual world are teeming with demons. Once your best friend is possessed by a relatively friendly devil, the Spookies discover that their hacker subculture is just the tip of a nightmarish underground war. The storyline may lack the subtlety and emotional complexity of the Persona games (including Persona 4 Golden and Persona 2 Portable), but delivers strong characters brought to life with painstakingly-localised dialogue and full English voice acting for almost every line, an impressive effort considering the handheld platform and Japan-only original release. It's nostalgic and kitsch to be sure, but still packs a punch.
Whether you're investigating a haunted virtual art gallery or reliving a past life in a bizarre vision quest for a cyber coyote-rabbit (just... look, it will make sense eventually), Soul Hackers effectively boils down to dungeon crawling. Lots of dungeon crawling. The real city and Paradigm X both expand into a wealth of demon-infested haunts to explore in traditional first person style, gradually mapping out the grid-based labyrinths by moving in cardinal directions. Random battles also favour a time-honoured first person perspective, allowing you to attack with swords, guns and spells in order of speed. Fighting as as complex as you'd expect from an old-school RPG, with numerous buffs, debuffs and party formation options to consider as you cut down the hordes and level your characters.
However, you'll quickly need to create your own army of demons to pad out your two-man roster... at which point, Soul Hackers reveals its most enjoyable and surreal mechanic. Instead of fighting, you'll actually spend a good deal of time talking.
'Good' and 'evil' don't exist in Shin Megami Tensei games, meaning that demons are actually complex characters in their own right. Some are kind, others are insane, more are just cynical and out to make a quick buck. You'll only find out which when you start chatting, and it turns out that almost all of your erstwhile enemies are a loquacious bunch. Depending on what dialogue options you pick, a demon might end up giving you pocket money after talking about metaphysics or girls. You might bore a poltergeist into leaving you alone, or anger it into taking a surprise attack with a misplaced insult. Menacing horrors from beyond the realms of imagination often hold court about skiing, food and their love lives, waxing lyrical about any topic under the sun. The jarring disconnect between the savage enemies and their playful dialogue lends Soul Hackers a quirky and anarchic atmosphere, breaking up the traditional grind. Naturally, though, perfectly gauging your responses can lead to demons joining your party, gradually earning you a powerful stable of combatants to field into battle.
Demon personalities also factor into combat. Some demons thrive on being bossed around, whereas others prefer to do their own thing and resent any attempts to restrict their freedom. Sly demons love spellcasting, but wild demons live for the thrill of melee. Less intelligent demons often use totally inappropriate moves when left to their own devices, while smarter allies will actively resist your commands if they don't agree with your strategy, such as ordering a gentle and kind demon to attack. Working out how best to use each demon's abilities while keeping them happy is a compelling metagame in and of itself, revealing new subtleties even after countless hours of play.
There's a lot to take in, and an bottomless ocean of depth that Soul Hackers throws you into headfirst. The changing phases of the moon dictates everything you do, down to the strength of specific demons. Magnetite, a resource required to summon demons and keep them alive, depletes with every step, forcing you to work out how to ration or grind for it. Demons can be fused together in numerous different combinations, or converted into items. It's easy to get overwhelmed as the questions pile up: why can't I summon a demon of a particular alignment? Why should I create a Zoma? What is Registering, and why should I do it? Help!!!
Nineties games usually didn't have tutorials, but they did have instruction manuals. READ IT. Complaining about the lack of hand-holding without bothering to check the instructions on the 3DS main menu is a tad hypocritical, just so we're on the same page. What's more, many NPCs will explain some of the complexities if you go out of your way to find them.
Regardless, Soul Hackers does reveal its age from time to time, the visuals notwithstanding. Retouched cutscenes and character portraits throw the grimy and gritty original dungeon textures into sharp relief, betraying Soul Hackers' Saturn origins. Superb background music and the 3DS' smaller screen do ultimately create a tense atmosphere, but graphics junkies will need to look elsewhere. You'll also have to contend with a few old-school design decisions along the way, such as the relative paucity of save points and a difficulty curve that sometimes sucker-spikes upwards without warning.
Pacing is ultimately Soul Hackers' biggest flaw. Story development tends to be sandwiched between hours of grinding through dungeons and dead ends, which are sometimes brought screeching to a halt by a boss who wipes out your party and sends them back to a save point made hours previously. Requiring yet more grinding. Though a few handy features are available to make things easier, such as an application that lets players save anywhere in a dungeon or optional new assists that can be activated via the touchscreen (easier difficulty, auto-mapping etc), you'll still have to work hard for your eventual rewards.
Which is absolutely fine, as far as we're concerned. After years of games leading us by the nose from cutscene to cutscene, this cult nineties hit gives us the satisfaction of making our own way through its dark surreal world, feeling both new and nostalgic as it does so.
- Nuanced battle system, brilliant and surreal conversation mechanics
- Strong storyline and characters
- Excellent localised dialogue and voice acting
- Deep and engaging gameplay feels both new and nostalgic
- Old-school grind and lack of traditional tutorials, depth can be overwhelming (read the instructions!)
- Grimy, somewhat primitive visuals
- Portable Persona games blow it out of the water story-wise
The Short Version: Sixteen years haven't dulled this superb cult classic whatsoever. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers gets a new lease of life on 3DS, offering a nostalgic yet riotously anarchic JRPG experience that still feels sharp and vital today.
Speak to the devil and it will appear. Or give you some pocket money. You won't know until you sit down for a chat.