A few months ago, Persona 4 Golden for Vita sucked up hours of my life even as it declared the importance of socializing. Shin Megami Tensei IV for 3DS looks to do the same this July. Between the two, we have Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, an updated port for the 3DS of a Sega Saturn title from 1997. It, too, traps me in its sticky web of interlocking systems, charming characters and grainy mid-90s visuals. Is it an essential RPG like Persona 4 Golden? Perhaps not, but it is a decent time capsule worth unearthing for fans of demon fusions and dungeon-delving.
A great part of Soul Hackers‘ appeal lies in its cyberpunk setting. Set in Amami City, a hyper-modern city where everyone logs into a popular cyberspace program called Paradigm X, you play as a member of the hacker group, the Spookies. With your gal pal Hitomi, you come across a gun-shaped computer called a COMP that lets you summon demons — a good thing since you can battle the other demons popping up all over the place with it. Throw in shady corporations, alternate realities, and old-fashioned mysticism, and you got yourself a cyberstew.
For fans weaned on the recent Persona titles, Soul Hackers plays a lot like Atlus’ own Etrian Odyssey games. You traverse dungeons in first-person, avoid traps, and lock into battle with temperamental demons you can recruit to form the bulk of your party. Each demon has a personality type that gives you a hint as to what they prefer to do in battle, and their loyalty to you dictates how powerful they can be and whether or not they’ll follow your orders. Dumb demons don’t follow orders so well and just do what they want, so it’s best to select the GO command and let them do whatever. Calm demons take orders just fine. Sly ones prefer to cast magic attacks, and Kind demons like to heal other party members. When demons outlast their usefulness or remain too weak since they can’t level up, you can fuse them to form more powerful hellspawn to do your dirty work. It’s like Pokemon for the more Satanic set.
I found demon negotiating works far better here than in other SMT games I’ve played (Persona 2). Although you still have to wade through dialogue branches and choices to see what demon will react to what, the results don’t seem as random or obtuse this time around. Demons happily offer up their services more often than not, and penalties aren’t that strict. Still, it can be tempting to just load up the 3DS web browser to look for shortcuts to get demons on your side. Some require specific items, like a sword as a gift, to get them to join you.
There’s also MAG management. You need MAG — a whole separate currency from the Japanese yen you use to buy weapons, armor, and items — to summon demons from your COMP. Demons don’t just join your party, you have to summon them after you win over their minds. MAG also depletes as you traverse around dungeons. Yes, with each step you lose about ten or more points of the stuff. When I noticed that I thought I had some status ailment like poison. But no, it’s normal! I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the system, but I’ve had no real issues with it. I figure it’s there to keep you from running around with a full party and wrecking everything’s face.
There’s quite a bit to pay attention to in this game. MAG also keeps your party healed at certain healing stations in dungeons. It can also be exchanged for yen, which can be hard to come by in the opening hours. Yen is used to upgrade your equipment at various shops — like guns, which in turn need ammo. Your COMP can also be upgraded with programs, including one that allows you to save anywhere. All these elements may be intimidating at first, but they gradually make themselves clear as the game opens itself up. Once I got into the game’s groove — exploring the dungeons, following the story, fusing stronger demons — I really enjoyed Soul Hackers.
There were a few things I couldn’t enjoy. Voice acting ranges from really good to really poor. Performances are not very consistent. Most of the main characters, especially Hitomi and her demon alter-ego Nemissa, nail it — for the most part. I’m not a fan of how Nemissa refers to herself in the third person. Maybe she did that in the Japanese version, sure, but it grates my ears. Actually, the girl dressed up in a Jack Frost outfit outside the Paradigm X casino may be the best of the bunch. Everyone else is either a stereotype, a caricature, or plain unappealing. Voices can be turned off in the options if in need of respite.
Worse, a bunch of translation gaffes mar the image of Atlus and their pristine presentations. I found several typos and many instances where text appears out of dialogue boxes and continues off-screen. That is really sloppy.
I’ve also seen reports online of untranslated dialogue and several accounts of the game freezing randomly during battle, as well as other game-breaking bugs, including one that sets your status to “dying” permanently. I’ve yet to experience anything catastrophic myself, but hopefully Atlus is already aware of these issues and is at work to correct them with a patch. Nobody wants to pay for a $40 paperweight.
Most of all, I’m glad to see cyberpunk make a resurgence. Deus Ex: Human Revolution led the charge a couple years ago with an updated re-release on the way, and the upcoming Shadowrun Returns, Remember Me, and Cyberpunk 2077 ought to continue the streak. Soul Hackers, an RPG from the time when cyberpunk was at its arguable peak, finally making its way stateside seems like the perfect affirmation that that sci-fi subgenre is back at last. It’s right up my alley, and if you’re a fan of 32-bit RPGs recreated on portable systems, then it might be right up yours too… so long as the game doesn’t break itself.
You can buy Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers at Amazon.com for $39.96.