Review: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers (3DS)

Soul Shakedown Party

As an enhanced port of a 1997 first-person dungeon crawling RPG for the ill-fated Sega Saturn, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers seems like an unlikely release — especially considering the original game never left Japan. Both time and the journey across the Pacific have been kind to this 3DS wünder-port, however; Soul Hackers is a fantastically stylish game with deep mechanics and an engaging, character-driven story that holds up incredibly well even sixteen years later.

Set in both the hyper-connected metropolis of Amami City and its Matrix-esque virtual overlay of Paradigm X, Soul Hackers shines with a brilliant CRT glow thanks to its cyberpunk aesthetic. The resulting world is exciting, futuristic, and unsettling, glistening in a nearly constant night-time and absolutely dripping with style.

You play as a member of an elite hacking group known as the Spookies who, after gaining access to the beta test of Paradigm X, stumbles onto a gun-type COMP (or 'GUMP') — a dual-screened PC with the power to summon demons. Soon, a childhood friend becomes possessed, demons start flooding the streets of Amami City, and a shadowy group of rival devil summoners comes after Spooky and the gang as you work to uncover the truth behind the city's utopian façade. It's a dark and effortlessly cool narrative that really pulls you along as it unfolds through talking-heads cutscenes. Atlus' first-rate localisation gives the characters plenty of natural personality, and the excellent voice acting — a new feature for the 3DS release — helps brings them to life. One character — the combined persona of your winsome childhood friend Hitomi and Nemissa, the lovably mercurial demon sharing her body — is a particular highlight.

You'll move through the game both in the present, as the main character, and in the recent past via "Vision Quests", where you'll take control of other characters to see how important events unfolded through their own eyes — literally. This is a first-person dungeon crawler at heart, and while it's a much more story-driven experience than most games in the genre, you'll still spend plenty of time traversing tiled maps, fighting random battles, and finding your way to powerful bosses.

Dungeons are thematically and visually varied, though they tend towards the modern and the surreal: you'll explore planetariums, art galleries, and massive chess boards along with more generic areas like airports and parking garages. Many of the labyrinths feature puzzles, and these are often more involved than you might think. Rather than simple 'find the switch' affairs, Soul Hackers offers up quizzes and brain teasers that require you to pay close attention to your environment and the characters you meet along the way. They're fun to figure out, but can entail an awful lot of backtracking, and dying near the end of a puzzle sequence is an especially frustrating way to lose a half-hour of progress.

Combat in Soul Hackers is turn-based and uses several standard conventions: melee and ranged weapons, magical attacks and support spells, and an elemental system of strengths and weaknesses. Positioning is also important — there are two rows with space for three party members apiece, and where you place your characters determines where they can attack and what techniques they can use. If that was all there was to it, combat would be interesting enough — but as a newly-minted devil summoner, you'll be able to pad out your six-soul party with the very same demons you're fighting against, and that's where the system really shines.

There are over 300 unique demons to recruit: monsters, apparitions, heroes and villains of myth and folklore, as well as deities from around the globe. It's a fantastically varied set that will be familiar to fans of the Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series, and it's one of the game's biggest draws. Where else could you send Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the cross-cultural cyclical snake Uroboros, and an adorable, sentient jack-o'-lantern into battle against Irish hero Cú Chulainn, Greek hellhound Cerberus, and Grendel of Beowulf fame? World history buffs will have an absolute field day, but everyone will get a kick out of the demons' designs and the amazing amount of depth they add to the combat as their personalities, loyalties, alignment, and lunar cycles all come into play on the field.

Each demon has one of six inherent personality types, which affects both their disposition and use in battle. Kind demons dislike attacking, and prefer to use healing and support spells. Wild demons enjoy getting their claws dirty by dealing physical damage, while Sly demons prefer magical attacks. Calm demons tend to chose smart options themselves, so are best left to their own devices with the "GO" command — their counterparts are the Dumb demons, who make exceedingly poor decisions and are generally unpredictable. Finally, a class of demons 'without' personality have no specific preferences.

Giving demons commands that match their personalities makes them happy and increases their loyalty, and the reverse is true as well; keep ordering a Kind demon to attack and you'll find her loyalty meter plummeting before long. Demons with low loyalty levels will disobey you in battle, talk back, or even just pick up and leave — so it's very important to think wisely about which commands you give to your team. Of course, sometimes you'll need a kind-hearted Pixie to lay the smack down with a lightning spell, and the more loyal your demons are the easier that becomes — demons who trust you will be happy to go against their nature every once in a while to help you out. In a pinch, you can also temporarily alter a demon's personality with different types of liquor from the sake shop.

Along with their individual personality, each demon also has an alignment somewhere along a scale from Lawful to Chaotic, with Neutral in-between. The alignments of the demons in your party determine what type of monsters you'll be able to summon and recruit; if you have the resolutely Lawful Angel on your team, for instance, the Chaotic Seere won't want anything to do with you. Finally, each demon has a unique relationship to the lunar cycle that determines when they're at their strongest and weakest, so keeping an eye on the moon phase tracker when picking your team is always a good idea.

Beyond the battle system, one of the hallmarks of the Shin Megami Tensei series is negotiation. When a random battle begins, you can charge straight in with an attack, or head one option lower to the "TALK" command and unlock the surprisingly charming world of demonic dialogue. It's more than just a quirky diversion — depending on their personalities and your conversational choices, demons might join your party, leave you alone, offer a helpful item, request a bribe, have you pass their regards on to other demons, flirt with you, or even heal you. There's always a bit of risk involved too, as angering a demon with the wrong words can lead to a surprise attack and an extra turn for the belligerent beasts.

Negotiating with demons could easily have been a throwaway feature, or a frustrating mess, but Soul Hackers really pulls it off. Conversations are engaging 'battles' in their own right, and ending a demon encounter on a cordial note, either with a new recruit or an exchange of items and best wishes, is just as satisfying as coming out on top in a protracted exchange of blows and spells.

Chatting up would-be assailants isn't the only way to build your team - you can also fuse two or three demons together to create newer, more powerful ones. Since demons can't level up, you'll need to be fusing higher level demons constantly to keep ahead of the curve. On the plus side, this means you'll definitely get a wide sample of the game's diverse and brilliant demon designs — but it also means that your lower-level favourites become useless quite quickly, and you won't get the satisfaction of raising a hee-ho-humble Jack Frost into a world-levelling angel of destruction.

All this demonic power doesn't come for free, of course, and in addition to standard Yen for buying items in shops, you'll need some Magnetite in your wallet. This black market currency of oxidized iron is used for nearly everything having to do with your demons: summoning them, healing them, and most importantly — keeping them alive. Each step you take in a dungeon costs Magnetite, and the more powerful the demons in your party, the more Magnetite you spend. This sounds like it would lead to tense, rationed exploring, but in reality it's seldom a concern. You'll win plenty of Magnetite from battles and negotiations, and it doesn't take long to amass a huge store of the stuff.

Soul Hackers is a game of pairs — Yen and Magnetite, Law and Chaos alignments, Hitomi and Nemissa, Amami City and Paradigm X. It's an RPG-noir that deals with consciousness, morality, and murder, but it's also absolutely bonkers, and possibly the only game in recent memory where you can talk your way out of a battle by neighing like a horse.

With all these complementary contrasts, it's perhaps not so surprising that this sixteen year-old game somehow feels like such a fresh experience. Much of that feeling comes from Soul Hackers' unique personality, an imaginative streak that shines through nearly every aspect of the game. You don't heal your party at an inn or a hospital — when tired and weak, you'll head for a Thai restaurant. You'll buy armour upgrades under the counter at an upmarket art gallery, and grab your weapons from an adult video shop. In a thinly-veiled literary reference, demon fusion is performed by a man named Dr. Victor and his assistant Mary. Even moving around the two-dimensional overworld feels novel and cool as you guide your character's Parcheesi piece smoothly from node to node along the paths etched in the circuit-board of Amami City.

New to the 3DS release is the ability to 'hack' certain aspects of the game using the GUMP. With a pleasantly meta tap of the touchscreen, you can raise or lower the difficulty, enable a super-automap hack that shows the entire level layout from the get-go, set the game to ignore demon alignments when building your team, or even show a full analysis of enemy techniques, strengths, and weaknesses in battles right off the bat. Soul Hackers is regarded as one of the easier Shin Megami Tensei games, but it's still difficult, and these optional hacks are welcome additions that help make the game more accessible to new players drawn in by the cyberpunk style.

The 3DS-exclusive hacks are in addition to the COMP programs present in the Saturn original, installable modules that let you customize your game in lots of different ways. Programs include useful features like the ability to save anywhere in dungeons (largely mitigating any frustration from puzzle backtracking) or to regain HP as you walk, modules to translate unintelligible demon ramblings or improve conversational skills with certain types of monsters, and several totally superficial extras like a Jack Frost menu skin and a clock that shows the system time. These programs take up either one or two of your GUMP's five memory blocks each, and picking out a perfect combination is a fun way to tailor the game to your play style.

Visually, Soul Hackers is very much a product of its time. The pre-rendered backdrops and cutscenes are fantastically 32-bit, and anyone who lived through the golden age of RayDream Studio will feel right at home. The thing is though, apart from some substantial compression artefacts in the videos, it actually works quite well as a modern experience; dungeon crawlers haven't advanced as much as you'd think since the Saturn days, and Soul Hackers holds up remarkably well against this year's Unchained Blades, for instance. Characters are represented by high quality portraits in the foreground and stylized pixelated likenesses in the background, and while demons are strictly sparsely animated sprites, they look fantastic. It's not exactly pushing the hardware, but it feels like a period piece rather than a dated game.

The stereoscopic 3D effect adds real depth to the dungeons and layers the two-dimensional sprites, menus, and backgrounds in a way that seems perfectly at home on the new system. Every once in a while we experienced minor graphical glitches — mostly text tearing or sprites caught between layers — but these were easily fixed with an adjustment of the 3D slider.

Aside from a slick new intro track, the soundtrack remains unchanged from the 1997 original, and that's a very good thing. While dungeon exploration is mostly accompanied by ambient tracks — atmospheric, if easily forgettable — the game's wider world is full of memorable melodies. Amami City's soundscape of swirling electronic rock and Paradigm X's bright, welcoming theme are perfect accompaniments, while the infectiously upbeat pharmacy jingle and cascading koto-crescendo of the sake shop will stay with you long after you've made your purchases. Even the sound effects are evocative, with retro-futuristic bleeps and bloops contributing to the feeling that you're using yesterday's computer of tomorrow — today. The only issue is that audio levels sometimes feel off — certain lines of dialogue are a good deal softer than others (or the music) and we found ourselves having to adjust the volume quite a bit while playing the game.

In addition to stereoscopic 3D and a helpful new dual-screen layout, Soul Hackers takes advantage of its handheld home by incorporating StreetPass functionality, with Nemechi Mode and its adorable teal namesake. StreetPassing other players will earn you D-Souls, a special currency that lets you purchase exclusive demons from Nemechi. If you StreetPass enough, Nemechi can evolve and change forms, opening up even more demons for hire. As a nice touch — especially considering not everyone will be in a position to pass fellow summoners with any frequency — you can also exchange your Play Coins for D-Souls and Nemechi evolutions. This is one of the coolest uses we've seen for Play Coins yet; since the 3DS already feels a bit like a real-world GUMP, carrying it around with you to help summon more powerful demons seems like a natural extension.

Conclusion

For Shin Megami Tensei or Persona fans, this is a no brainer — Soul Hackers is a fantastic entry in the series and you won't be disappointed. Even better, it's an excellent place for newcomers to jump in, with a relatively smooth difficulty curve and user-friendly hacks to help you out of tight spots. Its mix of a late-90's futuristic setting with dark, mythologically-based demon designs is intoxicating, and there's an incredible amount of substance behind its irrepressible style. If you're looking for a deep, dark, story-driven dungeon crawler with soul, the Spookies await your call.