Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is set in the near-distant future … of 1997, when the original Saturn version was released. Soul Hackers had a simultaneously optimistic and narrow-minded view of the internet and technology. This explains Amami City, which is cyber-utopian and completely connected by technology and the internet. There is the internet equivalent of payphones on every corner, computers are everywhere, and there's even an MMO called Paradigm X that is so realistic it may as well be another world. The player character is a member of the Spookies, a group of elite hackers who mostly use their skills for trivial things. After discovering a mystery gun-shaped computer, the protagonist uncovers a conspiracy involving the city's biggest corporations and demons from another world. He has to figure out what caused the demons to appear before they devour everyone's souls.
As a dungeon crawler, Soul Hackers is not dissimilar to Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. However, considering their original release dates, perhaps it is more correct to say that Strange Journey is closer to Soul Hackers. Soul Hackers has multiple smaller dungeons instead of a large super-dungeon. Players go through various plot events and explore a world map in between exploring dungeons, so the game feels much closer to Persona than Strange Journey. There is a massive dungeon that contains hidden demons, but it mostly exists as a place to power up between plot dungeons.
Exploring is done entirely in first-person view, with a map on the bottom screen tracking your progress. By default, this map only shows where you've traveled, so you have to explore to fill it out entirely. For those who found that aspect frustrating in Strange Journey, some things are in place to improve the experience. For one thing, you can add notes to the map to make it easier to remember where everything is. Otherwise, you can take advantage of a "hack" built into the game that allows you to instantly reveal every map. You can turn this on and off in case you need a hint or want to have a clear map. There are other hacks that can increase and decrease the difficulty, such as making combat easier or harder, making it so you can summon any demon regardless of alignment, or allowing you to see a demon's weaknesses even if you never fought it before. These hacks mostly exist to allow you to customize your difficulty level. It's a nice way to alleviate the "This game is from 1997" feel that sometimes occurs.
While Soul Hackers has a fairly straightforward JRPG combat system, that doesn't mean it lacks complexity. Considering your team composition in Soul Hackers is a big part of winning (or losing) the game. To begin with, you have two kinds of party members: humans and demons. Your main character is a pure human, so he doesn't have special abilities and relies on his physical attack and guns. Your second is Nemissa, a demon who is possessing the body of the protagonist's friend. As such, she can use magic but otherwise plays exactly like a human. Human characters can be customized with various types of equipment that alter strengths and weaknesses, equip weapons to boost attack damage, and gain levels to improve stats.
Demons are a bit more complex. In proper Shin Megami Tensei fashion, you recruit demons by negotiating with them during combat. Complete a successful negotiation, and you'll get a demon. In Soul Hackers, demons don't level up, so what you see is what you get. Each demon has a personality and a loyalty meter. The personality influences what a demon likes to do, so a Wild demon prefers to physically attack, a Sly demon wants to use magic, a Kind demon is happy to defend but hates attacking, a Dumb demon dislikes being given orders, and so on. These personalities are important because, by default, a demon doesn't like you. It may refuse orders unless they fit the demon's personality. You can constantly tell a Wild demon to use a healing spell, but that doesn't mean it will, and it may even make him disobey you more.
This is where Loyalty comes into play, Each Demon has a loyalty level (between one and five), which determines how likely it is to obey your commands. A perfectly loyal demon will do whatever you say. A disloyal one will default to its personality. To raise a demon's loyalty, you have to make it happy. The easiest way is to let them do what they want: Let a wild demon attack, and let a kind demon defend. You can also give gifts, which may increase their loyalty if it suits them. If you have some extra money to spend, you can buy special alcohol at the local demon shop to temporarily alter a demon's personality type. It might be worthwhile to switch them for a boss fight.
Since demons don't level up, you'll spend a lot of time swapping out demons. Newer demons are almost always going to be better than older demons, and you'll want to fuse demons together pretty regularly to assure that you've got a solid lineup. You might swap demons in and out for other reasons. Each has a personality that may or may not be appropriate for a fight. Demons also have an upkeep cost, so any demon you summon requires a tribute of Magnetite to keep it around. Magnetite is a metal that demons feed on to exist. A demon who is summoned requires an initial cost and more to stay. It drains with each step you take, and that increases with an increase in summoned demons. This isn't as crippling as it sounds, though. Magnetite is easy to acquire, and you'll get a bit after every battle that should be more than enough to cover upkeep. When designing your team, you have to balance the Magnetite cost with the profit you'll make from fights. It might only be worth keeping one or two demons for regular fights, but you'll want a full squadron for bosses.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers may be a game from 1997 in both tone and gameplay, but the 3DS version has done a lot to make it more welcoming to players. There are basic features like the Demon Compendium, which have been added in, new voice work, and a bunch of other minor tweaks and twists that make it feel more on par with modern games. Soul Hackers also provides an interesting look into the franchise's history, as it is perhaps the closest we'll get to the original Shin Megami Tensei titles. Soul Hacker s is looking to be something that can hold its own against modern games, and it's a must-play for any fans of Atlus' demon-summoning franchise.
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