Originally released for the Saturn in 1997, Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers was considered the pinnacle of the old-school SMT games. It combined a number of the franchise's elements, but it also marked the turning point for the franchise. The original Persona title was already out, and Soul Hackers was one of the last "traditional" SMT titles. For North American gamers, Soul Hackers is the first time we're seeing many of the systems upon which the franchise was built. In some ways, this is a good thing, but in others, Soul Hackers shows its age.
Soul Hackers is set in the "futuristic" utopia of Amami City, which is a city that's "plugged in" to computers — in that quaint 1997 way, which seems outdated now. There are computer pay phones on every corner, a massive MMO played by everyone in the city, a global Internet, and hackers who fight the corporations. Your protagonist is a member of a group called the Spookies. He hacked an invite into a game beta, but in doing so, he accidentally gets involved in a conspiracy. A mysterious vision allows him to unlock a "GUMP" (GUn coMPuter) containing a demon named Nemissa. Together, they must figure out where the GUMP came from, why she was locked inside, and what it means for Amami City. If they don't hurry, a force will devour the souls of every inhabitant of the city.
Soul Hackers doesn't stray far from its SMT roots. Exploration is done entirely in first-person view, with a map on the bottom screen automatically charting your progress as you wander around the area. Battles are random and have a chance to occur with every step you take. The dungeons are straightforward, although there are a few annoying dungeons late in the game. It's kind of a mix of Strange Journey and Persona, although it was released before either of those titles.
Soul Hackers uses a traditional JRPG combat system. By default, you have two party members: your protagonist and Nemissa, a demon ally who possesses one of your friends. Your protagonist has no access to magic, but he has two options: gun or sword. You can equip different types of guns and bullets to increase their power. Pistols can only target single enemies, but shotguns can target a whole row. Swords are physical attacks, with the exact properties depending on the equipped weapon. The only limiting factor is that you need to buy bullets to use them. Nemissa has access to natural magic spells, with the spells being determined by the personality you selected for her at the outset.
Beyond your two human party members, you can also summon demons. Unlike most recent games, demons do not gain levels. What you see is what you get, and the only way to give a demon new abilities or better stats is by fusing them with other demons. Each Demon is at its maximum power when it is summoned. Your demons are balanced by two other facts: loyalty and magnetite. Demons are mindful beings and won't just obey you immediately. A demon has five levels of loyalty and will completely obey your commands once they hit level five. Each demon needs a magical substance, called magnetite, to exist. You have to pay a cost to summon a demon from your GUMP and an additional cost to keep it, with this cost being paid every step you take. You earn magnetite from battles and chests, and you have to balance the amount you spend with the amount you take in.
There is also an important third demon class: Zeed, the artificial demon. You get him early on, and in most ways, he is identical to demons. He can be fused, he needs to be summoned, and he won't gain levels or stats on his own. The major difference is that he doesn't require magnetite to stay around, and he always has a loyalty level of five. This basically means that you'll always have three powerful characters who don't need upkeep. This goes a long way toward alleviating any frustrations the magnetite system may cause. The other demons are temporary buffs rather than major parts of your party, and getting attached to them is pointless.
Combat balance is a little odd. If you have a good demon, you'll stomp all over the enemy. If you dump all of Nemissa's level points into her MAG stat, she'll do insane amounts of damage while simultaneously healing others or resurrecting the dead. She could've carried a lot of the game's battles on her own. There are some nasty battles, but they're usually ones where Nemissa can't one-shot them or they're late game end-bosses. As far as SMT games go, this is one of the easiest.
Soul Hackers is from 1997, and it shows. It was a good game from 1997, but even with some updates, it has a lot of design features, mechanics and general ideas that date it even more than its view of technology. The interface is sometimes clunky and awkward, and there are a lot of little things that are clearly holdovers from a bygone era. For example, you have to unlock basic features for your GUMP and can only equip a few at a time. There's an equippable item that lets you save anywhere, and there's one that shows you the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy when you're casting a spell. These take up precious equipment slots, but it's silly that you have to choose between basic interfaces options and character-improving equipment. There are some options to improve this. You can "hack" your GUMP to make it always display a full map, make combat easier or harder, or allow you to summon demons of any alignment. This lets you customize the game somewhat, and it'll reduce frustration for people who would otherwise turn off the game.
Despite the negatives, Soul Hackers is a very good game. Nemissa aside, the combat is fun, the dungeons are interesting, and the plot is engrossing — in its own dated way. It's not an instant classic or a game for everyone, but if it's up your alley, you'll really like it. If you're the kind of person who can go back and play PlayStation 1 RPGs without being driven bonkers by the dearth of basic features, you'll be fine. If not, then Soul Hackers may be extremely frustrating for you.
One disappointing thing about Soul Hackers is rather shoddy by Atlus standards. There isn't much game-breaking material, but there are a number of places where problems shine through. Text in demon negotiations frequently scrolls outside of the box and is cut off by the bottom of the screen. There's rarely anything important here, but it just looks bad. There were a few cases of untranslated text. My game also suffered a hard freeze once during a battle. No one complaint is more than a minor blip on the radar, but when combined with the dated presentation, it feels a little sloppy. These bugs come up often enough that they should've been caught and fixed.
There are some nice features in the localization. They upgraded the Streetpass feature to use Play Coins. In the Japanese version, you could raise a special demon by getting hits from other people's DSes. This demon wouldn't fight alongside you, but you could buy special demons from it using "souls" you unlocked by Streetpassing. Like most Streetpass features, this was worthless if you lived outside of Japan, and it would take forever to level up. The North American release adds the options to trade Play Coins for souls, which you can then use to level up the demon. This makes it easy to max out the demon (about 100 play coins), but it prevents the feature from being useless. It's a small touch, but it's appreciated.
Soul Hackers is a dated-looking game, but that's unavoidable for a title from 1997. The environments are bland and kind of ugly, and the combat graphics are simple and boring. The characters and demon designs are quite good, although most of the demons have since been recycled for other games and seem familiar. As with most games of its era, it relies heavily on prerendered cut scenes, and all of those have aged remarkably poorly. The 3DS's 3-D effect is completely wasted. It's barely possible to see any difference with it on and off. The 3DS iteration added voice acting to every character, although the North American version limits that to every named character. That's still a ton of voice acting, and it's reasonably good, but you can still turn off the voice acting if you dislike it.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is a hard game to judge. When it was released in 1997, it was an instant classic, but playing it for the first time in 2013 is a very different experience. It's one of the better games in the franchise, but it is unavoidably dated, and that can be too big a gap to overcome. SMT fans will eat this up, flaws and all. Newcomers to the franchise would be better off starting with Strange Journey or Devil Survivor: Overclocked.
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