Game Reviewby Dave Riley, Apr 16th 2013
Shin Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers
Soul Hackers is a game that started out on the Saturn, moved over to the PlayStation, and never came to America until this 3DS remake, which features improved graphics, a new musical score, and all-new voice acting.
This is a 90s game. Even if you didn't know that coming in, it'd be impossible to miss. Atlus may've cleaned up the graphics and recorded all-new character voices for this version, but there are Playstation and Saturn quirks everywhere: static backgrounds that jump to life in second-long vignettes styled like animated GIFs, first person dungeon mazes, clumsy-yet-endearing CG cutaways (for the sole purpose of panning up a building or lingering lavishly on a computer chip), and cumbersome inventory menus with dark blue text boxes.
But nothing is so obviously 90s as its plot: "The Spookies," the game's group of Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie-types, just wanna have fun freaking the net, but they're embroiled in a trans-dimensional corporate conspiracy after one of their members, the player-named main character, inadvertently unleashes a demon hiding in a prototype PC. The demon, a saucy white-haired lady named Nemissa, takes up residence in the main character's best friend Hitomi and nobody, barely even Hitomi, really, seems bothered by the fact that there's a millenia-old demon seizing control of her body and forcing her to dress in chokers and leather catsuits.
It's not a super-compelling plot. It certainly doesn't conjure the charm of your average Persona social link, let alone the extremely sympathetic character arcs of Persona 4, but an RPG set in the present present-day (with guns! and cars! and the internet!) was shockingly rare in the 90s, and remains uncommon even today, so it's fun to see characters putter around in 1997's idea of a hyper-advanced metropolis. Paradigm X, the game's MMORPG hub world, is mostly window dressing that links to the occasional cyberspace dungeons. Dungeons in Paradigm X appear as endless lava fields and teleporting haunted houses, a good break from the featureless office spaces of the real-world dungeons. It's interesting, although sometimes quaint, to see 1997 Atlus's idea of the MMO/social hub of the future six years before Second Life brought that sort of thing into the public eye.
The Megami Tensei series all truck in some pretty similar gameplay mechanics. Anyone who's played a recent Persona will recognize the demons on call here, Fairy, Jack Frost, etc, as well as the impenetrable names of abilities like "Diarahan" and "Takuraja." The faces of the monsters and the names of the spells will be familiar -- many of which haven't changed since before Soul Hackers came out the first time -- but this game is more MegaTen than it is Persona. Demons are party members in Soul Hackers, not conduits through which to cast spells, and are recruited during in-battle conversations. Any random encounter fodder can be talked to, most want to be talked to, and almost all will ask asinine questions or oblivious non-sequiturs like "where do you want to go in space" or "which part of the human tastes the best?" Some like being buttered up and will join the party or reward the player with items. Some spout gibberish that the player can only guess back at with grunts of yes or no. Some despise being catered to, and will respond to the player's obsequious gestures with a free round of attacks.
All of them have personality. Which is to say they have personality types: kind, sly, calm, dumb. Demons in your party can be ordered to use specific attacks, and will acquiesce to unfavorable commands based on their loyalty (increased by gifts of sapphires and chicken carcasses), but for the most part it's quicker to just tell them "Go!" and let them make their own decisions. Sometimes this is a safe bet: kind demons will pretty much always heal, sly demons will pretty much always use magic. It's not perfect -- kind demons will use party-wide heals when there's only one character hurt, aggressive demons will use overuse area of effect attacks, dealing more damage to themselves than to your foes -- but the "smart" personalities will usually handle themselves pretty well; it's the unpredictable ones you need to watch out for.
Wild demons can generally be trusted to attack the enemy in mostly optimal ways, but are likely to respond in temper tantrums when asked to perform a defensive buff in the middle of a boss battle. At anything less than max loyalty they may ignore your requests outright. However, this is substantially better than "dumb" demons, who will do pretty much whatever they feel like doing, including rejecting your frantic pleas for heal spells in favor of using their barely-effective suicide attacks. And if you resurrect them, they'll just do it again.
It sounds frustrating; it frequently is. It is also frequently hilarious. Though it is usually only hilarious after a few hours-worth of distance from the Game Over screen. Managing a party of demons, some of whom literally have power over life and death, becomes bizarrely amusing when the player realizes battle tactics boil down to shepherding a bunch of all-powerful toddlers, who reply to every command given with (disgruntled) flavor text. The calm ones will simply say "I don't feel like it" but the dumb ones and the wild ones blurt out ridiculously inter-capped phrases like "I bElieVe iN You!" or "NoNOonnNonono!!!" based on their moods.
And hey, if you don't like a demon's personality you can temporarily change it by getting them drunk. Perhaps the capstone joke of this oddball battle system is that all it takes to turn a dumb demon kind is the liberal application of sake. If you mistakenly fuse your only demon with the crucial Media spell into an idiotic, suicidal bird (as I did), all it takes for them to remember their healing roots is a couple drinks.
It's not really that hard, compared to other MegaTen games we've gotten in the States, and there are "hacks" (cheat codes) that can be activated or deactivated at whim to modify the difficulty, reveal the entire dungeon map, or allow demons of opposite alignments to be active in the same party. It is also exceedingly generous with its currency. Demons need to be maintained via "magnetite," or MAG, which drops at the end of battles instead of yen, but outside of the first couple hours it is literally never an issue. The game is stern in its warnings that demons will suffer HP damage and eventually die if summoned into a party without sufficient MAG, but the party will almost always be tens of thousands of MAG in excess of what they actually need to support their summons, and even converting all MAG to yen at the end of each dungeon and going on a shopping spree before the next will leave the player basically a millionaire by the end of the game with enough MAG to support a whole army of demons, so it's a pity the game only lets us summon four at a time.
The player has a "comp" that can be upgraded with all sorts of programs that allow for easier demon conversations, passive HP regen while walking around, and even a "Save Anywhere" button. MegaTen games traffic in all sorts of weirdness, so it's a shame this game's "hacker" aesthetic is basically just garnish. Early on the player has to program a password of their own creation into a computer with a side character and unlock later with the main character. More of those puzzle interludes would've done a lot to break up the monotony of wandering through featureless box-like dungeons, where an airport and an office building and a warehouse all look and act pretty much the same. There are slight nods towards 21st century game mechanics (the remake uses play coins, a frequently ignored 3DS feature, to summon level-appropriate demons if the player's current stock falls behind the curve) but the core of the game is stuck in 1997, where half of your attacks whiff because you killed the demon in the front row and the demon in the back row doesn't move forward until the end of the turn.
In many ways Soul Hackers is a curio of what RPGs were before Final Fantasy VII fully took hold and made everything so samey for an entire decade. It is interesting, and it is certainly competent. It is sometimes cool, with its demon-buffing computer programs. It is sometimes exasperating, with idiotic party members spamming bufu on ice-resistant foes. It is sometimes hilarious, too, but it's difficult to play it without a perception colored by 21st century RPGs and without the ever-creeping desire to compare it to Persona 3 and 4.
Soul Hackers is a good game, and its mechanics hold up better than most late-90s RPGs probably do, but too much of its appeal is tied up in novelty of a game which required 2 discs and a home console in 1997, a game which by all rights we never expected to see out of Japan, that is now be playable on a postage stamp-sized cartridge during a morning commute. Soul Hackers is interesting in a lot of ways, but, as you wander block-by-block through 1990s dungeons designed with 1990s sensibilities, it can be difficult to distinguish what makes it interesting as an artifact and what makes it interesting as a game.
Overall : B-
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B
+ Colorful demon pals, most combat mechanics hold up surprisingly well
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