Western audiences in recent years have been far better provided with niche Japanese titles than ever before when previously the chances would be quite slim, even among series that had a following outside of their homeland. Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a game that arguably makes more sense to release now than it did when the Shin Megami Tensei series was even more obscure than it is now. Fifteen years after the original Japanese Sega Saturn release, the game has finally received an official release on western shores on the Nintendo 3DS.
Players take on the role of a hacker who is given beta access to a new virtual world called Paradigm-X. After a brief stint in this new place the player’s childhood friend is possessed by a demon from the virtual world. Soon enough things get more complicated as demons run amok in the city and a rival gang get involved as well. The game’s disjointed cyberpunk and supernatural atmosphere do actually work surprisingly well together making an experience that still feels unique even after all this time.
Moving from one key location to another across the city is handled via a map screen where the player and NPCs are represented as small dots in the environment. While it is a very simplistic means of transporting the player from one side of the city to the other it is fast enough to just cut to the meat of the experience.
Exploring the different locations is done through a first-person viewpoint much like many retro dungeon crawlers, with a map being displayed on the 3DS’s lower screen. Newer players may find the gridlocked movement a little clunkier than more modern titles but the controls are responsive even if players are forced to use the D-pad over the more comfortable Circle Pad. There are usually some form of environmental puzzle that players will need to overcome in order to progress further but these usually involve simply exploring a little bit to find a switch or a key card for the relevant door.
While exploring, demons will appear at random initiating a battle. Engaging enemies and bosses in battle will be familiar to anyone who has played a turn-based RPG before as players can opt to manually queue up attacks for each individual party member or simply have everyone automatically attack with the option to intervene at anytime. Despite being menu-based there’s no option to use the touch screen to input commands but using the more traditional D-pad flicking through menus is thankfully very fast and attack animations don’t take an age to finish as with many other JRPGs, so each encounter doesn’t needlessly drag on.
Like many older titles the difficulty can feel rather tough to begin with but soon balances out to an easier level as players progress. Battles can get quite difficult and some more powerful opponents will be make short work of an unprepared party. Rather than simply rebalancing the game for this release Atlus have instead opted to add features for users to adjust the difficulty to suit them. It’s possible to use 3DS Play Coins to buy more powerful demons that will ease the challenge for players who perhaps want to just experience the story without having constant setbacks in combat.
Demons can also be recruited and then summoned as an extra party member in subsequent encounters. When a demon is encountered, many can be spoken to and if they like what they hear they’ll join the player and await their summoning. Each demon has a unique personality that needs to be assessed before making responses if players wish to recruit them. Their personalities also play a role in their battle as some prefer to attack whereas others would much rather hang back and heal other party members. Each demon’s different personality brings a goofiness to the game that remains fun throughout, even if talking to each different one does become a little bit of a chore towards the end. Because each demon doesn’t level up with the rest of the party, players will constantly need to find new creatures to add to their line-up either through encounters or combining two demons you’ve already recruited. Unlike the likes of Pokemon you aren’t supposed to become attached to the demons who have been recruited.
Although there is a lot to manage the game never feels overwhelming, even to players who aren’t familiar with the Shin Megami Tensei series. For the most part the game remains an engaging experience until the end despite some of the more outdated technical aspects. The game can only be saved at certain points and can make a defeat by critical hit a rather frustrating experience, forcing you to backtrack through the last thirty minutes of game time.
Despite being on a console that has released games that offer much better visual fidelity than the Sega Saturn, Soul Hackers hasn’t been remade with the modern hardware in mind. This is essentially a port and while the pre-rendered character portraits and backgrounds do look nice, the in-engine gameplay while exploring is simple and undetailed but does run very smoothly. The English voice acting is also well performed while the soundtrack’s otherworldly qualities complement the disjointed atmosphere.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is a gripping RPG that does still stand strong even after the extended wait for a western release. The story is engaging for those who appreciate Nineties cyberpunk or the plain weird. Despite featuring some clunkiness that is common of early 3D titles, the game’s old school charms do in a strange way enhance the fragmented atmosphere. Fans of retro JRPGs will find a lot to like in a game that at its core is quite traditional despite the unusual atmosphere and complex gameplay mechanics.