Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers Review
Remember when the 3DS was a struggling handheld with few early adopters and even fewer games? I do, and you know my well-worn copy of Pilotwings Resort does, too. Who would have thought then that the system would become a home for not just some of the best games out there, but also the system du jour for the seriously niche and hardcore RPG market? Well, in April 2013, that is where we are. Titles like Code of Princess, Shin Megami Tensai: Devil Survivor - Overclocked and Etrian Odyssey IV have given the 3DS library the chops it needed to be respected in the RPG gamer's eyes, and the titles just keep coming. The latest, a port of an old Sega Saturn game, is Shin Megami Tensai: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers. With an even more limited appeal than the similarly hardcore (and first person) Etrian Odyssey IV, Soul Hackers manages to do a lot right. The catch is only one out of every 500 gamers or so will even bother to give the game a second look.
The Shin Megami Tensai (SMT) franchise has two calling cards that set each game apart from the pack - excellent stories and old school sensibilities. Lets start with the story, as it was the main thing that kept me playing when other aspects became suffocating. Players dive into the futuristic world of Amami City, where computer corporation Algon Software is setting up to beta test an expansive virtual world. As a hacker affiliated with the Spookies gang, you cheat your way into the test and things begin to unravel from there. Why are there demons in this virtual world? What is Algon's true goal? Are we really to believe that hackers run in cutesy-named gangs? All these questions will be answered for those who finish the game's 40+ hour story, major feat to say the least. Luckily, the characters and plot are as engrossing as most of the other SMT games, and following it through never feels like wasted time.
Ok, now let's talk about those old school sensibilities. Though Soul Hackers has a lot going for it, some of this stuff hits while others make the game a harrowing ordeal, especially for the less hardcore among us. Like a lot of SMT titles, Soul Hackers takes place mostly in the first person perspective. You will have plenty of overhead maps and dialogue screens that serve as the exceptions to the first person gameplay, but for all intents and purposes this is a dungeon crawler through the main character's eyes. There are positives and negatives with this. One positive is the fact that the environments are varied enough to not become monotonous, a problem that absolutely plagued the first SMT: Persona game. There are a few others, but what you'll want to know about going in is the negatives, namely spatial awareness and random encounters. Etrian Odyssey IV's "draw your own map" feature was one of the best parts of the game, and thus makes Soul Hackers' confusing maps feel as dated as they actually are. Getting lost is the name of the game, and I was constantly wishing for a better, more interactive way to keep my bearings.
The real fork in the eye, though, is the random encounters. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I hate this antiquated RPG trait in every single circumstance (except Pokemon), and it feels just as outdated and, yes, lazy in Soul Hackers. While I realize this is technically an older game refreshed for a new system, there is still no excuse for the random encounter in any modern video game (again, except Pokemon, the only series where it actually makes sense). The only nice thing I can say about this is that at least they are a little more spaced out than in some games, namely the previously mentioned SMT: Persona. This game only assaults you with unseen enemies every five steps or so; the first Persona hit you every. other. step. What's a good way to make something annoying even more annoying? Make it happen more often, of course! The random encounter has made plenty of games, some better, some worse than Soul Hackers, completely unplayable, and there isn't an excuse in the world that can explain it away.
Luckily, the battles themselves are intricate enough, and the demon creation/collection mechanics are addictive enough to almost make up for the fact that you are constantly being assaulted by bad guys you'll never even catch a glimpse of outside of battle. Imagine if Pokemon had battles as deep as the most hardcore of old school RPGs AND you could smoosh two Pokemon together to form a new one and you'll see why one of Soul Hackers saving graces is its combat. As players move through the game, they will amass a literal army of demons to use in battle, and with the trademark SMT demon fusion the possibilities are nearly endless. Sure, the battles, like the exploration, are in first person and the enemy sprites look extremely dated, but the amount of depth to building a team and battling through dungeons is astounding. You'll enjoy battles and demon collection so much you'll end up doing the necessary level grinding without even noticing it. The boss just around the corner may be way too much for your demons to handle, but by the time you've fought and collected enough demons to attain your desired squad, you'll be beefed up enough to stand toe-to-toe with Soul Hackers most difficult challenges. This is grinding in disguise, and it works brilliantly.
Between first-person exploration supported by a less than perfect map system and the reliance on gaming's intestinal parasite - random encounters - it would be easy for me to tip back in my chair and pan the entire experience. But that's just it; I can't. The story is as engrossing as they come (though I do still prefer the stories in the SMT: Persona series) and the depth and nuances found in the battles and demon collecting drag Soul Hackers up from the abyss of old school mediocrity. Like Etrian Odyssey IV and countless other RPGs that tout old school sensibilities, Soul Hackers will turn off more modern gamers than it will excite, but if you live for this stuff you can't go wrong with this lengthy, mature RPG.
Final Rating: 83%. Soul Hackers will turn off more modern gamers than it will excite, but if you live for this stuff you can't go wrong with this lengthy, mature RPG.