Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a particularly rare breed from a company who specializes in such. It was released exclusively for the Sega Saturn in 1997, and only in its native Japanese land and language. Knowing that, booting the game up for the first time on your 3DS feels a little special, like you’re booting up a long-lost ROM to see just what’s inside. That feeling soon becomes appropriate in more ways than one as you attempt to wrestle your way through its 90s cyberspace conspiracies, difficult battles, and dated appearance. I suspect that many will find the sixteen-year gap in game design philosophy to be a little too much to handle, but for patient and experienced JRPG players, this is an exotic treat.
Other JRPGs from the 90s – while rightly beloved – suffer from awkward, software-assisted translations that are…less than engaging, to put it generously. This no doubt would have been the case for Soul Hackers, had the game come to the West all those years ago. In the hands of a modern localization powerhouse like Atlus, though, the conceptually fascinating plot is able to deliver itself with vivacity and wit, and it soon becomes apparent that the sinister, darkly comic story threads are the reason to check out the game. The game’s commiserations on digital economies and vast online worlds are amusing in their age, but the fresh script punches it up significantly without any annoying, knowing jabs at the late 90s vibe of it all. You and your hacker pals, The Spookies, snag yourselves an illicit beta pass into the futuristic, digital world of Paradigm X, whose high-tech foundation also serves as a network for demons and their hunters. It’s not long before you’re listening to superheroes explain the boundaries of virtual reality, watching your girlfriend succumb to a slightly defective demonic possession, and setting off into the mysterious world inside the computer. Mostly, the game plays things with just the right amount of seriousness, letting you lose yourself in its absurd world where lesser scripts would instead jar you with it. New to this re-release is voice acting, and there is a ton of it. Nearly every exchange you have in the game is delivered with measured, believable acting that goes a long way to sell the creepy, cyber-demonic happenings in the plot.
I don’t want to draw too many comparisons between this game and its namesake’s sister series, Persona, but fans of those games should be relatively at home with the concept of having demon companions who may later be fused into stronger, more useful allies down the road. Soul Hackers uses this basic foundation for its combat system as well, though it’s more complex here. In addition to keeping your human characters well-equipped and properly levelled, you’ll also have to manage a stable of demon aides, who slot in as full-on party members in battle, each with their own set of commands and tactical considerations. What’s more, your affinities need to line up with each other as well. Give a demon who doesn’t respect you a command in battle, and they may damn well not follow it all, choosing their own alternative action or standing idly by, chuckling as you and the rest of your party are torn up by the frequent, hard-hitting random encounters. You have to navigate twisting, labyrinthine dungeons that forgo any sense of organic design. You need to manage currency both for buying items and for summoning and taking care of your demon companions. If this is the kind of thing that keeps you on your toes, then Soul Hackers is unquestionably the game for you. If not, you may find these wrinkles in the combat to be without any particular purpose or pleasure. Battles can be tough enough on their own even when everyone is listening to and executing the commands you intend, a situation that is an absolute rarity until a fair ways into the adventure, when your Understanding stat is able to command even the most stubborn demons reliably. Running out of demonic currency to summon fresh allies during the routinely long dungeons is equally deflating.
This re-release of Soul Hackers does allow a few new “hacks” to be enabled from the menu, letting you defer some of the vexing navigation and heavy-hitting enemies. If you choose to play this way, things become more straightforward, familiar. You choose physical attacks, spells, or defensive options from a menu. You can use items. And like many Shin Megami Tensei titles, you can speak with the demons you battle with for valuable info, recruitment into your party, or simply to experience some funny, unexpected exchanges between the living and the damned. Expect to chat with the underworld’s denizens about dating, muscles, favourite foods, and just about anything in between (you best stick with it, too – it’s one of the only ways to earn currency in the entire game).
Although the story and dialogue only show their age in an endearing way, its visuals don’t get off so easy. The indistinct, trippy backgrounds of fights don’t have anything to do with where you are in the game, though they’re interesting enough to look at as your eyes cut a swath through command menus time and again. Dungeons are explored in a first-person view not unlike many other entries in the series, but it’s all too apparent that these areas were built under the limitations of Saturn hardware. Textures are rough, and while I’m normally one to applaud a high swiftness of movement in a video game, Soul Hackers’ muddy graphics – filled with obnoxious seams – make your character’s spritely sprint an eye-rending, borderline nauseating affair. It’s great that a forgotten title like Soul Hackers is being delivered to an international audience, more or less in its original form, but improving the awful 3D in any form would have gone a long way to making it more playable for a modern audience. After an hour or two of continuous dungeon crawling, my eyes always demanded a break. Thankfully, the interim story scenes – while largely made up of slightly blurry, static sets and characters – set up the voice acting and dialogue without being distracting.
More could have been done to clarify the game’s myriad battle systems and spruce up the creaky visual engine behind it for less experienced players, most of whom would probably be immediately baffled and turned off by this dated work. Even when armed only with its age and a modern translation, though, Soul Hackers’ great storytelling and infectious dark spirit make it a forty-hour-plus proposition that long-time JRPG fans should consider.