Review by AuroraSoul
"How *not* to do cyberpunk."
Ah, Soul Hackers. The elusive title western Megaten fans have been chasing for 16 years. As with any games that never made it out of Japan, it was susceptible to idealistic rumors. It got to a point where some referred to it as the best game in the franchise. Whether this belief was properly founded or not doesn't matter, but it is a true fact that Soul Hackers was very well-received in Japan on its release in 1997. Nevertheless, I approached Soul Hackers without lowering my standards a good game shouldn't be prone to aging.
Let's begin by looking at the story. This is important, as Soul Hackers was often lauded for having a gripping cyberpunk narrative. Even being aware of the fact that it's not a mainline entry, I was led to believe that the atmosphere would be somewhat like SMT 1/2, but with a more down-to-earth approach. You know, without a threat of an apocalypse or the protagonist essentially being a god. What I got instead was something much more reminiscent of Persona. The whole thing radiates a wacky aura where the main cast feels the need to insert lame jokes into everything. As a result, the serious events don't have any weight to them at all. This can also be blamed on poor pacing, all-around mediocre writing, and unnatural character reactions. Vision Quests, however, are an interesting implementation. Reliving somebody's final moments to uncover more of the plot details is the most effective and captivating storytelling method found throughout the game, by far. Unfortunately, they are too short, too easy, and there aren't many of them.
The cyberpunk elements fall short as well. At the time of this game's creation, many were exploring the implications of cyberspace and getting excited about the idea of a virtual world, spurred on by the rising popularity of the internet. Unfortunately, Soul Hackers fails to deliver anything worthwhile regarding this topic. The game's physical representation of the internet, Paradigm X, is underwhelming and completely misses the point of why the online world is so transcendental. This game's version of it paints it as being tiny, visually unappealing, and having very few things to do. To be fair, pulling this feat off in a satisfactory way is impossible, so it would probably have been a better idea to have a navigation menu instead of a bland hub world. Outside of Paradigm X, the overworld does its job effectively. It's clean, easy to navigate, and looks good. As per common cyberpunk tropes, it's a futuristic city with neon lights that never sees day. At the same time, taking into account all the other gaping flaws with the worldbuilding, the feeling of traversing Amami City is downplayed significantly.
Then there's the dungeon crawling. In your typical, traditional Megaten fashion, you recruit and fuse your way to victory while exploring various grid-based locales filled with random encounters. The 3DS and its predecessor have always been the best for these types of games, as you have the map displayed on the bottom screen. It certainly makes things less frustrating. One huge problem found within the basic formula is the demon negotiation system. While the aim of this implementation was to make the series more dynamic, the fact that the conversations repeat often and RNG runs rampant makes it seem like a redundant feature. This was somewhat refined in later titles, but still remains obtrusive and unintuitive to this day. Demons don't level up this was not seen in the series until Persona 2. This means you have to keep fusing if you want to avoid running into difficulties. This is true with any Megaten game, but moreso with the earlier titles like this one, which can be annoying. Thankfully, nobody has to deal with time-consuming, tedious guess and check methods in Soul Hackers when it comes to fusions. You can view a catalog of available demons based on who you have recruited. One drawback here that was amended in later games is that you cannot check what each of the moves do on the fusion preview screen, which can be a big issue to newcomers. And even overcoming that, it's not to say that you will be able to use your demons freely. Older games like this one use Magnetite, which is a demon currency of sorts that depletes when you are walking around dungeons while having demons summoned. This means you constantly have to monitor how much you have left, because you can't use any demons if you don't have enough. It's a bit of a nuisance.
An exclusive feature to the Devil Summoner continuity is demon loyalty. Each demon is has a type, and based on this factor, they will prefer different actions. If you command them in a way that they like, they will grow attached to you, and their power will go up. Do the opposite, and well, the opposite will happen, even leaving you after they've had enough. That's what it is in theory. Unfortunately, it's not anywhere near being that intricate. You can raise demon loyalty to the maximum very easily with just one or two battles, and from that point on, they will obey your every action, no matter their type. It's a useless, badly implemented mechanic. Another extremely pointless feature is the GO command in battle. This means the protagonist uses his sword while summoned demons pick an action they deem appropriate for the situation, which isn't really true at all, because they often do things that you wouldn't want them to do. It's just a more risky variant of auto-battle that gets in the way on the menu. It really didn't need to be there.
The visuals, rolling back to how dull Paradigm X looks and feels, stretch out across the entire game's dungeons. The main problem with them is the frame rate. You'll get used to it, but navigation feels noticeably different from the fluidity and speed of Strange Journey. There is a fast travel button, so at the very least you can cut down the time you have to spend within dungeons. The cutscenes remain unchanged from their corny, early CGI on the Saturn. Atlus didn't even bother adjusting the resolution for the 3DS. All you get are giant black borders on all sides surrounding a tiny output full of artifacts in the middle of the screen. There is no way to skip cutscenes, either. If you die, you'll have to watch them again. Not as bad as it could have been, seeing how the game is on the easier side. The battle sequences look okay. Most have interesting psychedelic backgrounds, kind of like the type you'd find in the later Mother games, but they are very low on variety. The enemy sprites do their job, and the battles go by quickly.
The music is somewhere between decent and good. Some area themes sound incredible, but the battles themes are quite disappointing.
The port is filled to the brim with bugs; freezing, untranslated segments, and even situations that force the player to restart the entire game. I have no opinion on the voice acting, as the original release didn't have any, and that's the way I played it. I'm cautious about dubbing, especially with Atlus and their inconsistent quality. Generally speaking, dual-audio should always be an option in these games, a policy which this company doesn't seem to adhere to. However, none of these things count towards my impression of the game.
Looking over 30 years of dungeon crawlers, you have to ask yourself why you came to Megaten in particular. It might be for the dark atmosphere you can't find in any other games within the genre, or at least, this is how I became interested in it. If you want the definitive game of this caliber, with good writing and mechanics, you should go play Strange Journey. It will last you twice as long, and will give you ten times the satisfaction. Leave Soul Hackers to those who have the game implanted in their childhood memories.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 04/25/13
Game Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers (US, 04/16/13)
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