Review by IKelley

"A totally engrossing cyberpunk adventure, fantastic!"

Soul Hackers is the first Playstation release of a game in the Megami Tensei series of RPGs (barring Persona, which was an offshoot of the series)and is a re-release of the Saturn version. For those of you who don't know about Megami Tensei, it is an "occult" themed cyberpunk series of games, where you can summon demons, cast black magic, etc; for this reason none of them were released in the US. Actually, Soul Hackers is sort of a "gaiden" in that it is more tech-cyberpunk than post-apocalyptic like the other Megami Tenseis are (which probably explains why the game doesn't have "Megami Tensei" in its name) but its system is exactly the same as earlier games in the series, unlike Persona, whose system is radically different.



Story:
Soul Hackers is set in future in the city of Amami, a "model city" in Japan. The entire city has been computerized and networked, and automated. The game starts with the opening of "Paradigm X," a virtual-reality world for Amami's residents, (Think the Matrix in Snow Crash, Neuromancer or Shadowrun to get an idea of how it works)developed and held on Algon Soft's (a high-tech networking company) servers. Eventually, working in tandem with the other networking companies in the world, Algon Soft hopes to expand Paradigm X so that everyone on the globe could access it. Before officially opening Paradigm X to the Amami public, Algon Soft draws a limited number of names in a lottery of people who can become beta testers to use and test the service.

You are a member of the "Spookies," a group of six hackers, and the game opens with you and your friend and fellow Spooky, Hitomi, hacking Algon Soft's servers at a public terminal after the end of the lottery. You delete a winner's name and put yours in his place so that you can become a beta tester. (This is actually how you enter your hero's name, which I thought was kind of slick) When you log into Paradigm X though, strange things happen...someone tries to steal your soul, but you are saved by a mysterious user, Redman, who transports your soul into someone else in the past, (called a Vision Quest) who is using a Guntype computer to summon demons. This is the very Guntype computer that Spooky (the Spookies' leader) had found, and through your experience as him, learn the unlock code for the computer when you return to your real body. When you unlock the computer, something very strange happens....

After this, you and the Spookies get caught up in a web of events where something very big is going on behind the scenes. As your Guntype computer gives you the power to be a Devil Summoner, you gain access to the underworld society of Summoners and through these contacts and the various detective work you do, you unlock the mystery piece by piece throughout the game. Needless to say, the plot is fantastic, and you always wonder what is going to happen next. Aside from some corny dialogue in some parts of the game to sum up the pasts of Vision Quest characters so you know what's going on, the characters in the game are wonderfully developed and fleshed out, without resorting to the long soliloquies that many "story intensive" RPGs nowadays tend to use. The concept of the Vision Quest is a neat idea, and the atmosphere of the game is great. There are plenty of Internet references that Internet users and techies will get a kick out of too. Despite being futuristic, it is different enough to be a welcome change from the flood of apocalyptic future-themed RPGs that are coming out nowadays.

Graphics:
If you're looking for polygon-crunching state-of-the-art 3D graphics, look elsewhere. Of course, most will realize that graphics in an RPG are rather insignificant so this won't be a problem. Don't get the idea that the graphics in Soul Hackers are bad though, because they're the furthest thing from it; they're simply beautiful. The game is basically entirely in 2D (save the 3D dungeons) with no polygons, and entirely sprite-based characters, but they're darn good sprite-based characters. The 3D dungeons are also incredibly detailed. Battle scenes are simplistic, but have really cool psychadelic animating backgrounds and floors, a Megaten standard. The enemies don't animate, but the sprites are well-drawn, and whenever something attacks (be it you or the enemies) the effects that come up are really nifty and well- animated. In a nutshell, while not top-of-the-line, the graphics in Soul Hackers are quite nice for a 2D game.

Sound:
While the music in Soul Hackers is nothing to write home about, it fits the setting quite well and has a HUGE number of tracks; virtually every store, building, and dungeon has its own track. Each Vision Quest has its own set of battle musics as well. My one main complaint is that the "standard" battle music, while nice, gets grating after a while. Some of the Vision Quest battle musics are much better than the standard battle music, I wish that they could have used them instead. And the Spookies' Hideout music I also found to be irritating. Other than that I have no complaints.

Gameplay/System:
Don't listen to those people who tell you that story is the most important part of an RPG; even the best of stories won't cut it if the game is no fun to play. And don't worry, Soul Hackers does not disappoint in any way, shape, or form when it comes to gameplay. Soul Hackers has one of the most deep, subtly complex game systems I've ever seen in an RPG before. There are tons of secrets to find and things to do, no matter what point of the game you're at. Here's an overview of the "bones of the system":

The world of Soul Hackers is divided into different areas of Amami City. From each area, you can gain access to stores, towns, or dungeons. All of the dungeons in Soul Hackers are presented from a 1st-person perspective point of view, like all the other Megatens. Most of the game is spent dungeon-hopping in these dungeons. However, like the other games in the Megaten series, the dungeons are superbly designed. They range in design from buildings with rooms & hallways to twisty mazes. None of the dungeons are as simple as "from point A to point B" and encourage you to explore every nook and cranny to see what you can find. The on-board computer your character carries automaps the dungeons to make things easier, however, and there is a spell/item to display the map onscreen as well. Note, however, there are a few select dungeons where the automap does NOT work.

Battles are in the standard 1st-person perspective of all Megaten games as well, only now both you and the demons you fight have front and back lines in their formation. Weapons that you can equip vary in their attributes; some attack a single enemy, some attack a row of enemies, some target a single enemy and "spread out" to adjoining enemies, some will penetrate enemies and hit demons behind them. Each of your characters can equip both a hand-to-hand weapon and a gun. Unlike other Megatens though, when you equip bullets they are in limited quantity, so you have to make sure that you do not run out of ammunition.

However, the defining trait of battles in all Megatens (and SH is no exception) is that battles are not all simply a hack-and-slash deal; you do not necessarily have to fight and can talk to the demons you meet. You can choose to talk to them, and sometimes the demons will initiate conversation themselves. Conversations are MUCH more varied than earlier Megatens, which tended to be a yes/no type of deal. In Soul Hackers, you can give (or get) advice/information to demons, give your opinion on social issues, hit on female demons, buy and sell things, and more. The ultimate goal, however, of talking to demons is to convince them to join you. Once a demon joins you, he/she/it is part of your party, and is stored in your computer for you to summon and command at your leisure.

The Demon Summoning aspect of the game is very in-depth. When you first get them to join you, demons do not trust you fully, and will not always obey your commands. Each demon has a personality type; if you give the demon commands that fit their personality type, their trust in you will increase. In addition, giving demons gifts will also increase their trust for you. (be sure to give the right gift to fit the personality though!) When a demon's trust for you is high, they will be more likely to follow your orders, even if they conflict with what they want to do. And some demons can be transformed into items if their trust for you is high. Demons also have Light/Dark and Law/Chaos affiliations; this affects the party as well. (Law & Chaos demons can't be in the same party together, Light & Dark demons cannot be fused) To summon a demon, you need it stored in your computer; you also need enough Magnetite to summon them. It costs Magnetite to keep demons in the physical world, so you need to make sure your levels are high enough.

Demons do not gain experience or raise levels; however, you can fuse them with other demons to create new allies. Demon fusing is very complex, with lots of rules that influence it like moon phase, demon race, light/dark affiliation, etc. However, you do not need to know all the details to fuse successfully; you could just fuse demons randomly throughout the game and have no problem, but creating a truly powerful party would require you to learn all the ins and outs of the system. It's an excellent example of an "easy to learn, difficult to master" system and is implemented very well. As soon as you think you've mastered it, you'll find that there's still something else that you haven't learned yet. You can spend hours just trying to collect demons to see what you can do with it, and is lots of fun. In addition, you can customize your Guntype Computer by de-/installing new software into it to affect fusion in some way. (You can also install software to affect conversation, battles, your automap, demon analysis, or anything else it can do)

Replayability is great in Soul Hackers. In addition to a bonus dungeon, there's a secret you can find that will allow you to play through the game a second time. Playing the game through again on this mode gives you access to mini-games and other things you couldn't do before. (in addition to changing the rules of the game a bit) and you can even alter the outcome of the game a bit as well....(which I heard you could not do in the Saturn version)

A final note: Soul Hackers offers Pocketstation support, where you can download a P-Mechie, a virtual pet which you can build up by playing several simple games, making him sleep or eat, etc. Once you've powered him up, you can load him into your computer in the game, where he will be converted into a demon who joins your party. Powering up your Mechie is not as simple as it looks! This game is really just a novelty, though you can make some powerful demons with it. The only problem with it though is that the maximum amount of Magnetite you can put into the Pocketstation is nowhere near enough to sustain your Mechie for more than 15 minutes or so before you run out and you have to fire up the Playstation to give him more if you want to keep playing. So don't bring the Pocketstation with you on a long car trip and expect to build Mechie the whole way.

All in all, Soul Hackers is a great purchase for an RPG fan, and a must-buy for any avid Megami Tensei player. Those who want an easy game, are not into gameplay-intensive games, or hate 1st-person dungeons might want to avoid it though. In addition, since this game is only available in Japanese, the player who cannot read Japanese might have trouble getting over the normal language barrier problems. (Also note that Soul Hackers requires some hefty Kanji knowledge to fully comprehend) I personally have not had this much fun with an RPG as I am having with Soul Hackers in a very very long time, and I imagine I will be playing it for a long time before I move to another RPG. If exploration, discovery, and an in-depth system are appealing to you, Soul Hackers will provide hours of enjoyment.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/01/99, Updated 11/01/99


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