Review by JowiStinks
It's dated--but if this game is for you, that's just part of the charm
I'll just go ahead and say it: it's hard for me not to be biased towards Shin Megami Tensei. A series known for its unconventional, morality-based narratives and fantastically addictive demon fusion system, SMT has found its way into the hearts of many an RPG gamer. To me, JRPGs don't get much better than the highs of the SMT series; few of them even come close to matching the challenging subject matter and brutal strategy of the best. When I popped in Persona 3 and felt closer to a cast of polygons than I did to many real people, I knew this series was doing more than a few things right.
As many fans of SMT know, however, the Persona series is but one of a few spinoffs that the main SMT series has created. Much as Final Fantasy has worked off its successes with its instantly recognizable tropes and memorable world, the demon-based oddities of Shin Megami have branched off into slightly different territory. The Devil Summoner series is one of those branches, and up until recently Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers was one of the only games not to receive a North American release. It's now here, and while there are certainly some aspects of the game I can't recommend to everyone, there's no denying that both the game--and some of the added features--will be an enjoyable experience for the intended audience.
First things first, it's almost impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the presentation. And, yes, as you have undoubtedly heard, the game is incredibly dated. The dungeons are from a simple, first-person 3D perspective that is almost never seen nowadays, which is undeniably bland and repetitive. You'll see the same textures ad nauseum as you traverse the game's various locales, and it's not pretty. In battle, the game presents another simple first-person perspective common for RPGs from its original release era. The sound is old, the music is hilariously early-90's electronic, and the newly-added voice acting is extremely hit-and-miss. The main cast does an outstanding job of emoting and getting into character, but many of the side characters and demons are unintentionally humorous. The demons in particular are hard to not chuckle at, with effects that I pulled off on my computer back when Windows 95 was legit. The graphics are without question Saturn-era, and the 3D effect is tacked on with no real effort.
So yes, it's kind of an ugly game. That is to say, unless you're of the niche audience that can not only tolerate this presentation, but also appreciate it for its value. While looking at the game as a relic of a different era, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers becomes sublime in its nostalgic value. The game is hard to fault for its presentation problems when it's from so long ago, so that fact is one I used to my advantage when observing the aesthetics. It's hard not to become giddy when some of the dungeon themes rock a beat reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails' very first album, or when the cutscenes begin and the screen crops down to show you the majesty of a pretty low-framerate CGI effect. Anyone who was there to experience these breakthroughs in technology knows how exciting they were when they first occurred, and the game plays to this tune especially well because of its cyberpunk theme. With technology straight out of science fiction at the forefront of the narrative, the game's clunky presentation becomes an interesting asset when looked from the mindset of people from the time period when this story was told.
And said narrative does not disappoint. This Shin Megami Tensei is full of fascinating, identifiable personalities and some awesome sci-fi/fantasy flourish, blended nicely with the themes of demons and morality that the series is known for. Nemissa, the demon that possesses the player character's best friend, is a particularly humorous and lovable asset that makes the darker subject matter in the game a lot easier to deal with. The story centers around a virtual-reality game called "Paradigm X" being beta tested in Amami City, a metropolitan area warped by overuse of technology. Upon hacking into Paradigm X to become part of the closed beta, your character and a group of elite hackers known as the Spookies become tangled in a technological gang war between the maligned Phantom Society and the rebel Kuzunoha. While I thoroughly enjoyed the game's tale, however, I did find that the characters in the game seemed to know more about the narrative than they perhaps should have. While I can't quite place where the game exactly creates this quirk, needless to say you may be left scratching your head a few times when a character mentions a situation or person they haven't actually talked with or run into in the game. While I think this has more to do with localization than anything, I think a few more lines of dialogue would have helped establish that your friends DID see what you saw and WERE with you at the time.
But that's just a silly nitpick, and one that most players probably won't notice. The real draw here, aside from the story and geek-tastic 90's presentation, is the demon fusion system and how it carries over to the turn-based battles. For those who have never played a SMT game before, demons are the primary source of strength in your party aside from your nameable character and Nemissa. You'll have six slots to allocate party members, with a front and back row to determine the range of attacks. None of this should be particularly new to anyone familiar with turn-based RPGs, but it's worth mentioning that the way demons work in battle is where RPG convention is turned on its head. To actually get demons to join you, you must first talk to them. Each demon has a personality, so certain conversation choices will determine how they respond to your character. For example, an aggressive character might appreciate fightin' words, while a flirty character might appreciate a bit of bragging and swagger. These conversations are nearly always hysterical, and the bizarre idea of chatting up these hideously disfigured things is something that the series does better than you might ever expect. Once demons are on your side, you may summon them using your COMP, which serves as your storage unit for demons. At first, you won't be able to hold many, but they will automatically be registered in a compendium so you may purchase them at any time. Demons have one of six personality types that, once in your party, play a massive role in how easily you will be able to give them commands. Kind demons, for example, would rather stick to healing moves and defensive maneuvers, while Wild demons prefer the onslaught of an all-out attack. If you choose the correct moves for them, demons' Loyalty will go up, increasing the chance that commands outside of their preferences will be obeyed. Gifts, which can be found in dungeons and bought, also can increase or decrease the Loyalty of demons depending on their personalities and type. Finally, alcohol can be given to your demons to temporarily change their personality, making it easier to assign them certain commands and increase their Loyalty.
This system is great as it is, but it becomes awesomely complex when combined with the series' trademark, demon fusion. Demon fusion is, obviously, the fusion of two or more demons to become another demon. Since demons do not level up in battle, it is crucial to collect many demons and fuse them to increase their strength. It's almost impossible to go into the level of detail that demon fusion exhibits; there are many types of fusion, and the cycles of the moon, as well as your location while fusing (whether on your COMP or in the demon-fusion-HQ Hotel Goumaden), can all have an effect on the outcome of your new party member. It's addictive, it's complicated, and it's a draw that brings RPG fanatics in droves. If there's any one problem with this iteration of the demon fusion system, it's probably that it's a bit simplified compared to other entries in the series, but it's so much fun to experiment and learn about what makes what that the game has a real knack for whittling away your hours. I should mention that fusion doesn't lend itself well to a pick-up-and-play experience; it's not very accessible unless you really know what you're doing, and the game doesn't do much in the way of instruction. The payoff for taking the time to learn the ins and outs of this complex system are extremely rewarding, however, so if you're going to pick this game up, don't be afraid to do a little research!
Lastly, the game includes some optional goodies that can assist you in your adventure. These come in the form of changing the gameplay settings, which include the option to swap difficulty levels on the fly, as well as options to display the whole map at once or merely space-by-space, old-school RPG style. Whatever you choose depends entirely on your play style; if you want a much easier game that's more welcoming to casually play, select the former options. If you want a difficult adventure that threatens you with the potential of a Game Over at every turn, select the latter. The game also ends a welcome degree of customization in the form of software you may install in your COMP. You'll be given software at certain points, but two of the game's more hilarious characters will also sell you optional software through their shop. Each program takes up a certain amount of space in your COMP, and the different functions can be important to learn before tackling an area. Much like changing the game settings, software can alter the difficulty of the game dramatically; for example, one piece of software allows you to save at any time rather than restricting it to terminals and safe zones. Other software is useful for demon fusion, combat, or dungeon exploration, and some is just fun to use. It's nice that there's a degree of customization here, especially since any options used can be recanted if you want to make changes to your play style. Want to see what the game's like when it's easier? Want to try your hand at saving as little as possible? Just install software and toggle the settings and play the game however you like.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is a game that isn't going to reach widespread appeal, and it knows it. However, if you're in the niche audience that the series treats each release, Soul Hackers on 3DS is a more than welcome addition to your library of games and a cool nostalgic trip through cyberpunk of the 90's.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers (US, 04/16/13)
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