Monday, July 25, 2022

Shin Megami Tensei - Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers

The Nintendo 3DS cover depicts Nemissa, a young woman with light blue hair and black clothes, with her eyes just out of frame. Behind her is a group of people, rendered with a light blue tint.

The Devil (Summoner) Is in the Details

During the 1990s, Atlus’s Megami Tensei series didn’t really get much exposure outside Japan, save mostly for the first Persona game and one of its sequels (with the other part of the second game not seeing a legal English release until the PlayStation Portable came out), although the third mainline entry of the main Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Nocturne, reigned in popularity among North American gamers to the point where many future MegaTen games would receive official translations. Another game Anglophone gamers initially didn’t receive was Shin Megami Tensei – Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, originally for Sega Saturn before a port to the Sony PlayStation and over a decade later to the Nintendo 3DS, with North Americans getting that particular release.

Soul Hackers occurs in the fictitious Japanese harbor town Amami City, where Algon Soft has its headquarters, aiming to make it a “city of tomorrow”. The player’s character is a member the hacking group, the Spookies, whose founder holds a grudge against Algon Soft. The game tells its story well, with mature themes and introductory text for characters entering the narrative, but there are some elements filched from past MegaTen titles such as one character becoming host to an ethereal being. The translation doesn’t hurt, but is one of Atlus’s weaker efforts, with lines such as “It is in no state to user the computer!” when foes disable the protagonist, not to mention asinine names such as one of the Spookies named “Lunch” and characters addressing and referring to the group’s head as “Leader” when “our leader” in scenes where he’s not present would have sounded better.

However, the gameplay largely compensates for whatever narrative and translational shortcomings the game has, with the male protagonist and female deuteragonist able to equip different types of melee and ranged weapons, not to mention other pieces of defensive equipment, the hero able to summon up to four different demons to help him and his companion in battle, accounting for six active characters in combat. First, though, the player must converse with enemies to get them to join, and luckily, the conversation system isn’t nearly as convoluted, random, or guide-dang-ity as in the first three Persona games or even in the mainline Shin Megami Tensei titles.

It may, however, take a few tries talking with particular demons to get any reward from them, be it money, an item, magnetite (which is necessary when having demons summoned since completely running out of it causes them to take damage with each step the player takes in first-person dungeons and other areas except the various overworld maps), or, of course, alliance. Which conversational decisions yield rewards and which make enemies run away, angry (in some cases resulting in all encountered enemies attacking the player’s party in one round), or simply do nothing seems set in stone throughout the game, although whatever dialogue they speak does appear random at times.

Encounters themselves are random, the rate being fair and increasable or decreasable through special items or TP-consuming magic, another quirk being that one of many apps the hero can install in his devil-summoning program can indicate the relative strength of enemies in a particular dungeon, which can somewhat be a good indicator of whether the player needs to grind. Another app can allow players to record their progress any time outside battle, which can significantly reduce the amount of time wasted when the protagonist dies in battle, resulting in a Game Over and trip back to the title screen.

One thing that is lamentably necessary to repeat is sometimes-lengthy cutscenes before critical boss battles, with no option to skip them or retry battles in case of defeat. Difficulty is also adjustable any time throughout the game, sure to accommodate players of different skill levels. There are also other quirks in the game mechanics such as opponent demons refusing to ally with the player depending upon which specific demons they have in their party, and the ability to fuse two or three monsters to create more powerful incarnations, the skills they receive, either TP-consuming magic or HP-consuming physical abilities, fixed and not randomized like in a few other early entries of the MegaTen franchise.

All in all, while Soul Hackers does slightly play like a JRPG originally released in 1997, given things like unpredictable turn order after the player selects commands and lets them and the enemy demons exchange orders, the mentioned contemporary enhancements such as selectable difficulty and the app allowing players to record their progress anywhere prevent it from falling completely into the gameplay abyss. There are also things the player must keep in mind such as when either human character levels, and they get the opportunity invest points into stats, intelligence and magic are useless for the protagonist since he doesn’t get any magic. There are also a few other issues such as demons not always doing what the player wants, but otherwise, the gameplay very much helps the game more than hurts.

Control definitely has many things going for it such as the mentioned save-anywhere feature, not to mention a “hack” that allows the players to view complete automaps in dungeons instead of needing to fill them out by exploring untouched parts of the three-dimensional areas, easy shopping, an equip-best feature in the game interface, fast movement speed, and so forth. However, there are occasional issues such as the poor direction at maybe a handful of points (although in some cases the fortuneteller in the Paradigm X virtual app can help guide players to the next plot point), and lack of a soft-reset or in-game load in case things such as losing a demon to fusion occur, but otherwise, Soul Hackers generally interfaces well with players.

Sound is perhaps the game’s strongest aspect, with plenty of good tracks such as the various battle and shopping themes, not to mention the variety of tunes in the Paradigm X application. There’s also voicework during most cutscenes, with its quality inconsistent at times, though given the ability to skip through much voiced text, it doesn’t completely feel forced down the player’s throat.

Conversely, the graphics are another one of the game’s weak points, although it does have many positives such as the superb demon designs that contain absolutely no reskins whatsoever, good combat effects, some CG cutscenes, great human character art, and so forth. However, there are plenty of weaknesses such as the laziness of the battle visuals, given the EarthBound-esque psychedelic backgrounds, limited animation for the monsters, and strict first-person perspective. Occasional pixilation and choppiness round out the graphical weak points, but the game is still far from an eyesore.

Finally, the game is one of the shorter entries of the Megami Tensei franchise, around twenty-four hours for a straightforward playthrough, although there is some postgame content, a few occasional sidequests, different difficulties, and things such as filling in the demon compendium. However, a guide may be necessary to play the game to one hundred-percent completion, and given the annoyance of a few dungeons, not all will want to go through it again.

In summation, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is definitely one of the older entries of the Megami Tensei series, with solid gameplay accommodating different player skill levels, along with handy features such as the ability to record one’s progress anywhere, not to mention a solid soundtrack and enough lasting appeal for players to invest more time into the game. It does have issues regarding the unpolished translation, absence of a scene-skip feature, and the lack of refinement at many points for the visuals, although the game proves to be a worthwhile port, and given my experience, I definitely look forward to playing the forthcoming sequel.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the player’s Nintendo 3DS.

The Good:
+Great game mechanics.
+Save-anywhere feature.
+Good story.
+Solid soundtrack.
+Decent lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Still often plays like a JRPG originally released back in 1997.
-Some control quibbles.
-A little weak narrative direction.
-Average translation.
-Graphics could have been better.

The Bottom Line:
One of the better older Megami Tensei games.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 7.5/10
Story: 7.5/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 6.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~24 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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