The place: Amami City. The problem: The Phantom Society. The solution: You, your COMP, and your crew - The Spookies.
That's the setup for Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers. Originally a SEGA Saturn game, then ported to the Sony PlayStation, this is the first time Soul Hackers has seen an official English translation. Sony turned down a previous attempt at a localisation of the original PlayStation version. Thankfully, for fans of the series, Atlus pulled through with a 3DS translation. Is Soul Hackers everything Shin Megami Tensei fans have been waiting for for so long, though?
Well, yes, and no… and yes. Let's get the "no" out of the way first. Immediately upon booting Soul Hackers, it is obvious that it's a port of an old project. Visually, it's clear these are dated graphics, to put it kindly. That's not to say the battle sprites aren't well crafted, or the character portraits aren't nice, or the city map backgrounds aren't detailed and pleasant; they are, and at times the creativity and quality of the artwork outshines the technical limitations. However, those who demand well textured high-polygon models in a modern 3D engine can check out now.
To be blunt, Soul Hackers doesn't impress on a technical level. It uses sprites of limited size and quality. Its videos are not just Resident Evil 2 cut-scene quality in their polygonal and texture detail, their encoding is also filled with artifacting as commonly seen in digital video of the time. It's easy to tell the game was made at a time when "CD media" was still a selling point; a time when adding little video clips all over the place was still the thing to do, even if it meant five seconds of pointless animation for something as simple as going to a shop.
It's not all bad, though. Some, if not all, of the battle sprites are well done and are clearly Shin Megami Tensei material. Jack Frost and the rest will be seen. City backgrounds, in particular, are nicely handled. They are all at a bird's eye view, all well drawn, and give a good sense of immersion to the "walking around" parts of the game; much more so than the dry menu in Etrian Odyssey IV.
This same quality versus technology paradigm describes the sound content of the game. Owing to the original Saturn hardware, the sound tracks are an older synth quality sound at a lower audio file quality. While the soundtrack doesn't impress on a technical level, it does succeed on an artistic one. Fit to the sci-fi fantasy nature of the story, there are hip hop tracks, jazzy tracks, techno tracks, and JRPG-style rock tracks. Most are well done and entertain throughout.
Sound effects are a little less impressive. Attacks in combat all pull from a limited set of dull sounds. Nothing really impressive, no big explosion sounds; just kind of generic "thunk" sounds for attacks and "chimes" for power-ups. The interface sounds succeed by being largely inoffensive, if nothing else.
Voice acting is... well, it's there. It's commendable that Atlus has included voice acting for almost every line in the game. The quality of the voice actors is much like the graphics and audio, though: very "90s" quality. It's not Resident Evil level, though, so at least there's that.
There is an option to disable voice acting; actually, there are options for almost everything. There is an option to disable graphic effects during combat to speed it up. There is an option to just display all of a level rather than filling it in when walking over tiles. There are even difficulty options for the game, from demonically difficult for min-maxers to very easy for those just interested in the story.
Speaking of which, that story is an interesting one. It's a unique take on sci-fi featuring the usual cast of weird Shin Megami Tensei demons, a goofball cast of supporting characters, and just enough disturbing content to keep it all from being too silly. While the quality of the translation doesn't quite keep up with the twists and turns of the plot, it is serviceable enough to keep things moving.
There is a lot of good content in Soul Hackers to move through, as well. Uniformly, dungeons are well designed and interesting; they serve the flow of the story and are fit to the scenarios and to the world. Unlike most Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers, it's almost a disservice to call them "dungeons." They are more like places, office buildings, art museums, virtual reality towns, and so on.
In a game like Etrian Odyssey, dungeons are the sole purpose of the game. The thin threads of the story tie them together - barely - but it's really about exploring dungeons. Soul Hackers is something else, much like Persona 4. Here, the story is paramount, and the maps traversed exist to keep players interested in the story.
This is where Soul Hackers succeeds best. It deserves recognition for gameplay, level, interface, and story design that all interweave into a coherent, effective, enjoyable whole. No one part is out of place with the others. They all are designed with the others in mind, and it shows. The effect is enough to help the player overcome the technical limitations of the game and to keep playing.
Gameplay doesn't slack, either. The battle and RPG systems have a satisfying amount of depth and complexity. At first, they can be almost overwhelming. There are so many factors in even minor systems that one may have a difficult time sorting it all out. Thankfully, the early game goes easy, parceling out information on game mechanics a little at a time as the player stumbles through their first battles.
That's the best way to handle it, honestly. A little at a time, learning about recruiting demons, about talking to them and why they respond to certain dialogue options, then party alignment and which demons can be recruited and summoned based on that, on to loyalty and how demon personalities and the actions they take in combat affect their loyalty, then fusion of demons and rare demons and… well, it's a lot to learn.
Still, after the initial learning curve, it's the complexity that lends uniqueness to Soul Hacker's take on the classic Wizardry formula. Add in the usual Shin Megami Tensei spell system, with Bufu and Mazio and so on, and there is a fun, challenging game - one set in a well-designed world that flows efficiently with the story. Technical and quality issues aside, there is a good game here - one worth playing through.
Deep, complex, challenging. Some level grinding, as is normal in this sub-genre. While overwhelmingly complex - even obtuse, at times - it is rarely poorly designed. Everything is fit to its purpose and makes sense once learned, and once learned satisfying to play. Unique mechanics help Soul Hackers stand out from other dungeon crawlers. Options allow customising the experience to the needs of the player.
Archaic by modern standards. In comparison to modern dungeon crawlers, games such as Etrian Odyssey and Unchained Blades, Soul Hackers is no beauty. It does have areas it excels in, especially the overworld design, some character sprites, and some portraits. Technical quality issues, such as video compression artifacting, detract significantly from the overall presentation.
Good music, not so good gameplay sound effects. Bland combat sound effects do little to enhance the central gameplay of the title, wherein the player will spend much of their time.
Many hours of gameplay for your dollar. How much enjoyment one can find will greatly depend on how much they enjoy the presentation and the overall game design.
Soul Hackers is not a bad game, by any means. Shin Megami Tensei fans are going to find a lot here to enjoy. Dungeon crawler fanatics may enjoy themselves, as well. However, those unused to the genre or the series may find it an intimidating, difficult experience, and a dated one at that. Anyone who persists in exploring beneath its less than pristine surface and steep learning curve will find an enjoyable experience, though.