When computer literacy runs rampant, so do the hacker gangs.
The startling pace at which society accepted and adopted computers hit me way back in first grade. One weekend, the summer before second grade, I watched curiously as the building was invaded by ethernet wiring. It appeared as if the computer technicians were crawling all over my school like ants, inside and out, busily working to bring the information super highway to young minds like mine. The only use we saw for these large computing boxes? MS Paint.
Still, that experience has stuck with me and now my livelihood depends on the internet. I'm a product of the rapid acceptance and installation of the internet, but I certainly don't compare to the player character in Soul Hackers. He lives in Amami City, the model for urban redevelopment, blanketed in high-speed connections and readily available PCs. When he and the Spookies hacking gang stumble upon a COMP—which is essentially a cross between a computer and a gun—and gain the power to summon devils for battle, they start down a path towards conflict with evil. While oddities in this time-capsule-freed JRPG persist, playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Soul Hackers feels perfectly preserved and just obtuse enough to make progression an endearing victory from moment to moment.
After naming my character Case, I dove into Soul Hackers hungry to devour more SMT. From the outset, players will have to comprehend three levels of consciousness in Amami City. There's the overworld, complete with random citizens, separate districts, and several dungeons. Then there's Paradigm X, a virtual city filled with shops, entertainment, and your first run-in with Kinap, a fellow hacker who takes you on vision quests, which put you in a trance and drop you down in dungeons as other characters.
Oh, and did I forget to mention Nemissa, an ambivalent, amnesiac devil who flies out of the COMP upon first touch and possesses your real-life friend Hitomi? I dedicatedly sat through the opening hours, but without Persona 4's relatable setting and rather universal premise (a murder mystery) Soul Hackers trips all over itself trying to explain the player's motivation. Delving further into the story peels back layers of the game's admittedly captivating central conflict where the Kuzunoha and Summoner Society operate and war in the shadows. Your first real encounter with these clandestine forces will leave you confused, but intrigued.
That said, you can stop wondering why the original Saturn (1997) and PlayStation (1999) releases were never localized for the West. In fact, in seeming admission, Atlus has added a hack of its own on 3DS to allow users to at least make the gameplay easier. Tapping on the bottom screen opens up a menu where players can, among other things, lower (or raise) the combat's difficulty and complete the on-screen map whether they've explored the dungeon or not. Combat feels like riding a bike, despite how little your team might resemble those you had in Persona 3 or 4.
In combat, four devils summoned by your COMP join you and Nemissa against the forces of darkness. The devils will follow your orders, but only if you play to their personalities. Wild-types like to attack while Sly spirits prefer to cast and guard in the back row. In order to collect new devils, you'll have to converse with them and hopefully coerce them to your side. At random, your pal "Knocker" can up and leave you with so much as a "so long sucker."
Knowing how to utilize a devil and unleashing their full potential in combat (and by extension keeping them happy) feels incredibly rewarding. Like many other classic JRPGs, Soul Hackers requires a lot from the player to get rolling. It's an import minus the language barrier, so accepting everything the game throws at you and trusting that you'll come to understand it in time is a prerequisite.
I set the difficulty hack to "Down," which makes the difficulty easier than normal (even the menus are confusing), and cruised through most of the beginning. The earliest dungeon bosses are simple and relatively easy. Measuring MP to ensure that my tanks in the front row would be healed enough, or fusing spirits in-dungeon (another addition to the 3DS version) was enjoyable hour after hour.
Then I started to appreciate the late-90s techno-jam-funk soundtrack. Even characters that seemed extraneous and needless in the beginning grew on me through subtle overworld exposition. Lunch wouldn't talk to his mom and Six has an incredibly deep personal wound. The characterization in SMT games makes the hours fly by, but the bouncy, grungy soundtrack is always icing on the cake. Then there's your ever-present schizophrenic sidekick, Nemissa/Hitomi, but I'd rather let you enjoy her personality swings for yourself. If that weren't enough, the full voice acting gives some Atlus fan-favorites top billing, and each character is delivered perfectly.
Let me reiterate by saying that Soul Hackers puts up walls early and continues to wrestle with the player. In one of the first dungeons, you'll have to answer a quiz about astrological signs. Maybe these are common knowledge to you (and they certainly are in other parts of the world), but I'm clueless when it comes to Aries and Capricorn. In the Astro Museum, you'll need to answer 5 questions with just 10 seconds per answer. Fail and you'll be sent backwards in the dungeon to the point where you're walked purposefully past statues for each sign so you can examine and study up once more. I reached the point at which I had to write everything down and hope that I could reference my cheat sheet quickly enough.
Overall, the small adjustments Atlus has made in porting this game to the 3DS has definitely helped to even Soul Hackers out. The Digest is always available if the plot has you confused, and there's no shame in dropping the difficulty. Time and again Soul Hackers made me wonder if Japanese Saturn owners struggled as much as I did, but without fail, those moments would immediately be followed by the same SMT charm and wit that's hooked me on the series in the past. It's not the best entry point for newcomers, but anyone dedicated enough can find a lot to love in the 3D corners of dungeons, the Spookies trailer, or even the Astro Museum.
Code provided by publisher. 3DS exclusive.