Release Date: April 16, 2013
ESRB: M for Mature
With its focus towards mature storytelling and mythological themes, the Megami Tensei series, and especially its wealth of spin-offs, has been winning the hearts of many RPG fans in recent years. The more recent Megami Tensei (also abbreviated as Megaten or SMT) spin-off titles include the highly-regarded Persona 3/4 and even my personal favorite game of last year, Devil Survivor 2.
For individuals like myself who like to revisit older titles, it is a relief to see Atlus finally bring over the 1997 Sega Saturn classic and Megaten spin-off, Soul Hackers, to the 3DS. Nintendo's 3D handheld is no stranger to first person dungeon-crawler RPGs, especially given Atlus's most recent critical-darling Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan or XSEED's and FuRyu's slightly more divisive Unchained Blades. Soul Hackers serves as another, albeit more old-school addition to 3DS's dungeon-crawler RPG library and is something of a cult classic among the more traditional SMT fans. With an unapologetic old-school approach to gameplay and a couple of new additions, it's remarkable how well its RPG code holds up nowadays.
The game starts off in a cyber metropolis of Amami City where the player takes the role of a fellow member of the elite hacker group: The Spookies. Spooky, the group's leader, unveils a mysterious 'gun-type PC', or affectionately named GUMP, to the rest of the group which he came across unexpectedly. After dabbling with and experiencing several life threatening scenarios within "Paradigm X", a huge online virtual reality space, the main character somehow inadvertently finds out how to unlock and possibly use the GUMP.
Of course, without knowing the consequences of what would happen by unlocking it, the GUMP releases a demon by the name of Nemissa. She decides to possess the main character's female friend, Hitomi, while trying to take over her body entirely, and in the process also somehow gives her a polarity-swapping hairstyle too.
Despite the goofy sounding initial setup, the storytelling is a fair bit more fleshed-out compared to other old-school SMT titles, even if that isn't saying too much. It also focuses on its characters more than traditional SMT games, though nowhere near the scale of certain spin-offs like Persona 3 and 4. Still, the members of Spookies, colorful villain figures, and the eccentric Nemissa will certainly leave an impression as the narrative plays out.
Admittedly, Soul Hackers' setting and ideology will definitely seem like a somewhat campy take on Sci-Fi nowadays due to its late '90s approach to cyberpunk with a Megaten mythology quirk. However, the game definitely has a certain unusual charm to its setting and intrigue in its darker moments when it emphasizes the negative edge of modern day technology and escapism. As a whole, despite being noticeably dated for its setting, the storytelling still manages to be interesting even now.
In traditional old school SMT flair, traversal is divided between a simple overworld map and individual areas, like dungeons or towns, in the first person perspective. I admit, I'm not usually enamored by dungeon-crawlers or their modern throwback incantations. That said, after plenty of lengthy play sessions, I was able to understand the addictive qualities that come with these sorts of titles. Also, unlike my experience with the original Persona, Soul Hackers has aged rather well if you can get past its dated presentation.
In terms of challenge, the title is nowhere near as intimidating as the DS' SMT title, Strange Journey, with conveniences in the form of GUMP installs (making negotiations, demon fusions, and traversing dungeons in general easier) or the 3DS specific 'hacks' which enable the ability to manipulate the base difficulty in various ways. There are also useful mapping features to help navigate dungeons and a nifty Streetpass feature to get new demons. Still, Soul Hackers is certainly a challenging game by today's standards, and like most dungeon-crawlers there is a certain level of grinding required.
SMT trademarks, like demon negotiations and demon fusion, help solidify the structure of the game's core. Demon negotiations have the players attempt to coerce demons into joining the party or giving them items. These conversations can oftentimes be pretty entertaining due to their various humorous quips, even if they can feel rather random at times in their responses. Also, it wouldn't be a SMT title without some variation of demon fusion, where players can combine two or more demons to get new and oftentimes more powerful ones. Fusion is still an engaging system despite how Soul Hackers utilizes a fifteen years less refined version of it, and is a bit more limited than more modern SMT titles when it comes to transferring skills.
If there are parts I don't think that hold up at all nowadays, it is in regards to the demon loyalty as well as the MAG mechanic. Demons have certain personality traits when they join their party. If you don't cater to these personality traits, in giving them specific orders, or none at all, they run the risk of never following directions or leaving the party for good. This certainly can be rather annoying in difficult battles, like bosses, if they aren't willing to do commands you want to specifically assign.
Also making a return is the restrictive demon summoning mechanic of MAG, or Magnetite, which fans of Shin Megami Tensei 1/2 or Strange Journey should recognize. MAG is required to summon demons and it depletes depending on how many you have summoned at one time, as well as each step you take in a dungeon. If you don't have any MAG, you can't summon demons as allies, and demons get hurt each step you take without it. This brings the player to two early conclusions: fight every battle to barely cover the cost, or have a smaller party to minimize it. For a genre that is ingrained in difficulty and the ability to easily get lost in similar looking corridors, I find MAG to be poorly implemented and needlessly annoying to deal with by today's standards. However, I do somewhat understand its place in this game in particular, since you can exchange MAG for money, but that doesn't make it any less restrictive.
When it comes to visual design, Soul Hackers is undeniably dated. It's understandable for a fifteen year old dungeon-crawler, and in some ways adds to its charm, but it is something to point out nonetheless. Though, surprisingly, because of the simple visual nature of the game, I find it to be one of the few games on 3DS I don't mind playing in 3D. On the audio side, there is a surprising amount of voice work in the main story, and most of the voice actors do a solid delivery throughout. To somewhat contrast the solid voice work, the soundtrack is not so great. It's certainly not bad, but out of Shoji Meguro's older works, it definitely does not stack up. Most of the tracks, aside from certain hub themes I like, are forgettable synthesized pieces.
Overall, Soul Hackers holds up rather well today for a fifteen-year-old dungeon-crawler. The setting and characters have their intrigue, and dungeon-crawling as well as demon fusion can be engaging. However, it's hard to not think of the possible advancements to the game's design, despite having some newer conveniences ironed out for the 3DS specifically, since there are some annoyances. The demon loyalty and MAG mechanics are annoying to deal with, and its presentation certainly doesn't stand up particularly well with modern games. Still, for those who don't mind an old-school approach to RPGs, Soul Hackers is mostly enjoyable where it counts, and is a real, classic gem among the dungeon-crawling genre.
+ Interesting storytelling and characters
+ Engaging dungeon-crawling and demon fusion
+ Appreciated 3DS interface and difficulty conveniences
+ Solid voice acting
- Fairly dated presentation
- Restrictive MAG and demon loyalty mechanics
- So-so soundtrack
Overall Score: 7.0 (out of 10)
For those who don't mind some old-school dungeon-crawling RPG flair, Soul Hackers is a charming throwback and a gem for its time.