In which I realize that old Megami Tensei games are not for me. Also, since this is the 3DS dungeon crawler which I played immediately after Etrian Odyssey IV (superior in the dungeon crawling department), I was already burnt out on first-person dungeon crawling upon starting. The fact that I bought the game when it came out and took 2 months to finish it despite the storyline being only ~30 hours long and still I lost the drive to even attempt post-game content conveys my feelings for the game pretty well, I think. I haven’t played any other games in the Devil Summoner line so I have no series bias towards it.
The story starts out decently, especially for a 15-year-old game originally released for the Sega Saturn. It also has a cyberpunk setting, which isn’t commonly seen in RPGs. The protagonist belongs to a small, friendly group of hackers called the Spookies. They’re active in Amami City, an experimental high-tech city in which everything is digitalized and heavily promotes a virtual reality software called Paradigm X. Paradigm X is still under beta testing, and testers are randomly chosen through lottery. The game begins with the protagonist hacking into the system in order to get himself into Paradigm X’s beta testing, but things turn for the worse when his friend Hitomi gets possessed by a demon called Nemissa, a strange being calling himself Kinap shows him the memories of other people who have died, and they find out that something is fishy with the company that has control over the city.
The plot managed to keep my interest for a third of the the game due to the refreshing setting, but once that wore off, the world failed to stay immersive. I blame it on the fact that none of the characters aside from Nemissa are all that interesting, and their short character development arcs fall flat due to feeling forced. The last few hours of the story got interesting again, but I was on the verge of not caring in the middle segment. I seriously don’t think taking 2 months playing a 30 hour game is really what I should have done if I wanted to really immerse myself in the world of Soul Hackers, but it can’t be helped.
The gameplay is, well, much better than the PSP version of Persona 2: Innocent Sin at least. Battles flow quickly, and you can fuse demons. The difficulty balancing is also decent in that hard is actually harder, but honestly, I didn’t care enough to play on hard so I went on normal. Which, by the way, is rather easy. Thanks to demon personalities affecting what they do in auto mode, I auto’ed through most battles unless something repels physical (which becomes more common later in the game). Difficulty can be toggled in-game, which is incredibly handy for the demon compendium since higher difficulties = more expensive demons. The dungeons are standard first-person fare, with a map on the bottom screen. You can choose to have the game map itself as you move, or display a complete map so you don’t have to bother with getting lost. Of course, the latter takes the fun out of dungeon-crawling so I don’t recommend it.
Demon fusing is fun as usual, and they don’t gain experience or level up so you can fuse them away as soon as you want. Demons have personalities that affect what they prefer doing in battle, and loyalty levels which affect how often they listen to your command. If a demon’s loyalty is low, there’s a high chance of them refusing to do things that go against their personality (e.g. a Wild demon with low loyalty will refuse to heal you), and if they hate you too much, they’ll randomly leave your party. Fortunately, loyalty can be increased with gifts and letting demons do what they want in battle. A potentially annoying mechanic involves the existence of Magnetite (MAG), which is a currency reserved for demons only. You use it to buy demons, heal at healing spots, etc. Demons also consume MAG with each step in a dungeon, and unsurprisingly, demons that are strong for their level cost more. This discourages running a full party early in the game, except for during boss fights. Summoning demons, whether in or outside of battle, cost MAG also. If you run out of MAG, your demons will become poisoned. This is only an inconvenience early on, as you’ll be swimming in MAG around mid- or late-game. You can always grind for some if you find yourself short. It doesn’t take that long.
Dungeons are pretty maze-like, but none too frustrating with the exception of one near the end of the game which is overly long and requires more backtracking than I’d ever want. Okay, maybe throw a certain haunted mansion in the middle with a bunch of teleporting tiles into the do not want pile as well. Nothing gets too bad though, as you unlock to option to save anywhere rather early in the game, and any savvy player would take measures to avoid getting instant-killed in a long dungeon. Gameplay is overall decent if you didn’t come straight out of a better dungeon crawler on the same system like I did, just don’t expect Nocturne or anything.
15-year-old game, move along. In all seriousness, the character portraits and illustrated backgrounds look decent and the FMVs are fancy enough, but the dungeons are really dull and you’ll be looking at nothing but those for most of the game. Most dungeons are interiors of buildings that honestly don’t look very exciting and you’ll find the map on the bottom screen far more interesting than the hallways that all look the same.
Music was forgettable, normal battle theme annoyed me so I ended up playing in silence a lot. Game is fully voiced in English, and the casting is generally okay. Nothing really stood out to me as being particularly good.
Not sure if my not enjoying the game is due to dungeon crawling burnout, recent visual novel rush messing with my expectations of story and writing in 15-year-old video games, my inability to enjoy pre-press-turn Megami Tensei battle systems, or the game really being dated and mediocre. Might be a little of everything. With that said, hardcore Atlus fans probably already bought and enjoyed the game, and anyone who is on the fence enough to read a 2 month late review should probably wait for the release of SMT4 in July. I wouldn’t recommend Soul Hackers to an SMT or first-person dungeon crawler virgin, but anyone else dying for one can give this a go in their free time. At $45 (after tax), I’m still weeping at the hole in my wallet and the time I spent with the game doesn’t fill it up. I think it might be cheaper now.
On an unrelated note, I question the M rating. It’s not like you have teenagers shooting themselves in the head with fake guns or a stripper boss pole-dancing with questionable sound effects or punching out Christian gods, so what warrants the MATURE rating? The occasional demon boob?