SummaryI like blue-haired female demons!
The Good"Soul Hackers" is a direct sequel to Devil Summoner. Together, those two games form a sub-series of Megaten universe - one of the largest Japanese RPG franchises around. As most Megaten games, "Soul Hackers" is set in a modern/futuristic Japanese city, and its gameplay is based on communication with the random enemies you encounter: the demons.
I won't talk much about the superbly crafted Megaten gameplay system - it is a property of all Megaten games, and not only of "Soul Hackers". The ability to communicate with random enemies, to recruit them in your party, and to fuse them to form new allies opens new horizons for console-style role-playing, adding so much refinement to the otherwise straightforward gameplay, vast customization possibilities, and high replay value. "Soul Hackers" adds one nuance to the classic Megaten system: the demon loyalty.
This new gameplay element was already introduced by "Devil Summoner", but "Soul Hackers" makes it much more entertaining and infinitely simpler to manage. Basically, demons join you at an "average" loyalty level. In order to raise it, you have to let them fight and see what attacks they prefer. If a demon likes a particular move, the message will turn blue; if he is indifferent to it, it will be white. Your goal is to determine which kind of moves the demon in question likes most and make it use them continuously, until its loyalty level reaches the maximum. I usually needed only several battles to max out a demon's loyalty, and I never had problems with it. It was really a fun addition that was much better implemented here than in "Devil Summoner".
In general, "Soul Hackers" is much more user-friendly than its predecessor. A really cool gameplay gimmick (that is unique to "Soul Hackers" among Megaten games) is the possibility to install various types of software on your computer. The software can be of four types: battle, dungeon, demon conversation, and demon fusion. Battle software includes useful programs that let you avoid back attacks from enemies, to raise your surprise attack rate, etc. Dungeon software offers the absolutely indispensable "Back Up", that allows you to save anywhere you want - undoubtedly one of the coolest Megaten features ever, that saves the player so much frustration. Other types of software let you communicate better with female demons, add more spells to a demon arsenal after fusion, and so on.
Of course, alone the "Back Up" software makes "Soul Hackers" a much more comfortable experience than other Megaten games, particularly than "Devil Summoner". Another step towards the player was the drastic change in dungeon design. "Devil Summoner" had the most claustrophobic, cruel, impassable dungeons in the whole series; "Soul Hackers" has the mildest ones. Even the first Persona has a more complex dungeon layout. Gone are the dreaded teleporters, countless inaccessible areas, moving walls, and sliding corridors. The dungeons of "Soul Hackers" are simple (only compared to other Megaten games, of course) mazes composed of several floors only, with conveniently places terminals and healing spots. There was only one dungeon with a small dark area in the whole game, and no teleporters worth mentioning. The contrast to the impossible dungeons of "Devil Summoner" is a welcome change.
That said, the dungeons are anything but boring. The locations are more colorful than ever - grocery store, horror house, a factory, ancient catacombs, and many others. Almost every dungeon is unique in design and in layout, and many of them have some interesting puzzles to solve. My personal favorites were the planetarium quiz early in the game, and the search for chess pieces in the Virtual Reality theater.
With all this user-friendly stuff, "Soul Hackers" is still a very difficult game, mostly because of its truly ferocious bosses. I was shocked to discover the handy Reflect Magic and Reflect Physical Attack items, that saved my life countless times in "Devil Summoner", were no longer for sale in this game! Boss battles were therefore extremely hard and required a lot of experimenting with demon recruiting and fusion, a lot of preparation, exact battle planning, and luck. Next time I'll invest more in the hero's stamina and agility...
In story department, "Soul Hackers" is a large step forward compared to "Devil Summoner". There are much more characters, a more complex plot with some very good twists, and some good old trusty Japanese RPG elements, that took the story to a more personal and even sentimental level. There is even place for touching and tragic moments - like after the battle outside of the Monolith, during the journey through Six' memories, or in the end of the game). Particularly appealing characters are the hacker group Spookies, which include colorful people like the Leader or Runch, and Nemissa, the blue-haired demon girl, your trusty companion and the second permanent member of your party beside the hero. The dialogues are more developed and more personal than in "Devil Summoner" and than in mainstream Shin Megami Tensei games. From the point of view of the story style, "Soul Hackers" stands somewhere between SMT and Persona.
Visually, "Soul Hackers" is a bit outdated, but nevertheless very appealing. The new animé style for character graphics is much better than the somewhat impersonal character portraits in "Devil Summoner". The pre-rendered backgrounds are excellent, and the CG videos, while unfortunately very short, appear quite frequently and are perfectly integrated into in-game graphics.
The BadPlease let me get this off my chest right away: why the *%&$§ didn't they translate the game?!!! Of all non-Persona Megatens, "Soul Hackers" was the closest one to see the light of the West. There were some serious talks and even promises about translating the PSX version of the game. The project was cancelled at the last moment. As always, we get all kind of crap translated to all possible languages, while such fine games as "Soul Hackers" are left in oblivion. People don't like challenging their brain and their imagination, and prefer challenging their reflexes instead. Not that there is something wrong with a good challenge of reflexes, but if they already made this complex, hardcore RPG, why not to bring it to the Western audience, why not to try?
Okay, now to the game itself. As nice as the story is, it is much more a typical RPG fare than a true heir of the great Shin Megami Tensei. I know I didn't understand many parts of the story due to my mediocre knowledge of Japanese (and absence of any plot-guides to the game in English), but it was not hard to notice it had very little, if at all, of the monumental struggle between Law and Chaos that made the SNES classic such an unforgettable experience. The demons are still classified by those categories, but they have no connection to the story.
The hero of the game has no personality whatsoever, and even no personal involvement in the story (unlike the hero of Devil Summoner). It was next to impossible for me to associate myself with him.
I loved the high difficulty level, but some of the bosses were really insanely difficult. Two of them come to mind: the head of Algon Factory, and of course the dreadful final boss. Both those creatures appeared to be invincible until I managed to fuse, through a lot of experimenting and some luck, some awesome demons (in the second case it was the monkey god Hanuman, the one who helped Rama in "Ramayana"). I really had to depend on luck in those battles. Particularly the final battle was a veritable nightmare. The hardest RPG boss ever? I have played well over 30 RPGs, but it might be true...
The Bottom Line"Soul Hackers" is a fantastic addition to Megaten universe - a clever, fine RPG that is in many aspects superior to its predecessor "Devil Summoner", and that forms a nice "bridge" between mainstream Shin Megami Tensei games and Persona. It is a must-play for any Megaten fan, but since there aren't many of those in the West, I find it hard to recommend this game to a broad audience. While being much more user-friendly than "Devil Summoner", it is still a very difficult game that could probably be appreciated only by hardcore fans of console RPG genre. Players who think Final Fantasy games are hard and complex should better stay away.
Now I heard they are going to translate the enhanced version of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (the one entitled "Maniacs" originally, with Dante from "Devil May Cry" making an appearance). So there is still hope under the heaven, after all...