In 2007, I booted up Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers for the first time. About twenty hours in, I hit a major choke point and eventually gave up as newer and flashier titles ate up my limited console time. Five years later, I started it up again, but barely made it to the end of the first disc. I had a better reason for quitting that time. A new (and hopefully improved) version had just been announced for the 3DS. My magic 8-ball indicates that the odds of this making it overseas are pretty good this time around.
"I have chatted about the weather, household chores, the rights of man ... and of course the latest hit video game, Soul Hackers, thus making at least one demon suffer a massive identity crisis."
Let's take the tour, shall we?
Amami City, jewel of Japan. Five years ago, it was chosen to be the test site for a cybernetically integrated city designed by the Algon Corporation. Everything works through the network, be it communications, commerce, or recreation. The crowning triumph of this enterprise is Paradigm X, an online mirror city where the netizens of Amami can pursue their dreams. Note that this game was made well before Second Life or any other real-life attempt at virtual reality, and make allowances. Also note that the root word for "cybernetic" roughly means "to direct, influence, or control." This becomes highly appropriate later in the story.
While the MegaTen series has almost always been solidly in the science fiction side of the RPG spectrum, Soul Hackers takes a step away from the usual post-apocalyptic fare and makes a sharp turn into cyberpunk territory. We first meet our hero and his best friend Hitomi as they hack their way into the Algon corporate database in order to add his name to the beta testing list for Paradigm X. Their circle of friends all belong to the same group of hacking enthusiasts who get thrills from snooping into Algon's business practices. Unfortunately, this means their paths are about to cross a crazy, secret society of summoners and digitalized demons, fighting a war both in the real world of Amami and within Paradigm X, which turns out to be far less virtual than one would think.
There's one big thing to keep in mind here. This was originally a Sega Saturn title, then ported to the PlayStation (the version I played first). Soul Hackers is very similar to the much later title Strange Journey in most respects, but in many areas it harkens back to the older games in the series. Summoned demons do not level up, for example, nor can players normally transfer skills from one demon to another. There's a single, big exception in the Artificial Demon, a construct that can be merged with any number of demons to strengthen itself and alter its moveset. Also, Soul Hackers has a loyalty system unlike those in most titles of the series. Demons have set preferences for types of violence or skill use, and may refuse to follow orders that they don't agree with if their loyalty is low. Other comparisons to Strange Journey are impossible to avoid, but there is definitely one area that Soul Hackers does much better in, and that is level design. The various areas of the game all fit well within the setting and the layouts generally make some amount of sense. There are some absolutely obtuse mazes, of course, but that description certainly does not fit every level within the game.
Since I played the PSX version not five months ago, I can say with certainty that very little about the graphical presentation has been changed. It has the same graphics, the same video sequences, the same character and demon art, but with the addition of little portrait thumbnails for the demons and humans in the active party. Due to some combination of smaller screen size, digital remastery, and not being on the PSX, the video sequences actually look much clearer than I remember. They're definitely the same videos that were present in the original game from 1997, but they still look good. There's also a brand-new opening animation that includes all sorts of cool stuff that doesn't really match with any events in the game, but is awesome nonetheless.
Likewise, with the sole exception of a new opening track to go with that opening animation, the entire soundtrack for this game has remained unchanged. And this is a good thing. This was the second game to have a soundtrack by Shoji Meguro (alongside Masuko Tsukasa and Toshiko Tasaki), and he's been involved with every major MegaTen release since then. Odds are that if you rocked out to any of the Persona soundtracks, you will love this game's music. As an added bonus, every single line of dialogue in the game outside of combat has been voiced.
Conversations during combat are a different matter, because then you're dealing with demons. This is one part of the game that I've really enjoyed, as the conversations take all sorts of weird turns. I have bargained, cajoled, threatened, seduced, and tricked demons into joining my cause. I have chatted about the weather, household chores, the rights of man, the nature of love, comic book heroes, and of course the latest hit video game sensation, Soul Hackers, thus making at least one demon suffer a massive identity crisis.
For added fun, the lower screen has a special button that allows access to different parts in the game system. This allows the player to alter the difficulty level, reveal entire floorplans for levels, or bypass various alignment restrictions on summoning. In keeping with the spirit of the game, these toggles are called "hacks."
I'm actually not that far from the end of the game now, if I ignore the fact that the penultimate level is a massive multi-stage dungeon crawl through which I am slugging it out with every sort of demon imaginable. Once I'm finally through it all, I get to find out just how much of the post-game and bonus dungeon content Atlus left in from the original Sega Saturn release. There were apparently half a dozen or so minor scenarios included in a special disc in the late 90s, well before the wholesale adoption of DLC by the industry. I know for a fact that the protagonist of the PlayStation 2 Devil Summoner games has his own post-game scenario somehow.
One of the few features added to the PSX version was the P-Mecchi, a Pocketstation-based virtual pet sort of thing that I never could use with my copy. Its evolved incarnation on the 3DS, Nemecchi, utilizes the Streetpass function to connect with other players and provide various demons (tradable for 3DS Game Coins). I have yet to get anywhere with this part of the game, but I might luck out at the Tokyo Game Show. In any case, I am now the proud owner of two separate editions of one of the finest titles in the Atlus library, and I'm enjoying every bit of it.