"Supernatural Monster Catching"
Despite the bleak picture that the media painted for it in the wake of smart phones and tablets, the Nintendo 3DS has managed to carve out a fairly sizeable niche for itself in the mass market. A cadre of unique games, both full retail and downloadable, has found its way to the portable hardware, delivering experiences that you just cannot find nowadays on any other modern platform. Case in point is the arrival of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers on western shores.
With the 3DS's unfortunate region-locking feature, it would not have been foolish to believe that such a unique game would ever leave Japan. Considering that Soul Hackers is an enhanced port of a SEGA Saturn game that never saw release outside of Japan, it is a pleasant surprise that this ever did.
Most know the Shin Megami Tensei series thanks to the breakthrough mainstream popularity of the subseries of Persona games. That is a good point of reference, as the Devil Summoner series features many components that are Shin Megami Tensei hallmarks, including dungeon-crawling and vast amounts of occult themes.
Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers takes place in Amami City, a highly connected, information-focused utopia regarded as mankind's greatest accomplishment in terms of technology, as well as the interactive virtual 3D world of Paradigm X. As you and your group of hackers seek to unravel the city's secrets, all hell breaks loose, quite literally, as demons eventually descend upon the city and a mysterious group of demon-summoners closes in on your band of misfits.
Luckily, you also have the ability to summon demons. Each demon falls under a specific type of personality (“kind” demons excel as healers, while “sly” demons are skilled mages), and it is key to assign orders that match those personalities. This series is actually quite comparable to the Pokémon series in that it espouses the same virtue of building a trusting relationship with the creatures / demons that you command in battle. The more loyalty a demon has to its summoner, the stronger its stats will be. Conversely, if the summoner / demon relationship gets too low, the demon may leave the party.
Further, demon personalities often dictate what other creatures you can recruit to your party. Have a group of lawful demons in your employ, and you will likely be closed off to chaotic-leaning demons. When entering battle, you have the unique option of conversing with your would-be enemies. A sublime alternative to the doldrums of repetitive battling, chatting with the enemy can yield surprising results; depending on your dialogue choices and the demon's personality type, the demon might heal you or even join your party rather than fight.
Combat in Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is your basic turn-based affair, but there is a bit of strategy to employ as you can position your characters on one of two planes, front and rear. Where they are placed determines what types of moves they can make in battle. Additionally, you need to keep a close eye on the lunar cycle, as it affects each demon's stats.
Gameplay exploration takes place in first-person view, so you will navigate through dungeons, filling out maps tile-by-tile while engaging in random battles and solving the occasionally involving puzzle that require you to be very much aware of your surroundings and the characters you meet.
The presentation in SMT: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is a bit of mixed bag. While the game's beautiful mix of cyberpunk aesthetic with surreal gothic horror was ahead of its time when it released in 1997 and it's still incredibly refreshing in this day and age, the execution of the in-game models is very much a product of its time. Thankfully, the Shin Megami Tensei series is known for stellar character designs, so the art direction here is both tasteful and mature. Further, full voice-acting ensures that this character- and story-driven game shines as such.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers is a game that is as inaccessible as its name is long. If you manage to get beyond into its relative difficulty, you will find an engrossing tale and rewarding gameplay mechanics.
GameDynamo's Score for Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers (3DS)
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