Amami City was once a humble country town. That was before it was utterly modernized from undergoing a government modernization project that linked every aspect of life in the town to the now-city’s very own online network. Part of the ongoing project is the creation of a virtual city called Paradigm X, whose beta codes are meted out about as rarely as a winning lottery ticket. To turn chances to their own favor, the main character and his childhood friend Hitomi—both members of the hacker group Spookies—hack into the program and earn themselves entry to the new online world.
Not long after this, your main character finds himself in possession of a Gun-Type computer (abbreviated GUMP), and with it, a demon summoning program and all the trouble that accompanies it. You’re caught between two mysterious groups—the Phantoms and the Kuzunoha family—and an encroaching population of demons in Amami City. This is the setup for Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers.
The game is split approximately evenly between Amami City and the virtual city, Paradigm X. The former is where your adventures as a new Demon Summoner take place as you try to discover the cause of the increasing demon population in the real world. However, for me personally, the real attraction was the latter. The virtual city of Paradigm X includes various activities such as banking and a casino. It’s also home to some demon-infested areas of its own, as well as Kinap, a strange being who teaches the main character how to delve into the souls of the recently departed. This is where the game gets its name.
Thanks to this ability that your character has, you get to play as completely different characters, which means a different team of demons for each one. These quests always end in death, but not before you find a hint to the next part of the story. Sometimes, you may also be given the demons from this new party as a sort of parting gift. I loved gaining insight into the different characters, as each person in this game is very unique and I enjoyed learning of the game’s events from different points of view. I also liked playing with a new team of demons separate from what I usually use.
Regardless of my apprehensions about how well the strangely-designed GUMP can protect you against rampant demons after your blood and soul, the demon summoning program works just as it does in many other Shin Megami Tensei games. In battles you can summon 4 other demons to fight by your side for a total party of six—one space is taken up by you and another by Hitomi. While there are no group attacks like in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, having a balanced party is especially important in Soul Hackers.
This is because, rather than earning EXP and gaining levels, each demon comes with a set level that does not change. They don’t grow more powerful the more you use them, nor do they learn new attacks. What’s important to having a successful team in this game is each demon’s loyalty. This is because the demon’s loyalty determines how often the demon listens to your orders—especially the orders it doesn’t like.
Each demon comes with a personality. This is determined by a demon’s species, not by individual demons. For example, all Silky will be Kind nature. This personality determines the kind of actions it likes to take. Wild demons will prefer to use physical attacks. Kind demons will prefer to guard or use healing moves. Dumb demons will prefer you to let them run on auto. When you give commands to the demon, giving them a command they like will raise loyalty. Forcing them to perform a command they dislike (like ordering a Kind demon to attack) will slowly cause your loyalty to drop, and ultimately your demon may outright ignore your order entirely.
(Luckily, once the loyalty reaches a certain level, the demons will be willing to perform your commands without a hitch, although I haven’t pushed it yet.)
Because of this, having a balanced team is easier to work with than a team that knows a variety of skills but has unbalanced personalities. I don’t often pay much attention to the natures of my demons because I have almost always ended up with a variety of personalities, but once I had three Kind demons on my team and the most I could do was to guard with the three Kind ones to increase their loyalty as I continued through the dungeon.
No demon growth also means that you have to be diligent with demon fusion, since the only way to keep up-to-level is to fuse new demons. In addition to the fusion options from previous Shin Megami Tensei games, you can either fuse by looking up which two demons you want to use, or you can fuse by searching through your available results and perusing your options for creating that particular demon. In addition, you can look up which two demon races are needed to combine to form your desired demon race. While this is information far and beyond what a casual player may need, people interested in filling up the Compendium will find this very helpful.
Another way to partner with new demons is to befriend them, which is done through demon negotiation. This can be done as many times as you need in one turn, provided none of them suddenly starts to attack you. Your success in negotiation depends on many factors, from demon personality (this appears to vary from demon to demon), moon phase, and your alignment (chaos vs. neutral vs. law). Sometimes demons will approach you on their own, while other times they will lead you through a dog-and-pony questioning session until finally asking you for a gift of some sort. The most effective gifts you can give are determined by that demon’s race. Other times, negotiation may take more than one meeting since a demon will up and leave halfway through and you’ll have to confront the demon again the next time you meet it in a random battle.
However, just because you’ve fused a demon together or have befriended a new one doesn’t automatically mean it’s summoned into your party. To do that, you need Magnetite, the main currency in Soul Hackers. Not only is Magnetite used for summoning demons, it is also consumed with every step you take. You primarily earn Magnetite through battle, although you can trade your extra cash for Mag as well. The catch here, though, is that you don’t actually earn yen in battles. Until you find a GUMP program that increases item drops, it’s difficult to build up the money necessary to purchase equipment, let alone extra Mag (in fact, you might find yourself exchanging Mag for money instead).
If you run out of Magnetite, every step in a dungeon will decrease your demons’ HP. Healing in dungeons also requires copious amounts of Mag, and using the Compendium also requires this currency. As such, keeping an eye on the amount of Mag you have and rationing out how you’re going to use it is very important.
Personally, I hadn’t realized that Mag was consumed with every demon you summoned, so I swapped demons in and out willy-nilly until I found myself nearly broke. At present, I’m somehow managing, since random battles occur frequently enough to keep your Mag amount up (but not often enough to be annoying), and there is a dungeon that appears to have higher encounter rates so you can stock up easier.
As much as I’m lamenting over my error, I really do enjoy this aspect of the game as it is the main source of difficulty for me. Admittedly, I haven’t found the dungeons too convoluted, although there are some puzzles to work out in some areas that can be time consuming if you don’t know what you’re looking for. For example, there’s one open area littered with warp zones, and your only hint as to where to go is a small demon who talks backwards. It’s difficult to understand the hint when it’s “siht ekil nettirw” (written like this) and auto-scrolling. Another one quizzes you on your knowledge of the zodiac, except the information provided in the game is somewhat faulty. That said, nothing here is quite on par with Strange Journey’s twisted labyrinths as far as I’ve played.
In fact, you can view the layout of a dungeon from the moment you step onto that floor. You can see where the traps are, provided you have the right equipment, and you can almost always get from point A to point B without too much wandering. During battles, I can also view the stats, nature, and spells of the enemies in great detail (except for bosses), and during demon negotiation, I can tell whether I even have a chance with a demon before I decide to try negotiating.
Many aspects of Soul Hackers are streamlined in this fashion. Travel across the maps is incredibly smooth and quick. I also enjoyed the setting where you can allow the dialogue to automatically continue with the voices. The moment the voice finishes a line, the next will appear, so you can leave the game playing without jamming on the A button over and over again. You can also toggle the difficulty of the game and whether you want to use these helpful features (like the automap feature and the ability to summon any demon regardless of your alignment).
I like how the game is so thorough about letting you choose the level of difficulty you want to play it on, so you can either make it a sort-of-challenging game or a very-challenging-a-la-SMT dungeon crawler game.
Food for thought:
1. There is a StreetPass function that works kind of like a virtual pet. With every person you pass, you earn D-Souls. You can also exchange 3DS play coins (the ones you earn for walking around with the 3DS) for D-Souls. These D-Souls can be used to exchange for rare demons, or you can evolve your virtual pet for more options in demons to purchase.
2. I am horribly picky with voices, but I rather enjoy these. Plus, nearly everything in the game is voiced.
3. I love the details that have gone into the visuals. The sprites are more dynamic than what I remember in Strange Journey, but also, the way the sprite disappears depends on your finishing move. If you used a sword, it will cut in half. If you used a gun, it will be riddled with holes. If a demon used a punching move, it will fly off into the distance. Even the character portraits are beautifully detailed.