There’s an “uncanny valley” experienced midway through Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, as one comes to the realization that the plot—which focuses on an attempt to free the citizens of Amami City from the negative effects of an online world known as Paradigm X—could just as easily describe the glazed-over effect of playing any Shin Megami Tensei title. Thankfully, there aren’t actually demons lurking in the 3DS’s microchips: While you may lose days of your life to the lengthy dungeons and the micromanagement of your demonic menagerie, you won’t lose your soul.
Surprisingly, you won’t lose your temper. Soul Hackers may be an at-long-last port of the game Japan got in 1997 for the Sega Saturn, filled with all the punishing challenges of that era, but the protagonist is a hacker, and his GUMP (gun-computer) can run software that eases certain restrictions (like being unable to save anywhere). He’s also able to hack directly into the system settings to, say, reduce (or increase) the overall difficulty or instantly reveal the dungeon map. For Pokémon enthusiasts who have to collect ’em all, or gamers who enjoy a more contemporary and grown-up setting, this is a welcome tool, one that allows Shin Megami Tensei to be accessible to an audience beyond statisticians and grinders.
Suffice it to say that the story isn’t the only mature content in the game. There’s far more to this RPG than random encounters in the first-person areas that connect scenes. The tile sets may be bland and the automap doesn’t make use of the touchscreen, but those demon portraits are elaborate, and that tells you where the emphasis is. After all, you don’t just fight demons, you convince them to join you by talking to them in the heat of battle; read their personality wrong and they’ll get a free turn to attack you. Moreover, once they’ve joined, there’s no guarantee they’ll obey. Loyalty must be earned (or bought with gifts): For instance, a Wild demon will rebel against anything that doesn’t involve him physically attacking up until you’ve allowed him to literally get his freak on.
There’s plenty to track outside of battle, too: Summoning demons—and sustaining them in the physical world—expends Magnetite, a sort of secondary currency alongside the yen (there’s a shifting exchange rate), so you’ll need to efficiently plan your excursions. Moreover, because you’ll also be imbuing the elemental essences of these monsters into your sword and mystically changing loyal demons into equipment for yourself and your semi-human ally, Nemissa, you’ll have to budget out the Magnetite needed to re-summon them from a Compendium. Because demons don’t level up, you’ll need enough of them on hand to fuse (two or three at a time) into stronger and rarer versions. (Take that, Darwin!)
Daunting as this may seem from the outside, it’s surprisingly simple from in-game menus: Just select any two demons and preview the result. There’s even a helpful character who’ll reveal all the possible demons you can create and provide you with a formula to identify what you’re missing. If there’s any complaint, it’s that skills aren’t described unless the demon is currently in your party, which means you have to remember the difference between, say, Dekaja and Tetrakarn. And yet, with great responsibility comes great power, as there’s a slick satisfaction in tailor-making a party of demons that aren’t only invulnerable to a major boss’s attacks, but able to exploit that boss’s lone vulnerability.
It’s a good thing that preparing for combat is so enjoyable, then, because the dungeons themselves can get a bit excessive. As you traipse around Amami City, you’ll visit multiple office buildings, warehouses, and factories, all of which begin to look and feel alike. A color-coded switch puzzle may keep things interesting, but random trap tiles that send you back to a previous floor seem unnecessarily tortuous. Thankfully, and you can see where Persona 3 and 4 might have taken a cue, the existence of a corrupted, demon-infested other world (the Internet) allows for some reality-bending designs. In a VR Art Museum, you can enter the paintings; in a Haunted Mansion, you travel back through some unhappy childhood memories. A giant chessboard dictates that you “Follow the path of the King”; navigating a surreal landscape requires you to understand that a demon isn’t necessarily speaking hsirebbig; there’s a trick to cutting through a giant hedge maze without passing beneath more than two archways.
As for Soul Hackers itself, there are no tricks up its sleeve—just a voluminous quantity of demons and a remarkable quality of content, from the creative story to the spot-on translation and personable voice actors. Ironically, American audiences can finally get their hands on the excellent Soul Hackers without…well…hacking it.