Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. Rolls off the tongue, yeah?
Let’s break the title down with a history lesson. Shin Megami Tensei is (or rather, was– until Persona 4 happened) the premiere RPG series from Atlus, who’ve been steadily pumping out games for nearly thirty years. The series itself is an extension of a broader category of games, known colloquially as “MegaTen,” for Megami Tensei. Yuji Horii once called MegaTen, in effect, the “third pillar” of Japanese Role Playing Game franchises. I’m not one to argue with Yuji Horii.
Atlus’ games didn’t start seeing regular release in the West until the mid-2000s– Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was the first game to release in North America with the SMT branding. It’s the third title in the Shin Megami Tensei mainline series, and the first we received in any form. Since then, we’ve received nearly every MegaTen game that Atlus has released in a timely fashion (sorry, Europe.) Here’s where things get complicated. Atlus’ US branch has opted to throw every MegaTen game under the Shin Megami Tensei umbrella, and brand them as such. Japan, however, has a variety of different brandings for different corners of the MegaTen franchise. Navigating this stuff is kind of a mess, so from this point forward, I’m going to go with Atlus USA’s branding and refer to every MegaTen game as a SMT game, distinguishing between mainline games and spin-off series.
In the mid-90s, Atlus decided to take a break from mainline SMT games, and start building up their brand with a series of spin-offs. However, the spin-offs were successful enough to warrant individual sequels. Thus, the spin-offs became sub-series, and SMT went from being “A series with spinoffs” to “A strange mega-franchise that almost functions as a label to bind together a bunch of different series that all have similar fundamental design principles.” Devil Summoner is one of these sub-series. There are four Devil Summoner games. They are,
- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner
- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army
- Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon
So, what we’ve learned thus far: Soul Hackers’ title isn’t even worth remarking upon. It only gets nuttier. But, to get to the point– Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner was a mid-90s spin-off of the Shin Megami Tensei series. This game warranted a sequel, and Atlus chose to give that sequel an additional subtitle to distinguish it from the first Devil Summoner game (Though both games are set in the same world, and Soul Hackers features many returning characters and concepts, it is not necessarily a direct sequel to the events of the first game). They opted to give it the subtitle “Soul Hackers.”
So, you start off by giving your dude a first name and a last name. This is a pretty common occurrence in SMT games. Sometimes, you have the opportunity to give yourself a nickname– this is largely a UI concession, since your character’s name will have to fit inside menus. The in-game justification for your nickname in Soul Hackers is that it’s your hacker alias, so that’s rad.
You are one of the eponymous Hackers in Soul Hackers. You roll with a crew called the Spookies. They have an excellent logo. Your best friend, Hitomi, is also in your crew. Some things happen and she gets possessed by a demon that flies out of a gun-shaped computer you find. No big deal. Your usually-demure young lady-friend becomes an outspoken, brash, sexy demon lady who likes to wear leather catsuits. Both consciences exist within Hitomi’s body, though Nemissa’s is the more-dominant of the two, and they often bicker with one another. The contrast between their personalities as displayed in their conversations with one another are one of the more-entertaining elements of the game’s narrative.
The arrival of Nemissa (and the gun-shaped demon-summoning computer you found) are the catalyst for a series of events that involve a vast conspiracy orchestrated by a group called the Phantom Society to harvest human souls via a 1997 approximation of a Virtual Reality MMORPG that the entire city is enamored with so that they may summon forth a big bad demon who will probably ruin the world. You and your friends take the necessary steps (i.e, subjugating an army of demons, making them fight for you, callously sacrificing them to create new demons, repeat) to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Given that other SMT games often emphasize player choice, it seems odd how little impact you can have on the narrative of Soul Hackers. The game’s never afraid to throw dialogue choices at you, and sometimes they even seem hugely significant, but cursory research suggests that it almost never is. There is a second ending, influenced by some of the major decisions you make in the game’s closing hours– but it’s only for New Game Plus, and was only added in the 3DS version. Your first time through, there’s only one route, and there’s not much you can do to deviate from it other than the occasional optional dungeon. There are, however, a series of interesting choices you can make that will have a serious impact on the game itself. A seemingly-innocuous response to Hitomi in the opening scene will determine which of three different movesets Nemissa will have when she joins your party, and there are multiple boss fights that are affected, either slightly or significantly, by choices that you make beforehand.
Plot and narrative are typically pretty minor parts of the SMT experience (though one of the traits of the Devil Summoner series seems to be an increased focus on those elements) in comparison to the atmosphere, aesthetic qualities, and gameplay. Let’s start from the top.
The atmosphere is some honest-to-god 1990s-era Japanese cyberpunk, with some of the usual conceits of a SMT game– demons invading the human world, narrative ties to real-world mythologies, a curious interplay between technology and aforementioned demons (they are, typically, summoned by computer programs). Generally speaking, cyberpunk ended up a good fit for the SMT series– the idea of computers summoning demons fits a setting which is inundated with computers as though it were a glove. There’s a lot of the goofy, fictitious approximation of computer hacking that is common in any work of fiction that involves hackers, which seems especially odd in this game’s case because at least some of the people who made it are honest-to-god computer programmers. Not really a big deal– though the game isn’t set too far ahead in the future, their computational systems in general are so completely far removed from the ones we use today that it’s pretty easy to forgive them for matching a goofy, fictitious approximation of computer hacking to their goofy, fictitious approximation of futuristic holo-computers. It just adds the retro-futuristic (when viewed in hindsight, eighteen years after the game’s release) charm.
The game didn’t set the world on fire with its visuals or sounds in 1997, and the same holds true today. Soul Hackers marks Shoji Meguro’s debut in the composer’s chair (shared with Toshiko Tosaki) for the SMT series. Meguro would go on to completely dominate the series’ musical output in the mid-to-late 2000s, doing the majority of the music for SMT: Nocturne, Digital Devil Sagas 1 and 2, both Raidou Kuzunoha games, and Personas 3 and 4. It’s an interesting historical artifact, to hear a young and untested Meguro trying his hand at this SMT thing. The two composers soundtracked the game with a mixture of ambient, texture-focused tracks and pulsing synth numbers that are extremely fitting for the game’s overall aesthetic and tone, but aren’t likely to stick with you once you’ve put the game down. Visually speaking, it’s originally a Sega Saturn game, so expect some extremely-rudimentary 3D complimented by Atlus’ trademark recycled sprites for the various demons you’ll be fighting/recruiting. There’s a unique charm to the game’s 3D visuals though– something about exploring low-polygon environments in first person with the stereoscopic 3D afforded by the Nintendo 3DS makes a lot of sense given that the game is about a 1990s approximation of a VR-MMORPG. Kazuma Kaneko’s designs had not yet fully matured, but are still largely on-point in Soul Hackers.
Soul Hackers marked my first experience with a game in the series that was originally released before Nocturne rewrote the rulebook for every game that would succeed it, which made for an interesting time capsule. Demon Fusion is kind of a mess– there are too many races of demons, and not enough demons filling in the ranks of those races. Inheritances are somehow fixed– you have no meaningful control over which demons inherit which skills. For instance, I kept a Rakshasa in my party for over 10 levels because he had two valuable debuff skills, and in those 10 levels I was unable to find a single demon with which I could fuse my Rakshasa and have the resultant demon inherit even one of those debuffs. Now’s a good time to note that demons also do not gain experience points– so that Rakshasa that I kept around for 10 levels wasn’t even improving while I kept him. There’s something immensely satisfying about fusing a totally-broken (for your level) demon in SMT games, and that experience was largely missing from Soul Hackers.
I found Demon Negotiation, on the other hand, to be much more enjoyable than I found it in Nocturne. Demons have a ton of different questions to ask you, and most of them have four possible responses. As opposed to Nocturne, demons also ask their questions of you upfront, rather than asking questions after you’ve given them money, health, MP, or whatever. Nocturne’s negotiations often boiled down to “give a demon a bunch of your stuff, and then hope you correctly guessed the right answer so that he doesn’t run off with the stuff you gave him and make this entire enterprise an exercise in waste,” where Soul Hackers doesn’t require you to part with any material goods until after the questioning period has ended. Sometimes, demons will still run off with your stuff, and the demon often entrusts you with determining which item/quantity of money you’re parting with– if you undersell the demon, it will take the money and run. Still, simply having the questioning phase happen upfront makes me more inclined to experiment during demon negotiation just to see how certain demons will react to certain choices. It’s a small change that makes a world of difference.
Battles are quick and snappy, and employ small numbers– some of my favorite aspects of the series. Again, since this game came out before Nocturne rewrote the rulebook, the battle system in this game is a lot more simple than the series’ standard these days. Enemies have elemental weaknesses and resistances, and hitting those weaknesses/resistances does more/less damage. That’s all there is to it. No extra turns, no lost turns. There’s a row system in place that has a pretty pronounced effect on whether or not a unit can use their melee attacks at all, so you’ll often find yourself fusing demons with the intent to use them in either the front or back row exclusively, because they’re not likely to be equally useful in the other position. Buffs and debuffs continue to be a big deal, but the game makes no distinction between single-target and multi-target– Tarukaja boosts your entire party’s attack power, Tarunda reduces your entire enemy party’s attack power. Buffs are extremely cheap, resource-wise, which makes them less of a huge commitment in a given battle. Battles are generally fun, but they lack some of the “click” or “crunch” of post-Nocturne SMT titles– the tuning isn’t as tight, and the systems don’t promote diverse strategies. There are fewer opportunity for the game to either reward or punish you in the ways that the Press Turn and One More systems can, and that makes battles feel a bit flat compared to the extremely-dynamic battles of latter-day SMT titles.
A final note on difficulty, since difficulty is one of the famous (or infamous) calling cards of the franchise– Soul Hackers is a profoundly easy game most of the way through. The difficulty spikes considerably in the last few dungeons– just after I’d been lulled into a false sense of security that I’d never expect in an SMT title, but is still often all over the place. One dungeon might be nightmarish, then the next will be a cakewalk, then the third will go back to being nightmarish.
Soul Hackers is never a chore to play, but neither does it inspire awe via incredibly smart design in the way later SMT games do. It’s a loosely-tuned game that never quite clicks with itself, its difficulty spikes and valleys never quite making sense in the context of the others, and its battles rarely generating any sort of tension. To look past these problems is to open yourself to an immensely-charming video game time capsule of sorts, wherein you’ll find a fun reminder of 90s Japanese cyberpunk and an important 32-bit SMT game that, until recently, English speakers had been unable to experience for themselves. The video game historian inside me is glad to have played it.