I’ve never had such a mixed bag of feelings when it came to a game before. I don’t really know how to open something like this without completely spoiling the verdict and my final thoughts, so apologies for the below-standard intro, guys. Also, since I just beat it, expect spoilers for the entirety of the game, especially in the second half of the article. Right then, critique time!
Alright, gameplay. The standard, expected Shin Megami Tensei stuff is excellent. Fusion is fun, party-building is great, and I honestly spent way more time negotiating with some particular cheapasses than I should have. However, the game added some pretty cool new stuff as well. Fusion Search is a super-convenient little tool that makes going through your list for certain demons a breeze. No more jumping back to the top just because you don’t like that particular combination half-way down. Interchangeable software and COMP hacks also gave the game a bit more customization and makes it a more forgiving experience, with features like allowing you to save anywhere (my favorite by far), allowing you to talk to demons on a full moon, or even jacking the difficulty of the game down (or up) or removing the alignment limits (Law, Neutral, Chaos) for your party.
Sword Fusion was also present, and I don’t think I’ve seen it outside of the Devil Summoner series and Persona 3. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, as you don’t get anything worth writing home about unless you fuse specific demons and it’s noticeably less fun than trying to get your perfect demon. Unfortunately, the new features as a whole are a mixed bag, and the game has some serious issues toward the end.
Let’s talk about the subpar new stuff first, though, yeah? Nemechi, a weird social… mini-game? thing added to the 3DS version is probably the biggest offender. For those unaware, it allows you to convert street pass contacts (get near other 3DSes while yours is sleeping, basically) or Play Coins (walk X steps) into Demon Souls to evolve Nemechi and recruit new demons. Now, coming from a rural area where the closest not-owned-by-me 3DS is a good 15 minute drive away, I didn’t get a huge lot of use from this feature, but even if I did, everything Nemechi offered was so underwhelming and everything from buying demons to evolving him was bloody expensive. It honestly didn’t add anything to the game and I feel like ironing out other issues would have been a better use of resources.
Zeed, an artificial demon that costs no Magnetite for upkeep or summoning, was also… not that great. It wasn’t as bad as Nemechi by any stretch of the imagination, but it still felt underwhelming. Granted, I got lucky (or perhaps did something clever) and got one with decent attack, which meant a free front-liner, but I’ve tried a number of fusions with him and nothing as good as what I could negotiate or fuse normally popped out. I suppose it’s a trade-off, since he’s free and demons aren’t cheap, but… Eh. Not the best feature, not the worst. I’ve got one final problem with the Soul Hackers-introduced stuff, then I can start saying good things again!
That problem is the Loyalty/Personality system. Basically, your demons have personalities that indicate what kind of actions they’ll want to perform in battle. Wild demons like physical attacks, Dumb ones like being told to just go do whatever but make stupid choices, Kind ones like healing and buffing. Now, I’ll admit that I never explored the alcohol items, which allow you to temporarily change a personality. That might have helped, but nothing sucks quite as much as a Kind demon who managed to end up with no healing spells or a Clever (offensive magic) demon who ended up with Media. I probably could have done better, but I just let my demons do whatever they wanted for the most part.
Also, I unintentionally lied about more good things. They’re coming, but not quite yet. The game has some big issues on the gameplay front toward the end. The endgame, particularly the final two dungeons, are a horrible mess. The penultimate dungeon, for instance, requires a ton of backtracking for four, three-letter passwords, with each letter being on a separate floor. Combined with an overly-high random encounter rate and you get several sessions where you’re making minimal progress, which means you’re either jacking the difficulty down like I did, or you’re just straight-up not playing for a week because you don’t want to go back.
The final dungeon isn’t as bad, but it’s still kind of obnoxious. It pulls a variation of the Misty Ravine’s gimmick from Etrian Odyssey 4, which means walking through certain areas will send you to a completely different spot on the map. Now, I actually liked that gimmick in EO4, because I could mark what lead where. Sadly, while it is possible to mark on the map, Soul Hackers uses an awkward icon system, which makes remembering where to go a bit of a pain. The game also gets a bit of a difficulty spike around the Shemyaza fight (where he spams party-wide magic and has three times the HP of the former boss), which goes from annoying to burnout-worthy by the end of the game. Again, I’m totally cool with Atlus games being hard, but Shemyaza and Kadokura were a bit obnoxious with party-wide damage and stuns/sleeps, respectively. Manitou gets a pass because he’s the final boss and deserved to be soul-crushingly hard.
Right, that’s about all I’ve got to say regarding the gameplay. I decided to make story and aesthetics its own separate category because I’ve got a lot to talk about regarding that side of the game as well. Let’s start with the basics and see where we go from there.
The first thing is one of the big reasons why I love Atlus: The source material. I mean, who else is going to make a game with characters taken in some form from Algonquin myth? It’s just something you don’t see all the time and that lends a really unique design to certain characters. I’m honestly a bit sad that they didn’t do more with it, as Kinap (outside of Vision Quests, we’ll get to those in a bit) only serves a purpose in the big reveal scene and as the Game Over man. Manitou also suffers from this, as he’s just being used or manipulated or something by Kadokura and the Grigori trio. Whatever, issues with that aside, it’s still some really cool source material.
Alright, Vision Quest (and quests in general) time. I’ll be honest, I was initially coming into this post ready to slam Kinap’s Vision Quests as hard as I could. Basically, they put you in the shoes of another character three times and it really messes with the narrative flow. I’ve been thinking about this particular aspect a lot lately, and I see their purpose. Urabe’s quest shows you, the audience, just where the hell the gunCOMP came from and kickstarted the whole plot. Judah’s quest was less narratively important, but gave you a reason behind the expanded demon capacity as you take his storage as well. Hell, Naomi’s sets up most of the final dungeon and the entire fight with Manitou, as his form (physical or magical) depends on which demon Naomi kills. I’m still not the biggest fan of ’em, but I know they have their place and I’ll accept that. Moving on!
In terms of normal quests, I really enjoyed the ones you could pick up from the pet shop in Paradigm X (although not enough to actually do most of them), because the rewards were pretty cool and they eventually lead to you being able to fuse and summon the Frost Five, which is totally worth it. One quest in particular, however, really stood out. Late in the game, but before everything goes to hell, Victor will ask you to take his emotionless, likely-soulless assistant Mary into town to pick up some things. I’m not going over the whole thing here, but it basically culminates in some of the best-voiced and best-written dialog in the game, with Mary finally showing some emotion at the very end. It’s this tiny little sideplot that has nothing to do with the real game, but I love it anyway.
Unfortunately, the non-gameplay stuff isn’t perfect and I’ve got a few complaints about it. First, the voice acting varies in quality. Urabe, one of the first big characters of the game (and the reason I initially hated the Vision Quests), sounds like some dude brought in off the street to read lines. Thankfully the voice actors you spend a fair bit of time with are genuinely good and include Vic Mignogna, so I’m not gonna complain about that, especially since nearly the entire game is voiced.
I am going to complain about how it handles cutscenes, though. First, outside of repeating ones (going into Paradigm X, for instance), they’re unskippable. Not enjoyable to sit through three minutes of cutscene and dialog before the Grand King of Difficulty Spikes, Shemyaza, only to get your ass kicked and have to do it again. Also, one peculiarity regarding the cutscenes of this game. I’m not sure what the reasoning was, but the screen gets this weird, black border around it. I’ve never understood the point of that and it kind of takes away from the pacing a bit when you have to wait for the game to switch into Cutscene Mode.
Finally, the ending was a bit of a letdown. The non-Manitou parts were great, but I didn’t feel like I accomplished anything because it turns out Manitou’s not evil, he’s just incompatible with humanity or some nonsense. It’s an empty feeling, honestly. I think it’s because, like I said, they didn’t do enough with the Algonquin myths to make them meaningful. Thankfully the ending is salvaged once you get past the non-Manitou stuff and uses one of my favorite ending types, where everyone’s meeting up and being like ‘Wow, this really happened’ and… just going back to their normal lives and moving on. Spookies is likely disbanded, everyone drifts apart. It’s bittersweet, but I like my endings a bit teary.
Anyway, while Soul Hackers wasn’t the greatest game in the series, it wasn’t the worst (SMT1 has not aged well, folks). However, I would honestly recommend waiting for a price drop or borrowing it from a friend or something before getting it yourself unless you’re a huge fan of the series. It could have been excellent, but it was bogged down with unfun mechanics, a padded endgame, and some questionable design choices on the artistic side of things. It’s still a good game and I’m glad I picked it up, but… At the same time, I’m glad to be done and don’t feel that it’s worth the forty dollar entry fee. Anyway, that’s all I’ve got on this. As always, thanks for reading and have a good’un.