Playing Soul Hackers was like taking a virtual reality trip back to the late 90’s. Not just the gameplay, but also the story. Memories of all those movies dealing with computers, hacking and virtual reality written by people who had no idea what they were talking about came flooding back as soon as the game begins. This is not so much a bad thing though, as there’s nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia when it’s this enjoyable.
Soul Hackers was originally released for the Saturn in 1997 which goes a long way in explaining the style and feel of the game. Graphically, aside from the addition of 3D (which adds nothing by the way) it feels very basic, with disappointingly no new graphical update that we can see. Travelling through the hi-tech Amami city is done with a dot on a map, the first person dungeons are very basic in design and the battle animations are almost non-existent. So in that sense it’s a shame more care wasn’t taken with bringing it to a new audience. That aside, play for long enough and there’s still something here that will suck you in.
This could possibly be the diverse cast of characters you’ll encounter or the dual worlds you’ll be exploring. Dual because not only is the reality of Amami City available to explore, but also the virtual reality world of Paradigm X. A sort of MMO which has become the new big thing. Of course, it turns out that all is not as it seems and Paradigm X becomes a central plot point as you progress through the story. The story, which while initially starting off slowly definitely hooked us, and made us put up with the experience of learning the many mechanics found within.
Soul Hackers definitely takes you back to a time before hand holding became the norm. Coming into this as your first Shin Megami Tensei can be a pretty daunting experience. Tutorials are nowhere to be found and it’s really up to the player to discover how to best approach the game. It isn’t long before you’re thrown straight into your first turn based battle and really it’s all down to experimentation, something we actually quite enjoyed. Letting the player figure things out for themselves is definitely something that’s been lost as games have evolved and Soul Hackers has shown that not telling the player exactly what to do can make the game a rewarding experience.
Those new to the SMT series may be a little baffled by the battle system as it is, at first, quite daunting with options layered on top of options that can overwhelm quite easily. With each turn based battle you have six spaces for humans and demons that you collect. At the start of each turn you make each characters selection, whether it be magic, attack, item etc. Then the battle commences until all turns are done, and repeat. What sets this game apart from other RPG’s is the use of the demons that you can have join your team. In order to convince them to join you can use the Talk option at the start of each battle. Conversing with the demons will more often than not bring up multiple choice answers. This is where it gets weird. Demons seem to have as many problems as humans, with them asking questions ranging from the meaning of life to favourite foods. It’s all a bit surreal. Answering the question correctly from the multiple choices you’re given and it could very well lead the demon to join your party. Answer incorrectly and it could lead them to attacking you or just leaving in a huff.
Believe it or not that’s just the basics; from here you need to build up the trust of your demons. Lose trust and the demons could very well ignore your commands and just do what the hell they please. Then there’s fusing, a mechanic those who are familiar with the SMT series will understand, and others will initially be confused by. Fusing demons together making newer, more powerful ones, a crucial element in order to progress through the harder dungeons.
The dungeons being one of the real stars of Soul Hackers. As already mentioned, dungeons are played out in a first person manner, navigating the corridors and running into random battles. Dungeons each have a different style to them and can consist of tricky puzzles tiered across multiple floors. Disappointingly though these, like much in the game, are very old fashioned, only being able to move in four directions as opposed to full 3D movement.
The first appearance of Soul Hackers outside of Japan is a most welcome one. It may not have had the graphical update some would’ve hoped for, but the story and characters are interesting enough that it will grab you till the end.