Monday, October 19, 2009

Soul Hackers

Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Developer: R&D1
Publisher: Atlus
RPG - Sega Saturn
Hard Drive Backup - 3 Saves
1 player
Devil Summoner Soul Hackers Box Art

My first experience with the long-running Shin Megami Tensei RPG series just happens to be a sequel to one of the spinoffs by the name of Devil Summoner. It's been sitting in my collection for over ten years now and this summer, I was determined to give it a fair shake. Being a spinoff, Soul Hackers take some liberties in the game systems compared to entries in the traditional SMT line. Nevertheless, I've been hearing about the latest title, Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey, and although it sports some additions to the battle system, a lot of the other stuff seems similar to Soul Hackers. So this is a good of a representation as any.

Soul Hackers takes place in a futurustic cyberpunk city, where a mega corporation is piloting its virtual reality world Paradigm-X on the populace. Meanwhile, the main character of the story, and his girl-next-door friend Hitomi are in a hacker group called "Spookies". As they go about their business, a mysterious entity named Redman keeps showing up, and tries to appeal to the main character. Redman seems to know a lot more about the main character than the main character knows about him. Along the way, Redman puts the Main Character in trances and allows him to experience "Vision Quests", the lives of people who have gone before. What do these vision quests have to do with hacking and where does VR fit into all this?

The style of game is similar to what you'd find in other jRPGs. There's a single city, with multiple areas where you can go shopping, talk to people, and enter dungeon-buildings. Consequently, there is also the virtual reality world, Paradigm-X, which is much smaller, and much uglier. The shops in the game will update their inventory as you reach certain story points, so it's rather efficient.

Visually, Soul Hackers is extremely slick. I personally was in love with the entire art direction, visual effects, and atmosphere. One technique that they pulled off really well was transitioning prerendered backgrounds into FMV and back. It's not completely smooth, as the FMV is at a lower resolution, but the overall effect was something that really complemented the unique look of this game. The first person 3D wasn't as nicely looking, I'll have to admit. Still, the look and feel was one of the biggest draws for me.

Soul Hackers retains many of the integral components that make up a Shin Megami Tensei game. The biggest feature that defines SMT is the interaction with demons. Demons are your random encounter opponent in the game, and there are a lot of different types, with their own sets of skills. But they can be convinced to join your party, and fused together to form new and more powerful demons. It's a very interesting concept, and one that has some critical consequences. First off, there's the negotiation. When you encounter a demon in battle, one of your menu options is TALK. A demon will either ask you a question, or will make a comment and ask you your opinion on it. Depending on how you respond and the demon's disposition towards you, the demon will:

  • Join your party
  • Ask you another question
  • Ask you to give it something
  • Give you something
  • Respond to your answer
  • Leave
  • Leave with all the enemies
  • Become angry, and their entire party will get a free attack on you

Some of the major influencers of outcome depends not only on your response but whether you have any negotiation booster items equipped, the alignment of your current group (a lawful demon will refuse to join your group if you have a chaotic demon in your active party), the level of your main character, and even the phases of the moon! This adds a unique experience to fighting battles because sometimes you may want to simply recruit a specific monster in order to talk your way out of battles with them in the future. It's a completely valid strategy, and one I've used to get out of some tricky situations.

But it doesn't stop there. Because of the fusion system, recruiting takes on a different meaning than simply adding a body to your lineup. Fusing two demons together generally means that you'll get a superior demon, and often the new demon will take on some special skills from the demons you used to fuse. So that means that even if you could recruit the demon later, the fused version could potentially have more abilities. Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as simply selecting the abilities you want to pass down, so if you want a specific ability on your new demon, you have to attempt to fuse to get the preview demon, and check to see if it's in its list of abilities. That guessing and checking isn't a huge burden, but the interface could have been better improved. I have to admit that I'm not really a fan of fusion in general. It's like the tedious version of the alternative, which is simply to get the end result in the first place. A lot of games are worse because of it, but I suppose that due to the skill inheritence, it has some value in Soul Hackers.

One of the liberties that the Devil Summoner series took is by giving each demon a loyalty rating. In Soul Hackers, each demon has a personality. If you command the demon in battle according to its personality (ie ATTACK with an Violent Type), you build their loyalty. But if you command them to do other things, they might just lose loyalty. You can also give a demon gifts outside of battle to raise loyalty. Once they are maxed out, though, you can command them to do anything and they won't lose loyalty. Whether this is a good or bad subsystem is open to debate, but I'm told it's implemented much much better in Soul Hackers versus the original Devil Summoner. Of course, one of the perks of this loyalty system is that when maxed out, enemies will get some bonuses. The Violent demon will hit harder at max loyalty. Friendly demons will take a hit for you when they're maxed out. For some reason the Crafty demon can be transformed into useful and not-so-useful items at maximum loyalty.

What I find most pleasing about the game isn't this demon stuff, but its core combat. It is similar to the basic setup of Dragon Quest where your actions really do matter. Step into a new area with unfamiliar demons and you could see Game Over easily. Even facing off against previously encountered demons could result in the same fate, if you're not paying attention. Buffs and debuffs matter. Elemental affinities matter. Weapon types matter. As I played more of Soul Hackers, I realized that what I enjoyed about having to exploit weaknesses in FFX was done in SMT first. Perhaps the main difference is that in FFX, you yourself did not really have weaknesses, but here in SMT, your demons most certainly do. Just as you can dominate the enemies you face with the right mix of party members and actions, you can most certainly -be- dominated with the wrong mix of members, or wrong decisions. It's a tough lesson to learn in this game, and one I've had to learn many many times.

Another unique aspect in Soul Hackers that wasn't in pre-Strange Journey SMT titles, is the ability to customize your computer. Here, you can load it up with applications that allow you better negotiating skills with demons, to present a full time minimap on the main screen, to help assist with fusions on-the-go, the ability to save anywhere, stuff like that. There are only six slots, and some of the applications cost more than one slot. There's usually only one or two locations within dungeons, where you can switch out these applications, so you have to choose wisely.

I have to cite some faults though. Being a SMT newbie, I felt as if Soul Hackers was really overwhelming in a lot of ways. When you attempt to fuse demons, you are shown a preview of the new demon and their skills. But all you have is the name of their skill, with no description as to what they do. I'm told that this is because most SMT players are familiar with the abilities, but I don't think it could have hurt Atlus to include descriptions. I had to pretty much fuse, rotate the new demon in my party, and then use the ability in battle in order to see what it actually did. Coincidentally, it is also the only time the game gives you any kind of description at all: when you're about to use it. What's also overwhelming is how many ways you can use demons. You can use demons to fuse up to new demons. You can use demons to upgrade the special demon you're given in early game. You can use Crafty-type demons to transform into items once it hits max loyalty. And mid-game, you can transform demons into weapons as well. I imagine if you are a SMT veteran, you know which demons are good to keep, and which ones would be good as one of these other things. But it's a bit much for a first-timer. I suppose that's my fault for starting with Soul Hackers.

Another thing that's really bad is the battle speed. I played almost the entire game with animation turned off, because battles would take forever. But even with animation off, it's still very sluggish. In addition, it seems odd to complain about this because I otherwise love the battle system, but sometimes I find deaths to be really cheap. You enter a new area and this one enemy casts an insta-kill spell or a stone spell on your main character. Game Over. I'm open to challenges but I question some of these situations. Make no mistake, I died, and I died a lot in this game. Most of the time, it was fair - I made poor decisions. Other times, the game was just plain evil. And what's up with those ridiculous 8 hour long end game dungeons?

But I genuinely do love the artistic direction that Soul Hackers employs. The story and atmosphere was so different from anything I'd played in the past, that I was completely captivated through and through. This is also the first and only RPG I can think of where random encounters actually make sense. And the one feature I love from the battles, aside from its awesome weakness exploitation, is the fact that the game remembers which commands you previously inputted. When you start your turn, your cursor is already on the previous command you did for each character. Not only that, but there's an Auto-Battle feature where "REPEAT" is an option. This is genuinely one of the most user-friendly things I wish would be on every turn based RPG.

Solid and intriguing. I'd love to see how newer versions of Shin Megami Tensei turns things up a notch.