Soul Hackers

Soul Of The Machine

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers captures the ’90s fantasy of an all-consuming internet.

By Anthony John Agnello • April 23, 2013

It’s disappointing how little physicality we have in the digital world compared to what we imagined at the start of the internet age. Back when Socialnetworka neanderthalensis clumped into tribes on bulletin-board services—when the leftover language of MIT’s early computer club brought “hacker” into the vernacular—our art imagined a connected world that’s very different from the one that exists now. In 2013, being “connected” means staring into a little glass brick while you thumb out small thoughts on Twitter and flood Tumblr with pictures of breakfast. During the ’90s, in works like Snow Crash, Ghost In The Shell, and The Matrix, we expected our experience of the web to envelop our whole bodies. It was going to be a place where we could walk around and explore. How close have we gotten? The fetishist wasteland of Second Life and fantasy games like World Of Warcraft.

Soul Hackers

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers works first and foremost as a time capsule. The latest Nintendo 3DS entry in Atlus’ vast Shin Megami Tensei series is actually a remake of a Sega Saturn game from 1997, a document of the era when we still conceived of the eventual internet as a giant virtual playground. The game casts you as a member of the Spookies, an elite hacker collective. Your base is Amami City, one of the world’s first fully connected cities, with all utilities run by a closed intranet. Your crew rolls around in a sweet semi truck with the Spookies logo painted on the side, keeping an eye on the shadowy Algon Company and looking for the best places to hack into the city’s private network. You’re sort of a cross between Lulzsec and the Hell’s Angels.

Your life with the Spookies gets complicated after you visit Paradigm X, Algon’s new virtual utopia with shops and vacation “bulletin boards” where your avatar can relax. Paradigm X vividly evokes Soul Hackers’ time capsule quality. It’s rendered in crude 3D graphics, and the background is dotted with small animations to liven things up. Yet the characters chatter about how real it all looks, just like people playing early 3D games said at the time Hackers came out.

Soul Hackers

Turns out Paradigm X is more than just a proto-Second Life. Your nameless hero tumbles into the world of Summoner Net, a group that has discovered how to harness the power of god-like monsters who have crossed into the physical world from the digital one. With your GUNTYPE PC—a glorified Palm Pilot that sports a pistol grip—you summon demon friends to fight on your behalf. That comes in handy as you try to figure out where the demons come from, who’s summoning them, and what the Algon Company’s really intends to accomplish with Amami City.

For a 16-year-old role-playing game that features body-possessing she-demons who talk about themselves in the third person, the story is impressively brisk. Soul Hackers pulls you forward with one mystifying encounter after another. One early scenario sees you literally pulled into Paradigm X, like Jeff Bridges in Tron, and you meet a spirit animal who sends you into the memories of a dead summoner whose demons live in a saxophone-shaped computer. It’s irresistibly weird.

Soul Hackers

Playing the game is weird, too, in a different way. Talking to the beasties in Soul Hackers is often more important than fighting them. Gabbing with monsters is usually the only way to get them to fight alongside you, and they’re an idiosyncratic lot. To cultivate a strong team, you have to do more than figure out who to sweet-talk. You have to learn their personalities and then earn their loyalty by using them properly in battle. A Wild demon likes to attack head-on, but a Kind demon needs to heal allies. Once you have a demon of a certain type on your team, speaking with other beasts from the same phylum can yield rewards that range from money to bits of funny dialogue.

It’s in your interactions with the demons that Soul Hackers asks the question at the heart of all that early internet fiction from 20 years ago: As our bodies drift into the digital world, what happens to our souls? Hackers’ internet turns out to be a breeding ground for the monsters of mythology, and the initial implication is that god is waiting for your ghost in the machine.

But that’s not the case, as it turns out. The demons are as mystified by existence as you are. Talk with the butcher monster Ippon-Dattara and he might ask, “Am I a demon?” If you respond, “I don’t know!” he doesn’t join you. He simply says, “I don’t either.” It’s both comforting and fascinating to play Soul Hackers and discover that, even when our vision of the internet was more corporeal than it is today, the most gripping question was still who we are beyond our physical form.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner—Soul Hackers
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Price: $40
Rating: M

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51 Responses to “Soul Of The Machine”

  1. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    A remake of a 15 year old game, only $40!

    By Grabthar’s Hammer…*sigh*…what a savings.

  2. rvb1023 says:

    Because of stuff like this I am finally getting a 3DS, I just wish I had less ugly color options. Is it really so hard to make a solid black one, Nintendo?

    • I bought a 3DS a couple of weeks ago from a friend trading up to a 3DSXL, and it was ‘cosmo black’.  Too shiny?  I kinda like it.

      • rvb1023 says:

         I meant XL colors, the normal 3DS is fine, but the XL is stuck with half black, half red or blue on top. It looks really bad.

        • Oh, ewww.  Have you fiddled with an XL at all?  Is it more comfortable to handle?  Playing Mario Kart on the 3DS (nonXL) makes my A-button wrist sore.

        • Chalkdust says:

           My 3DS XL is solid blue.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

          Yeah, I have no fucking clue why they don’t just make a solid matte black XL. I’m waiting for a revision (Really hoping they add a second analog pad) or at least a color that isn’t dumb-ugly.

        • rvb1023 says:

          @twitter-495079299:disqus I have tried out my friend’s a bit and the fit is much better, or at least I like it bigger. There isn’t really a noticeable drop in image quality from the screen change and I would rather just have the big screen anyways. I definitely prefer it over the original, it’s almost Vita size which is incredibly comfortable to hold.

           @Chalkdust_TMAI:disqus Do you live outside of America? In America the only choices for an XL is Black/Red, Black/Blue, the upcoming all Pink, the upcoming Animal Crossing one, and that Limited Edition Pikachu that is all but sold out.

          @Douchetoevsky:disqus I wouldn’t hold out on a second analog pad, it would require a huge redesign of the console and immediately split the consumer base. This is the same reason the PSP never got a second analog stick. Plus, that means Nintendo can continue to sell it as an add-on for the 5 or so games that use it.

        • Chalkdust says:

          @rvb1023:disqus Accursed memory!  I didn’t have it on hand when I posted originally.

          The outer shell is blue, though the spine and interior faces are black (my original DS was blue all over, though, which I was probably conflating in my mind).

          That said, I think the blue/black combo on mine looks just fine, as it’s a darker blue.  I will agree the red ones don’t look that great.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I just pre-ordered (PRE-ORDERED!) the 3DS XL Animal Crossing bundle. It’s cute and looks like a pop tart.

      • rvb1023 says:

         Pop tart was my first reaction to seeing it. Surprisingly, my favorite XL is a Japan exclusive SMTIV version which is white and black but the image on the top looks right whichever way you look at it. Of course we will never get it.

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          I would’ve hurt someone for the Fire Emblem DS if it were only an XL. I don’t care about the screen, either. I care about the battery. The Pikachu one is pretty cute, but this one comes with a game on it already, and one that’s always good to have available at that.

    • Sleverin says:

       Yeah, this might just convince me to get a 3DS as well…but I just spent all my game money on Brutal Legend and Farcry 3 Blood Dragon, so I’m gonna have to wait for now.

  3. To the people who’ve played this, do we get to the meat of the game quick or is there hours and hours of unnecessary tutorials/hand-holding?  I just wanna taste the mechanics, not wade through flavor text.

    (I realize this perhaps makes me sound like a dumbass, and my 13-years-old FF6-loving self would’ve been angry at me, but at this point my time is precious and I enjoy game mechanics and actual PLAY far more than the latest generic save-the-world plot.)

    • Chalkdust says:

      Shin Megami Tensei as a franchise has never been big on either tutorials or hand-holding (sometimes frustratingly so, but Soul Hackers gives you a variety of options to tweak difficulty).  You’ll get your core experience going within the first hour or two with supplementary systems added in the next few, then it’s all about digging into the intricacies of the fusion system, monster recruitment, exploration and weird happenings.

      • Good info, thanks!  If you have other tantalizing tidbits to share, please do. :)

        • Chalkdust says:

          Some things not mentioned in the review…

          Your COMP’s swappable mods: you have 5 slots in which to equip extra functions, like expanded demon info, increased item drop rate, save anywhere instead of just designated points, ability to talk to demons when you normally couldn’t (the game has a sped-up ‘lunar cycle’ and when the moon is full, demons go nuts), etc.

          Demon requests: in exchange for demons with specific attributes (belongs to X phylum, has X of a certain stat, is X kind of demon with Y ability), you can get money, equipment, more COMP mods, or rare and powerful additional demons.

          NEMECHI: A bonus demon who also oversees a secondary market for new demons.  you can evolve it along several paths to choose its powers, and the demons it offers for sale give you some nice options along the way.

          A bank!  Why don’t more RPGs have this?  You can deposit money and it accrues interest while you’re playing.

          Demon loyalty and personalities are touched upon above, but in addition to demons preferring to do different things in battle, there is also one personality (‘Dumb’, I believe) that, when loyalty is maxed, there’s a way to turn them into powerful equipment.

        • Chalkdust says:

          Aaaaand, 10 hours in, I just got another supplementary system (which as soon as I saw it, I realized was in the PS2 Devil Summoner games but I forgot about it).

          As with most of these additional systems, it never feels like “haha, we’ve been withholding this essential aspect of gameplay from you”, but more like “you’re doing well, but you know what? Greater challenges await so here’s something extra to give you an edge.”

          Sword Fusion allows you to create powerful elemental and status-effect-inducing swords for your main character (who doesn’t use magic) by sacrificing your demons.  Like captured demons, it creates a registry for previously-made swords, so you can fill out a collection of demon-powered cutting implements and swap them around without a lot of hassle.

  4. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    The whole “virtual cyberspace” thing fell out of style before the end of the 90’s, didn’t it?

    It does remind me of this one game of sorts I saw as a kid at a local arcade where two players stood on closed platforms while wearing headsets and holding “guns”, and the objective was to shoot your opponent or similar. I distinctly remember two things: one, the gun fired a grenade that resembled a “potato masher” grenade, and two, it had graphics commensurate with the first Virtua Fighter.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      That sounds like Dactyl Nightmare for the Virtuality system, which was my first experience in Virtual Reality as well.  (They demoed it at the same junior college I mentioned playing Virtua Fighter at yesterday, coincidentally!)  I played it twice, and was actually really good at it right away, which made it sad when I was paired against a gal who obviously had no idea how to move in 3D space.

      I found a Virtuality machine at the Great Mall in Milpitas a couple of years later, which was loaded with Zone Hunter, a sort of 3D shooter on rails.  The guy said I got the farthest in it he’d ever seen on my first play.

      I completely adore VR and 3D headset games, and still wish there were more of them around.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        You know, I think that’s exactly it! I can’t find many images of the game itself, unfortunately, but everything I can find lines up accurately enough. Thanks!

        I assume you’re psyched about the Oculus Rift?

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          Hell yes!  I donated a small sum to their Kickstarter, since there’s no way a Dev Kit would be useful to me, but definitely want one when they’re on sale.

          I’ve been trying to convince my wife to let me get nVidia 3D Vision in the meantime, but she’s still upset that she bought a $200 pair of 3D glasses for me for Christmas a few years back that I never used.

          (When I got them, the company’s drivers were outdated and didn’t work, and it took them a YEAR to get new ones, which they wanted to charge an extra $50 for.  Do NOT buy from eDimensional!)

      • Girard says:

        When paired with an omnidirectional treadmill, the Oculus Rift looks like it provides a thoroughly insane immersive experience.

        • Aurora Boreanaz says:

          Hells to the yes.  I will have one of those.  Someday.  In a dream that I’ll forget about when I wake up.

      • Boko_Fittleworth says:

        I played Dactyl Nightmare at Gen Con back at some point in the 90s when it was still in Milwaukee! Then I got distracted by the opportunities to purchase rare Amberzines.

    • Girard says:

      Sounds like you were playing “Virtual Tussle“…

  5. duwease says:

    For such a prolific series, why can’t we get a next-gen Shin Megami Tensei title??

  6. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I don’t claim to be well versed in hacker culture, but wouldn’t tooling around in a giant truck with a logo painted on the side be a bit of a giveaway to the giant evil corporation you’re investigating? I mean, it’s not like Anonymous drives a Mystery Machine with a Guy Fawkes mask on the grille.

    …Unless they do, in which case I take back every mean thing I ever said about them and their problematic historical allusions.

    • EmperorNortonI says:

       That would be awesome beyond words . . . for the 10 seconds they’d be on the road prior to arrest.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        UNLESS – They paint the logo on the side of EVERY TRUCK IN THE CITY!

        And then lose theirs in a parking garage.

  7. Destroy Him My Robots says:

    Aw, man. Sounds like it might be right up my alley, but a) it probably won’t be released in Europe until 2014 and probably be bug-ridden when it is, and b) it’s not on eShop and I swear customs have it in for me lately and I’m just so very tired of it.

    I know I shouldn’t complain because overall NoE is a better deal than NoA, but the Atlus situation sure can be frustrating.

  8. Enkidum says:

    So if one was interested in this Persona nonsense, where does one start?

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I would start with Persona 3 or 4. They’re very accessible. I like the idea of all those SMT games, but I stick to those for the most part because they’re easy to get into and enjoy.

    • PaganPoet says:

      Do you have a Vita, Enkidum? I’m assuming no, since I’m one of like 4 people who do own one.

      If you do, though, buy Persona 3 Portable off the PSN and Persona4 Golden immediately.

      • Enkidum says:

        Nope. A lot of money for a really cool shiny thing with very few games…

        • PaganPoet says:

          Yep. I’m hoping it eventually will develop a respectable library (seeing as how the PSP and the PS3 both had pretty severe growing pain periods), but at the moment I hardly touch the thing. Other than spending all of November and December being glued to Persona 4 Golden.

      • Enkidum says:

        Are you on PS+? I just got it last month for my PS3 and am loving it, but I see a lot of Vita folks complaining on the PS+ blog about it. 

        • Jackbert says:

          Yeah, they’ve just been adding old PSP games for a while now. I have a PSP and PS+ so I’m happy about it, but Vita owners are rightly annoyed.

          Remember how you bought Sleeping Dogs? Check out the list of PS+ games in Europe if you want to complain.

    • Jackbert says:

      Persona 3: FES as a PlayStation 2 Classic off the PlayStation Store for $10.

    • I’ll echo everyone else and say that either Persona 3 or 4 would make an excellent entry point. They are both stand-alone stories. Persona 4 is probably the more refined of the two games, but I think I prefer Persona 3: FES.

      Be forewarned that you will need to block off a few hours before you really get into the meat of the game.

    • Simon Jones says:

       Persona 4 is probably the best spot to start. It takes the whole social link mechanic of Persona 3 and makes it a lot more elegant and better integrated into the game. Also your team is more likable.

      (It also runs rather well on PC emulation, if you don’t have access to a vita or a ps2)

      Not that Persona 3 is a bad game by any means but it does have some weird choices, like attaching some powerful persona lines to some really boring, missable people. Yes, you’re poor and you have to give up sports. Yes, you’re writing the worlds most insane short story. Now, shut up and raise my SL level.

      Persona 2, parts 1 and 2 is also, I believe, available in the PSN shop and is actually a very interesting game on some levels.

      It is also old.

    • Citric says:

      Persona 3. It’s good, but not as good as Persona 4. So it’s really effing hard to go back to Persona 3 because P4 fixed all of its problems, even though it’s still a really good game.

      The Persona 2s are really frustrating but Innocent Sin does have a nifty story – haven’t played much of Eternal Punishment, it likely also has a nifty story. If you stick with it, you can beat up Hitler!

      Then there’s a whole schwack of other games and sub-series.

  9. Jackbert says:

    My little brother got a 3DS for his birthday Saturday and this game and Fire Enblem: Awakening are making me very jealous of him. 

  10. zhirzzh says:

    Arg, I really want to skip the 3DS generation, but I really want this and Fire Emblem, and doubt that the next system will be backwards compatible, because there is no way the 3D bullshit will last.