Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers

The years preceding Localization Crimes III: Nocturne saw a large number of spinoff releases for the series. One of them was Persona, which Act reviewed way before this, but a lesser-known one was Devil Summoner, which is basically identical to the main series so I’m not entirely sure why it’s a spinoff.

The first Devil Summoner sounds interesting from the Wikipedia article, but it was never even fan-translated, so I instead started at Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. Ah, you know something’s a franchise when it contracts colon cancer!

This takes place in the alternate Persona timeline where the nukes were stopped, so the demon stuff is a masquerade instead of the new norm. The setting is a near-future cyberpunk city where demons are using the internet to steal peoples’ souls, and it’s up to you as a leet hacker to stop it. Except you don’t do any actual hacking and demons are running around the physical world as well as the internet, so that’s more of an aesthetic than anything significant.

What I really appreciated, coming off of SMT3, was that this game has actual characters with likable personalities who work with you instead of running around like headless chickens. The protagonist’s hacker group has a nice balance of personalities who make useful contributions to the plot without getting in your way, so I felt actually motivated when they were inevitably kidnapped and in need of rescue. What is it with only the spinoffs having any understanding of character writing?

And minor quibble, but I didn’t like the art shift. As a demonstration, here is the same demon’s SMT2 and Soul Hackers sprites side-by-side:

  

The hand-drawn Soul Hackers sprite is much more detailed and artistic, yes, but, well, that same beauty and detail makes it look like a painting rather than a living creature. It’s looking to the side rather than at the player, and what is it waving to? The simplistic SNES sprites were actually animated, with blinking eyes and flickering spirits, which all contributed to the sense of them being actually alive; that’s lost here. (Well, the sprites do animate, sort of, but they do so by stretching the sprite in a way that’s very painfully artificial and honestly just makes it worse. Devil Survivor uses the same art style but doesn’t do this, which is a marked improvement.) Moreover: would you have known these are the same demon if I hadn’t told you? The artist takes some very extreme artistic liberties, to the point demons are rarely recognizable as the creatures they are intended to be, let alone the same demons they’ve been in past installments.

(Also, apparently this game originated the sexy BDSM angel design seen in SMT3. Why.)

The handling of female characters could be better, but as Devil Survivor 2 was so eager to demonstrate, it could also be a whole lot worse. The protagonist’s girlfriend is your single human party member, and the reason she’s able to fight is because she is possessed by a demon at the start of the game… but she actually cohabits with the demon instead of needing to fight for control of her body, and is able to talk normally in cutscenes instead of getting erased from the narrative. The demon does change her into a sexy outfit, which annoyed me, but it also demonstrates that this artist understands how boobs work instead of whatever was going on in DeSu2:

Yeah, not great, but the bar was set so very, very low. And at least her dressing sexy is an explicit character choice instead of stripper gear being the default outfit for women.

The gameplay is built upon the model of If…, with your party split into two rows of 3 and the back row unable to use melee attacks. However, it expands on the concept a lot: enemies also use this system, certain weapons allow human characters to attack from the back, and there are more AoE patterns such as rows vs. columns vs. squares, as well as gradient AoE attacks where enemies on one side will receive more damage. All of it feels like a very natural evolution from If…, and fixes the problems it had with back row characters mostly having no choice but to twiddle their thumbs and the lack of clarity in what the rows meant and what attacks could be used from the back.

Unfortunately, it also doubles down on one of the series’ worst mechanics: There are two skills that make your team reflect all attacks of a type (either physical or magical) for one turn, but unlike in Pokemon, they only work if the user acts before the enemy in the turn order. This makes them either gamebreaking or completely useless depending on the user’s initiative (which contains a random factor because of course it does), and most of the endgame bosses are practically impossible without using these skills to cheese them. A lot of enemies also have utterly ridiculous evasion rates, so Sukukaja is practically mandatory. The endgame was mostly just very frustrating to me, and it felt like my specific team choices — you know, the game’s central mechanic — were irrelevant aside from one or two demons with those key skills.

It’s also pretty bad at explaining the impact of important choices. At the start of the game you are given three options to describe your girlfriend’s personality: “She’s a calm one,” “She’s more upbeat,” or “Sexy defines her.” (-_-) What you aren’t told is that these choices determine whether she learns fire, ice, or electric spells, which is an incredibly important choice that affects you the entire game. Have fun with that! You get a similarly poorly-communicated choice at the end of the game too, where you have to make a choice that will determine whether the final boss uses a physical or magical build. Does the game tell you which is which? Haha no, screw you. (The game does at least tell you the impact right before you fight the final boss… except for some reason they mixed up the two messages, so it tells you the opposite of what’s actually true.)

The game does add one major new mechanic of its own, which is that demons will sometimes refuse your orders. Each demon has a personality that determines which skills they prefer to use; giving orders contrary to their personality will sometimes make them angry with you and do their own thing, while giving orders in line with their personality will make them more loyal, which makes them more willing to follow other orders. It’s a neat idea for treating the mons more like actual people, but in practice it’s just incredibly frustrating. Battles are, as usual for the series, very difficult and can go south extremely quickly, so even a single demon disobeying your orders to Leeroy Jenkins the enemy can be disastrous. It also makes Kind demons extremely suboptimal, since they’d rather waste MP on healing spells when everyone’s fully healed than lift a finger to actually contribute to the battle. In practice, it seems like the intended approach is to work around your demons’ personalities instead of with them, either by grinding their loyalty so that they’ll never disobey you or by getting them drunk, which temporarily changes their personality.

I suppose this demonstrates that what is ethical and what’s fun are in conflict here. Realistically, yes, if you are commanding a group of people, you shouldn’t be able to perfectly control their every action like they’re robots… but in a strategy game, that’s extremely frustrating, especially if disobedience is a random event. And when the demons are explicitly sapient, it sort of wraps back around to being stupid again: I’m supposed to believe that these guys are people with rich inner lives, yet they’re also whiny, childish idiots who will kill themselves with HP-eating physical moves because “I need my exercise!”, cast spells that the enemy absorbs because “I don’t want to get my hands dirty,” or refuse to attack even when the enemy is slaughtering their companions left and right. Clearly they don’t deserve to have their opinions respected, and everything would be better if I could just mind control them!

Furthermore, it completely ignores the one interesting thing it could have done: Demons under your control have no opinion on killing their own species. That’s been an elephant in the room since the series’ inception, yet when they finally have the chance to address it they don’t. Enemy demons still truce with you if you have their friend, but that same friend will slaughter them without remorse. What on Earth was the reasoning here?

The plot is… better than the mainline games’, but still very jumbled and feels like it got cut short. In ancient times the Algonquian creator deity got captured by a demon summoner and used as a weapon to commit atrocities (???), then in the present day it gets captured by evil demon summoners and imported to Japan, where the summoners partner with an IT mogul to steal peoples’ souls through the internet and feed them to the Great Spirit in exchange for power. At the very end you’re told the Great Spirit wants to die because it is anathema to human life and realizes the two can’t coexist, even though it is literally the personification of all life in Algonquian mythology, what even? The whole thing is just a mishmash of ridiculous campy tropes rather than anything philosophically meaningful, and it’s blatantly just overwriting the Native American aspects with Japanese philosophy rather than anything respectful or interesting.

…But maybe that’s for the best, because when it does try to be profound it’s just more of the disgusting Buddhist death cultism we saw in Sekiro. If you want to tell people death is something to be celebrated, kindly shut up forever.

7 Comments

  1. Seed of Bismuth says:

    Darn I never knew electric powers were “Sexy” (-_-)
    Reminds me of the first Kingdom Hearts game with the “your journey begins at Noon/Dawn/ Dusk” being about experience needed to level up easier for 1-50lvl (Dawn) or 51-99lvl (Dusk).

    Wow that story, sounds like Shaman King was more respectful of Native American Beliefs.

    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      What annoys me is that they totally could have made it clear. Just describe her personality in fire/ice/electric terms, with the words highlighted to make it clear that’s what’s going on. (“She’s a fiery one”, “She’s electrifying”, “She’s an ice queen” etc.) If I ever figure out how to mod 3DS games I am totally making a hack that does that.

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  2. Anon-kun says:

    Okay, so the reason behind so many of the demon redesigns has to do with a change in the game’s design philosophy. Basically, mainline SMT games involve either demons invading the human world or humans visiting the demon world, while games in the Devil Summoner series are about demons living alongside humans, but in secret, and so they have adapted to the modern world in a way.

    Because of that, many of the new designs and redesigns take from pop culture or are generally more “modern.” Throne is Cloak from Marvel, Khonsu is voguing, Lham Dearg is The Highlander, Jueyuan is wearing KISS make-up, Thor is Conan the Barbarian, Illuyanka is wearing a Phantom of Paradise helmet, Zaou-Gougen is Spawn, Melchizedek is Marvel’s Archangel… That’s not to say pop culture references in demon designs started with Devil Summoner, they were always there, but there was a deliberate thematic intent here.

    Why is Angel in a BDSM design? Because of “submission to God” (yes… that’s the actual explanation that the designer gave) and the costume itself comes from The Fifth Element. The Dominion design from this game even has various chains coming out of it that are meant to connect to the Angels… because the Angels are subs and he’s a Dom(inion).

    Now, the problem is that people at Atlus like to uncritically reuse designs that were created for specific games when that design really does not fit. BDSM Angel was created for a game where demons live in the modern world and the design was meant to create a pair with Dominion’s. Reusing it in a different game strips the design from its intended meaning. Devil Summoner’s Cloak Throne can make an easy transition to Nocturne onwards, BDSM Angel only stands out like a sore thumb.

    You can see those problems with other designs like Alice and Maria. Alice was originally an OC human from SMT1 who just happened to be named Alice, but a few games later and she can learn a skill called Mad Tea Party and the animation of her signature skill involves card soldiers. Maria originated in a Japan-exclusive game where she was a fake goddess created by the Christians who were tired of waiting for a Messiah. She looks like a regular human, but for her boss battle she turns into a kind of statue monster. Cut to modern games and now they’re reusing the monster statue from her boss battle except she’s now meant to be *the* real Virgin Mary (like, if you’re going to do it, at least use her more human design!).

    This entire thing is a mess and it’s only one of the many, many problems with Atlus as a company. Let’s not even get into the designs that are explicitly racist or anti-Semetic (the former thankfully only lasted for a game and was swiftly retired, the latter is still used to this day).

    BTW, about the game’s name: pretty much the only non-mainline SMT game to have “SMT” in the title is the original Devil Summoner for the Sega Saturn. Soul Hackers is only called “Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers” in Japan. Atlus of America pretty much slapped “SMT” to the title of every single game they localized back then to help create some sort of brand recognition. Which is how we ended up with monstrosities such as “Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army”.

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Sorry this got flagged as spam! We get a lot, so the filter can be overzealous.

      I did not expect there to be a lore explanation for the demon redesigns! That’s actually a pretty neat idea, even if I disagree with the execution. Making supernatural creatures explicitly reflect pop culture is always sorta weird to me — like, did they secretly inspire the fictional depiction in this universe, or did they change their own appearance to match the fictional depiction? If the latter, why, and if the former, now the entire entertainment industry is part of the masquerade, making it even more implausible for the masquerade to be upheld… It could be fun in a more comedic story, but for something as serious as SMT it just raises too many questions.

      Let’s not even get into the designs that are explicitly racist or anti-Semetic (the former thankfully only lasted for a game and was swiftly retired, the latter is still used to this day).

      Actually I would like to get into that, do tell 👀

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      1. Anon-kun says:

        Sorry for the late reply, but sure let’s go ahead.

        The explicitly racist design is a demon called Rastaman that only appeared in the original Devil Summoner for the Sega Saturn.

        The anti-Semetic design that still gets used to this day is Kurama Tengu. If you look at his forehead, Kurama Tengu is wearing a kippah and a tefilin, the latter which is a Jewish head accessory containing Torah verses that are meant to be worn during weekday morning prayers.

        Why is it anti-Semetic for Kurama Tengu to wear a Jewish accessory? The main characteristic of tengus is having long noses. Yikes.

        All of this stems from one crackpot conspiracy theory claiming that one of the tribes of Israel fled all the way to Japan. Part of it mingled with the local population and formed the modern Japanese people, while other part isolated themselves in the mountains and gave origin to the tengu legend.

        And we know this isn’t a coincidence because Atlus staff have explicitly mentioned this conspiracy theory in interviews.

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  3. Arcturus says:

    Jumping in because while I don’t remember all the SMT designs (digimon and pokemon stole all the space in the monster database in my brain as a kid and never let go, ha), I do have this unfortunately convincing theory on how the SMT franchise has become increasingly anti-semitic over the years! Since I don’t know how WordPress will feel about including links in post, I added it as my “website”, but if that doesn’t work, you can find it at eirikrjs blogspot under Japanese-Jewish Common Ancestry Theory & Shin Megami Tensei. It’s a very long post but definitely worth the morbidly fascinating read.

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    1. St. Elmo's Fire says:

      Wow. Just… wow.

      I had read about a quote from the writers that was weirdly supportive of Christianity (the one about YHVH being the source of all gods/mythologies), but I had no idea it went so deep. I’m surprised that this actually explains the Kagutsuchi = YHVH connection, which baffled me when I played SMT3. (I came up with my own very different explanation for my fangame, which I am not changing in light of this.)

      Disappointing. Even aside from the anti-Semitic problems, it’s just boring to take a kitchen sink setting and say actually it’s all just one mythology. I’ll have to keep this in mind when reviewing future games in the series.

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