Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers is one of the many Shin Megami Tensei spin-offs that takes the series in a different direction. While the Persona games put the SMT formula into a contemporary school setting, Soul Hackers 2 takes place in a more technological era. The original Soul Hackers put technology, the occult, cyberpunk, and The Goonies into a mixing pot full of demon essence and birthed a loving cult following.
Despite its cult-classic status, the Soul Hackers sub-subseries (confusing, I know) didn’t get anything more than a 2012 3DS remake until now with Soul Hackers 2. Much like the recent Shin Megami Tensei V, Soul Hackers 2 aims to sustain what longtime series fans love while making the experience welcoming to come newcomers with a revamped art style and accessibility features. In an interview with Digital Trends, Soul Hackers 2 directors Eiji Ishida and Mitsuru Hirata highlighted how the game caters to fans of the old while it brings in the new.
The Shin Megami Tensei series is plagued with the conception that its barriers to entry are too large for newcomers to enjoy it. Many missed great games like Shin Megami Tensei 3 due to constant talk of how difficult strategies are to form and how unfairly tough bosses can be. Atlus’ recent RPGs are more cognisant of these issues and take steps to rectify them and remove barriers to entry. As a result, Persona and Shin Megami Tensei are more popular than ever. The developers of Soul Hackers 2 want to continue the momentum of this innovative era of SMT.
“This was an important concept from the beginning, but we really wanted to make this game accessible to those who didn’t have prior knowledge or familiarity with the original game system, setting, and characters,” the directors answered together. “Because it has been 25 years since the original Soul Hackers, we figured it might be a large ask to have fans to re-familiarize themselves by playing through the first game again. In addition, we feel a lot of people have learned about Soul Hackers more recently.”
“We wanted them to play this title as a completely new and accessible experience.”
Still, the team made sure to include plenty of elements to reward fans of the original who waited patiently for a follow-up. “Of course, we included plenty of easter eggs that players of the original game might spot, as well as small details that may draw speculations between how the two games may be connected,” they said.
One of Soul Hackers 2′s most intriguing aspects is what the directors call “mechanics that we felt fit the modern era.” How would gameplay stack up with the original Soul Hackers while keeping things interesting? Ishida and Hirarta brought up the 25 years since the release of the original as an obvious reason for gameplay adjustments in Soul Hackers 2. Of course, advancing the classic “press turn battle system” plays a big part in this.
“In the first Soul Hackers, the characters were displayed primarily in 2D. With the characters now being 3D, we feel it gives a wider breadth of options to create even more immersive and convincing cutscenes. In addition, we looked to elevate the press turn battle system — a staple in Atlus titles since Shin Megami Tensei III — to really expand on the benefits of striking enemy weaknesses.”
One thing that is immediately noticeable in Soul Hackers 2 is the deviation from the usual look of SMT titles. From the look of the characters to the world’s design, this is one of Atlus’ most vibrant games. When I asked about the influence of this new design and new art style, the Directors’ influences shocked me.
“We referenced games like NieR: Automata as we felt it shared some similar elements with this title,” the directors said. “It’s a story that follows a main protagonist who is both female and non-human, living in a futuristic society on the verge of decline. In particular, we studied how that game achieves a stylish look for the protagonist, as the camera tracks them from behind in a third-person perspective. Also, as a fun fact, the secret spaces called “Realms” that only Devil Summoners can enter are loosely based on the Continental Hotel from the John Wick film series.”
Even with those surprising inspirations set in stone, the directors believe the visual designs wouldn’t be what it is without Artist and Character designer Shiro Miwa. They stated that “the visual style of the overall game is built out to compliment Miwa’s distinct approach to character design, which utilizes stylized textures and shadows.” They also leaned into the “urban nightlife” aesthetic “to match both the demons who lurk in the shadows of this cityscape, as well as the human characters who live covert lives in the underground scene.”
While Soul Hackers 2 takes the Soul Hackers series in a new direction, the developers still did a lot of looking to the past to develop this fresh entry. Hirata in particular seems to see the game as the next significant evolution in his very long history with the Shin Megami Tensei.
“I feel all of my past experiences during my time at Atlus played a part in the development of this game,” Hirata said. He then broke down what he learned from some of the most notable games in his gameography.
“During Shin Megami Tensei III, I was fortunate to be involved in building out the battle system. During Strange Journey, I felt I gained a deeper grasp of the worldview of the SMT series having been involved from the project proposal phase in a role supporting the game’s direction. Radiant Historia marked my directorial debut and was where I gained a deeper appreciation for how interconnected the story, world, and game systems of titles are. In Tokyo Mirage Session #FE, I feel I gained further knowledge regarding the development of HD titles and how to elevate battle systems even further. I feel all the skills and experiences I gained from these past titles were critical during the development of this game.”
While there is a lot Hirata learned from every game he’s worked on, he boiled all of his experiences down into one lesson. “I think the main lesson I learned is the importance of approaching things holistically, always thinking about how to give the best immersive experience to users rather than viewing various aspects of a game, like the battle system or story, as isolated components.”
Soul Hackers 2 follows the trend of other recent Atlus games by taking steps to attract new audiences while still keeping things familiar to the current lovers of the demonic worlds Atlus created over the past several decades. Ishida and Hirata make it clear that this is a big challenge, but time and time again Atlus has shown that it’s up to the task, just like its hardcore fans are ready to take on the most difficult enemies in all their games.
“Although releasing RPG titles in 2022 certainly comes with a certain set of expectations, there’s no doubt in our mind that we feel this game lives up to them,” they concluded.
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