Paradigm-X awaits
   In the video game market of Japan, there are certain RPG series that have withstood the test of time, beginning with humble roots on Nintendo's Famicom and persisting to exist (and sell like hotcakes) on the 32 bit platforms of this day and age. They have spawned unprecedented numbers of sequels and spin-offs. Anyone with even a passing interest in the RPG genre knows them well: Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest. Megami Tensei.

   ...Megami Tensei?

   Well, maybe not anyone. In fact, you have to be a pretty hard core RPG fan to know much about Megami Tensei (meaning "Reincarnation of the Goddess"), even though it easily matches up with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest in terms of its proliferation over the years; the series has seven main releases, the latest of which is Soul Hackers, under its belt. So why haven't you heard much, if anything, about it? Unfortunately, the U.S. has had only the briefest of glimpses into Megami Tensei with the December '96 Playstation release of Persona, one of nine series gaidens (side stories).

   Megami Tensei installments traditionally share a number of aspects that distinguish them from the rest of the pack, including modern settings, first person battle and dungeon engines, the conversing with and recruiting of enemies, and a dark, somber, eerily supernatural atmosphere. Soul Hackers is no exception to this tradition.

Tenkai City

   Instead of taking place in an exotic medieval fiefdom or some blatantly heterogeneous world of high technology and swordplay, the story unravels in the post-modern cityscape of Tenkai, where government run computer networking has been thoroughly established as an indispensible cog of society. Where there's a network, there are hackers, however, and Tenkai City's huge network inevitably harbors a steadily growing hacker sub-culture. The story gets underway when the main character, a hacker himself, unwittingly stumbles upon a mysterious virtual city, Paradigm-X, during an innocent hacking session. It's not long afterwards that he discovers and vows to oppose Paradigm-X's function: the harvesting of human souls.

A mysterious maze

   The fundamentals of Soul Hackers' gameplay will be familiar to Persona veterans. The main "map" screen is a sweeping overhead view of Tenkai City, from which the player selects a specific vicinity to explore in depth. Areas of exploration where random battles occur, such as buildings, dungeons, etc., are fully three dimensional and navigated from a first person perspective. While some of these areas are straightforward and orderly, many others are more winding and convoluted than a hedge maze. Game generated maps that reveal the twists and turns in your immediate vicinity in addition to keeping track of all the territory you've covered make the first person exploration manageable.

   Battles are turn-based and also carried out from a first person perspective, not unlike those of Dragon Quest. That's where the similarities end, however. When you encounter enemies, you don't necessarily have to fight them -- why not stop to chat? Carrying on a dialogue with your foes can elicit a number of responses. You can frighten them enough that they'll flee rather than fight, enrapture them and make them easy targets to pick off, anger them and have to face their unbridled wrath, or pique their interest and persuade them to give you money or items. If your tongue is sweet enough, you'll even be able to get up to four enemies to join your cause. Additionally, you'll also once again be able to create personas for the main characters. (Personas are supernatural alter egos that inhabit a character and can assist in battle, analogous to the summoned monsters of Final Fantasy.)

The oddly named

   In addition to maintaining tradition, Soul Hackers also features some innovation. The creation of personas, instead of being limited to designated portions of dungeons (referred to as the Velvet Room in Persona), can take place anywhere thanks to a futuristic contraption called Gump. The useful Pause Function System allows the player to save, pause, or cancel the gameplay at any point in the game. The intriguing Vision Quest system allows you (the main character) to possess another character by entering his or her subconcious, during which time any dialogue or actions carried out can actually affect the branching of the storyline!

   Released on the Saturn in Japan, Soul Hackers initally looked to be another great RPG destined to never make it to the U.S. This past October, however, Atlus decided to test the waters of the market for the game by requesting feedback from gamers regarding a potential port to the PlayStation and U.S. release. The response Atlus received proved strong enough to prompt them to go through with their proposition. The PlayStation port is still not guaranteed, however, as Atlus is currently negotiating with Sony for approval.

   On November 28th, Atlus announced some of the improvements and new features of the title that will come with its potential port to the PlayStation. These include higher quality 3D graphics, more frames of animation for characters and their personas, more enemies (and therefore more potential persona combinations), new mini-games, and compatibility with the PocketStation.

   The G.I.A. remains cautiously optimistic regarding Soul Hackers' U.S. appearance. To assist in the release of the first mainstream Megami Tensei title on this side of the globe, we urge that you write to Sony in support of Soul Hackers. The sound of one voice is meager, but the rumble of thousands demands to be heard.

Preview by Brian Maniscalco, GIA
Soul Hackers
Developer Atlus / R&D One
Publisher Atlus
Genre Traditional RPG
Medium CD (2)
Platform PlayStation / Saturn
Release Date  04.08.99 (PSX)
Soul Hackers scores big
Introduction movie / 9 PocketStation screens
Terminal artwork
PlayStation box packaging / magazine ad