I got no soul, but I’m still a soldier…
It’s a motto we all know – ‘no pain, no gain’. Turning things up a notch or eleven though, Soul Sacrifice presents you with a high-stakes alternative; just what would you sacrifice for ultimate power? Turning heads from its first public appearance, initial trailers showed off the extremities of its grim vision; a world where warriors are willing to sacrifice injured comrades, and even their own limbs and organs to help them see through just one more battle. Whilst not quite as bleak, the rather underwhelming debut year of Sony’s PS Vita is now at a close, and as we look to its future we have to ask – is Soul Sacrifice just the kind of game the system needs?
Game: Soul Sacrifice
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe
A flurry of initial scenes line the story up with haste, as you find yourself trapped in a crudely-fashioned prison of bone, awaiting your fate as a sorceror of immense strength and inhumanity – Magusar – prepares himself to steal away your soul, to further fuel his own lifespan. As you sit patiently, you happen across a book just as hideous as your current prospects, with a disfigured face adorning the front cover. It proceeds to introduce itself as Librom, and enthuses you to read the pages within, leading you to learn first-hand of its author, another sorceror, who holds some close bond to Magusar. Vicariously you adopt his place in these tales as read, learning gradually of Magusar, and more prominently of the challenges that a sorcerors’ life entails. With their monstrous power also comes the expectation to sacrifice their foes, this being a rite of passage for those seeking into Avalon, the sorceror’s guild. The process is an understandable difficult one though, which typically finds the sorceror taking upon the burdens of the life they take, further draining their own perspective of self, and sense of humanity.
The scraps of story themselves are reasonably well told, but not especially fleshed out or involving – not helped in any large part by the nature of, and perspective from which it is told. Away from the main narrative there’s also a fair set of side-stories which each detail a new sorceror you encounter; these are again well-written and thought out, but ultimately brief and inconsequential. This sounds much worse than it is; whilst yes, there’s little in the way of plot development to get behind, the world that Soul Sacrifice creates is unpleasant, dark, and yet highly believable – and not a single character breaks this cohesion throughout. Those expecting more traditional RPG fare may leave feeling a little short-changed, but it’s very easy to get caught up in the world that unfolds before you.
Whilst steeped heavily in dark fantasy, Soul Sacrifice does a good job of still managing to keep things visually appealing. Despite their minimalism, Librom’s pages are scattered with some wonderfully emotive sketches which capture the feel of the lore nicely, and carry the story-telling side of things excellently. In battle, there’s a grand range of environments too, meaning not all of your time is spent in the kind of dark and dingy holes that the theme might suggest. Deserts, forests, and water-logged ancient cities – to name but a few – are all there for your perusal. In all likelihood, you’ll be focused enough on battle that their more intricate details will be overlooked.
Whilst again their subtleties might get lost in the heat of the moment, there’s no denying either that each of the larger ‘archfiend’ creatures are worthy of celebration in their design too, with the all-important nuances in their movements and reactions being just clear enough for the trained eye. Smaller characters, such as lesser beasts and your own team of sorcerors, are fairly straightforwards in comparison, but again move with convincing fluidity. From a purely technical standpoint it’s definitely the kind of game that highlights the Vita’s raw muscle too, giving fans of eye candy plenty to coo at without ever proving too crippling to the games’ frame rate.
With a high-profile composer such as Yasunori Mitsuda – he of Xenogears, Chrono Trigger & Cross fame – leading the billing for the audio, it’s of no major surprise that Soul Sacrifice sounds just as good as it looks. As ever, one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to such a score is that it will impress when you are at liberty to listen, but never does it upstage the action for the sake of it – and whilst this certainly applies here, it’s fairly tempting to extend those periods of calm as each stage is unveiled, to just sit back and watch the camera swoop about some more as you enjoy the subtle theatrics of it all. The scope of environments is matched excellently by the pieces contained within, and the page-turning story scenes have their moods distilled neatly through short but punchy musical accompaniments. As the partner for many of the game’s menus, what is perhaps the most oft-heard piece throughout the game is a particularly haunting number, punctuated by what could be crudely described as an otherworldly woman’s intoxicated howls. It may sound awful when written but it’s really not, and in fact feels a remarkably solid fit. The vocal work isn’t quite so unanimously praise-worthy, but still passable. The main concerns here being the efforts being made to characterise a number of the cast coming across as rather polarising – such as the effect used to layer Librom’s voice and create a ‘creepy’ effect, and the distinctly unimpressed and distant tone that Magusar has a habit of adopting.
To look at and listen to you’d be hard pressed to understand why a game like this has found its way to a portable rather than a home console, but it soon becomes quite apparent that the format of the game is designed with its platform clearly in mind. There’s a decent range of ways to invest your time, as different chapters, quests and side-stories unveil themselves within Librom’s pages, but ultimately each boil down to a series of short missions that can be tackled one at a time, and then repeated at your own leisure. As well as gathering items, experience and the like, any number of tasks performed within the mission will be assigned a score value at the end and then totalled to assign you a grade as well as your rewards – meaning that edging your way through by the seat of your pants may be enough for progression, but that the real rewards come from the kind of quick, skillful, and efficient dispatching that comes from practice and planning. These ten-minute sorties do a good job of fitting the game down to match a handheld platform such as this, giving you the chance to dip in and out casually without having to worry about lengthy cut-scenes or drawn-out missions bogging you down.
Setting yourself up for battle comes primarily in the form of choosing your “offerings” – abilities ranging from weapons for both near and far, healing magics, summoning spells, traps, buffs, and so on. Instinctive as it may be to rush for the most powerful, looking at other traits such as number of casts, spell duration, and elemental properties also highlights the pitfalls that come with each. Whilst offerings can be powered up and fused with one another, you are limited to six for any one battle, and over-use will see them lost – and having naught but an evasive roll to fall back on, you can soon find yourself in a spot of bother if you’ve come ill-prepared. As the game progresses you also unlock sigils to engrave upon your arm, granting you stat boosts that you can tinker with in accordance with your preferred play style. One final piece of character tweaking comes in the form of choosing one of the hideous ‘black rites’ – all or nothing spells that typically see you paying a high price in exchange for hugely powerful magic. As an example, the very first of these comes at the price of your own skin, and whilst it will often see a weakened fiend over the edge, it’s not a particularly wise approach from a fight’s offset given the understandable drawback it has on your defensive capabilities.
Whilst some missions do see you gathering items, or putting together memory fragments, the real meat of the game is to be found in the ‘extermination’ missions. Smaller scale versions may have you taking out swathes of regular enemies, but the real fun is to be found when taking on the larger ‘archfiend’ enemies. These creatures are resilient, screen-filling behemoths that are more than capable of taking you out in a couple of swipes given the opportunity. Whittling these down effectively requires careful planning and strategising; coming equipped with the right gear is sensible but really only half the battle, whereas the real knowledge the game imparts is in personal experience, and being able to spot early ‘tells’ of what they’re planning, and most importantly, how to react accordingly. In its simplest form, spot a powerful move coming up, and you can often dart around behind a foe and power up a special attack of your own to interrupt them. Later on these tells become less obvious, the attacks become more complex to avoid, and your foes begin to employ equally tricky counter measures to turn tides back in their favours as they spot what you’re up to as well though, keeping the learning process from ever reaching a close before it gets boring. With these battles being a marathon as opposed to a sprint, it’s welcome that there’s many ways to shape the encounter too; focusing on ‘cursed’ areas of an enemy might restrict its movement or reduce its moveset quicker, whereas attacking outright might lead to more determined and desperate attacks as they approach ever nearer to death.
Arguably the most important mechanic of the game is situated right at the core of every encounter, and comes in the form of how you choose to deal with fallen foes. Approaching the corpse of one offers up two possibilities; save or sacrifice, and whichever you choose sees you fill either a blue ‘life’ experience bar or an equivalent in red that bolsters your ‘magic’ experience. There are other, more immediate implications of these choices (saving grants you a slither of life, sacrificing gives higher point scores), but choosing how you balance these two activities and levels is key in developing your character further. As well as branching out the story for some missions, saving felled archfiends usually leads to the previously transformed sorcerors then joining you as an ally also. Given each of these allies comes with a fixed set of offerings, a good range to choose from is as invaluable as diversity in your own offerings – but similarly to yourself, they have their own sensibilities that must be appeased. Sacrificing too many foes in the presence of a ‘divine’ ally is akin to tucking into a venison steak in the company of a sensitive vegetarian friend, and will often see them leave you in the wake of battle, whereas those expecting a ‘dark’ ally to pick them up after being felled may be in for a rough surprise upon realising that their gleeful dash to your corpse was only to sacrifice you in exchange for powerful and self-serving dark rites.
Given the game’s heavy focus on a non-linear, mission based approach, it’s unsurprising that mileage is going to vary greatly from one player to the next. Whilst early stages might seem almost too simplistic, it’s not long before they begin to tax you with indiscriminately. The range of side quests is almost overwhelming at first, and it’s rare that you will ever reach a sticking point with no-where else to focus your energies. Cementing this approach in at the very core, from very early on the game’s final encounter is dangled before you like the proverbial carrot to a horse – making it available to trial at any time, yet ill recommended until you’ve honed your skills and amassed sufficient experience. It’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself in such a position before 20 or so hours of play, and even still it’s very much a matter of earning the game’s conclusion rather than it simply being yours for the taking after a given number of hours.
Beyond this there are still countless more trials to wade through, with challenges ramping even further up as you explore each and every of Librom’s pages. Re-visiting old challenges is still plenty enjoyable too, with the ability to better your results and yield new rewards being a big driver in the game’s prolonged enjoyment. It’s unfortunate, but the most testing aspect of the game is in not letting the repetitive nature grind you down – it’s not far into the game before archfiends begin to be re-used, albeit in new environments and with newly heightened vitality, and in some cases these monsters are even doubled up. Whilst some will find no qualms with this approach, those with the expectations for a boss to appear but once may find a great deal of frustration to re-visit so many iterations of the same encounters. The true upper echelons of the game are almost certainly designed with multiplayer in mind, and whilst at the time of review this service is not available for the finished game, the generous sampler offered up by the demo has given a fairly positive indication of how well online play should work, leaving it in your own hands to provide a suitably co-operative team to band together.
Whilst project director Keiji Inafune has previously had plenty of damning words to say about the state of game development in Japan, there’s no hiding that Soul Sacrifice has more than a hint of Capcom’s ‘Monster Hunter’ about it, with a heavy focus on character development through grinding, and personal development through learning how best to manage the game’s array of large-scale boss battles. Whilst unlikely to unseat it from atop the throne of popular opinion, it does do a wonderful job of bundling up what’s great about this line of action RPGs into a well presented, sensibly contained, and accessible package. It may not lead the public at large flocking to the Vita, but it’s certainly one of the best reasons to own the system so far.