Can We Offer This Up for a Better Game?
HIGH Great concept and wonderfully dark tone.
LOW Grinding, grinding, grinding, grinding.
WTF Why are so many weapons painfully laggy and slow?
Soul Sacrifice has been heavily anticipated as an important Vita game from the man known for Mega Man, Keiji Inafune, and it's a big departure from his work on Capcom's cheerful blue bomber. It's an action-role-playing game with pretensions of getting a toehold in the Monster Hunter genre, and claims to challenge players with the concept of sacrificing things held dear in exchange for greater power. Unfortunately, while its premise is a novel one, I don't think anyone will look back on it in twenty years as a key work from this notable creator.
After a brief opening cut-scene, the player becomes a prisoner about to be killed by an evil sorcerer. While scrabbling through their cage looking for an escape, he or she finds a living book bound in flesh and adorned with a horrific face. This tome is the diary of someone close to the sorcerer. It's suggested that by reading its pages, the prisoner can learn power and ultimately free themselves.
From that point, the player can jump back and forth between menus and modes in the "book" by using their finger to turn virtual pages on the Vita's touchscreen—one page lists story quests, another is a table of contents, and so forth. Players can undertake any quest that's available, and a short text passage with creepy voiceovers precedes each battle. The written events are then re-enacted (and possibly rewritten) via third-person, real-time action in small, single-room zones.
Although couching the game as a "diary" is quite clever, Soul Sacrifice stumbles immediately after this intro and keeps on rolling downhill before ending up in a heap of apathy and disappointment. The first problem is that the tutorials fail to do the job, and too much goes unexplained exactly when the most questions arise—what is "renewing" on the battlefield? What are all these Soul Shards to be picked up? Upon completing the opening section, the game vomits a second pile of unintuitive systems and what seems like a hundred unexpected "Sigils" upon the player in a warm gush. It's surprising how clumsily it's all handled.
I came to grips with things shortly afterward, and what Soul Sacrifice boils down to is the player selecting six different abilities prior to each bite-sized battle. These things can range from swords, shields, healing, ranged attacks, and so forth, and can only be used a certain number of times before they're expended. Once battle begins, players run around tiny, enclosed environments generally populated with simple ratlike creatures, tubby cats, and skull-faced birds in different elemental varieties. It's like being trapped in a terrarium built for small-pet deathmatch.
The action is fast, chaotic, sloppy and un-tuned. Using projectile weapons works well, but dodging doesn't always avoid enemy attacks and the melee is simple button-mashing. Strangely, for a game which moves so swiftly, I was surprised that many of the weapons force the player to stand still while charging up, or have some other pause or delay in use. These slower powers left me open for attack, so only a small fraction of the arsenal was of value to me.
After each battle, players are rated on their performance and will earn new equipment based on how they did. By taking less damage and ending fights faster, more equipment is awarded. It seems like it a solid foundation for a handheld game, but the poor quality of Soul Sacrifice's combat offers few thrills, and there's little incentive to earn more of this ineffectual, underpowered stuff. Fight the same dull battle to get another copy of a spell I won't use? No thanks.
Even worse, the developers re-use assets a ridiculous number of times. Facing the same cats and rats in the same levels over and over again turns stultifyingly boring within the first few hours of play. Occasionally, a large boss monster appears to add a bit of freshness, but they soon start to repeat as well.
The issue of repetition aside, it's unfortunate that Soul Sacrifice seems to only have two difficulties—cakewalk and OMG. The trash mobs are trash mobs, and the bosses are damage sponges capable of knocking the player out in just a few attacks. The difficulty of these foes is obviously geared towards stopping players until they grind for while, but given how shallow and uninvolving the game is, this wasn't a great choice.
So where does the sacrificing come in? It's a fair question, and to be frank, the answer is a letdown—the implementation of the concept isn't nearly as interesting as it should be.
In the middle of battle, downed enemies can be "saved"or "sacrificed" to increase the character's defense or attack, respectively. It's little more than pressing a button while standing over a defeated character, and I never noticed much improvement either way. Also, I mentioned earlier that the player's equipment has a limited number of uses. If it's completely spent during a fight, then that item breaks. However, breakage is a minor annoyance since it's easy to avoid, and just as easy to repair a thing if it falls apart.
So where's the substantial sacrificing? It happens when the player uses a super-powered attack called a Black Rite, or when the player (or another character) dies.
The Black Rites are spells that do a chunk of damage in exchange for a persistent penalty to the player. There are apparently five in total, but I only ever had one which immolated my skin and gave me a 50% reduction in defense. I can't say that I was impressed, though. It usually failed to kill my opponent, and undoing the penalty is possible by using limited resources provided for just that purpose. Shouldn't sacrificing something carry heavier consequences?
Player sacrifice is similarly unimpressive. When an ally dies, they can be used to unleash a powerful attack spell, which again, usually failed to kill my opponent. Even worse, some questlines can't be completed if characters are sacrificed, meaning that the player must undo that death and re-try for different results. Just like the prior examples, this one doesn't carry any weight. It's also possible for the player themselves to be sacrificed, which then segues into a mini-game to lower defense or increase attack of those left on the field, but I have no idea what happens if remaining allies win—friendly AI is incompetent at best, and every time my character was offered up, defeat followed shortly afterwards.
Although there are some interesting ideas here and the Vita could benefit from a title like Soul Sacrifice, everything rides on how good the core game is, and to me, it just doesn't hold up. The combat system isn't complex or interesting enough, there's little drive to endlessly grind mobs to survive the bosses, and I never felt any sense of investment or urge to advance. Without something meatier hooking me in, Soul Sacrifice asks players to give up a lot of time and effort for very little in exchange, and that's one bargain I'm not willing to make.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Vita. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode (between two characters) and the game was not completed. Two hours were spent in multiplayer mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, suggestive themes, and violence. Many of cut-scenes and interstitials are quite dark in tone and akin to reading a horror novel. It's not over the top, but probably inappropriate for young players. The violence in the game is standard stuff featuring projectiles and melee weapons. It's not particularly graphic or gory in terms of what the player actually does, although the game's imagery is heavy on the macabre.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There shouldn't be any issue here. I spent most of the time playing this game with the sound completely off, and had no issues. Voiceovers are accompanied with basic subtitles, and I found no auditory cues that were necessary for gameplay. As far as I can tell, it's accessible.