The dark new action-RPG from Megaman creator Keiji Inafune is a gripping, if sometimes repetitive, PS Vita game.
There’s a lot to love about Soul Sacrifice, the new PlayStation Vita exclusive from the creator of Megaman, Keiji Inafune.
The game is basically a third-person magic infused monster hunting game that takes place in a series of Phantom Quests. These quests are housed in sprawling arena-style levels, where you either take on a pack of small monsters or one (or two) very big monsters. Sometimes you do this solo, other times you enlist the aid of AI allies. Or, if you’re feeling social, you can tackle the quests in either ad hoc or online co-op.
Combat is fast and ferocious, a blur of magical powers that range from quick melee hack-and-slash powers to huge, magical arrows and giant stone fists plunging out of the earth, sending foes high into the sky. Mechanically, the combat is actually pretty deep.
Counter-attacks have to be timed, but pack a huge punch and lots of damage. There’s no jumping, but your dodge is extremely useful. The left shoulder button can be used to reorrient your POV, but when you hold it down you lock on to an enemy—which is essential for survival, and basically required if you ever want to hit anybody outside of nose-to-nose melee.
There’s no stamina bar, so you can run and punch and dodge to your heart’s content.
However, your various powers will slowly run out depending on how much you’ve boosted them in the character screen between matches. You can fill these powers up at special locations in each map, but if you use any power all the way you’ll lose it for the match (and until you spend “lacrima” to replenish it.)
The combat is good, solid, and varied enough to stay interesting despite some of the problems the game does have with repetitiveness. When it comes to the actual fights, your sorcerer can be a melee brawler or a ranged specialist or a combination of all sorts of different powers, from healing magic to poisonous fists.
You have two sets of three powers mapped to the square, triangle, and circle buttons on the Vita. This means you can choose up to six powers, mixing and matching from long, mid, and close range combat powers as well as various defensive amulets, shields, and special moves. On top of that there’s a whole suite of special powers that can do anything from unleashing a Harpy’s shriek to mimicking the powers of your allies.
In other words, there’s a great deal of depth when it comes to simply choosing which powers you’ll use in any given combat.
The Black Magic of Character Customization
This is made even more complex (and rewarding) when you realize that many enemies have certain vulnerabilities—maybe they can’t withstand ice magic, or perhaps fire. You don’t know until you try. Furthermore, some enemies fly, or at least spend a great deal of time skyward, making it important to balance out your armament with some ranged weapons.
You can combine these Offerings to boost their power or fuse them together to make new Offerings that are even more powerful.
On top of all these powers that form the bread and butter of the game’s combat are a small selection of Black Rites. These are super-powers, essentially, which can be used once in a stage and then have to be repurchased with the game’s bizarre currency. Once used, however, the Black Rite will penalize your character until it’s repurchased. This is because in order to use a Black Rite, you have to sacrifice a part of your body.
The starting Black Rite may help you bring down that first tricky boss, but you’ll see your fire defenses halved until you buy it back.
Powers and Black Rites make up two of the three major components of combat prowess in the game.
You also have a special sorcerous right arm. It’s basically possessed, and you can carve different sigils you learn into it all of which give you passive buffs to various defenses or attacks depending on the composition of your character. These sometimes come at a cost as well. The game is called Soul Sacrifice for a reason, after all.
As you play, you unlock new arms and new types of arm (Dark, Divine, etc.) depending on the quests you play and the choices you make.
When you kill something in Soul Sacrifice you’re given the option to Save or Sacrifice. On the most basic level this can either boost your magical attack—through sacrifice—or your life and defense—through saving. You have a total combined max level of 99, so you can either balance that out between both defense and offense, or focus on one or the other. This allows for some build variety on top of all the afore-mentioned customizations.
It goes much deeper than this, however.
Depending on whether you save or sacrifice a big monster, various story paths open up. Different rewards for completing a mission are doled out. Bits of information in the game’s story are withheld or divulged. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and can only continue down a given path by sacrificing (or not sacrificing) something.
This can be rewritten, however, by playing the mission over again or playing it in multiplayer, so while the choice has a gameplay consequence, that consequence isn’t permanent.
Permanence really isn’t a thing in Soul Sacrifice at all. You can change your gender at any point, or your hair color, or skin color, or raiment (new outfits are unlocked as you go also.)
The entire game is built around digging up the memories and stories of an evil sorcerer who has imprisoned you by reading through his journal, the Librom, a grotesque talking book from whence you gather the precious “lacrima” currency by wiping the tears from its one, ugly eye.
You follow the story of this mysterious sorcerer as he becomes a monster hunter for a society of somewhat insane sorcerers. The whole thing is voiced over beautifully, and there’s something really satisfying about the book itself, how everything is divided into chapters, and some bits are clouded from memory.
It’s not that the story itself is terribly deep, but it’s told beautifully. The whole thing is really bizarre, though I won’t spoil it here. (I may discuss at greater and more spoiler-filled length in a future post, however.)
As much as I enjoy both the game’s fast-paced combat and its story, both point to two of the major problems with Soul Sacrifice.
Levels in Soul Sacrifice are flat. They’re also boring and repetitive. While each area looks neat on the surface, it’s apparent almost instantly that surface is all there is.
There are no stair cases to run up, no tunnels to run under, and no hills to climb. You can’t enter buildings or attack foes from rooftops. Each level is basically an arena, so you don’t have any secrets to unlock or paths to make your way along (there are paths, but they’re really just arenas with paths linking hubs together.)
In an ideal world, this whole arena model would be saved for multiplayer only, or as a special kind of side mission. The story and bulk of the side quests would be built using actual levels, in which you progressed through waves of enemies until you reached the big monsters. This would be more satisfying, as you could add choice to how each level was approached and more secrets to unearth.
As it stands you use your Mind’s Eye power to find special weapons, soul shards, and so forth. It’s a fine mechanic, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Likewise, the reward system which doles out new (and old) powers based on how well you complete each mission, is a fine way to reward excellent play but leaves little room for exploration. Various criteria, such as how quickly you finish the level, whether you employ counters, and how much damage you sustain will determine how well you score each mission. This is all well and good, but it would be more satisfying to explore actually fleshed-out levels and be rewarded for doing so.
Many of the big monsters in the game are awesome, and even many of the smaller monsters. Orcs are wonderful—rather than the goblinoid race we’re accustomed to, they’re basically huge slugs. When you kill one, you realize it was just a cat, which you can then sacrifice or save depending on what you’re looking for in your build.
Goblins are dog-like beasts, for lack of a better description, that look nothing like what you’d imagine a goblin would be. They’ve been transformed into monsters from rats. The originality here is marvelous. But it gets less marvelous when you fight the same basic orcs and goblins over and over again. The only thing that changes is their damage and resistances.
Big monsters are better, and some of them are simply incredible. Massive slimes are made of gold and treasure, others of food. The whole Seven Deadly Sins thing is present in these distorted sorcerers who fell to greed or gluttony. They have more varied attacks, too. The Harpy can fly and has a powerful swooping dive move. The Jack-O-Lanterns turn into huge fiery boulders. These are great boss-type monsters whose challenge lies in more than just damage soak. They get better and better as the game progresses.
But even these beasts are recycled. In a game with so many flavors of power and such depth of customization, it’s a huge shame that the monsters aren’t more varied as well.
Between repetitive levels and bad guys, the game falters in a pretty big way. Combat is still great, but it could be so much better freed from the confines of these arenas.
These limitations are likely the limits imposed by budget, by the risk of introducing a new IP to a handheld system that’s not flourishing. Nor are they deal-breakers for me. On a Buy/Hold/Sell scale, I give Soul Sacrifice a resounding “Buy.” It’s fun enough to make its shortcomings less important, though certainly not to overlook them entirely.
Inafune has said of the game: “My own life story has been the inspiration of this game. I was put in a lot of situations where I had to make tough decisions. I learned that things don’t go well just because you want to be famous or rich or a better person. You have to constantly think what you’re willing to give up or sacrifice to make things happen.” I think that’s a pretty cool way to look at the game and what it means, and I definitely want to discuss all of it more.
I also want to talk about the game’s multiplayer, comparisons to Monster Hunter, and whether it’s the Killer App in an extended discussion on the game. That piece is already in the works, so please stay tuned, and let me know what you think of the game down in the comments.
Platform: PS Vita
Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment
Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment, SCE Studios Japan
Released: April 30th, 2013