Platform: PS Vita / Genre: Action Role Playing Game
Developer: SCEJ & Marvelous AQL / Publisher: SCEJ
By what measure do human beings weigh the worth of their souls? It’s not an easy question, nor is it a difficult one, but it’s a question that is continually asked with every sacrifice made in Sony’s latest Vita game, Soul Sacrifice. It’s asked when we choose our equipment before missions; it’s asked when we choose to murder or save our hunt, its asked when we are on the brink of death so many times. It’s a dim metaphor of a game, but it is also its greatest strength. While Soul Sacrifice is by no means the killer app the Vita deserves, it is still one of 2013’s most unique games of the year. With that said, is it any good?
This game is grim and dark. From the moment you begin your first mission, Soul Sacrifice never displays an ounce of joyful glee. Sorcerers destined for doom, decaying corpses begging to be saved and a talking book who’s tears will be your savior. Yes, it is a depressing tale, but an enjoyable game nevertheless. Hidden behind the thick layer of lore and story (and I do mean “thick”) is gameplay that is so refreshing, I had to rethink my stance on the hunter genre. Never considered the most popular genre in these parts of the worlds (unless you’re from Japan and reading this), hunting manages to be new and unique. Sony and Comcept have refreshed a genre once said ruled by Capcom. While it is no Monster Hunter, it’s clear Soul Sacrifice intends to make good on providing a similar experience.
Similar does not mean identical though. Soul Sacrifice’s greatest challenge to the Monster Hunter system is in its gameplay. Instead of picking one weapon from an assortment of choices, you are given six slots to dictate your gameplay style. You can fill these slots with the obvious, like swords, projectiles, traps, etc. Or, you can fill the slots with unique spells, like summons, mortars, time freezing and other creative spells. Furthermore, each spell requires some form of sacrifice so no one spell can be abused for too long without suffering some consequence. Some are simply losses in HP, but others are far more taxing. Special spells called ‘black rites’ can cause permanent effects to your sorcerer – their use should limited to emergency situations, as their effects can be a huge detriment to your progress difficulty wise.
General progress is of a different kind as well. Leveling proceeds into two opposite directions: saving or sacrificing. One of two bars will increase with each decision made after defeating an enemy. Saving increases health, sacrificing increases damage. You might ask, “Why wouldn’t you just max out one then the other?” Well, not every choice is equal, as some take away from the other. You’ll have to weigh your options, and quickly. Monsters won’t hesitate to attack while you decide. Then again, killing monsters to initiate this process is something else entirely. While there are definitely your typical weapon spells, equipping offensive spells alone will assuredly guarantee a quick death.
Soul Sacrifice is, to put it simply, extremely challenging. Rushing head first into its progressively difficult narrative will be near impossible if you don’t prepare, and with hundreds of spells to choose from, the choice is never easy. I will say since its Keiji Inafune who designed the game, there are obvious exploits to each enemy. If the famed designer of Mega Man has one known calling card, then it’s exposing enemies to their vices in unique fashion. The old adage, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” comes to mind very often when finding such exploits against a boss. I should mention that there is one rather annoying flaw to gameplay: the camera. More often than not, it’s manageable, but defense becomes an issue when the camera decides to spaz out and locks onto targets off in the distance. Worse than the camera is the AI – I can’t tell you how many times I yelled at my Vita due to the sheer stupidity of my AI companions. They’re as good as meat shields so don’t depend on them for anything other than sacrificial lambs. It sounds awful, and it is, but as the Librom pages kept turning, the less I cared.
Far be it from me to only commend Soul Sacrifice for its fresh gameplay because one of the major standouts from this game is its novel story. The dark and foreboding tale gives purpose to the many missions your sorcerer will undertake. Many developers fail to actually come up with a purpose for hunting – Ragnarok Odyssey comes to mind – but Inafune’s brilliant world is filled with mystery and lore that begs to be uncovered. That said, it’s a story both told and read, not shown. This may be the folly of what is otherwise a rich narrative. Too often does your companion book, the Librom, tease you the juicy details behind the mystery in its pages, but it generally fails to capitalize in the awe of it. As a portal to a world of depravity, your book is everything. While its contents contain hundred of pages of lore, it’s all often read aloud to you, or not at all. This leaves the reader to paint some of the pictures with his imagination. I am more than pleased to use the old noggin, but I can definitely see many players feeling ostracized by having little to no visuals accompanying the story. However, the pages to be read are wonderful. It’s akin to the “Thousand Years of Dreams” found in Lost Odyssey.
For lack of visual tale, the game sports some beautiful worlds on Vita’s OLED screen. It is certainly not the prettiest of games, but it’s quite good. Despite a cover suggesting a rather dark color palette, Soul Sacrifice is actually quite colorful, particularly with the “reds.” I don’t think I have to say why, but while the worlds a colorful and visually appealing, they suffer from receptiveness. Even the monsters inhabiting them are repeated – their colors are simply changed. It’s to be expected in this type of game, but compared to other titles of the same genre, the game suffers from repetition more often than one should have been bothered with.
The faults don’t end there. While I would argue favorably for the amount of customization the six-slot spell system allows for players gameplay wise, character models rarely – if ever – evolve during gameplay. There is little customization in general to make the sorcerer of your dreams, and no amount of sacrificing will change that. Statistical changes will be amounted to leveling up and having the necessary items to equip sigils. These sigils make up for the lack of equipment your sorcerer forgoes in favor of his robe. You can choose from around ten different costumes and even more colors, but even then the customization feels rather weak in this regard.
In regards to online play, I will say this much: it is the ideal way to play. The game is much more engaging with others, and witnessing your body being sacrificed in favor of greater perks can be quite fun actually. Even after you are dead, you can assist player from beyond the grave by tapping on player or enemies to increase attack or lower defense respectively. The sheer amount of content also lends itself to the chaotic maelstrom that is online play. Online is still fun, still challenging, and still rewarding.
Soul Sacrifice is the dark hunting game I always wanted and, for the most part, it delivered on its promises. It boasts a fun gameplay mechanic and a huge narrative bursting with lore. The music score also complements the work itself very well. But the game has many faults, some forgivable, others not. It’s a good game, and a great game in some hands. However, the camera needs work and customization is lacking on an aesthetic level. Furthermore, the story, while engaging, is only good. Without getting into too much detail, it simply achieves making a story in hunting game actually engaging with the player.
Overall, I love the idea, I love the gameplay, but everything else needs more work. It is by far the most unique title in PS Vita portfolio, and you really can’t compare it too much to the Monster Hunter franchise. With a little more work, this title could be a true gem in the eyes of the many, but until then its ma have to be content with an appreciation from the eyes of the few. To be fair though, Inafune’s sequels are typically known to be waves better than their originals and with a sequel already in talks, you can at least take comfort knowing the first game is good while you wait. It is also long…very, very long.
+ Great gameplay with lots of depth
+ Crazy amounts of lore
+ Awesome Multiplayer
– Limited Character Customization
– Camera Problems
– Repetitive Locales and Monsters
– AI Companions are worthless
Jaime aka. Paco is an avid fan of JRPGs and Lakers basketball, both of which are doing somewhat poorly in their current state, however both seem to show positive improvement in the future. If you want to pop him a question, just comment below or reach him on his Twitter @RTBL1990 Be sure to also follow @AnalogAddiction for all your gaming updates!