You'll never read a book like this.
What Soul Sacrifice Got Right
- + Fast and frantic combat
- + Extensive spells and sigil systems
- + Online play is stable and extremely fun
- + Engrossing, melancholy story
What Soul Sacrifice Got Wrong
- - Recycled enemy skins and stages
- - Simpler enemies degrade to button-mashing
The PlayStation Vita is a great handheld console, but fans have had to compromise when it comes to exclusives that make the expensive purchase worth it. The ‘killer apps’ have, admittedly, been extremely limited since the Vita’s launch early 2012, and with staple handheld action-RPG games like Monster Hunter defecting to the 3DS, the need for a killer game of its kind was dire.
Thankfully Soul Sacrifice arrived this month to fill the game void with its intriguing concepts of sacrifice and, ironically, compromise - but is it a title that will resonate with every Vita owner?
The story of Soul Sacrifice throws you into the role of a nameless soul rotting away in a prison cell as a spare source of life for evil sorcerer/all-round bastard Magusar. Only one other man is left, in the same predicament as you, when Magusar comes to collect his prize. While your fellow prison mate doesn’t stand a chance, Magusar leaves you for next time - only to miss an ancient tome lying on the floor of the dead man’s cell, which you’re able to grab.
The book ends up being a sassy sentient being named Librom, whose pages contain the diary of an unknown, powerful sorcerer from another time. Librom presents players with a fairly straightforward choice: read his pages and relive the experiences of the sorcerer detailed in his diary entries to learn their powers and face Magusar with a chance, or wait for Magusar to kill you.
It’s not long before you figure out that morality is fickle in the world of Soul Sacrifice. Humans and animals are constantly under threat from dormant monsters within themselves. As the sorcerer, your role is to destroy these monsters while simultaneously being shunned by the remnants of society for it.
You’re constantly given a choice to save or sacrifice people, but saving a lost or wretched soul from their inevitable fate is almost as cruel and immoral as sacrificing them to become a part of you - one which adds onto your existing self (your right arm, to be precise) to help you become stronger. Every monster you defeat will revert back to their original form, and you’re given the choice of sparing them to gain health and defensive boosts, or consuming their soul to refill and power up your offensive magical abilities. Depending on how you like to play and your inherent bastard-tendencies, your choices will impact the overall gameplay experience.
Rather than the traditional hub world, the journal’s content page acts as the nexus from which you engage in missions, read the lore, customise the “protagonist” within the story you’re experiencing (hairstyle, gender, skin colour, and rainments) and equip and fuse new spells. As you progress, side-missions and online play become available.
"Depending on how you like to play and your inherent bastard-tendencies, your choices will impact the overall gameplay experience."
Soul Sacrifice’s combat-centric gameplay does away with the overt emphasis on equipment that other games in its genre like Monster Hunter are built upon. Instead, its combat structure is centered around a large variety of different spells - melee, ranged, summon, transformation - that can be shaped around your playstyle and customised as you see fit - if you have the right resources.
You can equip up to six of these spell “offerings” to bring into battle, and each of them have a limited use depending on its power and how thoroughly you upgraded it, which makes going into each fight a strategic exercise. Timing and choice is crucial; transforming your right arm into a giant’s arm to bash the crap out of goblins is brutally effective but weighs your character down, while throwing fireball missiles at a massive, agile harpy is safer but less powerful per strike. Elemental vulnerabilities also play a big part in working out which spell is the best to use, and depending on the moral path you take, some elements are stronger than others. Finding new spells and fusing more powerful ones from them in between missions is a fun process, especially if you see the badass end-game level magic your fellow online comrades use if you jumped into Network Play like I did.
The ‘black rites’ are the most powerful magic your character can unleash on the battlefield - but at a cost. These spells are a lot more disturbing than the basic ones on offer, and generally dish out massive damage while crippling your character in other ways. The default black rite available burns your sorcerer's skin to unleash fiery mayhem in a wide-radius, but cuts your defense in half - you have to pay lacrima, a liquid substance gathered from Librom’s tears (weird, I know) to nullify the effects. Be warned: the more you activate black rites, the costlier it will be to rid yourself of them.
Eventually, you’ll gain access to sigils, which you can infuse into your right arm to gain special stat bonuses to further bolster your magical abilities. The effectiveness of a sigil depends on how divine or corrupted your right arm is, which is a result of how many souls you save or sacrifice. Saving souls generally boosts defensive stats and grants health on the field while sacrificing increases raw power and replenishes spell use; while you can maintain a neutral arm, going one way or the other gives better sigil benefits in the long-run.
If for any reason you have a change of heart, you can use lacrima to re-write your sorcerer's actions and re-balance your divine or dark pathway. Lacrim can also be used to replenish exhausted spells, a freedom which renders the game’s concept of risk and sacrifice a little less powerful.
The main campaign and side-missions and their objectives are extremely straightforward, but addictive to play. Each chapter has a recurring story in their pages but the fight itself is simpler consists of clearing areas of enemies and/or taking on grotesque, powerful archfiends - the bigger, badder monsters. You’re graded at the end of each mission and depending on how well you cleared the field, you’re rewarded better spells. Avoiding enemy damage, attacking the weak spot of a boss, and even activating black rites rank you higher - if you aren’t prepared to risk it all, it’s more difficult to reap the benefits, and this is how Soul Sacrifice balances its core concept of compromise.
Librom's maniacal laughter and idle chat is one of the highlights of Soul Sacrifice.
The core gameplay is all-consuming and addictive, with playing around with the multitude of spells on offer, fusing magic, unlocking the range of ridiculous costumes to wear and generally bashing the crap out of monsters alone or online some of the most fun I’ve had in an action-RPG game of its kind. However, Soul Sacrifice does suffer from its own internal compromises. For instance, many of the basic enemies, environments and even archfiends are reskinned to a ridiculous point, and the button-mashing nature of combat against the simpler enemies does get repetitive if you play in longer-bursts.
Thankfully, the online mode of Soul Sacrifice revitalises the combat formula. Playing with three other sorcerers makes battles so much more engaging, and with a surprisingly large online community, finding a match is relatively easy, though I’m not entirely sure of how well a 3G connection performs. Sacrificing player allies is perhaps the funniest thing to do in this game.
For a game centered around combat, Soul Sacrifice contains a surprising amount of lore and backstory that compliments the main story arc told page-to-page, which you flick through using the touchpad, through the distorted narration of the unknown sorcerer. You really feel like you’re in a world on the brink of collapse, with a melancholy narrator constantly challenged by the horrific things they witness and the monsters they have to kill. All of this is enhanced by the chilling soundtrack and unique artstyle shown within Librom's pages.
It’s a shame, then, that the same constant feeling of moral conflict and engagement you gain from the extremely atmospheric, macabre narrative is slightly lost in translation during gameplay. The narrative will sweep you into horrific but thoroughly intriguing trials and moral hardships a sorcerer faces in the world of Soul Sacrifice; but in a gameplay sense, it’s more about what style of battle and powers you prefer than how you truly feel about the boss you have the option of liberating. There are some direct consequences like A.I. allies abandoning you if you choose the moral pathway they disagree with. This, for the most part, works rather well, but the potential to integrate more visible, lasting consequences from your actions was there, just never really taken advantage of.
The Final Verdict
Soul Sacrifice will ravage your time, but you’ll let it do so gladly. It’s a game that is perfectly designed to showcase and take advantage of the Vita’s core strengths: its technical prowess and its portability. With gorgeous visuals, a dark and melancholy artstyle and fast, frantic combat divided into chunks for on-the-go playability, Soul Sacrifice is a great game to take with you on-the-go and play in short or long bursts. It may not be the killer app the Vita needed as its hardcore action-RPG gameplay is definitely not for everyone and its recycled environments, enemy re-skins and repetitive nature of combat can be a downer. However, it’s an undeniably all-round polished and enjoyable original IP that has no doubt found its audience.
Nathan Misa is the senior games writer, reviewer and contributor for MMGN.com and GamesFix, an avid RPG gamer and general nutcase when it comes to anything Japanese. You can hear his ramblings and thoughts here on MMGN, Google+ and Twitter.