As soon as I saw the first footage of Soul Sacrifice, my eyes lit up. A Monster Hunter-like, with a Dark Souls vibe, created by the legendary Keiji Inafune? On paper, it sounded like one of the best ideas of all time.
Of course, not every idea actually plays out how it should, and some amazing concepts end up in the bargain bin of life, forever doomed to “woulda coulda shoulda.” Soul Sacrifice is not one of those throwaway games.
In a rather unique setup, the game starts with the player character (a slave) poised to be sacrificed in the name of a powerful sorcerer. Suddenly, in your hellish prison as you await your death, a magical book appears, granting you the ability to relive past memories of sorcerers of old, and augment and awaken your own innate power in the process. There’s just one catch — not all of the book is completed as it takes place partially in your subconscious, and the book isn’t just a book — it’s a talking demon tome. A wisecracking, ornery demon tome that doesn’t take crap from anyone. If you’re getting a Suda 51 vibe from this, that’s a good sign, as it totally feels like Shadow of the Damned‘s demon buddy setup.
As you read through the book, you’ll progress through the game using a standard chapter system, in a fairly linear manner. Chapters have set enemies in them and take place in enclosed arenas, like a scaled down Monster Hunter — to be clear it’s not an open world game. The cool thing about the game is that even though you’ll be reliving past memories, you’ll actually forge your own fate through various choices in different scenarios, and you’ll appear as your own customized character. So while the levels themselves are presented in a linear fashion, the way the story is told is fairly dynamic.
The voicework and style reminded me a lot of Dark Souls from an aesthetic standpoint, and some of the stories, like some of the characters in the Souls series, can get pretty grotesque. To be clear, this game is not for the faint of heart, as there’s a lot of fairly violent themes, both in terms of the core gameplay and the world itself. Personally, I found it refreshing, and the gothic theme, like the Souls games, really adds to the package here without feeling like a cliche.
You’ll do combat against your demonic foes entirely with spells (called “offerings”), that all have a finite amount of casting to them. It took me over an hour to get used to how they work, as three spells are mapped out to the Square, Triangle, and Circle buttons, with the ability to map three more to a list triggered by pressing the right shoulder button on the Vita. There’s also a lock-on system (which can be toggled to either holding down or tapping the button), and you can hold down X to sprint, or double tap to dodge. As you can see, most of the action-genre staples are alive and well in Soul Sacrifice, and they work quite well, with minimal (if any at all) shoehorned touch screen controls.
Players will be experimenting with builds for weeks on end before they find their favorites, and even then, there’s a lot of potential for experimentation. If it wasn’t so easy to adjust everything I’d call it complicated, but somehow it manages to present itself in a fairly simple manner despite the depth. Combat itself is fast and frenetic, as dodging, sprinting, and the variety of spells help keep things action oriented. Although the character customizations aren’t as deep as other games, mostly allowing you the simple choice of a color scheme, head, and an option for a hood, they get the job done and allow for a decent variety, to the point where most of the people you play online will look at least a little unique.
In combat, like Dante’s Inferno, you can choose to save or sacrifice enemies, which levels up your respective affinity for each choice, labeled as blue and red meters respectively. Every single enemy in the game gives you this choice, as do boss characters, the latter of which impact your skills the most. At first glance, outside of the boss fights it’s not the deepest addition, but it’s not an annoying one in the slightest, and could easily become more important as the game goes on. Online play is very interesting, as you can choose to either save fallen allies at the cost of half your health, or sacrifice them to launch a powerful spell.
One thing I was truly surprised to see was that the game was packed with lore. I’m talking each major boss has a freaking fairy tale story to read, like the gluttonous Harpy who was once a noble, or a powerful general that sank into a bloodlust. You’ll also see new stories forged along the way, as you literally fill in the pages of the tome yourself through your actions. It’s a really cool way to tell a story, and given that the lore itself is utterly optional, it lets players experience as little or as much of the world as they like, which should speak to action and RPG fans alike.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Soul Sacrifice without an actual sacrifice, which is where the super abilities come into play. Each part of the body will have a super associated with it. If you choose to use this super in battle (through an unmistakable icon that must be tapped), you will pay a price that carries on permanently, unless you spend some of the games currency (earned by oddly wiping off tears from the demon book’s eye after completing levels) to remove it. For instance, the fire ability actually burns away some of your skin, decreasing your defense by half your base stat. It’s a very cool way to balance devastating attacks and prevent players from spamming them, as well as add to the theme of the game.
If I had one major complaint with combat, it would be the odd decision to allow your partner’s knockdown abilities affect your player character. For the first thirty minutes I was utterly confused as to why I was being knocked down by a surprise ability when I didn’t see any enemies in sight capable of launching it. Come to find out, it was actually my AI partner that was doing it. Even if it doesn’t damage you in any way, it’s still an odd decision.
It can be countered by having a real life partner who avoids using this tactic while you’re near, or simply attacking a different foe than the AI, but it’s still a puzzling and minor annoyance to say the least. What I do take major issue with is the fact that repetition does begin to set in rather quickly. The setup is always the same — a veiled story starts off each chapter, then you fight some monster in an arena battle. The portability of the game vastly increases your propensity to fire it up, knowing that you can just do a few quick battles at a time.
Soul Sacrifice could have stood to have a bit more direction, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best games on the Vita right now. Inafune had a great idea, ran with it, and backed it up with a solid combat system to boot. I’d be very interested in seeing a more refined Soul Sacrifice 2, but in the meantime, action fans can get their fix on the go.
This review is based on a physical copy of Soul Sacrifice for the PlayStation Vita.