Soul Sacrifice is a game of patience. It’s a brutal beast, and will very likely have you tearing your hair out in frustration on multiple occasions. Still interested? Good, because concurrently it’s also one of the most rewarding action-RPGs you’ll ever play, and a must-needed addition to the PlayStation Vita’s software library. The brainchild of Keiji Inafune, who is perhaps best known as the creator of the Mega Man series and a former Capcom developer, Soul Sacrifice is also about choice and consequence, and the decisions you make will impact heavily on your character – and conscious, for that matter – as you progress through its 25+ hour campaign.
From the outset, you’re very much plonked into the deep end. The world has crumbled, an all-powerful sorcerer is laying waste to the remnants of humanity, and you're next. Fortunately, you are saved from a grisly end by a demonic book named Librom, you actually spend most of the game locked in a cage. However, the talkative tome – who sports some gnarly features yet speaks incongruously in a cheeky English accent – is your key to progression, as you relive memories stored in his pages from other sorcerers. Librom also provides useful insight and even rewards you with Lacrima (tears) that acts as the game’s currency as you progress (more on that later). Each ‘chapter’ if you like acts as a mission, with the core story being the main focus, but there’s also side-missions to take part in to facilitate the levelling-up process.
After customizing your character with in a very rudimentary menu, the real meat of the game becomes apparent: sorcerers, combat and levelling up. At its nucleus, Soul Sacrifice is very much a grind-heavy hack-‘n-slash, though don’t let the first few battles fool you: this is a deceptive little minx, and that will become clear very quickly. You’ll battle your way through hordes of varied, grotesque monsters and face off against some of the most aesthetically-pleasing boss creatures that I’ve personally clapped eyes on this generation. One thing I should point out though is that newcomers to this particular style of game may be put off by the abundance of info that’s thrown at you as you start up. I took a while to acquaint myself with the fundamentals of the Soul Sacrifice – this definitely isn’t a game that possesses an easy learning curve.
The meat-and-potatoes of Soul Sacrifice’s combat are items known as ‘offerings.’ In layman’s terms, this is basically equipment you give your character – six in total – which can range from offensive, defensive and status-fuelled trinkets. Offerings are mapped to square, triangle and circle, allowing you to intuitively switch between them – hitting R will give you access to the other three offerings, making for a total of six. However, there’s a catch – each item can only be used a certain time before they are depleted. Whether you’re wielding a massive ice-sword, creating a thunder-fused fist from below ground or chomping down on healing fruit, each item must be replenished (or charged) if you don’t want to lose them outright. If you do, then you’ll have to part with some of Librom’s tears to get them back. Items can also be fused to increase their potency providing you have more than one of them in your inventory, or combined to create new powers.
As a result, battles in Soul Sacrifice become multi-layered and strategic affairs, despite on the surface seemingly like your run-of-the-mill slash-‘em-up. And to be fair, the basic combat does generally involve hammering away at the attack button. Still, gamers will be perennially concerned with not only dishing out damage to your opponent(s), but also preserving your own health and offerings. Though this may seem frustrating, it really keeps things feeling fresh, and I took great pleasure in juggling responsibilities, switching up offerings as they began to run dry, and adapting to new tactics. Offerings themselves are pretty diverse and appeal to a variety of playing styles, too. I preferred getting up close and personal, so I used some meaty power attacks; others, however, may wish to attack from a distance.
Bosses really accentuate the tactical nature of combat and really act to keep you on your toes. These hulking creatures can absorb huge amounts of damage, and if my experience is anything to go by, will kick your arse a good few times before you are powerful enough to defeat them. Yes, that’s a rather polite way of saying ‘be prepared for some hardcore grinding.’ Soul Sacrifice is a tough bugger, so you’ll have to level up; and this is where the game’s unique, eponymous mechanic comes into play. Enemies – and even your partner – can be sacrificed or saved when near death. Whichever you decide on will fill up a specific meter: saving (blue) results in life/defence EXP, while sacrificing (red) fuels your magic EXP. As you might expect, saving also restores some health, while sacrificing recharges your offerings -- again creating a balance that must be addressed during combat to keep you both alive and with functional weapons. Bosses take on an even more significant role, as you can save their human form to add to your growing list of allies; sacrifice them though, and you'll receive a huge magic boost.
It’s up to you which one you can grow more, but the choice shouldn't be arbitrary; you can easily shoot yourself in the foot later on by focusing too much on magic and thus leaving your character a whelp in terms of defence and maximum health. I managed things carefully and created a decent balance, which seemed to pay off in the long run. Make no mistake though: you will come across groups of foes or bosses that will prove too powerful for you to defeat until you strength your character through copious – and sometimes arduous – amounts of levelling. Grinding isn’t too bad though, as missions are bite-sized brawls that don’t take too long to complete, and are always kept fresh thanks to the different offerings available to you.
That’s just the tip of the sacrificial iceberg, though. Black Rights allow you to literally sacrifice body parts when you find yourself in a bit of a pickle, unleashing devastating attacks in the process. Do this though, and you’ll pay a price: for example, sacrifice your skin and you’ll suffer severe burns reducing your defence by half. You can only reverse the effects by coughing up yet more tears. Indeed, Black Rights succinctly highlights Soul Sacrifice’s emphasis on choice and forward-thinking; I was always mindful of the repercussions of executing Black Rights, after I once succumbed to temptation and ended up with a severely weakened character for several missions due to lack of Lacrima. It’s a great mechanic, and unlike so many games that are willing to endow you with endless power, it really makes you think carefully about what to employ in combat – everything comes at a price, and you need to be mindful of that. On the flip side, Black Rights net you some sweet end-of-mission-points – you’re graded based on performance - and can really turn the tide of battle when you most need it.
Your character’s right arm is the source of his/her power, as it houses the very souls of the victims you sacrifice. You can also equip Sigils along your forearm for various stat boosts, such as nullifying the effects of elemental attacks to increasing your overall health and defence. There’s dozens of Sigils on offer, thus opening the door to plenty of combinations that can adapt to your preferred playing style. In fact, you are encouraged to tinker with combinations to find the best combination for specific missions. Your fellow sorcerers also function similarly, though depending on their alignment they may have no compunction in sacrificing you despite your dying pleas to be saved -- much to my annoyance during a battle. Others may show more empathy to your situation, however. They’re definitely an asset in battle in terms of attack, and there’s been a few times when my partner has landed the final blow against a boss. Unfortunately, the A.I. leaves a lot to be desired, as sorcerers seemingly have no awareness of self-preservation, blindingly charging into the enemy even when they are on the rampage and getting battered in the process.
As mentioned, your magic-wielding mates can also be sacrificed for the cause. This all interweaves neatly with the concept of choice and consequence; sure, you can sacrifice a partner for a mega-power attack, but you’ll lose them as an alley. Save them, and you can not only take advantage of them for the remainder of the battle, but they’ll be added to your list of partners. Avalon Pacts see you picking your own partner, so the more you save in battle, the more you’ll have to back you up. Of course, the main quest is all about bulking up your character for the inevitable confrontation with the Magusar, the psychotic sorcerer who is capable of vanquishing all but the most powerful of player characters. If that wasn’t enough to keep you busy, the game also has plenty of reading material in the shape of the ‘Lore’ chapter, letting you bone up on all the game’s creatures. The impact of your choices are somewhat dampened by the ability to reverse sacrifices via the use of Lacrima – something which can also use to replenish lost offerings. However, this is only applicable when you have enough of Librom’s tears to effectively rewrite history; sure, your decisions may not have irrevocable consequences, but it can certainly screw you over for a good while.
Visually, Soul Sacrifice isn’t the most technically impressive game on PS Vita, but that doesn’t matter when the art direction is positively scrumptious. The locations, ranging from wind-swept valleys, baking deserts and lush forests, exude fantasy appeal, although sadly there’s not enough of them to go around. Soul Sacrifice’s demonic foes suffer from the same issue, offering equal eye-candy, both unique and grotesque in their appearance, while lacking variety. Standard foes range from Goblins, Orcs and Spiders while the bosses – including a Cyclops, Harpy, Slime, Jack-O-Lantern – are beautifully presented and easily the star of the show. Voice acting is suitably dark and broody, particularly during the intro and outro of each mission, where most of the game’s exposition takes place. Librom is unequivocally the star of the show, delivering his lines with a welcome level of sarcasm, wit and humour – and strike contrast to the grim undertone that infests the campaign. Try pushing him over with your finger via the touchscreen – it’s worth it.
Obviously, there's online play to consider, although lamentably the servers were not functional during my time with the pre-release digital copy.
Addictive, rewarding and insanely tough, Soul Sacrifice is the quintessential manifestation of a hardcore game. The action is fast, frantic, and the combat and levelling system deep, with plenty to tinker with. Furthermore, the fact your actions have consequences lends the game ample strategy. Like all good grinders though, it can indulge in repetitiveness now and then, though this unpleasant side effect is somewhat lessened by the arrival of fresh allies and weapons. PS Vita has been after a that elusive killer title for some time now, and while Soul Sacrifice sadly falls short of achieving that lofty goal, it’s certainly a must-have purchase for any action-RPG fan. Newcomers be warned though, as it’s not the most inviting of games.
Soul Sacrifice was reviewed via a digital review copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE).
-The Final Word-
Soul Sacrifice is a dark, addictive and brutal action-RPG that excels in aesthetics and rewarding combat. Poor A.I., repetitive foes and steep learning curve prevent it from reaching triple-A heights, however.